Public Library eBooks on the Amazon Kindle – We Got Screwed

Kindle 3Don’t get me wrong, as a consumer I was celebrating as much as the next guy (or gal) last week about library ebooks (from OverDrive) FINALLY being available on the ever popular Amazon Kindle. I love my Kindle, I’ve written about it. The few textbooks and pdfs I’ve put on it make me love it more. But….

But as a librarian and an ebook activist (if I do say so myself) I have to say we got the short end of that stick my friends. I have been working an expansion of my May blog post for Library Renewal where I raised some concerns :

new concerns have started to creep in as I think through the long term implications for this deal. Amazon is getting access to a LOT of information about libraries, even if it is anonymized, and it is making me wonder if we should have done a better job negotiating our deal. I applaud OverDrive for working with Amazon to get ebooks on the Kindle (and Kindle apps); however, I can’t help feel they should have worked a harder deal for the information we will need to ensure that libraries have a future in the ebook business.

Let’s look at few examples.

Amazon will know exactly how many Kindle owners are library borrowers. This is huge information as we advance in the evolution of ebooks. Libraries should have access to these numbers. Amazon won’t even confirm the exact number of Kindles they’ve sold. Yes OverDrive should be able to tell us numbers and percentages for how many of our borrowers are Kindle owners. But what I would really like to know is how many Kindle owners also borrow from their public library.

Amazon will know exactly what percentage of library checkouts lead to purchase. We know that borrowing books from a library doesn’t hurt sales, and in fact it improves them. There has been research. But now Amazon will have the cold hard numbers that show what percentage of people borrow a book from the library then buy it from Amazon. They might even know if you borrowed an ebook then bought a print copy. This is so important as we (and Amazon) move forward in negotiating our place in the ebook world.

Amazon is going to have access to a LOT of stats about library user habits, both borrowing and buying. These are just two examples.  This is very valuable information as we advance with the development of ebooks, and the role libraries play. This is information libraries need and should have. While I am thrilled personally that I’ll be able to use library ebooks on my Kindle, and professionally that I’ll no longer have to tell Kindle owners that they can’t borrow ebooks from the library because Amazon doesn’t allow it, I can’t help be concerned that in the end we have made a very uneven trade.

But Gary Price over at InfoDocket has put together such a great list of questions and concerns I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Gary raises some great points so go read the whole thing. Really. Here are a few points I want to highlight

  • Is Amazon collecting download information? ​
  • Is Amazon saving library download info permanently?
  • If not, how long will they keep it? Is there a retention policy?​
  • Can you provide any info about privacy as it relates to OverDrive/Amazon?
  • Will the library books you borrow be used by Amazon to provide recommendations of books for you to purchase?
  • Is there a link to scrub all of your personal “library” data from’s servers with a single click?
  • Do OverDrive and have any suggestions about how to make the entire process clearer to users?​​
  • How would they respond to the issue that, since the service is being marketed by libraries, users might incorrectly think library privacy policies may still apply?​

To top it off today Amazon made some pretty big announcements today: including 3 new black & white ereaders, their first tablet and their very own browser. In the last year or so Amazon has also announced it’s own Android App Store, Streaming video for Prime Members and a cloud based music library. Add to that their ownership of Audible and wireless delivery of audiobooks directly to your Kindle and Amazon is sitting pretty on a huge mountain of electronic delivery options. Some might argue that so is Apple, but Amazon tops Apple in two ways first their price points, you can’t argue with cheaper. Second is their amazing customer service.  Sure Apple might have good service, but you wont know that until you shell out the big bucks for one of their products fist. But I was getting amazing service from Amazon before Kindle was a twinkle in Jeff’s eye. Good service makes for loyal customers.

How long do you think it will be before Amazon starts their own lending library? Oh wait they already have. You can rent textbooks right now. I guess the question is how long do you think before they start applying what they’ve learned from that model to fiction and popular nonfiction?

Ok so back to libraries and how we got screwed with the library ebooks on the Kindle. We stood around like beggar orphans asking for more instead of making demands. The public library systems in America (and elsewhere) spend a great deal of money each year on books. Money that goes to publishers and authors and instead of standing up as a unified body we’ve taken the pitiful ebooks scraps we’ve been given. I’m not even going to get in to the ebooks as a whole, let’s just talk about the Amazon deal. All of those questions on my list and Gary’s, we should have answers to those. We should at the very least given access to any and all that stats we want or need. We should be getting a referral fee every time a patron buys a book after discovering it in library catalog or something off the one click page that shows up later.

I want to be angry about the bad deal we’re getting, but I’m not even sure who’s screwing us and I don’t know who to be angry with. I could be angry with Amazon, but they are business in business to make money. I could be angry with ALA because they have totally blown it on the books issues, but they are a nonprofit that gets a new president every year and is mostly run by volunteers, and I’m not totally sure they can speak for all the libraries.  I could be angry with OverDrive, but they are business too and I think they did their best to do right by us. I could be angry with the government and political system that have allowed a valuable institution such as public library system to be bullied and dominated by profit hungry businesses, but I wouldn’t even know where to start with that whole ball of mess. I could be angry with the consumer who doesn’t seem to care about privacy and is willing to spend money and sacrifice so much for just a little convenience, but I don’t know how to make them see or, more importantly, care.  I could be angry with me, because it doesn’t matter how many blog posts I write or how many presentations I give I feel like I’m standing alone shouting into the dark about how we’re getting the shaft and I don’t know what to do to make a difference, a real difference. I just don’t know.

But I know we got screwed.

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70 thoughts on “Public Library eBooks on the Amazon Kindle – We Got Screwed

  1. I think you’ve got an excellent point, Bobbi.

    For a long time, we’ve been clamoring for “a seat at the table.” But in a lot of ways, we’ve outsourced that seat to vendors like Overdrive, and assuming that they have the same priorities that we do. And what do they do? Exactly what they should be doing: acting in their own self-interest, doing what they can to function as a business.

    We’ve known about this Overdrive/Amazon partnership for quite a while. They’ve teased it relentlessly for months. We spent so much time pestering them for release date details that we neglected to consider the full scope of this partnership, and how it continues to leave us out in the cold. That was definitely a failing on my part, and I’m regretting it now.

    But the question is still out there: Are we partners in this equation, or are we customers? Who should be speaking on our behalf, and how can we make sure people listen?


    1. Toby I know I’ve had these questions and concerns since I heard the announcement but I’ve been took caught up in my own life troubles to do much more than fret about them to myself. I think part of the issue is I don’t feel like I have an answer. I feel like someone needs to speak for libraries as a whole but I honestly can’t say who I think should. Until that happens I don’t see how things will change.


      1. Bobbi, a big part of the problem is that I still don’t think we’ve figured out the *question* yet. In each of these conversations – and I’m including the ones in which I’m a part too – we’ve mostly been making (contradictory) demands to no one in particular.

        We want to “own” books, but at at a price we’re used to. We want to preserve our user’s data, but in a way that allows us to observe checkout activity. And we want to create a system for loaning items that’s just as easy as an Amazon 1-Click Purchase, despite the fact that “throttled” access is the same thing that’s allowed print libraries to at least be tolerated by commercial book providers in the first place. Any agreement with these entities is going to have to recognize what’s at stake for them, and a middle ground should be sought with everyone’s priorities in mind.

        But our needs are still somewhat vague. As librarians, we’re trained to conduct reference interviews, to tease out what people are actually looking for. Perhaps we need a reference interview for the ebook issue ourselves.


          1. That’s the billion-dollar question, Bobbi. It stands to reason that the largest tool we have at our disposal is our collective purchasing power. The only problem is that potential is fragmented into so many little pieces. Can a group of us quantify what’s potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in sales every year, and use it to obtain some leverage. But will all the libraries this hypothetical group claims to represent listen to them? More importantly, will the people we’re attempting to do business listen?

            Lots of big questions here. The only real known known is that this issue is exponentially bigger than any one of us.


  2. I want to be angry as well, but to be honest, I am mostly tired. Tired that it does not matter how many blog posts you, I, or anyone else write (or presentations, so on) with no one really listening or taking a stand. That my profession consistently just plays dead is something that troubles me, but to be honest, I am just tired of hearing about it and the drama around it. It’s just one of many things that have led me to blog less. It seems we are going to get the short end anyhow, and we are more than willing to do so.

    Best, and keep on blogging.


    1. Angel – I’m with you on this. Man am I tired. I’m tired of the craziness around the issues. The drama and the foolishness. Sometimes I think I should just sit down and shut up. I mean if the patrons don’t care why I am wasting my late nights and early mornings learning all I can about DRM and ebooks and privacy etc. Why not just take the easy way out. Some days I feel beaten down and heartless. But honestly I don’t know what else to do but keep moving forward.


      1. If it makes either of you feel any better, I care and I’ve been boycotting Amazon for close to two years (my husband, no so much but mostly). My eReader is a Sony – which was chosen primarily because it enabled me to check out e-books from my local library and my librarian recommended it. My family and I visit our local library branches frequently and do what we can to support our library. We love you guys. You are our gods. Even when you don’t HAVE an answer, you know how to FIND it.

        That being said, I did offer to buy my 14yo daughter a Kindle for her birthday. She declined, saying “I LIKE the feel and smell of books”, among other things. Seriously. She more or less ranted at me for a good five minutes about the evils of eReaders. I was kinda proud of her.

        Her father, on the other hand, caved, but only because the Kindle was actually (sadly) the best choice for when travels for extended periods of time. He’s had his Kindle for 3-4 months and has used it… um, once? Maybe twice? He bought half a dozen e-books, took it on a week long trip with him, and hasn’t looked at it since. I guess he plans on reading them ONLY when he travels because it IS easier to carry an eReader on a long flight than a couple of printed books. I don’t see him checking out e-books with his Kindle. I don’t see him upgrading anytime soon or, you know, ever. It’s not his way.

        Keep up the great work, and thank you for everything you (and other librarians) do.


  3. Bobbi, I have concerns about Gary’s blog post, because I cannot reproduce his experience. I can find no way to have Amazon ask me for my card number. However, other of my users have said they can, so I have to believe them, and I admit that, like Angel, I’m just tired and am mostly just pedaling to keep up with supporting my users.

    I’m convinced that many of our users simply won’t care about the privacy issues. I’m also convinced that we probably should care for them, and ask these questions. If only to be sure that someone, somewhere, has asked these questions, and not gone all sheep-in-a-bunch.

    I, too, was eager for the Amazon/OD hookup, esp. as a Kindle user/enthusiast from way back. However, I also know that I am Amazon’s whore, and accept that as a matter of course. What Amazon and OverDrive together know about me – well, it’s siginificant, yes. Do I want to remove the service because of it? Not really. B&N is also retaining info when you use a Nook (granted, not in the same way), and I don’t even want to think about what Apple knows about iPad users without their informed consent.

    Again, we should be asking these questions. I’m just not sure we’ve positioned ourselves (as you point out) to be the people who can push for the answers. And I don’t know how to explain to the Kindle-loving hordes outside my office door that this might not be the best thing ever.

    Just. Tired.

    Thanks for the insights, as always.


    1. Louise I agree with everything you said and feel the same way most of the time. Heck I’ve already ordered the Fire. I love my Kindle I’m not giving it up. But i know what I’m getting into with their privacy issues. I think we have gone all sheep in a huddle or Oliver Twist waiting for our next hand out. We need to find a voice. Part of the problem is I’m not sure who should and who does speak for us.


  4. I’m probably still going to order a Color Nook, because I am that leery of the monopolization that Amazon is gunning for.

    Do you know if they have librarians working for Overdrive?

    I am so disappointed in their search interface, the subjects labelling (just try looking for a kids fantasy book), and the lack of any pretense of any readers advisory. Sure, people can download an ebook from the library, but only if they have a specific title in mind already or don’t really care. For now, with paper books still in stores, people can do the browse/download but that’s going to disappear because a business model of independents supporting Amazon buying habits doesn’t work. Librarians have expertise in cataloguing, labelling, readers advisory, helping people find out what book to read next in ways both apparent and invisible, and none of that shows in the online search for ebooks. We’re not being killed; we’re allowing ourselves to die.

    Plus, what you said.


    1. Thanks Liz.

      Yes as I understand there are some people with an MLS working at OverDrive, what their responsibilities are I’m not sure. I do think that the search interface is getting better and part of that depends on who is in charge of it at the library side and what customization they are asking for.

      I will confess that despite all my complaining I am planning to get the Amazon tablet, Fire and most likely will upgrade when the new one comes out.

      And you’re right we’re not getting killed, we’re just rolling over and dying. Sometimes I feel like we deserve to get screwed. But only somtimes


  5. Hang in there Bobbi…for users like me. Yep, I’m celebrating too, but I don’t have the expertise to even know what questions to ask. Your insight and knowledge of all these issues allows users like me to make informed choices. At the heart of the matter is, yes, I would still choose to get library books on the Kindle, but now I sure know a lot more to watch out for while I’m doing it. Maybe one day I’ll have an opportunity to put the knowledge to use and help with some of these issues.

    Thank you.


  6. As with most new technology, the genie is out of the bottle long before all the ramifications are understood. Consumer technology especially due to the dollars to be made. A favorite quote by C.P. Snow comes to mind. “Technology is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.” Louise A. hit the nail on the head when she commented “that many of our users simply won’t care about the privacy issues”. We’re here to serve our patrons and mine wanted this badly. We’ll deal with the fallout together as it plays out just as we’ve done in the past and will do in the future. I don’t think you can demonize any single entity over this.


    1. I have no doubt we’ll deal with the fall out. But shouldn’t we at least try to be more prepared in the future? don’t we have an obligation to our patrons to negotiate a better deal on their behalf?


  7. The two things I don’t understand are the paranoia, and why you think you’re getting screwed by Amazon and their Kindle.

    If you’re getting screwed, it’s by local governments and the lack of funding for libraries.

    I think the Kindle deal will help keep libraries in the game a little longer.


  8. There was strong patron demand at my library for the Kindle interface. I don’t think it’s a question of “playing dead’ so much as moving into uncharted territory. Hopefully, we can draw a map. Our egos are bruised because weren’t in on the planning. I would’ve liked to have been, but this was a deal between Overdrive and Amazon. I don’t like Amazon getting free advertising on the Library’s dime. It was indeed a juggernaut. But ever since we started offering digital materials, certain degrees of privacy have slipped away. Didn’t you have to register with Barnes & Noble & Adobe Digital Editions to use your Nook? I don’t see any positive results coming from playing the victim. This blog poses excellent questions for both companies. I plan to ask them. But is saying no to the Kindle format in my library really an option? What do we tell our patrons who have been asking for it? It’s for your own protection – you don’t even understand the rammifications of your request? Please! At what point does the patron become responsible for his/her own informed consent?


    1. No I don’t think we could have said no. But I think there is value in pointing out where we could have, and should have done better. If we can’t learn from our mistakes….


  9. First, let me say thank you for the thorough and thoughtful posts.
    I am not a librarian – but I am a library trustee and I have to question exactly how badly libraries are being “screwed” here or why the need for anger or frustration.
    Amazon is clearly the leader in e-books and e-books are clearly forcing libraries to offer them or suffer reduced patronage. One of the most common comments I read about libraries in the 21st century is “why do we need them when we have e-books?”
    Amazon striking a deal with Overdrive AND more importantly making sure libraries don’t spend more money buying books they already have in a new format is a good thing. Having more patrons (taxpayers) in your town/city get MORE usage out of the library is a VERY GOOD thing – especially when budget time rolls around.
    As for the statistics and information – sure it would be great to have that information. Does Barnes and Noble give that info out? How about Sony? If those companies either don’t collect or don’t give out that information, then we are “status quo” and we simply have a desire to get the information.
    Amazon is clearly making a play here to compete directly with those companies which already work with Overdrive – so right now libraries are no worse off than they were before Amazon’s entry if Amazon is not doing anything less than the other companies that are in the game.
    Will Amazon eventually “rent” out books? Maybe. Will that compete with libraries? Probably not in a meaningful way – our books are lent for free – I doubt Amazon will lend for free, more likely they will have a pricing plan. So your options would be no different than your options for getting a movie: you can buy it to own, you can pay a fee to download or rent it, in the process probably getting it faster, or you can wait until it’s available for free at your library and get it there.
    Also – more sales of e-books and more e-book lending may drive the prices of e-books (and maybe physical books) down which would help libraries stretch their budget dollars.
    Now there is one additional item I think warrants discussion too.
    We have looked into the Amazon Affiliate program at our library as a way to get donations from library supporters – so if Amazon working with Overdrive encourages more purchases from Amazon (whether they be e-book or physical) we could potentially see much more money coming into our friend’s organization by virtue of Amazon Affiliate payments.
    Just another way to think about it perhaps.


    1. Dear Trustee
      You make some great points. yes I am grateful we don’t need another format, and yes it is good to be on what might be the largest ebook platform out there. And yes its AWESOME that it works so easily because it is SO much easier to put an ebook on your Kindle than it is to use a Nook or a Sony.

      I’m curious – do you own an ebook reader? Which one? Have you used it to borrow library ebooks? Do you know how the process varies from device to device and how it is different with Amazon Kindle or Kindle apps?

      Part of the reason it is so much easier is because you go through the Amazon website which knows about your Kindle and Kindle apps. This gives Amazon access to information that Sony and Barnes & Noble just don’t have passed on the process used to put library ebooks on their devices. So essentially this is the first time these stats have been available. And yes we should have asked for them. We have as much right to them as Amazon does, and our failure to ask, or OverDrive’s failure to ask for us does me we are screwed because those stats are valuable. As we move forward into the “ebook age” knowing how many Kindle users are borrowing from the library is valuable, so it knowing how many of those loans led to sales, not just of that title but by other titles by the same author.

      You shouldn’t have to “look into” an affiliate program from Amazon it should have been built into the deal with OverDrive.

      The problem is we’re standing around being grateful for what we were given instead of asking (or demanding) for what we deserve. We need to do it, whether we’re comfortable with it or not. We need to do it for our patrons, because if we don’t there is a very real chance we wont be able to serve those patrons on the future and they need us.


      1. Libraries, I’m afraid, deserve nothing. Publishers aren’t in business promote literacy. Amazon isn’t in business to provide free or social services. They are for-profit businesses that deserve only what they negotiate as a price.

        Libraries and the companies that distribute materials to them, no matter what the format,continue to be naive in this regard. It isn’t a publisher’s business to donate their service as a sign of their largesse. It’s Libraries’ job, though, to be able to adapt and provide a service that their public, and especially their supporting taxpayers, think is sufficient and adequate and deserving of funding at all.

        Libraries’ idea that “the public must like us because we do good” is drivingthem into an early grave. Adapt to the realities or perish. It’s that simple.


        1. Gefitz,
          You are correct in your basic assertion that Amazon doesn’t “owe” libraries anything and that libraries need to adapt to changing technologies or suffer. We have been dealing with that reality for quite some time and Overdrive allowing us to lend e-books is one such way that libraries are maintaining their relevance.
          I think the general complaint here, and it is a valid one, is that libraries don’t really have a voice at the table when these large companies are doing things that can have big impacts on libraries.
          I tend to look on the bright side of things and the bright side of this Amazon/Overdrive deal is that we are probably not WORSE off than we were before the deal. However, if libraries had a voice at the discussion, then maybe we would have walked away with some really usable data and maybe we would have walked away with a cut of the profits when a book is taken out and then purchased afterwards. With nobody there to ask we basically get whatever we are handed.
          I am of a mind that libraries will always be a relevant public commodity for their communities – even if it is not the traditional way they operate right now.
          As to your notion that libraries feel they should be liked because they “do good” I think that is a silly notion. Libraries conduct themselves very much like a business – we are constantly figuring out what works and what doesn’t and how to provide our patrons with what they want while staying within budget. However, it doesn’t help that many people view the library as “irrelevant” simply because they can personally afford a kindle and to buy whatever books they want. That isn’t the case for most of the people out there and the library really is a valuable community asset that should be afforded some protection from the whims of the marketplace. That means meet us half-way and cut some slack.


  10. Many librarians had ZERO notice regarding the availability of Kindle books. We went from “sometime later this year” being the sum of our knowledge to an email at 8:30am on Sept. 21st stating it was live. No previews, no practice, no advance publicity or preparation. Talk about scrambling to meet the demand! In addition, the same pool of ebooks is now supposed to serve many more users?? Our budgets and catalogs didn’t increase overnight, but the demand certainly did!


  11. I read above that you think “The public library systems in America (and elsewhere) spend a great deal of money each year on books.”

    According to the ALA, $1.4 billion was spent buy public libraries on collections (which not only includes books, but electronic resource subscriptions, other physical media, etc). (

    The Association of American Publishers puts their number of UNITS sold in 2008 at 2.7 Billion, and their net revenue was over $27 million.(

    Please. Don’t overestimate the Public Library’s chunk of the market. And don’t overestimate the amount of say they have in what for-profit companies do as a result of this small chunk.


  12. I used to review books at Amazon, but I stopped a few months ago after I became fed up with their unethical behavior. (Yes, I can provide a link if someone needs to be convinced.) I do not purchase from them either. I have no desire to own an ereader or tablet at this point. I think it’s amazing how they’ve been billed as a convenience device to consumers- the amount of data they’re pulling from them is outrageous. They are little more than a conduit to advertise to me through. Amazon knows this, that’s why they’re taking a hit on the Kindle Fire.

    Amazon and Overdrive are businesses out to make money, but no one has an obligation to screw anyone else in order to do so. Be angry at the people who didn’t negotiate a better deal on your end, and then be angry that the Fair Information Practices haven’t been codified into law in the US as they have, for the most part, in the EU- then demand that your politicians make it so.


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