A year after it was launched in the United States, Kindle’s e-lending scheme is on its way to the UK. Cue joy for Kindle owners, and tears of despair for those of us that fear what this means for the future of libraries and access to information. From The Bookseller:
Amazon is to launch its controversial Kindle Owners’ Lending Library in the UK from the end of October, offering Kindle-owning Amazon Prime customers access to more than 200,000 e-books for free…
The Lending Library allows Kindle users to download and read for free one title per month, but initially proved controversial in the US where Amazon launched the offer around e-books without seeking publishers’ permission.
“Controversial” is a bit of an understatement. In November last year, American authors accused the retailer of ”boldly breaching its contracts” due to its ”brute economic power”. Despite their initial refusal to participate in the lending library, many titles by the Big Six publishers (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan) found their way into the lending library. (It’s also worth pointing out that Amazon Prime customers pay £49 per year for the privilege of being a Prime customer – equivalent to £4 per month.)
The introduction of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service has further complicated the issue. Rather than going through a traditional publisher, KDP allows the author to publish their books in a matter of hours through Amazon. Offering their works through this service, authors can expect to receive a 70% royalty payment for their work. However, this has been disputed and some suggest it is significantly less. The KDP service also enables authors to include their work in the Kindle Lending Library through KDP Select. And here’s the killer: authors in the US earn as much as $2.29 per borrow from Amazon’s KDP Select Fund (which currently stands at around $700,000). Earlier this year, Amazon claimed that author Carolyn McCray earned $8,250 from the fund due to book loans (although, as with all statistics released by Amazon, this should be treated with care).
This latter point is of particular concern to public libraries. Back in May, the Society of Authors called on ebooks to be including in the Public Lending Right (PLR). At present, and in contrast to print books, authors are not paid a fee in relation to loans of ebooks. As society chair, Lindsey Davis pointed out at the time:
“We have earned it. It’s not a benefit, it’s a right. I would expect to be paid. There is no difference between ebooks and print books – it is all work, produced for people to read … It seems very obvious to me [that an ebook] is just another version of a title, in the same way that a paperback is.”
Indeed, the PLR in relation to ebooks is one of a number of things that is expected to be investigated as part of the impending review into ebook lending launched by Ed Vaizey last month. But there is a much bigger problem here in terms of ebooks and public libraries.
A study by Pew’s Internet & American Life Project published earlier this year revealed that many e-reader owners are “clueless about borrowing library ebooks“. Although the statistics are related to the United States, they should make sobering reading for those concerned about public libraries:
…nearly six out of ten library patrons weren’t even aware that they could borrow e-books for free from their library. Furthermore, only twelve percent of Americans above the age of 16 have borrowed an e-book from their local library in the past twelve months. Specific to technology, fifty-three percent of tablet owners didn’t know about the availability of library e-books and 48 percent of Kindle and Nook owners were just as uninformed. In addition, approximately half of respondents that have read at least one e-book in the past year weren’t aware about library e-book borrowing.
Despite an attempt to keep ahead of the curve, public libraries have not been successful in communicating the availability of ebooks to library users. As is typically the case, libraries just have not been that good at informing users of the full range of services they provide. However, the blame cannot solely be laid at the door of how public libraries market themselves to users, they have hardly been given the help they require to make the service a roaring success.
Publishers certainly haven’t helped public libraries in terms of making ebook lending a high-profile service. They have been pretty obstructive and resistant in working with public libraries to ensure that they can provide a decent selection of stock. Quite frankly, it has been clear for some time that the publishing industry is fundamentally opposed to the idea of lending ebooks in public libraries. The upshot of their failure to engage with public libraries is that both may now miss out. Users won’t turn to libraries to borrow ebooks and authors may turn their backs on publishers should the financial rewards and creative freedom be enough to convince them to publish through the KDP service. As a result of the publishing industry playing hardball, there is a very real danger they have been completely blind-sided by Amazon’s moves to offer an alternative that they will have no control over. Could this be the beginning of the end of the publishing industry? Whilst they have been fighting their corner with public libraries, have Amazon crept up on them and stand poised to deal the knockout blow?
The outcome for publishing and public libraries could be particularly bleak (although there are reservations about the strength of Amazon’s e-library offering), in the long-term the future could be very bleak for the consumer. One company wielding so much power over both the printed and electronic word is not something that anyone should welcome. Such a stranglehold will stifle creativity and increase the risk of censorship (either by accident or by design). That said, these fears could be unfounded. Maybe this isn’t such a significant move in the history of the publishing industry. Regardless of the extent to which the ripples will be felt throughout the publishing world, it certainly has the potential to be a game-changer.