Borrowing E-Books

PW today has an article with lots of numbers -- though surprisingly little analysis or thought -- about Amazon's e-book borrowing program, part of its Amazon Prime subscription business. It burbles about how "the monthly pool for borrowed e-books in January grew to $1.7 million, the largest in the history of the program" without ever explaining how this pool is defined, how and why the value of the pool fluctuates, or how it works.

I assume this is because Amazon, as usual, is being deeply opaque, and only releasing a few numbers carefully chosen to make them look as good as possible. As far as I can tell, the "pool" is set by Amazon fiat -- they decide how much money they feel like spending on ebook "borrowing" that month, and then divide it up according to some unspecified algorithm. (There's clearly at least a breakdown geographically, since there's both a "global fund" and a "monthly pool," though their relationship is not made clear.)

I would have to dig into the Kindle Direct Publishing agreement to be sure, but my guess is that Amazon has not promised to give any money to the authors of these ebooks, and that they're papering over that in their ongoing attempt to convert as many of their customers as possible to Prime. (Because subscription revenue is what everyone wants -- particularly when you run a website and no one can call you on the phone to cancel.)

So authors should take note: Amazon may have decided to give you $2.23 per ebook "borrowed" in January, which is potentially higher than you would have made from a sale in that same period. But every piece of that transaction -- and every penny of resulting revenue -- is under Amazon's complete control; it looks like they don't have to pay you a cent for that "borrow" if they decide (after the month is over, like this time) not to.

And don't get me started on "borrowing" ebooks. Do you have a digital file in your possession? Then it only expires and leaves your possession if you (through choice or laziness or ineptitude) let it do so -- once you have a digital file, there are plenty of tools for any of us to copy and save and transmute it. So it's only "borrowing" by courtesy -- or only "borrowing" in the legal language laid out by the people giving you contracts to sign.