Amazon has just announced that it will lend electronic books to Kindle owners as well as sell them. This comes on the heels of their announcement of increased publishing deals with authors. So are they a bookstore, a publisher, or a library?
The switch in function is particularly dramatic because it comes with virtually no rethinking of the information container itself: the Kindle ebook is a remediation of the physical book, a transposition of the same affordances onto the digital platform, taking advantage of cheaper inscription and faster transmission technologies to deliver more of the same product with greater efficiency. But once the book is in digital form, the social arrangements including the financial substructure, starts to change. Why should an author go to a print publisher for distribution and receive a 10% royalty when you do not need a physical book to reach readers and electronic books pay 25% royalty because they cost so little to produce? Why should Amazon have to get the electronic copy from the publisher when authors create books as electronic bits using word processors? Why differentiate between the functions of a store and a library when the commodity is in bits and can be duplicated at will, and when reading creates no wear and tear on other people’s copies?
Amazon’s move into publishing and lending is unimaginative in its iteration of the functionalities of the print book, but it is forward-looking in its dissolving of the financial and social structures — the cultural rituals of publishers, booksellings, and libraries — associated with print books. The library model (see chapter 7 of ITM) is in fact spreading beyond books to online content of many kinds, from family blogs and home movie repositories to the disappearance of television networks … which will be the subject of a future post.