A challenger appears

The most interesting and unsettling thing about Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited service, in which user pay $10/month to borrow as many e-books as they like, is that the company seems to have placed itself squarely in competition with your local library. 

Nowadays, I borrow more e-books than physical versions from my library, performing most of my interactions with the system through my computer. (I actually visit the library almost every week, because my writing group meets there, so it's fairly telling to me that I still do my borrowing online.) My library system outsources the management of digital media to a company called Overdrive, which makes its vast catalogue of e-books and audiobooks available to patrons of subscribing libraries. In essence, Overdrive is providing temporary access to media for paying customers (who once just bought books and lent them out) - exactly the business that Amazon is getting itself into. This leads me to wonder if Amazon is really gunning for Overdrive, eliminating a competitor in the same way they took out most brick-and-mortar booksellers. The availability of digital media  through the library might just be an unwitting casualty. 

Why would anyone pay $120/year for a service offered free online for anyone with a library card? Why indeed. I suppose Amazon can make it a little easier for the user, wrapping the experience within a familiar User Interface (Overdrive can be pretty clunky), but right now they're asking people to pay for access to fewer books - their offering is about 600,000 titles, compared to Overdrive's 1,000,000+.

Amazon is used to getting its way. Will Overdrive continue to get the same access to electronic titles at prices that make its service affordable to subscribing libraries? Or will they find themselves increasingly shut out by publishers who are unwilling to cross the biggest player in the room? That's all speculation right now, but when it comes to corporate actions that threaten the existence of community institutions, and transform common goods into commodities that are only affordable to a portion of the population, I get touchy.

We're witnesses to a massive commercial & cultural shift towards rental of services, rather than ownership of resources. We're increasingly being pressured to pay on an ongoing basis for things we used to purchase outright. But that's a discussion for another time.