The Future of E-Book Borrowing

News and views from academia.
July 24 2014 8:28 AM

Say No to Kindle Unlimited

Borrowing e-books from the library is so much better and cheaper.

Librarian.
Wouldn't you rather deal with her?

Photo by Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Imagine a service that will let you get your hands on almost any book you want, however obscure or expensive, for a very low price. Imagine the opportunity to indulge your curiosity impulsively and read all you want to without going broke.

We call it interlibrary loan, and if we had to invent it today, it probably would lead to congressional hearings and new laws banning it—unless some hot tech startup invented it and called it “Uber for books” or something. Libraries rely on the first-sale doctrine to share, and our ability to keep it going in a digital era is uncertain.

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But what an audacious idea, letting libraries pass around the books they purchased to other libraries, and even share articles, videos, music, and reels of obscure microfilm. Sure it costs libraries money. Sure we have to pay staff to hunt down the stuff you want and do a lot of back-end work to make the exchange smooth and efficient. Sure it means sometimes the book you know the library owns is checked out to someone on the other side of the country. It may take a few days. But we would be sunk without it.

Could you do your work without interlibrary loan? Does anyone ever talk about how awesome and how fundamentally important it is? Not much, except in acknowledgements. It’s probably the most frequently mentioned library service in books’ fine-print thank you notes. Other than that, we all take it for granted. We never wrote a breathless press release that was covered by all the media: revolutionary service gives you access to a virtually unlimited number of books!

As so often happens, when a giant tech company announces a new thing, people lose their heads a bit. So it goes with the announcement that Amazon will allow you to borrow as many of a collection of 600,000 books as you like for a mere $120 annually. This is new for Amazon, but it’s not the first e-book subscription service, and not necessarily the bestOyster has 400,000 books available for the same price; Scribd has 500,000 for $8.99 a month. Both services include books from major publishers not included in Amazon Unlimited, though front-list titles are limited. And even more thrifty, as Maria Bustillos points out with some exasperation at the Awl, there are loads of books at Open LibraryProject Gutenberg, and Librivox that are all-you-can-read and totally free. (I would add the Online Books Page to this list, a very useful index and guide.) No, they don’t use Amazon’s Whispersync. Oh no! How inconvenient! They also don’t read over your shoulder and take notes on everything you browse, which pages you linger on, or whether you didn’t finish the book, as Amazon does.

People seem to have been confused by the hyperbolic name and the fact that Amazon is behind it. Most of the books in Kindle Unlimited are self-published or published through Amazon’s imprints. No, it won’t include that $250 physiology textbook you need. I mean, come on. And why would a university press add their list to Amazon’s service and undercut their sales? It may be nonprofit, but it isn’t stupid. It's unclear what publishers get for signing on, but given the way Amazon constantly jacks up its demands, it hardly matters what the offer is today. 

As Joshua Kim has found, Kindle Unlimited includes some of the books he wants, but hardly all—and that’s not really surprising. This is not a plan that the publishers that produce most of our popular books will lovingly embrace. They’re not stupid, either. Though TechCrunch thinks Amazon will triumph because readers will discover new writers and wean themselves from those horrible gatekeepers, I doubt it. Kindle Unlimited, like so many this-will-change-the-world announcements from tech corporations, is lots of huff and puff. It won’t blow our house down.

An extremely dunderheaded commentary by an English fellow of the Adam Smith Institute published at Forbes suggested that all public libraries in the U.K. be closed and the savings used to buy citizens a Kindle Unlimited subscription, which (because it’s not run by the state) will naturally be better and cheaper and no doubt more moral. Because I don’t want to give this foolishness any link love, I’m using the extremely useful donotlink.com service that lets you check out link bait without rewarding it. Like many librarians, I’m so tired of being told by people who don’t use libraries that they are an unnecessary expense for a populace that doesn’t read (based, in this case, on an inaccurate figure, cited as a “number I recall”; the whole piece is full of “at a guess” numbers leading to the recommendation that we “simply junk the physical libraries,” which the current Tory government is already working on). While I am inclined to not feed trolls, I decided to comment on this piece because Ian Clark made a good argument that they are powerful and attack both public services of all kinds and the people who depend on them. Clark writes persuasively:

By speaking up, we are not only defending public libraries but the entire notion of public services. Silence is not how we defend ourselves against an ideological battle, it is how we surrender.

Luckily, I don't have to parse the Forbes troll's argument in detail because I can point you to Jacob Berg’s excellent “The End of the ‘End of Libraries.’ ” Although he was responding to a different troll, it took me a while to notice the publication date. Everything he says applies perfectly to the troll du jour. 

Over at Huffington Post, Dino Grandoni points out that you can borrow e-books from your library, just like from Amazon, without having to put your pants on. He argues that Kindle Unlimited is just “a glorified library card.” I beg to differ. There's nothing glorified about it. A library card has a lot more going for it.

Barbara Fister is a college librarian who blogs for Inside Higher Ed.

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