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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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

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