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Kindle users can borrow library e-books – is that a good thing?

Amazon's announcement that Kindle users can borrow library e-books may be good news for readers and libraries – but publishers could be the losers.

By Husna Haq / April 21, 2011

Soon Kindle owners will be able to "borrow" e-books from 11,000 libraries around the United States.

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Not everyone is thrilled about Amazon's big news.

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As the king of the e-book market, Amazon’s announcement Wednesday that Kindle owners will be able to borrow e-books from 11,000 libraries around the United States later this year is sure to have major repercussions.

The new feature, which Amazon is launching in partnership with OverDrive, a major supplier of ebooks and other technologies to libraries, will strengthen Amazon’s position in the e-book market, potentially leading to more Kindle sales. And it’s good news for e-reader owners, all of whom will soon be able to borrow digital books on their devices for free (Barnes & Noble's Nook and Sony’s Reader already feature library-lending abilities).

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But while Amazon’s announcement was welcome news to readers, libraries, and the digital reading marketplace as a whole, publishers seemed to greet the news with trepidation.

Library lending has always been a thorny issue for publishers. And e-book lending even more so. In an e-lending scenario, as with the lending of physical books, publishers lose out on multiple individual sales of an e-book. After years of slumping book sales, publishers were eager to cash in on e-books but e-lending will eat into e-book sales as well. And, as a recent Wall Street journal article points out, unlike physical books, digital copies don't wear out, which means libraries don’t have to reorder heavily used popular titles and publishers – well – they lose out again.

Indeed, several publishers have indicated they’re not entirely comfortable with the e-lending scheme. HarperCollins recently put a cap on its lending program at 26 loans, angering librarians across the country. And two of the country's largest publishers, Simon & Schuster Inc. and Macmillan, don't currently sell their digital works to libraries at all.

“We value libraries for their work of encouraging literacy and the habit of reading, but we haven't yet found a business model we're comfortable with,” said Adam Rothberg, a Simon & Schuster spokesman, in a WSJ interview.

With an estimated 7.5 million Kindles in the US, Amazon enjoys a two-thirds share of the $1 billion digital-book market, according to Forrester Research. Amazon’s new Kindle Lending Library feature will open the floodgates to e-lending.

Here’s how it works. Libraries must first purchase digital copies of books. The e-books are then loaned out as if they were physical books. Patrons don’t need to make a physical trip to the library to borrow an e-book. Instead, they can download books from library websites. Most, but not all, major public libraries offer free digital-book lending. Though each library sets its own e-lending policy, only one person can check out a book at a time and typical lending periods are 14 or 21 days.

E-lending is a boon to libraries, many of which have been struggling to stay relevant in a digital era where patrons first turn to Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon, before their local library. And now that Kindle is joining the e-lending circle, librarians around the country are thrilled.

Still, while readers and libraries rejoice, Amazon has left many questions unanswered.

Such as a launch date. When, exactly, will Kindle owners be able to borrow e-books from the library? So far, Amazon has only said “later this year.”

And how long will the lending period be? Will there be any limit to the number of times a Kindle e-book can be checked out?

Kindle users, who have already waited far longer than their Nook and Reader cousins for digital library access, may have to wait some more.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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