Kindle Library Lending – What You Need to Know

Amazon announced this morning that they are rolling out their support for library lending to 11,000 libraries (read: 11,000 libraries in the United States). This has been a long time coming, and the deal and technology has so many moving parts I wasn’t sure if it ever would. But are libraries a part of our digital book future? And should they be?

First of all: the history. Amazon hasn’t made connections with all of those 11,000 libraries all alone. To access the libraries they went through Overdrive. Overdrive is an ebook distributor/wholesaler, who has primarily been concentrating on the library market for the last few years. They’ve done well – almost every library ebook lending service is powered by Overdrive. However, Overdrive’s service has previously only supported ePub and Adobe’s DRM scheme. That means that it only worked with devices that support Adobe’s DRM – for example the Sony eReader, Nook, Kobo, iPad (via Overdrive’s app) and other less successful devices. The partnership with Amazon opens up Amazon’s entire platform to library lending.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a one-way street. Amazon’s major strength as a platform has always been its range of ebooks. The Kindle’s range is by far the biggest of the ebook vendors. This range of ebooks is not suddenly going to be available for lending now that Amazon has joined up with Overdrive for library lending. All it means is that the same ebooks that are currently available to Overdrive’s customers via their local library will now also be available to Kindle owners (or owners of iPads, iPhones or Android devices who use the Kindle app).

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons. First of all, libraries still have to buy access for their patrons to individual titles. And they’re not all buying. Second of all, many publishers have not made their ebooks available to Overdrive for lending to libraries. Why? Because it’s still a model that has bugs.

Dead tree libraries are limited by what they can fit on their shelves, their budgets for purchasing and, in the end, that each book can only be borrowed by one person at a time for a certain amount of time. These are physical limitations that don’t apply to ebooks at all. At the moment, Overdrive imposes physical limitations on library lended ebooks – dependent on what the publisher has agreed to. For the most part it is two week lending, and only one person can borrow one ebook at a time. Some publishers (like HarperCollins) have imposed further limitations, allowing that each ebook a library makes available can only be borrowed 26 times before the library must buy anther copy of the book. As many have said, these limitations seem to be quite artificial in a digital world.

But what is the alternative? Books cost something. Libraries foot the bill for that cost in the dead tree model. It is difficult to evaluate how to make that cost work in a library environment for a book that will never wear out and could be copied by a thousand people at a time with no degradation of the original. All limitations in this model will have to be artificial, or else there will be no limitations. And that will inevitably undermine the business model for publishing books in the first place. I don’t have an answer for how to balance that equation, or indeed if libraries will even work as a repository for digital books in the future at all.

What do you think about digital libraries? Do you borrow ebooks from your local library? What kinds of limitations do they have? Why do you think publishers should support libraries (and how much should they charge?). Sound off in the comments below.

9 thoughts on “Kindle Library Lending – What You Need to Know

  1. Being an Aussie I don’t have the option of borrowing eBooks from my local library and really I don’t need to from a financial standpoint so am not fussed. However as a kid my family relied heavily on the library, we were simply too poor to buy loads of books (we each got one book for birthday and one for Christmas and the rest of our reading came from the library). As I firmly believe it was this access to a free library that put me in a position to be more educated than my parents and therefore get better paid work (so I can within reason buy all the books my family needs) I’d hate to see future versions of my family locked out of reading simply because we can’t find a sensible way to sort out loans of eBooks so I think eBook publishers should be able to come up with something that doesn’t hurt anyone. Perhaps netflix-like subscriptions are the answer and these could either be direct or through a library

  2. I remembered Neil Gaiman writing about libraries first starting to lend eBooks back in 2003, and using it as a platform to advocate something akin to the Public Lending Right in the US.

    He noted a commentary from a poster on slashdot, explaining how a limited number of each eBook would be available and after a pre-set number of days the eBook will lock out the current reader so another patron can check it out. Gaiman got the impression that the slashdot

    “seems to feel is the thin end of the wedge for totalitarian government copyright infringement of our reading liberties, without perhaps noticing that that’s sort of how libraries traditionally work: they have limited numbers of books, which borrowers can check out for a specified period of time.”

    So, complaining that artificial limitations don’t fit with the digital model is no different to complaining that library users are getting books for free, bloody communists!

    Maybe a repository for a physical book is as outdated as a physical book will become – libraries are the next Borders maybe? – but there are definite reasons why libraries exist alongside book stores and treating them as equivalents isn’t entirely possible. Set aside the idea of providing access to the less well off – the necessity of purchasing expensive hardware before getting your free book goodness makes that a silly argument just at the moment, but won’t in the future when content becomes the valued commodity, not the delivery method – libraries are genuinely exploratory environments and new books and new authors need to be found and lent, person to person and for free, before achieving greater publishing success.

    Libraries were ‘blogging’ new books on a relatively equal footing long before the internet and they’ve not stopped doing so. Public funding means they can ignore marketing hype a little more too when deciding what to purchase. Treat them like an institutionalised reviewer and facilitator and they can easily fit with the evolving market. No?

  3. Good points all. I think there’s definitely a need for people to get access to books for free when they can’t afford to buy them. But I also take Damien’s point about expensive reading devices needed to read the books in the first place, which would likely be a bigger barrier to adoption than the cost of ebooks (which are lower than print books anyway).

    There’s also another solution to the free book issue, which I hesitated to mention in the main post. It’s not an official solution, but it’s currently the only sure-fire way to get almost any digital book for free. Piracy isn’t a very good answer, but it’s the answer that the internet has organically provided us. Are libraries defunct in a post-bittorrent age?

    • Kindles will be given away with cereal packets eventually so I think device price won’t be that big a deal, even now the add supported model ( which could be available in other countries) is not that expensive and it will only go down.

  4. whoah this blog is excellent i love studying your posts. Stay up the great work! You already know, lots of individuals are hunting round for this information, you can help them greatly.

  5. Its such as you read my mind! You appear to understand a lot about this, such as you wrote the e book in it or something. I feel that you simply could do with a few % to pressure the message house a bit, but instead of that, this is excellent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.