Monday, July 21, 2014

Greed Masked as Convenience

Last week I read that Amazon has put together a "Netflix for books", Kindle Unlimited, which will let you pay $10 per month for a subscription service to its entire library of e-books.

Library. Now I know that word means something outside of the context of Amazon. Hmm...

Oh, right. That free subscription service that has most of the books you could ever want to read, that has helped more lives than Mother Teresa, that (in many districts) has free and easy e-book lending, that has been around since Jeff Bezos's great-great-great-great-grandpappy was less than a twinkle in his daddy's eye.

Look, I'm an Amazon apostle, all right? I gladly pay for Prime and I order a few items a month. I use the site for everything from cooking ingredients to toys for my friends' kids. But this is ridiculous. For probably a majority of Americans, this service is a total waste of money. The timing is good, because we've all gotten so used to paying monthly fees for our entertainment that we'll likely roll over and pay this one without remembering that we can get it elsewhere for free. But we can.

I use my library for e-books with reasonable frequency, and it's great. I use it for physical books on a constant basis, and that's great, too. Sometimes I have to go on the waiting list for a given book, but I rarely have to wait longer than a week. And you know what? I think it's better for me that I have to wait a week for a book rather than getting every book I want at any time. (The virtues of waiting for pleasure are engraved in story and song.) If I desperately need it now, for whatever reason, I can pay for it. But getting everything you want instantly all the time makes you Veruca Salt, and as we all know, she was a bad egg.

[honk honk]

Do me a favor, hmm? Before you sign up for Kindle Unlimited, just try using your library, just for a month, for all the books you would normally buy for yourself from Amazon, whether physical or e. If you succeed, look at the money you've saved. Maybe divide that by your hourly rate at work, see what that money means to you.

Depending on how your library is hooked up to other regional libraries, you may find that you have access to any book you want for free. I got to choose from three or four different translations of Madame Bovary when I read it last year, and of the ten obscure experimental books I had to read for a class this spring, the LA public library failed to find only one of them. Saved me well over $100, because I didn't care for any of the books enough to want to keep them. This very week I saved $30 by borrowing a 2014 GRE guide instead of buying one. At the library, you might not have access to any book you want within ten seconds, but that's another thing you can try for a month: waiting for what you want. I find that I like that better than its alternative, most of the time.

If your library isn't awesome, if you can't use it conveniently and freely and find everything you need, then I take it all back and Kindle Unlimited is great and necessary for some people. But just try it.

It's still up for debate whether Amazon is bad for authors, so I'm not for or against it professionally. Personally, I'm for it, this service notwithstanding. Libraries are technically not as good for authors as bookstores are, but honestly I'd rather someone check out my book for free and read it than buy it and never look at it again. Libraries are good for books, not profit, and the books are the important thing.

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