The Kindle Owners' Lending Library is a little ... odd

The Kindle Owners' Lending Library is a little ... odd

Summary: While it's nice to be able to "borrow" books on the Kindle, our impressions are that the service is a little early for prime time, and -- frankly -- a little odd.

TOPICS: Mobility, Hardware

My wife and I have been poking around the new Kindle Owners' Lending Library, trying to get a feel for what it offers and how to use it. While it's nice to be able to "borrow" books on the Kindle, our impressions are that the service is a little early for prime time, and -- frankly -- a little odd.

First up are the book choices themselves. Because participation by publishers in the Lending Library means giving up some revenue in return for what is, essentially, promotional benefit, most mainstream publishers have chosen not to participate. There are a few notable exceptions like Scholastic. They've made "The Hunger Games" available on the Lending Library.

Update: I got this wrong initially and thanks to the folks who pointed out the error. Actually, it turns out Amazon has reached agreements with publishers to include titles for a fixed fee. In other cases, Amazon is purchasing a title each time it is borrowed by a reader under standard wholesale terms as a no-risk trial to demonstrate to publishers the incremental growth and revenue opportunity that this service presents. Amazon recently published a press release highlighting further details of this program.

Even with this compensation model, the vast majority of books available for lending are self-published books. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with independently-published books (I'm a big supporter of the creative process), self-published books often suffer from somewhat less formal editing than books published by traditional publishing companies.

I've spent more than 25 years as the head of a publishing company (my day job) and I can tell you, publishing is a tough business with a lot of work. Publishing a traditional book often requires teams of people doing everything from making sure there's a big enough market for a probable return on investment, acquisitions editors to do the deals, content editors who read, edit, re-read, and re-edit to make sure the books are crisp, and the entire sales and marketing challenge, making sure readers can find the books wherever they shop.

Kindle distribution disintermediates all that -- for both good and bad. The good is that great stories and great authors can reach readers without having to pass the "will it make it in the mass market?" test that all traditional publishers require. This means -- like with indy music -- you're getting access to funky, fascinating, fabulous stuff that otherwise just wouldn't be available.

On the other hand, there is the spam problem. I'm going to address the spam problem on Kindle in a future article, but let's just use one book as an example. There's a guy out there listing a book entitled "Only Rich People May Buy This Story." It's free in the Lending Library, but if you want to buy it, it's $200. There are hundreds of these artificially high-priced books out there, just trolling for the inattentive buyer to hit "Buy now with 1-Click."

The enormous prevalence of indy books in the Lending Library means that the entire service could probably be renamed the Kindle Indy Book Library and it'd be just as accurate. There are amazing books available in the Lending Library, but it's quite difficult to tell what's brilliant and what's mislabeled spam.

While we're on the subject of hard to find, Amazon needs to improve its browsing interface.

Even finding a selection of lend-enabled books for a particular genre is a challenge. You can't do it easily from the menu. Instead, you have to do so by setting the Search box drop-down to Books and hitting Go. Then you have to select the Kindle Edition tab. Then, from the menu on the left, check Prime Eligible. Only now are you able to see lend-enabled books.

Once you've found lend-enabled books, navigating genres is particularly wonky. For example, there are 12,468 lend-eligible books in the "Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense" genre.

While you can further narrow the field to Mystery (3,913 books), Police Procedural (476 books), or Thrillers (7,692 books), that's about as far as you can get. The Sort drop-down menu lets you sort by popularity, price, and publication date, but there's no easy way to browse by, say, author or even book title.

Worse, although there are 12,468 results shown, you can only browse 12 books at a time, and only select up to three pages out. If you want to see what's available, you'd actually have to hit "Next" something like a thousand times.

Here, too, we have spam. There are books posted in categories where they don't belong and books posted in numerous categories (somehow gaming the system), which also brings down the quality of the overall service and selection.

Then there's the way you borrow books. You know how you can go onto Amazon with your browser using any ol' computer and send a book to your Kindle? Well, you can't do that with borrowed books. You have to borrow the book directly from your Kindle device, using the device's rather convoluted mechanism for finding books.

My wife has taken to searching for the book she wants to read on her computer, then going to her Kindle Fire to download it. She actually owns two Kindles, both registered in her name: a third generation e-ink Kindle and her Kindle Fire.

Weirdly enough, though, while you can borrow books only from the device, if you want to have a borrowed book sent to another Kindle that you own (and is registered to the same account), you have to go to the "Manage Your Kindle" page from a browser and send it down to the device from there. If you try to download it directly onto the second Kindle, you will see a message that you've hit your limit for the month.

We've also found that it's easiest to return books from the "Manage Your Kindle" Web interface, rather than the devices themselves. By default, when you "check out" a new book, you're prompted to return the previous borrow (and if you don't, you don't get the new loaner). But if you just want to return a book without borrowing a new one, you can't do that from the device. You have to go online. It's not difficult, just a little ... odd.

Finally, the lend-enabled books are only available to be read on actual Kindle devices.

This doesn't really make all that much sense. Let's use my wife as an example again. In addition to her two Kindle devices, she's also got the Kindle Reader app registered on her desktop computer, her netbook, her iPad and her iPhone. It would seem to me that as long as she's got a Kindle registered (meaning she's actually a Kindle owner), she should be able to read the borrowed book on any of the Kindles or Kindle readers -- just like with all the other Kindle books.

After all, once she's paid into Amazon both for the devices and for the $79/yr Prime membership, it would seem a no-brainer to let her use the service for lend-worthy books just like all the other Kindle books she's purchased. It's not like Amazon doesn't know she owns Kindle devices.

The Kindle Owners' Lending Library is a nifty idea, and I applaud Amazon for thinking outside the straight-jacket constraints of traditional book publishers, but I do wish they'd make the interface a little more consistent.

This article may seem like it's full of criticisms, but Amazon deserves kudos for experimenting with new business models. There is a lesson all businesses -- small and large -- can take away from this. Sometimes it's okay to offer a new service or a new product that's not yet perfect. Sometimes it's okay to get it out there, see how it works, and tweak it over time to make it better and better.

After all, the Amazon we first met in 1995 is nothing like the Amazon we rely on today. They've constantly evolved, upgraded, experimented, and innovated -- and suffered criticism for most of their changes. But the result of all those experiments is an amazing company that provides a marketplace and infrastructure that millions rely on.

So, go ahead. Take a chance. Offer a service that starts out a little ... odd. Who knows where that outside-the-box thinking will take you.

See also: Kindle Owners' Lending Library for Amazon Prime Members

Topics: Mobility, Hardware


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Scholastic - Amazon lending library

    I enjoyed your piece on Amazon's lending library. It is mostly self-published works and an occasional title from traditional publishers. But as I understand it, Scholastic said 'NO' to being a part of it, but since they are a Wholesale publisher, where Amazon controls the price, Scholastic had no choice. The same thing happened to Norton with Michael "Money Ball" Lewis. The Big6 are all Agency publishers and said no. They control the pricing of the eBooks.
    Jack W Perry
    • Publishing models

      There was a huge (HUGE) fuss among publishers (including one pulling all books off Amazon for a while) about Amazon's resale model for Kindle a while ago. I didn't know where Scholastic fit into it. Very interesting.
      David Gewirtz
  • Amazon prime lending library

    Amazon's lending library is making it far more difficult to find good quality books of the kind you'd want to read in the kindle store (and I have prime). The best-seller lists in all categories are full of self published books that are only so highly ranked because they got special promotions for being in the lending library.
    I think Amazon may be shooting itself in the foot by ruining the ease of discoverability and the general quality of its kindle store. The lending library seems like a good idea, but they are rewarding lendable books by giving them over-inflated sales rankings which is bringing a lot of slush into the best seller lists and ruining the natural social (crowd-sourced) filtering system. I am not sure why Amazon is offering so much to these publishers, they get $2 per borrow as well as free promotions and exposure on the best seller lists. That seems overly generous, I am sure $2 per borrow is more than many of them would make from book sales they'd normally get anyway and should be reward enough. I guess Amazon is ultimately aiming to have the dominant lending service which they might see as the future for ebooks, so they're starting out very aggressively. I wish they would keep the lending library but not allow it to distort or affect the rest of the kindle store.
  • It is the same old junk...

    Apple is successful with lock in so, others are going to try the samething... I will buy books from the Kindle or Google apps because I can use them on multiple devices but, this type of stuff sucks and will have me buying more Google books or Nook books in the future if they cannot get this on every device.

    Also, make the shared book a requirement! It is lame to think I can buy a paperback and loan it to others without issue but if I buy a digital copy I cannot lend it out!
  • Amazon Prime Lending Library

    I agree with the author of this article. Finding a decent book by just browsing is much more difficult than it needs to be. And then when I do find one, I can't read it on my Android phone... only on my Kindle Fire.
  • Where are the librarians?

    Sounds like a tremendous opportunity for the existing library community to step in and do what they do best. It may be a good time to overhaul the Dewey Decimal system too, make it more aware of electronic media, and apply it to book stores as well as libraries. Wouldn't it be great if book stores categorized the same way that libraries do? Exploring the stacks and finding that elusive treasure wouldn't be near as much fun though. Although B&N has a slightly more efficient and effective lending system than Amazon, B&N seems to suffer from an even larger 'chaff' problem than Amazon. While maybe they could build a categorization based on publisher, what about an independent rating system that would separate the self-published spam from the finely crafted works? The problem isn't isolated to the book publishing industry - viz. music where we have poorly recorded copies of copies, bootlegs, poorly mastered editions, redigitized analog masters, digital masters, original proof tracks, and so on with no way to discriminate except to trust the publisher (or take the record out of the sleeve, look at it, and sample a few of the tracks). Ultimately, caveat emptor - Amazon et al just need to give us adequate preview ability.
    • dewey decimal system orders by subject

      There's no need for more "awareness" of electronic media, a book gets the same number whether it is a hardcover, paperback, audiobook on CD, or if applied to ebooks, ebooks too. The only purpose for using it for ebooks though would be maybe if you wanted to find similar nonfiction books to one you already had found, like looking at adjacent books on library shelves.
      Really it's a database and web interface issue. What's needed is the ability to sort and filter, by multiple fields at once, including author, title, subject, user ratings, professional ratings(user ones could be spammed), number of purchases, price, number of lends, length of book, subject categories, and even filter out books you already have or have looked at. You don't have to throw that all at every new user, put it under an advanced search tab.

      Sometimes I think there needs to be a internet book database, outside of any seller and publisher, with open api so it could be used by even booksellers to show neutral book info on their sites.
  • Great Analysis...

    Thanks for your analysis of an obviously immature process. I expect that Amazon will continue to refine the lending, as well as flat out fix the wonky search behaviors you mentioned.

    It's actually kind of cool to be involved in the leading edge of the digital publishing revolution. We'll be able to look back at this period just as some of us can personally recount our experiences transitioning from DOS to GUI to mobile to tablet to...

    I haven't successfully completed a paper book in 3 1/2 years. I find the paper (analog) versions of my books to be awkward and inconvenient, while reading more on my phone and Kindle Fire with a wider range of subjects than ever before.
  • Nook Lend-Me vs Kindle Lending Library

    Interesting in all this, you do not mention the Nook Lend-Me service. There is not a separate library of Lend-Me titles; they are all listed in the regular list of Nook ebooks available. And the Lend-Me titles my wife and I have downloaded are viewable across all the Nook platforms, so I can read on my Nook Color, the Nook app on my Android phone, and on my PC. You can also search by author or title, but I am not aware of being able to sort only Lend-Me books. Seems from the description that the Nook service is a little friendlier than the Kindle.
  • Kinde

    I am an absolute Kindle App addict. I do not, however, own an actual Kindle device. Because of this I have not bothered to buy a Prime membership. There are a few things Amazon could do to improve the App. I would like to see all books text to speech enabled for those of us on the go with mobile devices. I have written to Amazon and requested this capability. I don't want to have to buy a book in audible format from would like to be able to choose to read it silently or listen to it while driving. Love the ability to author on Amazon but would agree that it needs better policing.
  • Prime Lending library

    I joined Prime for the purpose of "borrowing" books newer than 1800. Then discovered you can only "borrow" one book per month, what a poor system. I immediately returned Prime and was not charged. Also, while I had prime, I purchased two books which showed a lower than regular price for prime users, however, the higher price was listed at checkout, I returned these books as well. Tip is to register for the news blogs rather than the actual newspapers, many good stories.
  • The problem extends beyond the "lending library".

    A while back I found a book while searching a specific subject on Amazon that sounded of interest. Being a bit of a skeptic, I previewed it first, and was presented with only the title page. Then I checked the reviews - there was one review, and that review was very unfavorable. In spite of these 2 warning signs, I went ahead and purchased the book, since the price was only $0.99, thinking "How bad can it be?" Well, indeed the warning signs should have been heeded, because the "book" was only 4 pages long, and did not even begin to address the subject of the title.
    I contacted Amazon, wondering if they would REALLY allow such a travesty to exist under their name. I asked the support tech if I had encountered a technical issue with the download. He checked out the "book" while we were on the phone together, and discovered exactly what I had. Fortunately because it was an obvious fraud, my pittance was refunded. However, I tried to use that as an opportunity to scold Amazon for not having properly vetted the books they make available for purchase. The reply was to the effect that "Oh, THAT would require many many staff people, and Amazon is not able to perform that task." Yeah - well, guess who doesn't buy nearly as much from them these days? And, they are so large & cumbersome, they do not even have a realization of how offensive they have been to me.
    I strongly recommend everyone closely watch what they may intend to purchase from this uncaring behemoth. They need to somehow get a message they are not tending the store as well as they should be.
  • It is marketing with a benefit for the marketee

    My only problem with the program is it is one book a month. On March 23 I borrowed The Hunger Game which I enjoyed immensely. I wanted more so I bought Catching Fire for $7.70 on the 26th. On April 1st I borrowed Mockingjay (the final book in the trilogy). The program worked for me. I have the Kindle app on my laptop, my Samsung Epic 4G Android phone and my Fire. I prefer the form factor of the Fire for reading. I use other media to determine what I might want to read. I have yet to look at a sample that included only the title page. It works for me.
  • Kindle lending library

    I also have two Kindles (a Kindle Touch and a Kindle Fire) plus the Kindle app on both my desktop and portable computers and an Amazon Prime membership, i.e., I spend a lot of time daily tied in with the Amazon infrastructure.

    I agree with much of what you wrote including that searches could be easier and it might be nice if some processes took less steps and/or could be done completely from the Kindle. It would also be nice to have easy options for reading a loan in more than one spot.

    I don't have a major issue with what is available in the lending library though as I keep a separate wish list for Kindle items on Amazon and whenever I happen to run across a book that interests me that is part of the Prime lending library, I simply add it to my Kindle specific wish list and then next time I am ready to borrow a book, I go right to my Kindle wish list to choose rather than spending hours combing Amazon to search for a good choice.

    I actually stopped to read this article as I first thought it was about something else that I have signed up for but not yet used, so was looking for feedback on it - the "other" Kindle lending library, the one that allows you to lend out Kindle books that you own and borrow books that other Kindle owners own. Perhaps you will write a future blog on that?

    Thank you.
  • Trying Out The Lender's Library

    Our company just published a book for a client titled [b]"GENERATION Z | The Global Revolution"[/b]. Although we are trying the Lender's Library, it will have to produce great results in order for us to continue with it. We will be keeping a detailed eye on the pros and cons of using the Lender's Library from book launch and would be happy to contribute results to the community here. We are also looking to compare results with others who have launched a book directly in the Lender's Library. Although it might be a little overcrowded with spam, hopefully Amazon will address this issue and tighten up the review process for the Library.
    Ignite A Byte
  • From an author's point of view

    I really enjoyed your blog. It is very informative. I originally found it looking for ways to promote my essay, "An Awesome Wonder" a salvation roadmap, to be borrowed by Kindle owners. I agree that Amazon should look into ways to make the borrowing process more user friendly. I am not a Kindle owner, but plan to become one in the near future.
  • Great article!

    Thanks for the explanation. I love Amazon but their explanations occasionally leave much to be desired.