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Amazon Launches Library Ebook Lending Support for Kindle and an All-New Kindle Family
Posted On September 29, 2011
On Sept. 21, 2011, Amazon and its partner OverDrive  announced Kindle and Kindle app support for lending library ebooks. More than 11,000 public libraries in the OverDrive network in the U.S. will now offer their users who have Kindle e-readers and Kindle app software access to library ebooks. OverDrive, based in Cleveland, Ohio, is a leading digital distributor of ebooks, audiobooks, music, and video to the public library marketplace. Using the OverDrive platform, library customers will be able to access ebooks that have been selected or leased by the local public library.

Amazon’s Kindle support for ebook lending has almost taken a back seat to the company’s Sept. 28 announcement of its All-New Kindle Family, including the long-anticipated tablet computer the Kindle Fire, a powerful full-featured tablet that will be a direct competitor to Apple’s iPad. At $199, the Kindle Fire offers the complete range of content with a brilliant color touchscreen. The next generation of Kindles will range in price from $79 up to the Kindle Fire at $199. Shipments of the new Kindle Fire will begin on Nov.15.

Support for ebook lending is a major departure for Amazon and is an important milestone for libraries. Previously, Amazon only sold ebooks and did not support ebook lending for libraries even though there has been significant demand from libraries. An LJ study last fall showed that three-fourths of public libraries offer ebooks to their users, and most of the remaining libraries plan to offer the ebook services. Ebooks are the fastest growing services. Amazon sells the Kindle, the bestselling ebook reader, and now millions of Kindle customers will be able to borrow Kindle ebooks from their local public libraries.

Libraries have been asking for Kindle support for months, and this long anticipated release is a welcome addition to most public libraries service offerings. Library users will use their public library’s traditional online catalog to identify an ebook title, and then link out to OverDrive, which then passes the library patron over to Amazon. Amazon supports the Kindle using the Amazon Kindle user site. The user is able to activate and download the ebook to the Kindle.

A Kindle Wi-Fi communication link makes the process smoother. The user is able to check out the ebook following the library’s lending rules. The ebook is downloaded to the Kindle and ready to read in minutes. Another good feature is that the library user is able to take advantage of the unique features of the Kindle including Amazon’s Whispersync technology, which synchronizes your books, notes, highlights, and last page read across Kindle and Kindle reading apps.

Public libraries of all sizes have been inundated with ebook requests. In Sonora, Calif., the Tuolumne County Public Library will soon be offering its library card holders the ability to download books because the Board of Supervisors recently signed a 4-year contract with OverDrive. Lubbock Public library is supporting its patrons as is the Salt Lake County Library System with its 18 libraries. OverDrive is rolling out the Kindle support program to more than 11,000 public libraries including the New York Public Library, one of the largest public libraries in the U.S.

Licensing Restrictions

While the library community sees the Kindle support as a very welcome addition to its ebook services for its users, libraries are still left with a number of unresolved issues. Certainly, users are excited to learn that they can check out their favorite ebook and read it on their favorite ebook reader. However, the excitement soon turns to frustration as active library users will tell you that they don’t understand all the limitations and the long wait times that they face when trying to check out an ebook. Overdrive is well aware of the complaints they receive each day from libraries that are also frustrated by the license agreements in which OverDrive  operates.

The current ebook license model is one-copy/one-user. Even though the book is in electronic form and could be simultaneously read by multiple users, the license from the publisher for the popular titles is limited to one user per copy. From a technology standpoint, there is no reason why multiple users cannot access and download an ebook title as many times as necessary. Overdrive’s platform enforces the one-copy per user limitation. One of the largest OverDrive customers is the New York Public Library (NYPL), which has been supporting ebook lending on a variety of ebook readers for some time. According to Jenny Engstrom, the assistant director for reference services at NYPL, “the addition of the Kindle support will just fuel the tremendous rise in demand for ebooks.

Libraries such as the NYPL often buy multiple copies to circulate as they did in the print world. With 90 locations, the library has to have sufficient copies to support their users or at least attempt to provide access. So most ebooks are supported on a variety of formats including EPUB, PDF, mobile devices, and dedicated ebook devices.

To further complicate a library’s ebook service, not all the major publishers’ books are available to libraries. Two major publishers Macmillan and Simon & Schuster refuse to sell ebooks to libraries. Publishers are trying to find a business model that protects their sales. The shift from print to electronic format is causing major disruptions in the workflow of the publishing industry. Amazon and Apple are two strong players in the market that are turning the traditional publishing community upside down.

Another related problem for some libraries is ownership of the ebooks. In the print world, libraries bought popular collections and checked out a book an unlimited number of times. One publisher, Harper Collins has sent a limit of 26 electronic checkouts before the library has to repurchase the title. The State of Kansas has hit a legal problem moving its OverDrive ebook collection to a new distributor. OverDrive claims the State of Kansas has only leased the ebook titles and its ebook investment cannot be transferred to another company. There are a number of libraries that have major ebook collections with OverDrive and may be surprised to find that they actually don’t own anything.

The recent Amazon ebook lending support announcement will mostly affect library users in the public library marketplace. A number of university librarians that I contacted, while aware of the Amazon announcement, do not use OverDrive as their ebook distributor. However, there is a growing demand on some campuses for access to fiction. Students at one university in the Boston area recently voted and placed a high priority for the library to build an ebook collection for their leisure reading.

The university and research library community are already heavy ebook users especially in the STM field. The major STM publishers, such as Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley, offer thousands of ebooks to their library customers through their own platforms or aggregated services. Libraries purchase the ebook collections by subject often on annual subscription basis and the content is fully searchable via their branded hosting service.

Elsevier’s ScienceDirect or Springer’s SpringerLink are examples of major STM publishers ebook treatment. The STM publisher marketplace is just beginning to develop more user-oriented mobile devices. The first area of exploration is with etextbooks and this area is expected to grow rapidly. The iPad and other mobile devices are a perfect platform for a new form of educational tool. The tablet computing environment opens a new world to publishers. It is not about just loading your content and maintaining the book format, it is an opportunity to develop an interactive textbook application.

The shift from print to electronic formats first occurred in the STM journal field. Libraries around the world have moved their print subscriptions to electronic formats. More than 85% of STM titles are now received in electronic formats. STM publishers have also converted much of their print book output to electronic formats. Faculty and students have adopted electronic content as their format of choice.

Rapid Growth to Continue

The consumer marketplace has been inundated with e-readers, and there is rapid growth in ebook sales. In the U.S., Random House reports that for the first half of 2011, 20% of its revenues are from ebook sales. Simon & Schuster’s revenue is 15%; HarperCollins is at 12%. With more than 85 reading devices in the marketplace and strong consumer acceptance of digital formats, it is not surprising to see a growing demand for ebook rentals in the public library marketplace. Users are buying ebooks in record numbers. The public library has had a traditional role in lending books. While not a perfect solution, the Amazon Kindle announcement is welcome news.

The growth in sales of ebooks just got a major boost with the Amazon announcement of its All-New Kindle Family. Four new Kindles added to the world’s bestselling e-reader will continue to drive the market. The No. 1 selling e-reader now has a new family of lighter, faster, and more affordable readers. Amazon has shown a serious commitment to becoming the largest content provider in all media forms. Books, magazines, movies, TV shows, songs, apps, and games can be supported on the new Kindles.

The Amazon program to support library lending is a good first step for Amazon at building an ebook rental platform and millions of library users’ benefit. While public libraries are the major beneficiaries of this Kindle support, I cannot wonder if there is not more to the story. There are many in the publishing industry who believe that the Kindle lending program for libraries is just the beginning.

According to a number of industry sources, Amazon may be building its own Kindle Lending Library program that will enable its Amazon Prime members to get access to a limited number of free books and offer better savings through the Prime membership. I would not be surprised to see Amazon launch a lending program in the near future. Publishers might restrict the titles to backlists or have an embargo on current titles. If Amazon’s Kindle ebook lending program is successful, Netflix will be right behind them.

 Dan Tonkery, president of Content Strategies, is currently an industry consultant with 40 years of experience in the library and information businesses.

Email Dan Tonkery

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