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Amazon Prime membership for Kindle owners: Are the benefits worth the cost?

January 7, 2013
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Reading more and reflecting on what I’ve read is one of three goals I’ve made for 2013. (The other two include running 1,100 miles without injury and going on one big vacation that doesn’t involve visiting my or my husband’s parents, which, fingers crossed, should be less challenging.) I read plenty in 2012 and just about every preceding year as well, but I want to take special care to not only read more books for pleasure rather than work this year, but also to take time to process those books by writing about them here.

In 2012 my big leap forward in reading was resolving to utilize my new Kindle. To that end, I registered for Amazon Prime, a $79 annual membership that includes benefits like unlimited free two-day shipping on any items that qualify (no minimum purchase required), access to a collection of streaming media that rivals Netflix, and – one of the biggest draws for a new Kindle owner like me – the ability to borrow one book per month from the Amazon Prime Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

Signing up for the membership was a bit of a gamble. I wasn’t sure how much I’d use it but it seemed like a great deal. I told myself that after a year had passed, I’d evaluate how many books I’d read, how useful the other benefits ended up being, and whether or not it would make sense to renew and recommend to others. I just got a Kindle for Christmas in 2011; it was the first ereader I’ve ever owned despite working in the publishing industry since 2005. I have been very slow to jump on the ereader bandwagon and had vowed to wait until format and copyright issues were sorted out before putting my money behind books whose format, like the MiniDisc and VHS, may be laughably obsolete in a few years. I had planned to wait until ebooks were reliably established as a viable alternative to print books for people looking to build a lasting library, however intangible. But after following digital publishing issues very closely since 2008 with bated breath, I finally came to the conclusion that it’s going to be a long time before format and copyright issues are resolved, so why wait? I’m ready to take the plunge with the understanding that whatever ebooks I buy now may be tomorrow’s cassette tapes.

I’m not a big movie or TV person, but I still watched season two of Downton Abbey thanks to Amazon Prime (it wasn’t available on Netflix at the time I looked for it) and a few other things. My husband, a big movie fan, watched a few movies and TV shows per month on average. And while I was disappointed to see how limited the Kindle Lending Library actually is, I still found ten books to read for free in 2012, and most were quite enjoyable. The prices Amazon charges for the Kindle versions of the ten books I read came out to a total of $82.08, which just barely recouped the $79 annual fee, although honestly only two of the ten books I chose were on my to-read list; the rest were chosen because they were available and I felt I had to pick something.

This brings me to my biggest criticism of the Kindle Lending Library: I’m concerned that I’ll sooner than later exhaust the limited selection of books available that I find appealing. Of the appealing (or merely vaguely interesting) books I found, most were enjoyable, but I probably would not have read, let alone purchased, them had they not been part of the library, so it’s hard to use their value to justify the expense of an Amazon Prime membership. I also love my excellent local library, and while it’s nearly impossible to borrow the vast majority of ebooks it offers without months of waiting, I’m still a fan of print and likely would have read these books for free if I had wanted to read them. Some of the books on my to-read list are also public domain and therefore available for free elsewhere, and when possible I prefer to use sites like Project Gutenberg, even if the formatting isn’t always rendered well on my Kindle. And I still buy plenty of books by authors I know I like or that I may want to read again in the future.

That being said, I’m pleased with the opportunity to borrow books for free and use my Kindle, which is remarkably more convenient than toting around the large tomes I tend to prefer. The convenience is certainly a factor to take into consideration when deciding if the membership fee is well spent, as is the chance and reason to choose to read books I may have otherwise overlooked. Additionally, if I still lived in Israel where books are almost prohibitively expensive for especially avid readers, or in Japan where English books are not widely available and also comparatively pricey, this value would be even more pronounced.

To summarize the pros and cons of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library:

Pros:

  • Possible to find interesting books to read, even if they aren’t your first choices
  • Completely hassle-free and instant access to borrowed ebooks (vs. unpredictable, long
    wait lists at libraries)
  • Opportunity to read books you may have otherwise overlooked
  • Great way to read more ebooks even if you’re hesitant about investing in a digital library when format and copyright issues are still so far from settled
  • When you borrow a book, you’re allowed to borrow another on the first day of the following month, and only after returning the current book; this might serve as needed motivation for some readers to finish a book rather than let it sit for months
  • Very valuable option for English speakers living in countries with limited access to affordable English publications

Cons:

  • You can’t borrow any book you want; the selection is quite limited and may not appeal to all tastes
  • You’ll need to sync your reading schedule to work with the due date system, which is based on the calendar month rather than total books per year or what date you borrow the book (i.e., being eligible to borrow one book a month means you may borrow one book between January 1 and January 31 and keep it as long as you like, and you are only eligible to borrow the next from February 1; if you don’t borrow a book during January, you’re down to being able to borrow a total of 11 books for the year)
  • It’s surprisingly difficult to browse the library. Amazon does not make it easy to find the collection in one place (I believe this is deliberate to discourage borrowing in favor of buying), and you must borrow a book by searching for it on your Kindle even though I’ve found it incredibly hard to find interesting books by browsing the library using a Kindle. The least inconvenient way to borrow books seems to be browsing online through Amazon by setting search filters to only display Kindle books that are Prime eligible (or click this link from Publishers Marketplace, as Amazon doesn’t seem to think it’s necessary to provide this resource), finding the book you want, searching for it on your Kindle, and then clicking “borrow for free”

While it’s debatable if access to free books alone pays for Amazon Prime membership, if someone in your household gets regular use from services like Netflix, Amazon Prime membership makes even more sense; Netflix is $7.99 per month for unlimited access to its library of streaming media, which comes out to $95.88 annually for a very similar (as far as I can tell, anyway) selection. Moreover, the two-day free shipping benefit has been unquestionably worth the price of Amazon Prime membership, even considering my husband and I are not big shoppers by any means. We do tend to do a good portion of shopping online due to being budget conscious and because many if not most brands only offer tall sizes online (read more about that shopping conundrum here).

In conclusion, if you or someone in your household has a Kindle and uses it often; if someone watches plenty of movies and TV; and if someone prefers or is comfortable shopping online, chances are Amazon Prime is a steal.

And in case you’re curious, here are the ten free Kindle books I read courtesy of my Amazon Prime membership, in reverse order, including links to my reviews (if I wrote one) and the price for the Kindle edition. Books I highly recommend are marked with a *:

  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (review): $6.29
  • Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (review): $8.52
  • The Final Move Beyond Iraq by Mike Evans (review): $9.96
  • The Bloodletter’s Daughter by Linda Lafferty (review): $4.99
  • The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zachs: $8.69
  • * The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan (review): $8.52
  • * Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times by George Crile: $9.60
  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: $6.73
  • Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes: $8.79
  • * The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis: $9.99
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