Kindle Fail

I shipped my new Kindle Fire back to Amazon over the weekend, exchanging it for a regular plain ol' Kindle. It arrived yesterday, and it'll do. I'm tired of being fussy about devices. All I really wanted is a good e-reader.

It's not news to anyone, I suppose: the basic Kindle is not ideal for taking notes; the keyboard is pretty annoying, and oh, I do miss the touchscreen. But my new Kindle was cheap. It's lightweight. The screen doesn't hurt my eyes (e-Ink is pretty awesome). I hear the battery'll last forever. The device will suffice for leisure reading (something I always wish I had more time for).

Anticipation for a new Kindle also prompted me to do something long overdue: update my public library card. I wanted to be able to check out e-books -- I wanted to do so as an avid reader, I should note, but also as a journalist. It's the latter too that made me curious about a comparison between the borrowing process from the new Amazon Prime Lending Library and from my local public library.

But as I've written elsewhere, I didn't love my Kindle Fire -- I didn't love it as a reader. And even beyond my personal device hopes and frustrations, it's really not been a great week for library e-book borrowing.

Penguin Fail

It wasn't just my dissatisfaction with the new Kindle Fire that soured my plans for library e-reading this week. On Monday, library e-book distributor OverDrive announced that Penguin had asked the company to pull all its e-books from the OverDrive catalog, citing some unspecified "security concerns."

It's the second time this year that one of the Big Six publishers has balked at library e-book lending, demanding a "do over" with its selling and licensing. Back in February, Harper Collins instituted its infamous "26 checkout limit," restricting the number of times that patrons can borrow e-books before libraries are required purchase additional licenses. And now, in the case of Penguin, libraries temporarily lost access to the entire e-book catalog, even those they've already paid for. Details are still scarce about Penguin's decisions, but OverDrive did say today that Penguin e-books can be borrowed once again; however new book titles still aren't available. Nonetheless, that means that of the Big Six publishers, Random House is the only one to have fully embraced e-book distribution to libraries (for now at least -- according to Publishers Weekly, the company is "actively reviewing" its policies.)

This has all occurred in a year that's also brought about an explosion in consumer interest in e-book buying as well as an explosion in library patron interest in e-book borrowing. But while readers might want e-books, as GigaOm's Mathew Ingram noted today, it's seems as though publishers would much rather sell than lend them.

UX Fail

It's fairly easy to point to the history of the music industry over the last few decades and craft a cautionary tale of sorts for publishers. What happens when content is digitized? What happens to industry that's acts as the middlemen between creatives and their fans when those creatives can publish and distribute their work themselves?

Because, see, fans want their music; readers want their books. They don't think much about the record label or publishing house behind the artist -- unless, of course, the publishing house or record label makes it all about themselves. And then -- let's be clear here, Penguin and others -- those companies tend to come out looking like assholes.

Even as someone who follows the industry fairly closely, I don't typically know the publisher behind a book I want to read. I just don't think of books that way. I've got a list in my head of what I'd like to read next, but these titles aren't categorized by publisher. I think about authors. I think about genres. I think about topics.

I know I'd like to read Robopocalypse, for example, but I can't tell you who published the book. And as such, while I can be sure my library has a copy of the hardcover (although, as a new title, it's probably checked out a lot), I can't tell you if it's a title that my local library would offer as an e-book.

Well, actually, I can tell you: it is. I put a hold on the book this afternoon. My library has 4 digital licenses. There are 9 patrons in line to borrow the book. I'm number 9. So I'm waiting.

New library card in hand, I couldn't actually find anything in the public library that I wanted to borrow on my Kindle. There are a lot of explanations for that: limited availability of titles, crappy UI on my local library's website and crappy UI on OverDrive's -- no way, for example, to easily search for e-books on the former, no way to see what was "really" available via OverDrive without clicking into a specific record. It's not a great "search" experience. It's not a great "library" experience.

And then... there's Amazon.

Amazon Fail

I did poke around until I could find a book to check out from my local library, just to experience the process on my Kindle. Like a good folklorist, I opted for Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. No waiting in line for that classic. Go figure.

The library screen took me to an OverDrive screen which took me to an Amazon page from which I downloaded the e-book for my Kindle. I'd have the e-book for a week, according to my library's checkout policy. But I returned it (again, via the Amazon website) to the library tonight, receiving an email back from Amazon, complete with a link suggesting I buy the book.

Compared to the UI hell that was OverDrive and my local library, the Amazon process was a breeze. And that's a problem. (It's a probably for the library brand versus the Amazon brand. It's a probably for library patron's privacy too.)

Despite problems with publishers, Amazon wants to make the appearance as though it's all about e-book lending. You can loan -- sorta -- some books -- sorta -- to other Kindle readers, for example. Once. For two weeks. And Amazon's also added its own Amazon Prime Lending Library, something I've had to check out now as a new Kindle owner.

I confess -- I read The Hunger Games in an evening -- and, I confess, am now cursing the one-book-per-month policy that stops me from renting the sequel directly from Amazon. (My local library only offers the audiobook versions of the series -- no e-book. There are 146 people waiting in line.)

Again, via Amazon, fairly easy discovery; fairly easy delivery.

But fairly rocky relationships with the publishers.

That new lending library of Amazon's has raised a lot of questions with publishers. In fact, none of the Big Six have actually secured deals with the book-retail-cloud-computing giant to offer this service. It appears as though Amazon is actually buying a copy of the books it "lends" to its Prime members, meaning all sorts of confusion over verbs and licenses. The Authors Guild objects (but, let's remember, they object to a lot of digital efforts -- Hathi Trust anyone?)


With all the excitement of having a new e-reader in hand this week, I'm feeling pretty disillusioned about e-books. It isn't just that the Kindle Fire wasn't a wonderful media consumption device (OMG, it wasn't). It isn't just that I can't find the e-books I want in my local library. Nor is it that I balk when asked to pay a premium to purchase a digital copy of a new release (wow, $14.99 for a new e-book -- are you kidding me?!).

I'm just disappointed because no matter where I turn -- here, on a holiday weekend where I'd love to be curled up with a new book -- the publishing industry and the authors guild and my local library's IT department and OverDrive and Amazon all feel like they're on the wrong side of my reading desires.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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