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Amazon sent out a news release this morning announcing that sales of digital books for their Kindle digital book format/reader had eclipsed sales of printed books. All printed books, not just hardbacks. (That milestone was reached in July 2010.) This news about digital book sales edging printed sales is apparently a big deal as many of the people on my Twitter feed have sent around the link to the news release.

But what does it mean? There are those who decry the rise of the e-book, claiming it is the end of books. But this is not the case. It may be the winding down of printed books, but the healthy growth of e-book sales does not indicate books are going away. In fact, in the news release, Amazon states that 2011’s strong digital copy sales, along with growth in printed book sales, has “resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon’s U.S. books business.” Clearly the book is not going away. Had there been mass communication tools 500 years ago, no doubt there would have been hue-and-cry over printed books edging out hand-copied versions. (“What are the monks to do?” “Is this the end of scribes?”) But books flourished because of the printing press, and they will continue to flourish as e-books.

Internet retailer Amazon announced today that it is starting a program that would allow library patrons to check out books using their Kindle. This sounds like a great idea. I am surprised no one has considered this before. Way to go, Amazon!

Image: GoXunuReviews

A couple of years ago some colleagues and I were talking about the cleverness of the Netflix model, and we wondered if there was any other product that could be rented/distributed via mail in the same way. One co-worker suggested how it would be great if we could rent books for free, and then return them when we were done. After the laughter died down, we explained to him that he had just invented the public library. But this was all pre-Kindle.

Here is my free idea for Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and any public library:  Allow your books to be rented for e-readers. So how would this work? Libraries would purchase a number of copies of an e-book, and then a library patron with an e-reader could get a code for the digital copy of the book and download it from either the library system or an e-book seller. After two weeks, when the book was due, the library would cancel the code and the book would be removed from the e-reader. As Amazon demonstrated in 2009 with the 1984 kerfuffle, the ability to remotely wipe e-books exists.

But what about the lost sales to e-book sellers due to free downloading via the library? I am no expert in library and publishing economics, but I assume that if you’ve decided to check out a book from the library, you’ve already made the decision not to buy it. The free library system is predicated on the idea of one purchase, many readers—so retailers are not losing money, as it was never going to be spent in the first place.

There are some concerns about piracy, as digital media is relatively easy to pirate. A host of digital rights management schemes are available now to thwart illicit downloads. Also, Netflix seems to have managed this problem—even with its live streaming of movies—so it is not insurmountable.

To sweeten the pot for e-book retailers, perhaps the library would share a bit of demographic information about the e-borrowers, allowing retailers to build more effective advertising plans.

So there you go, libraries and retailers: Free idea. And on a personal note (and for full disclosure), as a Kindle owner, I look forward to seeing it reach fruition.

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