Kindle lending: Book publishers still not getting it

The big six book publishers are already behind the eight ball when it comes to the digital disruption of their business: Amazon (s amzn), for example, is not only helping writers distribute their books without needing a publisher at all, but is also moving in on the traditional players by signing up authors itself. So what do these publishers do? Try to compete by offering more digital features and benefits for writers? No. They drag their feet and resist adapting as much as possible. Case in point: Amazon launches a lending program for the Kindle, a kind of “Netflix (s nflx) for books.” How many of the major publishers are involved? Zero.

Amazon announced the new service on Wednesday, and it gives Kindle users access to a virtual library of e-books, although they can only borrow one per month. The service, which the Wall Street Journal (s nws) leaked news of a couple of months ago, is only available to those Kindle owners who belong to Amazon Prime — a kind of loyalty program that offers a number of benefits (including free shipping) to members for $79 a year. The lending library isn’t available to users of Kindle apps on other devices, which makes it pretty clear that the company is using it in part to lock users into using its devices, so that it can then feed other types of media content through that pipeline.

Number of major publishers taking part? Zero

The selection of books that can be lent through this new program, however, is exceptionally small:  just 5,000, which may sound like a lot but isn’t really. Although it includes some best-sellers such as Moneyball, there aren’t going to be that many well-known books to lend because none of the six major publishing houses is participating in the program. Is that because Amazon asked for onerous terms of some kind, or proposed a deal that the publishers simply couldn’t stomach for some reason? Possibly.

Publishers may also be leery of playing ball with the company that’s eating their lunch in so many different ways. For every publisher who takes a positive step like Simon & Schuster did recently, by trying to add features that could help authors understand the business better or connect with their readers more easily, there are plenty of others who are probably cursing Amazon for ruining the industry — by trying to get them to lower prices on their books, for example, or by going directly to popular authors like Tim Ferriss and Barry Eisler and signing them to lucrative deals, and making traditional publishers look bad.

It it’s more likely, however, that the major publishers balked for the same reason they lock down lending on e-books of all kinds — even those that are lent through the library system, where some require that libraries buy new copies after a certain number of loans (which often makes me wonder: if libraries didn’t already exist, would publishers allow them to be created?). Much like newspapers are doing with paywalls, book publishers seem to be trying desperately to maintain the control they used to have so they can prop up their traditional business model. As the original WSJ story about the lending program noted:

Several publishing executives said they aren’t enthusiastic about the idea because they believe it could lower the value of books and because it could strain their relationships with other retailers that sell their books

Industry apparently not interested in adapting

Here’s a hint for publishers: Book prices are going down whether you like it or not, and trying to maintain artificially high prices for electronic books is a losing strategy. In some cases — as self-published authors like J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking and John Locke have demonstrated — dropping the price of an e-book can produce sales that are orders of magnitude larger than they otherwise would be. That’s clearly a good thing, just as allowing more authors to reach readers via programs like Amazon’s lending feature is a good thing. But publishers are still not interested.

As we’ve described before at GigaOM, the whole concept of a book is being disrupted by the web and by e-readers like the Kindle. There are magazine-length Singles, books made up of blog posts and tweets, and in the future, there may even be books that allow authors to interact with readers and update content dynamically. But are traditional publishers interested in any of this? Apparently not, even though many of these developments could result in them ultimately selling more books.

Instead, they would rather try to maintain their grip on the industry as long as possible, and fight Google (s goog) when it tries to expand the audience for their products, and moan about how piracy is their biggest problem. Good luck with that strategy — it worked pretty well for the music industry.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users marya and Mike Licht