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Amazon Prime Day is a raw deal for e-book buyers

Tuesday is Amazon Prime Day, the day on which Amazon tries to woo you to sign up for its Amazon Prime service. In April, the company began offering a month-to-month membership for $10.99 (or $99 per year; Prime was originally $79 per year) as well as a Video-only option for $8.99.

Amazon Prime Day promises deals galore, and being a Prime member comes with many perks.

But not for anyone whose main purchasing interest is e-books.

The most obvious benefit of Amazon Prime is free two-day shipping on most items, and in some cases, free same-day delivery. Of course, for an e-book, which gets instantly sent to your device upon purchase, shipping is irrelevant.

Instead, there are two main benefits for book-lovers that Amazon pushes with Prime: the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, and Kindle First.

The lending library allows you to “borrow” an e-book from Amazon for 30 days. There’s just one problem: weak selection. With a few exceptions, they are mostly self-published, and are mostly romance novels or thrillers. That’s because Amazon has cut agreements only with certain publishers to lend their titles, since Amazon has to purchase the title at a discount each time it lends it out. On Monday, four of the 12 titles featured in the Lending Library were from the “Cowboy Romance” series.

Titles available in the Lending Library on 7/11/16
Titles available in the Lending Library on 7/11/16

As for Kindle First, it gives Prime members the chance to get one free e-book per month, from six choices selected by Amazon. Sounds like a sweet deal, but surprise: All six Kindle First choices are typically published by Amazon’s own publishing imprints, under different names like Little A, Lake Union, Thomas & Mercer, and AmazonCrossing.

“That’s just not a good reason to get Prime,” says Nate Hoffelder, editor of the e-book news site The Digital Reader. “Amazon is just giving you one of their own books that they’ve published.” (In lieu of e-book deals, Amazon is offering Prime Day discounts on Kindle Unlimited subscriptions.)

Some customers see the Kindle First lineup as a transparent way for Amazon to market its own relatively new publishing imprints. “The options are never highly-anticipated novels I would pick for myself or spend any amount of money on,” says Candice McMillan, a voracious reader of e-books who works in the film industry in Minneapolis. “I can see their ploy: to gain favorable reviews by offering their titles for no money. For the most part, it seems to work. The stars for each book this month dip no lower than three stars, with several hovering at 4.5 stars. Outrageous, considering ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ each only have 4 stars.”

Amazon also has a feature that lets Kindle owners lend an e-book to a friend, but the vast majority of books are not eligible because of publisher rights issues. (On a check of my own 70+ Kindle e-books I’ve purchased, only two titles, both of them Kurt Vonnegut novels published more than 45 years ago, could be shared.) The ability to lend to a friend “didn’t really go anywhere,” Hoffelder says.

Last year, e-book prices went way up, after a period in which they were mostly standardized at $9.99. That happened because agreements that the “big five” publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had with Amazon expired, allowing the big dogs to set their own e-book pricing once again. Amazon customers had already become used to thinking of an e-book as costing $9.99, and so, unsurprisingly, sales of e-books published by the big five dropped. As you can see in the chart below from the web site Author Earnings, this has given a nice boost to e-books published by indie publishers, which are mostly still around the $10 mark.

via AuthorEarnings.com
via AuthorEarnings.com

As the Wall Street Journal reported last September, Hachette pointed to its new pricing on Amazon as the reason its e-books dropped 5% in the first half of 2015, as a portion of its overall US net trade sales, and blamed this for a 7.8% decline in revenue in the period.

The hike in e-book prices isn’t Amazon’s fault, but it has done next to nothing to alleviate the headache for e-book buyers in any other way. It hasn’t made it any easier to borrow and lend e-books or improved selection; it doesn’t offer special rewards for those who purchase a ton of e-books. Meanwhile, it has taken other draconian measures in the e-book world to box-out competitors, such as killing off affiliate links for many popular book newsletters—links that would give the newsletters or literary blogs a small cut for e-books purchased on Amazon via their links.

The lack of any pricing help on Amazon has compelled Hoffelder to buy fewer e-books overall, he says, and when he does buy them, to get them from other, smaller publishers. He has heard the same from his website’s readers. “I think Amazon doesn’t care about e-books as much as they did in past years,” says Hoffelder. “They’ve gotten into too many fights with publishers and it’s less important to them now.”

Amazon has moved so far away from focusing on books and book-lovers that it’s comical to recall the site originated as an online bookstore, buying books wholesale from Ingram Books and re-selling them at a great markdown. Thanks to volume, Amazon is certainly the go-to place for purchasing e-books—especially if your e-reader of choice is a Kindle—but there’s no enticement whatsoever to pay for Prime if e-books are your biggest annual Amazon spend. (Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.)

In all the promotional hoopla over Amazon Prime Day, “I haven’t seen any book-related stuff,” Hoffelder says. If you want headphones, or cup-holders, or toys, or cameras, or pet products, great. But if you’re coming for the books, there’s no reason to sign up for Prime on Prime Day, or to sign up for Prime at all.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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