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Summary:

Amazon is trying to reinvent the library by offering e-books through public libraries and through its own Netflix-style service, but publishers and authors are digging in their heels. Going electronic should theoretically make books easier to lend, but so far, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Amazon is trying hard to reinvent the library for the digital age, by offering e-book lending through the Kindle via a “Netflix for books” monthly subscription, as well as by offering Kindle e-books through a public-library lending program it launched earlier this year. But it can’t seem to get anyone to play ball with it on either score. None of the major publishers are taking part in the monthly lending program — which the Authors Guild is also protesting — and Penguin just recently pulled its e-books from the public-library lending service, saying it’s concerned about piracy. Going electronic should make books easier to lend rather than harder, but it doesn’t seem to be working out that way for Amazon.

The public library service was launched in September, fulfilling a promise Amazon made in the spring of this year to rollout an e-book program for 11,000 libraries across the United States. The feature allows Kindle owners to borrow books from those libraries with a single click, and even transfers their notes, highlights and other additions from the borrowed version to their own copy if they decide to buy the book. The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, meanwhile, (the Netflix-style service) was announced earlier this month as part of Amazon’s Prime subscription service, and allows users to borrow one book a month from a pool of about 5,000 books — but none of the big six publishers has agreed to allow its books into the program.

Publishers would rather sell than lend

Earlier this week, book-industry observers noted that Penguin had pulled its e-books from the public-library program over what it said were concerns about piracy (although it didn’t provide any details about what those concerns were). On Tuesday, it restored access to its older titles through the libraries who have signed up for the Amazon service, but said it would not be providing any of its new e-books to the program. As PaidContent has noted, this leaves just two of the larger publishers participating in the service — HarperCollins  and Random House — and one of those (HarperCollins) puts significant restrictions on its books, including a requirement that libraries must buy a new copy if they lend an e-book more than 25 times.

While Amazon is getting the cold shoulder from publishers — which perhaps isn’t surprising, given the book retailer has been stepping up competition with its former partners by signing authors to its own in-house publishing imprints — it’s also apparently reaching out to a group it has helped develop: namely, self-published authors. According to one industry report, Amazon is offering self-published writers a share of a pool of $500,000 as well as the promotional value of having their books in the Kindle Lending Library, provided they agree to sign an exclusive deal with Amazon to represent their books.

Authors who have gone the traditional publishing route, meanwhile, are apparently incensed that Amazon is offering some of their e-books through its Kindle Lending Library without notifying and/or compensating them directly. In fact, the Authors Guild posted a statement earlier this month saying it believes that Amazon is actually in breach of contract with some of the publishers whose books it’s offering to lend — since the Guild says buying books in bulk (as Amazon has done in some cases, so it can offer them for free to subscribers) doesn’t allow the buyer to lend those books in the way Amazon intends.

The Authors Guild says Amazon is not playing fair

The Guild also argues that some of the publishers who have signed up for Amazon’s Lending Library might themselves be in breach of contract by offering their books to be lent — according to the authors’ organization, lending rights are supposed to be negotiated separately, and authors should be getting compensation for participating in those programs. While some writers seem happy for the exposure they would get via the program (which could theoretically lead to future sales) the Guild seems more concerned about getting more cash from Amazon and/or publishers up front.

The bottom line is that everyone seems to agree that electronic books are a boon — to readers, authors and publishers — but no one can figure out how to allow them to be loaned the way traditional physical books can. In some cases (as with Penguin’s refusal to join the public-library program), this seems to be in part a result of a fear of losing control over the content, and in part a fear of being disintermediated by Amazon. And in the case of the Authors’ Guild and the big six publishers, neither seems to deal with Amazon because they see it as a threat to the existing power structure in the industry.

Only Amazon seems to be interested in what users want, which is easy (and cheap) access to electronic books — and in the end, that could be the biggest weapon the retailer has when it comes to getting authors and publishers to play ball.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Marcus Hansson and Frederic Della Faille

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