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The End of Libraries, Part III

Nov 06, 2011

It has begun. Last Wednesday, Amazon announced its new book-lending add-on to its Amazon Prime service.1 What it offers is fairly meager and the model, particularly in its remittance to publishers, is, to my mind, seriously flawed:

  1. Customers may check out only one book per calendar month.
  2. A mere 5,000 titles are available, and none from the top six U.S. publishers.
  3. Loans can only be read on the Kindle family of products and not on other devices, even if they run the Kindle app.
  4. The service costs $79 per year which, if the customer only uses it for book lending, works out to $6.58 per loan. Many Kindle titles can be purchased for that price or not much more.
  5. Remittance to publishers is either by flat fee, in which case one of the parties is probably getting a crummy deal; or, if I am reading the WSJ story correctly, Amazon is paying the publisher for each loan the equivalent of what they would pay them for a sale.
Regardless of these shortcomings, the door is open, and you may be sure Master Bezos has firmly planted his foot in it. Additional titles, supported eReaders, assorted features, and (undoubtedly) pricing structures will follow as soon as publishers realize how profitable it will be to loan their books to millions of readers instead of selling them to thousands.

Meanwhile, librarians have already begun whistling in the dark2,3, their arguments relying primarily on the weakness of the initial Amazon product. Still, that product is already miles ahead of what is being offered by most public libraries where, if a title is even available to you in eBook format, you will almost certainly have a long wait for it.

In the final analysis, readers want to read and writers want to be read. Any institution which facilitates that relationship will flourish; any that inhibits it will fade. At present, Amazon is facilitating and libraries and publishers are inhibiting the relationship. If the latter don’t get their act together—and fast—they will render themselves redundant. Publishers may come and go, but America will let its public library network fade at its peril. This further blot on our already tattered escutcheon is not one from which we will easily recover, in our headlong pursuit of oligarchy, mediocrity, and irrelevance.


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1 Amazon, Now a Book Lender, by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Stu Woo, from the Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2011, accessed November 5, 2011.
2 Why Amazon’s Lending Library Is Not a Threat to Public Libraries, by Bobbi Newman, from Librarian by Day, November 4, 2011, accessed November 5, 2011.
3 Amazon Starts Lending Ebooks, but Head of ALA Says Libraries Still Offer Best Value, by Michael Kelley, from The Digital Shift, November 3, 2011, accessed November 5, 2011.
tags: Books and Libraries | Media

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