Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kindle does Libraries!

Amazon recently announced that they had completed a partnership with leading library vendor, Overdrive, to offer titles in Kindle format through Overdrive's many public library customers. Even as confident as I had been that such a deal would take place at some point this year, I found myself surprised and thrilled to learn that it was indeed moving forward.

As a denizen of many a Kindle discussion forum, I've witness many a thread complaining that they could not borrow ebooks from the public libraries that their taxes support, despite Amazon's dominating market share (in the U.S.A. at least) in ebook sales and in dedicated ereading devices. The usual discussion ran as follows:
"Why doesn't Amazon make it possible to borrow books from the library like Sony and Barnes and Noble do?"
"Because their priority is selling books. If you could borrow a book, why would you buy one from them?"
"The selection at libraries is lousy, and the wait lists are long. You aren't missing anything."
"The publishers don't want to give Amazon more market share and leverage than they already enjoy. They want to make sure ePub remains a counterbalance."
"Overdrive has decided Adobe ePub is all they need. They don't want Yet Another Format."
"You idiot. You knew what you were getting when you purchased a Kindle, and it didn't include the capability to borrow ebooks from your library. Get over it already. Go buy a Nook and leave us alone."

I tried to argue to the contrary:
Given the inherent scarcity of content borrowed from libraries, Amazon would much rather the borrowing took place on a Kindle than on a competing device, because any ebook purchasing a Kindle owner does will most likely be with Amazon rather than a competitor.
Libraries know that most of their patrons have Kindles and want to borrow ebooks to read on them.
Overdrive wants to be the company that libraries turn to for fulfilling demand for ebooks. If Amazon were to partner with one of their competitors, it could seriously disrupt their business. But if they partner with Amazon, when none of their competitors do, they become even more indispensible.
Furthermore, Overdrive has already has demonstrated that they have the technical ability to deliver Kindle format. They have been distributing Mobipocket format for much longer than Adobe ePub, Amazon owns Mobipocket, and the format and DRM system is virtually identical.
Publishers can't afford to ignore Amazon customers or the potential library market. They make significant amounts of money on library sales, and when libraries cannot fulfill demand, it drives purchases in the end. They may not always like dealing with Amazon, but they have no choice when Amazon sells so many of their books.

And so it has transpired.

I was concerned that any such agreement would force libraries into taking sides in the ebook format war, and have to purchase the same titles twice. However apparently that's not the case: Overdrive can offer the same title in any available format for the same price. Publishers get paid the same regardless of format. Patrons get to choose the one they want. Adobe and Amazon split the DRM licensing revenue, depending on the relative popularity of their respective solutions.

Needless to say, demand for library ebooks, already skyrocketing, is going to spike when Kindle format comes on line. But there's no holding back the tide: library patrons have a right to expect their library to deliver media in all popular formats, and while ePub is popular, Kindle format is currently even more popular.

I'm very curious about how this will be implemented. Interestingly no software updates of Kindle or Kindle apps will be required: this capability has long been demonstrated (since Kindle 1) by a simple hack of Mobipocket ebooks to make them readable on Kindle without stripping DRM, and such books expire at the end of the lending period.

However, the server side of things will need to change. To borrow a Mobipocket ebook, you have to supply a 'PID' (device identifier). The Kindle platform involves PID's as well, but there is no way for the average user to discover what it is for any given Kindle or Kindle app. So I suspect that after choosing a book to borrow on the library's Overdrive site, patrons will be redirected to an Amazon site to authenticate with their Amazon credentials, choose the device to prepare bits for, and the delivery method (download to computer or use 'whispernet'). I think the entire fulfillment back-end will be Amazon-hosted, not Overdrive-hosted. All that Overdrive's site will need are the ASIN's (Amazon item id) for the titles it offers, so that it can supply this when redirecting to the Amazon site.

With the addition of library borrowing, Amazon has erased one of the last feature advantages competitors had. While the lack of this feature didn't seem to impede Amazon's success, it no longer represents a consideration for those contemplating a purchase decision.

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