20 April 2011
Amazon has today announced that it will enable people to borrow ebooks from 11,000 US libraries.
This raises a lot of interesting questions because one thing that makes the traditional lending library work economically is that both shelf space and printed books are a limited resource. If libraries could give away all books for free to as many readers as they liked simultaneously, there would be no market for book publishers to sell to. As a result, there would eventually be no professionally produced books. With the greatest respect to self-publishers and Creative Commons enthusiasts, most of the best books are still a result of the traditional publishing model, where talented writers can afford to dedicate themselves to their craft.
In the Kindle store, these limits are not inherent in the system: the store can accommodate pretty much as many books as are published to it, and the cost of reproducing the book for multiple readers is zero. So, if you could download any book you wanted at any time to your Kindle, why would you pay for it?
I'm sure Amazon is sensitive to this issue, although technology-led businesses often rush to innovate without really thinking through how they will affect older intellectual property-led industries. (Which they should, when they're trading on their IP). Amazon is partnering with Overdrive, which already offers ebook library services to universities and companies.
I guess the model is likely to be that libraries have to buy a particular book in the Kindle store, and that the system manages loans to ensure each library is only lending the number of copies they've paid for. It might also be that the library doesn't pay for owning the book, but pays for each loan instead, although a model like this would need the consent of rights holders. It would take the guesswork out of stocking the library, though, and enable rights holders to receive ongoing income that reflects the popularity of their work.
Amazon's core business is book sales, too, so they'll want to ensure there's an incentive for someone to buy the Kindle edition. Any annotations you make in the library copy will be carried over to your copy if you later buy the book, which is a nice touch. The annotations are tied to the reader not the book, so every borrower gets a crisp new copy.
There are a couple of other concerns with this model. Firstly, you need a Kindle to participate. If someone can't afford a Kindle, they definitely can't afford to buy books, and it is these people who most need the support of a library. It would be a grave mistake if ebooks were allowed to cut into library book budgets too deeply, at least until the cost of ebook readers drops to negligible. If libraries need to buy Kindle versions of the books they stock, book budgets could be depleted quickly to cater for a relative minority. (If libraries aren't buying Kindle books, negotiations with publishers will be necessary to acquire the right to lend books that haven't been paid for.) We've seen lots of library closures in the UK and it's clear that you can't replace a library with an ebook facility, and that libraries need to be careful with their spending if they are to survive.
Amazon has won its leadership position in the ebook market through having the grit and spark to bring the device to market and inspire readers with it. But it's also a concern that it's too early to entrench any one ebook reader provider with a monopoly position in the libraries sector.
So far, the new project has only been announced, which means it doesn't (in all likelihood) even exist yet. It will be made available later this year, at which point the answers to these questions should become clearer. If you've borrowed ebooks from a library before or know more about how the model works, feel free to leave your comments below. Do you think this is a positive step for libraries, or is it a divisive move that could hurt those who most need libraries, and undermine the publishing industry?