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Amazon, cackling over twitching corpse of book shops, now closes in on libraries

Having already cornered the market in sales of print books, e-books, and numerous formats as yet uninvented, probably, rumours abound this week that Amazon is currently sitting in a car with tinted windows outside the houses of libraries the world over, screwing on a silencer, and waiting patiently for a clear shot. By which I mean it’s maybe, possibly, potentially putting together plans to launch an e-book lending system.

This is, of course, very early stages, and nothing’s been confirmed or announced as yet; but even just the knowledge that this idea has been floated by someone, somewhere, now makes it seem like an inevitable development at some point down the line. Right? I mean, even if Amazon hadn’t already thought of making this happen, it’s definitely now been brought to their attention that there still exists one method through which people can get a hold of books from which Amazon doesn’t make any money.

Which doesn’t really make sense, or at least wouldn’t if human beings were always completely rational, and stopped to think about things, and weren’t prone to being distracted by shiny, new and/or – OH LOOK, A FIREWORK! – hard to ignore goods and services. Libraries already serve this purpose. They do it ostensibly free of charge (yeah yeah, taxes and that, but anyone who seriously thinks their taxes would be lower if it wasn’t for those pesky libraries is exactly the kind of person who most needs libraries and no doubt most irregularly attends them). They are one of the great achievements of western civilisation. Some even offer e-book rental, or ‘borrowing’, to give it its more commonly known, less passive aggressive title.

So why would anyone bother paying to rent a book from Amazon at all? The early comparisons for the speculative service are the likes of LoveFilm (which Amazon now owns – layers upon layers, etc.), which suggests that the range of available titles is a factor: just as LoveFilm can stock infintely more DVDs than the average Blockbuster could ever hope to contain, so, theoretically, could Amazon trounce the physical limitations of your local library by carrying every book yet digitised (although if it is a solely digital endeavour, then theoretically so could libraries who already offer e-books. Honestly, this is starting to make my head hurt).

But – and this is a big, ‘yo mama’-joke sized but – it needs to secure the rights to do so from publishers. Libraries are a public service. They’re not profiting from the books they buy then subsequently lend, so it’s not like they’re holding out on publishers who could stand to make more money off of them. Amazon would, most definitely, be making money, and holding out as much as they legally could on publishers who could stand to make more money off of them.

So, what have we learned? Amazon might be launching a book rental service. It might be a threat to libraries. It might make no sense in a world where libraries still exist. But until it’s officially announced, it also might not be happening at all. I’m going to lie down in a darkened room for a while.


Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris Ward writes and says things about books and music and films and what have you, even when no one is reading or listening.
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
He can be heard semi-regularly on the podcast of Scottish cultural blog Scots Whay Hae ('20th best website in Scotland!' - The List), and in 2011 founded Seen Your Video, a film and music podcast and blog based in Glasgow. He has a Masters degree in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow that will never have any practical application. You are on a hiding to nothing if you follow him on Twitter expecting any kind of hot publishing scoop.

Comments (2)

  • Publishers would be far better served working with companies that have seen the social side of reading already than selling more rights to Amazon. Between book sharing sites like ReadMill or Kobo that allow social engagement with texts and libraries where you can borrow stuff there is really no need for Amazon to move into this market – I agree with you, it makes no sense. Amazon missed the boat here somewhat with their laughable idea of ‘social reading’, which seems to be someone reading aloud from their kindle to a group of attractive friends in a coffee shop (ah la Kindle advert). And I’m glad they did.

    • Agreed. My worry is that Amazon has become such a behemoth at this point, not just for the Kindle but in terms of print book sales, that a lot of publishers might be afraid to say no and suffer for it in the long-run – the fear of not turning a profit while Amazon rakes in subscription money versus the fear of Amazon refusing to stock your titles for not playing along. Lord knows, it’s not as if Amazon needs to offer this kind of service to stay afloat (last I checked, it was doing pretty alright for itself), so a move like this almost seems as if it should be accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders and an ‘eh, might as well’.

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