Kindle eBooks Coming To Your Library: Cha Ching!

Soon it will be possible for Kindle readers to check out Amazon Kindle eBooks from their local libraries. eBook lending from public libraries in the U.S. has been around for a few years now, but not in the Kindle format which effectively left most Kindle readers out in the cold.

This is certainly great news for Kindle eBook readers, but I think the timing of this action is the real story here. Recently, publisher Harper Collins sent chills to libraries everywhere by declaring an absolute limit of 26 loans on any of its eBooks in a library’s collection. And much has been made of the maintenance of artificial scarcity of digital goods like eBooks. eBooks don’t wear out, and an unlimited number of copies can be made at virtually no additional cost. So why limit the number that a library can loan out, much less impose some limit on the total number of times a copy may be loaned?

Obviously Harper Collins and other publishers don’t want library eBook loans to kill eBook sales, or print book sales for that matter. And I think there is some validity to that. I have no problem with a library having a limited number of licenses for a given title. But this “wear out” factor Harper is trying to introduce is just stupid. Those eBook loans are more likely than not, going to drive sales, not kill them. Libraries are great advertising, and unlike a bookstore, even obscure titles get shelf space, indefinitely! Libraries help sell the back catalog in physical space.

So what does the entry of Amazon into the fray say? It says that Amazon sees a money making opportunity. During my recent visit to the Myopic Bookstore in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, I saw a puzzling sign in the store. It said that the use of barcode scanners was prohibited. I’d never seen any signs like that before. Later I thought about it and figured that maybe it was to keep competitors from inventorying their stock. But it also occurred to me that perhaps some people were coming into the store using it to browse books that they would later look up and buy on Amazon. There are plenty of smartphone apps to facilitate that kind of activity.

While Kindle readers certainly don’t need to go to libraries to buy or borrow books, it would not surprise me if Amazon’s data shows that a lot of them do. It is also very likely that the libraries that will loan Kindle books, will also have physical copies to browse and loan as well. I suspect that it is much easier to make a sale when a reader has had time to really get to know a book in person. Up until now, Barnes & Noble, and Borders with their free Wi-Fi have probably helped drive Kindle book sales via this access to physical books. If this is true, then Amazon has no doubt seen a slight decline in sales consistent with the declining number of bookstores.

Amazon’s entry into the library then makes good business sense. It’s entry may also send a pause to Harper Collins and other publishers. The Kindle has lost some market share to Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and the Apple iPad, but Amazon still maintains a lot of leverage on publishers. Publishers that won’t play ball with library loans, may find it a lot harder to sell titles to Kindle readers. The large bookstore chains are not coming back. Publisher fortunes will soon rest largely on digital sales. Right now Amazon is to eBook sales what Apple has been to digital music. Until publishers come up with similarly popular distribution channels, the road to eBook sales will continue to pass through Amazon.

That said, Amazon’s endorsement and support of library eBook lending will reap benefits for all readers of eBooks who want to borrow them from public libraries.

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