Why pay for Kindle Unlimited when the library is free? I’ll tell you
When I recently wrote
one of my readers, Karen, expressed mystification as to why someone would choose to pay for
as I do, when you can get e-books from the public library for free.
It’s a great question, and one that I’ve seen asked many times in the Kindle forums. Well, it isn’t always posed as a question…sometimes, it’s more of a condemnatory opinion. 😉
I’m thankful to Karen for having posed it in a respectful way, and thus inspiring me to write this post. I didn’t want to make Karen wait, so I gave three quick answers there, but I’m going to considerably expand them here.
Let me say first, though, that my goal isn’t to discourage people from using the public library. 🙂 I love libraries: I’ve said in the past that if the choice was between closing public libraries and closing schools (a hypothetical lose/lose situation if ever there was one), I would put literacy instruction in libraries and close the schools. I’m a trainer myself and understand the difference that a skilled teacher can make…I just very, very highly value free access to ideas and how that can lead to self learning and perspective.
I just think that KU is a good choice for some people, and would like to explain why that’s the case.
Karen mentioned their public library having thousands of books and “all of the bestsellers”.
While it has gotten much better, public libraries can’t just freely get e-books from publishers, and that has restricted availability.
However, that’s not to suggest that KU has unlimited availability! The biggest publishers are generally not participating in KU, and that will cut down on the bestseller title choice.
KU (in the USA) does have 816,492 titles at the time of writing. That’s considerably more than “thousands”, as most people would use the term.
I think the best bet is for me to compare it to a specific library. I figured I’d use the New York Public Library, which I think is likely to have one of the larger collections.
It appears to me that they have 75,161 e-book titles…less than a tenth of the number that KU has.
Reasonably, the question might be whether they have more of the titles which you want to read. KU certainly has a lot of independently published titles, which you might or might not consider to be a good thing.
Before I start looking at specific titles, let me point something out about availability. We are about to enter the fourth dimension…time.
Public libraries have a limited number of licenses for a given e-book (at least, for one still under copyright protection). In other words, it’s like copies of a p-book (paperbook). If they have ten licenses for Gone Girl, and ten patrons have borrowed it at the same time, the eleventh person has to wait for one of the ten to “return it”.
In the past, I have commonly seen waits of weeks or even months to get very popular books. I do consider that to be an availability issue…while the book may be in the catalog, it isn’t available right now.
Okay, let’s take a look.
Here are the ten most popular e-books at time of writing at the NYPL site, whether or not they are on KU, and their availability. For the last point, we’ll take the number of people on the wait list, divide it by the number of licenses, and multiply two weeks by that (I’m guessing two weeks is a common lending period).
In other words, let’s say that the library had twenty people waiting to read X book, and the library had five licenses. 20/5*2 weeks=8 weeks before you would get it.
Now, that could be an overestimation: it assumes that the people who have it now just got it, when they may be nearing the end of their lending period…but it’s a reasonably simple formula which will give us an idea.
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (not in KU): 554 on wait list / 283 copies…about 3.91 weeks (a month, roughly), before you can get it
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (not in KU): 199 on wait list / 67 copies about 5.9 weeks
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner (not in KU): 70 on wait list / 52 copies about 2.7 weeks
- If I Stay by Gayle Forman (not in KU): 132 on wait list / 64 copies about 4.1 weeks
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (not in KU): 309 on wait list / 228 copies about 2.7 weeks
So, yes, so far, the most popular books at the NYPL aren’t in KU…but you can’t get them right away from the library, either.
Moving down to find the first books available without a hold at the NYPL, we get
- Sycamore Row by John Grisham (not in KU): #12 at NYPL
- The Giver by Lois Lowry (KU)
- Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James (not in KU)
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (not in KU)
- Fifty Shades Darker by E L James (not in KU): #21 at NYPL
No question, if you want what I call People Magazine books (books which would be reviewed in that publication), the public library has more of them, especially if you are willing to wait.
However, it’s not a choice of just one or the other. If you have KU, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the public library for bestsellers as well.
The real question is, does KU have books the NYPL doesn’t have, which you would want to read? Obviously, it has more books…more than 700,000 more.
Let’s look at the top five “New and Popular” listed in KU:
- My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni (not at NYPL)
- Departure by A.G. Riddle (not at NYPL)
- Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (at NYPL: 84 on wait list / 30 copies = about 5.6 weeks)
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1 on wait list / 50 copies = about .04 weeks, or about six hours. 😉 )
- Forever with Me by Kristen Proby (not at NYPL)
Two of the top books in KU were available through the NYPL, and one probably pretty quickly.
It’s worth noting that these top five are not necessarily the most borrowed books…I assume these are the most popular counting purchases. That matters because two of them are part of Kindle First, and they were being given away pre-publication to Prime members (each Prime account can get one per month from a special list). That will tend to drive up their overall popularity, but doesn’t mean that they will be borrowed more (although both of these have been released at this point, so they can be borrowed.
Let’s also take a look at some of the ones I listed in my “31 read-sons”:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (just looking at the first book for this comparison) (available at NYPL): 48 on the wait list / 23 copies about 4.2 weeks (1 month)
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (again, just the first book, although they are all available in KU) (available at NYPL): 5 on the wait list / 56 copies about 28 hours
- James Bond books by Ian Fleming (not available at NYPL as e-books)
- Janet Dailey: at least some are available, apparently without hold
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (not available at NYPL)
It doesn’t surprise me that some major backlist (not the new and hottest books) aren’t available at the library, but are through KU. Libraries have to choose: more licenses for The Hunger Games, or buy licenses for a fifty year old James Bond novel.
My point on this first one is that the selection at KU is at least complementary to that of a public library. I also need to emphasize that I’m looking at a major public library…quite a few public libraries won’t have that many titles, they certainly won’t have that many licenses (although they probably don’t have the same demand, either), and some won’t have any at all.
This is simple. If you already have an Amazon account, it’s a lot easier to borrow a book through Kindle Unlimited than it is to borrow it from your public library. The latter would necessitate using a different process…and two processes are always less convenient.
Once you are signed up for KU, borrowing a book is not much harder than buying a book in the Kindle store.
You don’t have to have a library card, typically proving residence (or paying an out-of-towner fee); you don’t have to go to a different app or website; you can send it to multiple devices on your account…it’s just more familiar for Kindleers.
A Sense of Social Responsibility
The library is there for every person in the community, and you certainly have the right to use it.
However, due to those limited licenses that the library buys, every time you borrow a book, it potentially makes someone else wait longer for it.
Since I can afford KU, I feel like I’m not keeping a book out of the hands of someone who can’t afford it.
It’s like…when a homeless gives away a meal, or gives out free socks. A person of comfortable means could hypothetically go get those socks, but they can also buy their own. They run out of socks: I’ve seen that firsthand. Again, for me, I feel like it’s more socially responsible for me to use KU than it is to use the public library, at least for books I can easily get.
Another thing is that I’m pretty sure that an author tends to get a lot more money when a book is borrowed through KU than when it is licensed by the library. I want to support the authors.
Finally, I feel like this is an innovative model for the future…and I do want to support that, as well.
There you go! I don’t expect this to convert people to getting KU who don’t see a value in it, and that’s not the goal…I just hope to help them see why it has a value for other people.
What do you think? Are you a KU subscriber and have found it valuable? If so, why? If you aren’t a KU subscriber, have you tried the free month? If not, why not? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.