The danger of the Kindle lending library

Ian Clark on why he is afraid of Amazon

Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: ...-Wink-...

Amazon has recently announced that it would allow its ebooks to be available for lending via Overdrive and, consequently, Kindle owners would be able to borrow ebooks from their local libraries ebook service.  Of course, for those of us that have been keen to support ebook availability in public libraries, this was good news.  

Kindles are the most popular ereader on the market, mainly because they are cheap and have an appealing user-friendly purchasing system.  Much as I like my Sony Reader, it is not the easiest for purchasing books (although it sure looks a damn sight more attractive than the Kindle).  However, it is not all good news, and some aspects of the announcement should cause alarm amongst information professionals.

A number of concerns have been raised by librarians, particularly in terms of the addition of an extra format to the Overdrive catalogue set against a backdrop of budget cuts.  Would libraries have to purchase another file format?  Apparently not.  A whole host of other questions have been raised too.

Will this represent a change in pricing and licensing models for titles? Will self-published authors on Amazon's platform have a chance of being on library "shelves" now? Can library patrons opt out of linking their Amazon accounts to their library account? How much check out information will Amazon have access to? How will that change if someone purchases a title they've borrowed?

But a far more important question is raised as Kindle becomes ever more dominant.  As Mike Cane (a fellow Kindle hater) put it last year:

How many Kindles are now out there vs ePub devices? If there are MORE K, then isn't *K* the goddammed "standard" for eBooks now!?

How long will it be until Amazon wakes up to public libraries offering Kindle eBooks — as they have with Adobe DRMed ePub? Will we soon see an agreement between Amazon and OverDrive? Or will Amazon snub OverDrive and directly woo public libraries?

The iPad cannot borrow eBooks from public libraries. They use Adobe DRM.

If Amazon gets public libraries on board, it would be the death of ePub. [my emphasis]

This is the really big question behind Amazon's announcement.  The fact that Amazon does not support the open standard has always been a fundamental objection of mine.  The fact that this deal could effectively end the attempts to establish an accepted open standard is a very worrying development indeed.  Amazon already have close to a monopoly of the ebook market.  The death of ePub would effectively rubber stamp Amazon's monopoly.

It goes without saying that a monopoly is a very bad thing for consumers in any market.  A monopoly in the provision of information could be a very dangerous thing indeed.  We have already seen Amazon remove books and journals from people's devices without warning, can they really be trusted to act responsibly with such a monopoly?  I'm not sure they can.  

A monopoly in the provision of access to information is a very dangerous thing.  Unless Amazon decide that the Kindle should support ePub, I see no reason to end my personal boycott of the device.  In fact, as futile as I know this is, I would encourage others to do the same until such time that Amazon supports ePub and encourages an ebook market that truly benefits the consumer.  As Mike Cane writes on his blog:

'Amazon now has more power than any other book company on earth. And yes, you damn well better be afraid of this.'

I am. Are you?


Ian Clark is currently completing an MSc in Information and Library Studies at Aberystwyth University and is a founder of Voices for the Library. He tweets as @ijclark



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By Ian Clark on May 18, 2011

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