The latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the uneasy relationship between book publishers and Amazon.com began to unfold last week. Penguin Books announced that they were suspending their distribution of new digital books in the Kindle format to libraries. Penguin and other major publishers will continue to license e-books in Adobe EPUB format, the format favored by all e-reader vendors except Amazon. If you have an Apple iPad, a Sony Reader, a Nook or use any of the readers running Android operating systems, you will be reading EBUB formatted books. If you are using a Kindle, you can only read books in the Kindle format.
The reasons given by Penguin are opaque; they mentioned “security considerations” (whatever that means.) As in all matters associated with e-books, there are lots of issues and interests at stake in this decision. Let’s try to ferret out the real back story of all this.
Publishers have always been uneasy about licensing e-books to libraries. They will tell you that they support libraries as the institution in America that creates readers and builds literacy that, in turn, allows publishers to flourish. Most people won’t argue about this. However with the advent of e-books and e-book library lending programs, publishers are concerned that this will harm their own sales of e-books. The reason that they are more concerned about this than they have been about traditional library lending is because it is so much easier to check out an e-book than it is a physical book, and an e-book is always in pristine condition no matter how many times it is lent out. The reader need not worry about those nasty spots and unsanitary stains that populate the margins of the pages of a typical library book. In the past in order to check out a library book, the reader must actually go down to the library and go through the normal hassles, parking, stepping over undesirables, etc., in order to be told that the few titles that the customer would actually want to read have waiting lists for the next 3 months. Using the library e-book check out service, you can get a copy of your favorite book while at home by downloading it any time day or night.
To be perfectly fair, libraries have managed in their new e-book services to recreate every reason that you have avoided going to the library in the first place. I belong to the Oakland Public Library and have availed myself of the service from time to time. And it is convenient when a book I want to read is in stock and available. I lie in bed, I hit a button on my new iPad, I get my book. Sweet! However, as with traditional books, the financially hard pressed libraries can only order a limited selection of popular titles and those in small quantity. So I still have to wait weeks or even months for the books I want to read. Of course there are always lots of books immediately available that are less in demand. In Oakland, most of these books seem to be in Chinese or Spanish and accordingly are not of great interest to me. They have a pretty good selection of Berenstain Bears titles as well.
The e-books at libraries are being managed by a company called Overdrive. When the programs first began last year, books were only available in the EPUB format and the largest segment of e-book customers, Kindle owners, were not able to participate. Earlier this year Amazon allowed the libraries to license Kindle editions. But as is Amazon’s wont, they managed to design the system so that the customer could not just hit a Kindle button on the Overdrive site. Rather they were directed to the Amazon site where there are a myriad of buttons encouraging the library patron to buy the book instead of borrowing it and, while there, to buy a plethora of other Amazon merchandise from cameras to condoms.
This is standard operating procedure for Amazon (and good retail marketing too). Amazon discounts selected items heavily, even using them as loss leaders, to get customers to the website where they then engage in an orgy of buying from Amazon’s vast selection. So Amazon has been heavily promoting the Kindle library lending program. Sure, it takes away book sales a little bit. But a few lost book sales is a small price to pay for a magnet to bring customers coming back for more stuff.
For now the other major publishers are sitting on the sidelines. Some of them aren’t participating in the Overdrive program at all. Others, like Random House, have responded with even more obtuse comments than Penguin (“We are always evaluating all of our publishing programs.”)
So what does all this mean? For librarians this is about the fact that they just want their e-books available and don’t want to get caught in a dispute, not of their making, between the publishers and Amazon. For publishers, already uncomfortable about the e-book library program, this is about the fact that they don’t want Amazon using free books to drive traffic to their web site to the detriment of e-book sales. For internet gurus and geeks, this is an example of the “legacy” media dinosaurs fighting another losing battle against the brave new world of internet where “information wants to be free”. For authors this is about whether they have a right to be paid for their work, just like everybody else. (European libraries give authors a small royalty every time their book is checked out. See my previous blog post: Revenge of the Killer Librarians ).