Amazon’s controversial Kindle Owners’ Lending Library has proven to be a hit among readers and an appealing option for many self-publishers, but there still remains some question as to how successful it can hope to be as an ongoing project. The basic organization is simple. Authors who are willing to make their work available exclusively through the Kindle Store will find themselves with the option to allow lending through the library. When included, they get a certain share of the money pool being filled in each month by Amazon to keep the service going. The more popular a book is among borrowers, the larger the share of that pool that goes to the contributing author. For many self publishers who find they make the majority of their income through the Kindle anyway, going exclusive is not really a big deal in terms of income alteration. The worst that can happen is that nobody borrows the book, and even then it doesn’t cost anything significant.
Leaving aside the philosophical issues in choosing to contribute to Amazon’s ever-growing list of exclusive content, which is an interesting and complex subject for debate that will probably come up again at greater length in its own post to better do it justice, as the number of participating authors grows we may see a drop in interest among new potential contributors. The restrictions regarding access to the library play a fairly large part in this. Each borrower must own a Kindle eReader or Kindle Fire, be an active Amazon Prime member, and remember to make use of their one monthly rental each time around if an author is to get anything.
This is a very specific audience to be targeting with your marketing and may prove to be somewhat hard to pin down. Add into this the fact that, while the number of Kindle Editions now available through the library has grown past 100,000 titles, the amount of money being competed over has not been increased in any ongoing way and you have a complicated decision presented to self publishers. A highly limited number of readers needs to be enticed to choose your book from an increasingly large pool of options in an environment where the reward for each individual choice is likely to count for less due to the pre-determined maximum award size and ever-increasing number of Kindle owners.
Can Amazon hope to keep the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library growing at a decent pace? Chances are good that they can. Will it continue to be a persuasive reason for new authors to agree to exclusivity? That might be harder to keep up. As numbers come out and we learn at least enough about the big success stories to determine how little of the cash pool was available for other authors to divvy up, we should be able to get a clearer picture of how well somebody can expect to do through this program, After all, even if you were only making $1 per book sold on each of your hypothetical 30 annual sales through Barnes & Noble, that’s better than getting nothing at all from a lending library for Kindle owners. A clearer picture should emerge as more time passes, but without a new source of big name titles or an increase in funding, Amazon’s Kindle Edition lending effort seems like it might have a limited shelf life.
Owing perhaps to the impressive holiday sales figures for the Kindle, Nook, and others at the end of 2010, an announcement from the Association of American Publishers has confirmed that February 2011 saw eBooks outselling every other format of book available. While this isn’t precisely a surprise given the not too far gone announcement from Amazon that Kindle Editions were their bestselling format, it demonstrates that the trend is ever on the rise.
According to the same announcement, compared to February 2010 the sales figures for this past February have increased by over 200% for eBooks and sales of print books in all formats combined declined by nearly 25% over a similar period. Downloaded audio books also saw a bit of a boost with over 26% growth from the prior year. Everything digital is getting increasingly acceptable to the average consumer, especially the sorts of things that can fit on a Kindle. What is perhaps the most impressive part of this for me is that judging by the tone of the text, publishers are attempting to pass this off as a demonstration of how great they’re doing at providing readers with what they want. I’m going to have to say that I disagree.
What we’re seeing now is, in some ways, a bit like the move from audio cassettes to compact discs. Sure it takes a while to catch on, but most people are eventually at least willing to give it a try and very few people find themselves truly disappointed (and to head off complaints, no I am not trying to extend the metaphor to say that paper books will inevitably cease to exist. We know that’s not likely to happen). As people adopt the new format, they go back and grab their favorites. According to the AAP, there is a trend reported from many publishers where a reader will buy the most recent work of an author and then go back to pick up the entire catalog of that author’s work. Is the logical assumption really that the reader in question has never read one of this author’s books before and was so impressed that they blew a hundred dollars grabbing the rest? I’d say it’s more likely that these figures reflect fans picking up old favorites.
For an industry that has resisted what seems to be a logical and inevitable progression to the point of imposing arbitrary format-wide pricing schemes aimed at countering popular adoption, it seems a bit hypocritical to be throwing out quotes like “The February results reflect two core facts: people love books and publishers actively serve readers wherever they are” and “publishers are constantly redefining the timeless concept of ‘books.’” It’s almost amusing to think of how hard it is going to be in coming years to keep things going the way they are in the face of authors taking advantage of the ability to self-publish for things like the Kindle and still manage to get on bestsellers lists. These figures aren’t a reflection of how well the publishing industry is adapting to serve its customers, they are demonstrative of the increasing momentum of eReaders in spite of the best efforts of the industry to prevent change. Not so great for them, but amazing for readers.