Amazon wants to reinvent the electronic library

Amazon (s amzn) has launched its e-book lending program for libraries, following through on a promise it made earlier this year to offer its Kindle e-book reader to libraries across the country as an alternative way to lend e-books. The program allows users of the Amazon reader — as well as the Kindle app for the iPad (s aapl) and other devices — to borrow books from more than 11,000 public libraries in the U.S. with a single click. The lending program comes on the heels of news that Amazon is also working on a “Netflix for books”-style rental program for electronic books, and together these offerings make it clear that Amazon is stepping up its plans to disrupt the book-publishing industry.

When the news first emerged last week that Amazon was planning a book-rental program similar to what Netflix provides for movies and TV shows (something the company still hasn’t officially confirmed) the response from some book-lovers was concern that such a service might compete with public libraries. As I described in the post I wrote about the news, the same approach that Netflix (s nflx) takes to video content also makes a lot of sense for books: just as Netflix’s streaming service dispenses with the cumbersome physical form that movies and TV shows typically take — and thus makes renting them much more convenient — a rental service like Amazon is said to be planning could do the same for borrowing or renting books.

Partnering with libraries, not competing with them

The obvious fear was that this kind of service would eat into the market that libraries serve since they also effectively rent out books, just as Amazon is planning to do. As a number of commenters on my original post pointed out, many libraries also lend e-books in a number of formats — including the open ePub format — although in many cases there are restrictions on how many copies of a particular book a library will have, how long it can be borrowed for, and so on.

What Amazon seems to be planning is a two-pronged extension of its existing e-book business into the rental market. On the one hand, libraries now get the ability to connect their books to the hugely popular Kindle reader ecosystem, which increases the number of readers they can serve and thereby fulfills the public-service mission that most libraries operate under (users don’t even need an app, since Amazon’s Cloud Reader works in most web browsers). And at the same time, Amazon can also launch the book-rental business that the Wall Street Journal described, as a way to serve a market that either wants access to books that aren’t available through the library system — and/or is willing to pay extra for more convenience and better lending terms.

In a sense, the two programs together (assuming Amazon actually launches the “Netflix for books” idea) could operate as a kind of freemium service: library borrowing is free or relatively low-cost, but doesn’t offer as many options or as much convenience, while the premium program offers access to a wider catalogue and better terms.

Publishers are still reluctant to give up control

One of the biggest flaws in such a program is something Amazon itself doesn’t have much control over, and neither do the libraries that are partnering with it, and that’s the restrictions that book publishers place on their titles when it comes to lending. The ability to lend e-books via the Kindle has existed since Amazon first developed the platform, but many publishers restrict the lending in such draconian ways that many users don’t even bother — and the restrictions on libraries are not much better: HarperCollins forces libraries to pay for new copies after its books have been lent out just 26 times.

As many critics of this approach have pointed out, publishers are essentially trying to duplicate the same kind of control they had over print books with electronic books — and in the case of lending, they are actually trying to assert new controls that they have never had in the past: when you bought a physical book, you were free to sell it or lend it to whomever you wished, but e-books don’t carry the same rights. Google is in the middle of its own war with publishers and authors about what it can do with books: although the web giant argues that scanning them is covered by fair use principles, the book industry argues otherwise, and it is even suing libraries that have partnered with Google.

The bottom line, as we’ve described before at GigaOM, is that the nature of the book and the book industry is changing, just as virtually every other form of physical content — from movies and television to newspapers and magazines — is also being disrupted by the move to digital formats. The book is becoming just another piece of content that can be distributed and consumed in multiple ways. Amazon has been at the forefront of those changes since it was first founded, and both its library-lending program and the rumored Netflix-for-books are signs that it plans to continue pushing that transition forward, whether the publishing industry likes it or not.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Marcus Hansson and Marya