Something Borrowed: The Kindle Lending Library may change e-publishing… again

By Beatty Jamieson

The Amazon Kindle is one of those seemingly minor evolutions of technology that has an out-sized impact. The common Kindle was a bonifide hit, selling millions even before Amazon’s own budget-minded “Fire” tablet debuted. Now they’re moving in on the once-exclusive space of the local library, allowing their paying “Prime” customers to check out books at no additional cost.

When Amazon announced their Lending Library in November 2011, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Would authors mind letting more people read their books for less revenue per person? The answer, apparently, is “no.” The lending section of the library has exploded from 5,000 books to over 90,000, with the number of books “borrowed” topping 300,000 a month.

Amazon Kindle Lending Library collage of books

Interested in using the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library? Here’s what you’ll need.

First, users need to own a Kindle. It can be any Kindle from any generation. If not, a basic Kindle (our preferred model, for its simplicity and ergonomics) is only $79.

Second, users need a Prime membership. $79.99 a year buys plenty of perks for those who frequent Amazon’s pages. It gives access to Amazon’s budding movie streaming service of over 10,000 movies and TV shows, as well as sweetheart deals on fast shipping. Students can try Prime free for 6 months with a .edu address and then pay only $49.99, but they get cut out of the instant streaming service (they should be studying, anyway).

Limitations – Every rose has its thorn, and the lending library certainly has some severe limitations for anyone accustomed to gorging on unlimited content streams. Unlike the nice librarians at the city library, Amazon limits the fun to one book a month. Users are free to “keep” the book as long as they please, but they can only check out one book at a time.

Alas, these borrowed books can only be read on Kindle devices and not on other devices that support the Kindle Reader App, so wave goodbye to hopes of borrowing a book and syncing it on over to an iOS or Android device.

Amazon Kindle Lending Library Prime Membership banner

Why should authors make their books available in the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library?

This is one of the more fascinating parts of the program. To compensate authors who make their books available in the lending library, Amazon has funded the library with $700,000 a month. At the end of the month, they factor what percentage of total books borrowed each author had, and give the author that percentage of the $700,000.

It is safe to suspect that as the service grows, that pool of funds will, too. Otherwise ever more artists will be clamoring for ever-shrinking shares of a static pot of money.

It appears that Amazon isn’t done dominating the way we see content. What makes it all the more impressive is that the Kindle, in its run-of-the-mill eReader flavor, is an undeniably low-tech device. It displays in grayscale, presents noticeable lag when changing screens, and comes standard with wireless-G Wifi in an age when superior wireless-N sets the standard. Despite these technical limitations, customers were happy to purchase the technology because the device and Amazon’s store worked seamlessly to do one thing, and do it well.

It’s no secret that Amazon has already transformed publishing to an extent not seen since mass-production made books a relatively inexpensive purchase. If successful, this Netflix-like renting model could become the dominant content delivery system, rather than the “pay as you go” way that currently dominates e-reader revenue.

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