Will Kindle ever add support for library books?

The Kindle is missing a pretty important feature – support for library books.

It is a feature that’s a bit overhyped – most libraries don’t have a super-impressive range of books, you have to wait for your turn, and so forth. However, it’s still an important feature.

Courtesy Kathy we get this question –

Do you feel there is any hope at all that Kindle will ever allow library books?

The quick answer would be – No, not really. Not unless Amazon loses its head. Not unless another company starts beating it on the basis of library book support. Not unless there’s a gun put to its head.

However, it’s important to understand why Amazon is reluctant to add a feature that a lot of people, and some Kindle owners, clearly want.

Why is Amazon selling Kindles?

Well, perhaps it is to –

  1. Create a direct channel to customers.
  2. Create a direct channel to customers of good intent.
  3. Sell books straight to customers.
  4. Become free of Publishers.
  5. Save its book revenue stream from digital companies and digital technologies.
  6. Become free of Google.
  7. Become free of the Internet.

Library books don’t feature anywhere. Amazon is NOT selling Kindles so that people can then read free library books on them.

In fact, you could argue that people who really, really want support for library books are precisely the people Amazon doesn’t want buying the Kindle – they don’t buy as many books, they expect free and cheap, they are library customers before they are Amazon customers.

You could extrapolate and say that they will be less likely to buy other things from Amazon, and that if Amazon were to later turn the Kindle into a channel that sells everything, these library book lovers would be far less interested.

Amazon is doing what’s good for it as a business by not supporting library books. It is screening for good intent – customers’ intent to buy books and products from Amazon at reasonable prices.

If people want new books free, in addition to free public domain books – Are they really customers?

Amazon knows that people have access to millions of public domain books for free. If that isn’t enough, then it has to wonder whether those customers will buy anything. Perhaps they will buy a few books – but not enough to justify selling them a Kindle WiFi for $139, providing them free Internet, providing them customer service, and providing them all these services.

If these library-book loving people aren’t going to be buying $10 and $7 and $5 books then they aren’t really customers.

What benefit does Amazon get by supporting Library books?

Lots of benefits –

  1. Kindle owners get an alternative to the Kindle Store – free library books.
  2. Kindle owners get lots of alternatives to the Kindle Store – stores that sell ePub books.
  3. It can help all its rivals by letting them sell books straight to Kindle owners.
  4. Kindle owners buy less books and Amazon doesn’t have to spend a lot of time counting all the money it’s making.
  5. There’s less profit so it can’t devote money to R&D, and then it won’t have to worry about creating better Kindles.

It’s an endless list. Instead of worrying about what to do with hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from ebook sales, it can focus on other things like how to keep selling Kindles at low prices when there is no future ebook income stream.

Instead of keeping all the profit from its big, risky investment in the Kindle for itself, it gets to share this profit with companies that were simply waiting to see how things turn out.

How does not supporting library books hurt Amazon

Quite a few ways –

  1. Kindle owners keep buying books from the Kindle Store. It must be terrible to be making all that money.
  2. All the people who absolutely must have an eReader that supports library books, don’t buy Kindles. Amazon misses out on the rare occasions they actually buy a full-price book.
  3. All the people who want a subsidized eReader from a company that has invested billions in eReaders, but then want the freedom to buy books from any store, get upset and bad-mouth it.
  4. It has all this money, and all these customers of good intent, so it’s forced to keep building better eReaders, selling more books, and providing more services. That has got to be stressful.
  5. People of bad intent choose a rival. Then that rival benefits by providing customer service and infrastructure and cheap eReaders to customers who never buy books. 

It’s very damaging for morale. Can you imagine how terrible it must be to be running a profitable business in a world where we are supposed to give everything away free. 

Amazon is losing out on all these customers of bad intent that would have helped it lower its profits. Now it might never recover – it might even end up as profitable as Apple and Microsoft.

Amazon also has to go through the painful process of hiding all the billions of dollars it’s making. It has to learn from Apple – things like how you can amortize device sales across 8 quarters so people don’t realize until 2013 how well the Kindle is doing.

Reality is that people hung up on free library books just aren’t ideal customers

It’s the inelegant truth – If you need 90% library books, you’re just not a great customer. If you need the freedom to buy from any store, then you’re just not a great customer.

Think about it from the perspective of a company that wants to create a win-win situation – It provides a cheap, great eReader and a good service. In return it expects book purchases from its ebook store.

If all you want is free books from the library, you’re not providing your side of the ‘win-win’ equation.

B&N only added library book support because it had to compete against a market leader, and because it didn’t think things through properly. It’s adding customers that want millions of public domain books and free library books and devices that can be rooted to run things that aren’t supposed to be run on eReaders. It’s the gift you get when you cater to customers of bad intent.

There’s nothing wrong about supporting Library Books – except it changes the target demographic

Yes, Kindle owners would benefit if support for library books was added. However, there would also be far-reaching negative consequences.

It would change the Kindle from a device of good intent to a device of bad intent. Instead of being a store where people come to buy things, it would become a social network where people come to get free stuff.

People would buy a lot less books. If the ebook revenue stream dries up, then there’s no money to provide services. All the things Kindle owners love – free Internet, free store browsing, $10 and cheaper book deals, free book offers – are possible because all of us are actually buying books.

If we keep adding people who want to use the Kindle as a free soda machine, who want to squeeze every ounce out of the free Internet, and who never buy any books and thus don’t pay for the infrastructure – eventually the free services go away.

In a very roundabout way, Amazon is doing everyone a favor – Sending free-lovers to ecosystems that thrive on free, and keeping customers of good intent in the Kindle ecosystem. iPhone is the same way – If you’re willing to pay, then you get entry into the iPhone/iPad ecosystem.

The ‘hated’ closed ecosystem devices like Kindle and iPhone are the only defence against the disease of free.

Will Kindle ever add support for library books?

It’s highly unlikely.

Unless Amazon makes the call that it would rather be the ‘largest and least profitable ebook ecosystem’ than be the ‘largest and most profitable ebook ecosystem’ it’s not going to happen.

Perhaps publishers will find a way to kill off ebook lending by libraries, or will figure out a way to stifle it greatly. If either of these things happen, limiting ebook lending by libraries severely, and if Overdrive were to add library book lending in Kindle DRM format, then Amazon would add library book support in a heartbeat.

If library books are a feature you really, really want – you’re picking the wrong device and the wrong ecosystem. You’re much better off picking Nook or Sony Reader.

43 thoughts on “Will Kindle ever add support for library books?”

  1. Do you know of any usage statistics for the library feature? I feel like it is one of those things that gets hyped a bunch but a very low percentage of users actually…use.

    Maybe I am way off base though.

    Oh, and I agree that it will never happen. Amazon wants you to buy books, not borrow stuff.

    1. I bought a Nook — solely because it can do library books. Over the past year, I have only borrowed 3 or 4 from the library, while I have bought over 200 books from B&N.

      It was having the ABILITY to use the library that was important to me… even though I rarely use it.

      In my case, Amazon lost out on an avid book buyer… by not allowing other options.

  2. I’d personally have more interest in borrowing books if my local library didn’t have such a paltry selection. Even if I had a reader that could read DRM epub, 6K of the 7K of ebooks available at my public library are PDFs, which display poorly on 6″ ereaders. Even setting this aside, there are only (to take an example of a genre in which I read) 200 sci fi/fantasy ebooks, including titles which are in the public domain. There are only four hundred books in the literature category, of which a significant number are public domain books.

  3. It’s a mistake to think libraries are the enemy of bookstores. While I’m not optimistic that Amazon will add this feature – really, the OverDrive DRM-encumbered model tracks closely to “real” books. That is, the loan of limited numbers of books does not threaten any bookstore.

    Libraries increase people’s access to books IN GENERAL, but because they are limited to single-user-per-book/limited-time they drive the purchase of books, especially popular ones.

    And I’m baffled by the description ” library-book loving people” as if that is somehow distinct from the Kindle community. I am an avowed Kindle user… who is ALSO one of the library-book loving people.

    1. I have a Kindle and I also take out library books. I buy books on Kindle that are often the same books I’ve bought paper copies from Amazon. The’re my favorites and I want them alway available. I’m a reader- period and I’ll get my books anyway that I can. I also work in a library and when we added OverDrive, I emailed them and asked why they didn’t support Kindles. They put the onus on Amazon. I think Joel is right on!

  4. Hear, hear:

    “B&N only added library book support because it had to compete against a market leader, and because it didn’t think things through properly.”

    “In a very roundabout way, Amazon is doing everyone a favor.”

    “The ‘hated’ closed ecosystem devices like Kindle and iPhone are the only defence against the disease of free.”

  5. “People of bad intent choose a rival. Then that rival benefits by providing customer service and infrastructure and cheap eReaders to customers who never buy books.”

    So maybe, in a very roundabout way, B&N is doing Amazon a favor.

  6. So many thoughts in this blog are misguided. It might amaze Amazon to learn that many heavy library users are also Amazon customers – readers are readers. Libraries offer materials to build and support communities. I must say I personally know that Barnes and Noble have been great supporters of libraries and I guess they still are – even if there intent is solely profit – so what? They support the community and libraries. Ebook collections are growing at a huge rate in public libraries – as much as possible with the very poor financial support they often get. So, I will start the grassroots march – I used to buy everything from Amazon but that changes today. I vote with my dollars – and my ebook reader is not a Kindle – and I am off to purchase a few books and grab a couple from the library too! So join me “people of bad intent” and head to your local bookstore –

  7. Libraries are an anachronism of the past, from a time when books were too expensive for the average person to purchase.

    I haven’t been in a library in years and I find that the limited collection of most libraries plus having to wait in line for some titles is a put-off.

    I can do research on the internet far more effeciently than I can in a library and find that regardless of infrequent use my reading vastly increased when I started reading on electronic devices 13 years ago.

    I’m not anti-library. I think they serve a purpose, but with the proliferation of teh Internet, that purpose is waining. My opinions are my own, and are not meanat to slam anyone.

    1. “Libraries are an anachronism of the past, from a time when books were too expensive for the average person to purchase”

      No! Libraries are the gateway to the future, and just one example of “common good” infrastructure. Libraries provide resources for research as well as entertainment that few individual’s (if any) could replace with personal books or use of the Internet. [AND, rememer, for many the library IS their ISP] Most libraries have efficient waiting list systems to request books (I actually access mine FROM my Kindle). Some in my area offer book rental to support the library AND offer a good way to let people read the book sooner. Waiting for a book isn’t so bad – chances are you can find something good to read online or at your library while you wait (I use my Kindle to read the sample sometimes before the book shows up).

    2. I can’t tell you how often I see, “Libraries are an anachronism of the past” immediately followed by, “I haven’t been in a library in years…”

      Please come in and get reacquainted with your public library before you decide that it’s obsolete. Libraries are busier and more necessary than ever largely because of “the proliferation of the internet.” We teach people how to use the Internet! (And the computer, and their new ereader, the list goes on.)

      And please don’t fall for the research myth that “everything is available for free on the internet.” Patently false.

      But you don’t have to take it from me. Come in and see for yourself.

      1. Hi, Switch. Glad to see you discussing the library issue even if I myself see synergies that you may not. To address another point, as a Kindle 3 owner, I regularly download pub domain books via the Web browser from sites like Feedbooks or gutenberg.org’s mobile incarnation. Perhaps you can do a how-to post. No need to mess with transfers from your PC.

        Best for 2011,

        1. Thanks for the idea David. That’s a very good idea for a post.

          This library books post was meant mostly as a ‘why the support isn’t there’. Everyone’s assuming I’m against libraries or something.

    1. Andrys Bastien’s terrific blog (http://kindleworld.blogspot.com) has all sorts of tips on free books at http://bit.ly/kfreelow3

      See especially “The Magic Catalog of Gutenberg” – a Kindle “book” that lists many, MANY Gutenberg books – if you have this book on your kindle, you just need to search it for a book, click on the link and download the book directly to your kindle.

      See also http://m.gutenberg.org for the “mobile” version of the Gutenberg project – easy to navigate on a Kindle and likewise provides instant downloads of books to your Kindle.

  8. I’m having trouble discerning whether you’re a troll or one very sick individual. Your definitions of good vs. bad are seriously twisted.

    1. Definition of good vs bad from the perspective of a company that wants to make a profit.

      If I were to write it from a customer’s perspective then it would be free everything. However, this isn’t from a customer’s perspective.

  9. you’re wrong. I would buy, I worked at a bookstore but I want a reader that does both. I’m not alone. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

  10. PS, I called Amazon today and while she may be wrong, she said Amazon is looking at a proposal to allow library books to be read on one’s kindle.

  11. The flaw in the Amazon argument is the same as the flaw in Henry Ford’s edict that, “you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.”
    People like to make their own choices. They HATE it when a company tries force them to fit “within the system.” Should it start costing them business, Amazon will allow support for library books.

  12. Just goes to show how WAY off the mark Amazon are. I can’t believe for such a significant, profitable business, that they have no idea of public reading habits. The majority of library customers will also purchase a selection of books, online or otherwise. Readers are readers.

    I work in a UK public library and deal with daily customer queries about which ereading devices they should buy, on the basis of which ereaders offer most flexibility and choice regarding ebooks. If Amazon wish to rule out the potential library market because of perceived sterotypes, that’s their choice, however shortsighted it is. All we can do in libraries is be honest with the ‘reading public’ about Amazon’s take on this issue.

  13. I disagree with the premise of this article. I think amazon should give access to library books. I don’t think they are looking at it like lost revenue. The are already tons of free books on amazon. You can send books to your kindle for few. It would not hurt sales because you may go to the library for some things but not everything. Amazon knows kindle owners go free first but eventuallybuy. Few people exclusively borrow froom the library. The more people read whether vua the library or not, the more they buy. U
    Using the kindle and buying books for it isbased on convenience.

    1. thanks for the comment.

      The article doesn’t have a premise – It’s a question and a guess as to whether or not Amazon will support library books.

      Is it wrong? Perhaps. However, it’s not presuming that not adding support for library books is RIGHT or WRONG. It’s only looking at the financial aspect.

  14. One thing that seems to be forgotten is that libraries do more than lend books…they BUY books. If Amazon were to sell eBooks to libraries, they would make money.

    Lending fiction (vs. nonfiction) titles is a relatively new thing in the overall history of libraries in the US, yet the publishing industry did not fall apart when libraries started lending fiction books. Likewise, libraries lending eBooks won’t cripple the publishing industry either. However, if libraries across the nation were to close all at once, the publishing industry would take a huge hit!

    The difference that libraries make is that not everyone can afford to buy books or in this case eReaders and books. Libraries help level the playing field by providing anyone access to information and entertainment no matter how much money they make.

  15. What a curious read this has been, including posts! Somehow I suspect it is not unlike concerns expressed about the growth of free libraries and their impending effect on the book (the paper sort) publishing industry in the 19th century (18th, I think, if you’re in the UK). As always, the relationship of publishers, retailers, and libraries will continue to evolve, and I doubt any will go extinct. They each serve such different purposes in the ecology of information and reading.

  16. Glad to see Christine make the point I was looking for – libraries are a market for ebooks. A big market. Amazon are not exploiting that market yet but they could probably make a whole heap of money from it.

  17. Your post is much appreciated for calling attention to a challenging situation. If I was Jeff Bezos I’d also choose to scr-w public libraries, but I’d sure hate myself in the morning.

    It’s not in Amazon’s business interest to support the concept of borrowing books. But it’s very much in the public’s interest to continue to support the institution of public libraries — for students, for the elderly, for the poor, and more.

    But now Amazon is signing exclusive deals directly with authors. Seth Godin signed exclusively with Amazon for his just released “Poke the Box.” Well, Seth has poked me in the eye, because my library is not allowed to buy the Kindle ebook and loan it out. Which will slowly but surely start to wean the public away from libraries when they can’t get current bestsellers in digital format. A nasty business — shame on Seth; shame of Jeff!

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