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Amazon launches free e-book borrowing for Prime members

With an Amazon Prime membership, Kindle owners can now borrow certain e-books for free as frequently as a book a month, with no due dates.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
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David Carnoy
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Amazon says that "over 5,000" e-books titles will be available for free borrowing by Prime members. Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

In an interesting twist on e-book lending that's sure to rile competitors, Amazon has launched the Kindle Owners' Lending Library, which allows Amazon Prime members to check out up to one e-book a month for free with no due date.

Amazon didn't put an exact figure on the number of books that will be part of the new program, but says that it's "over 5,000" and includes more than "100 current and former New York Times Bestsellers." Not surprisingly, we found a number of Amazon-published e-books on the list.

An Amazon Prime membership costs $79.99 a year and also gives you free access to Amazon's Prime Instant video service. The addition of free e-book lending obviously sweetens the pot and makes the $199 Kindle Fire seem even more enticing. The new lending program also works with Kindle e-ink readers but is not compatible with Kindle apps that run on other devices such as the iPad and Android tablets and smartphones.

Ironically, many people expected that Amazon would someday give the hardware (the Kindle) away for free in exchange for signing up for a Prime membership but few suggested the company would give away e-books to Prime members.

This tag appears on e-book titles that are part of the "free" Prime lending programming. Amazon

Amazon says that just as with any other Kindle book, your notes, highlights, and bookmarks in borrowed books will be saved, "so you'll have them later if you purchase or re-borrow the book." You can have one book out at a time and when you want to borrow a new book, you "return" any previously borrowed title right from your device.

There's an interesting statement toward the end of the press release that hints that publishers seem a little wary (and perhaps some are even a bit freaked out) about the new program.

The statement reads:

Titles in the Kindle Owners' Lending Library come from a range of publishers under a variety of terms. For the vast majority of titles, Amazon has reached agreement with publishers to include titles for a fixed fee. In some cases, Amazon is purchasing a title each time it is borrowed by a reader under standard wholesale terms as a no-risk trial to demonstrate to publishers the incremental growth and revenue opportunity that this new service presents.

We'll see how Barnes & Noble (and others) respond, but Amazon has clearly fired another major salvo in the digital reader wars just as Barnes & Noble is on the verge of launching what is expected to be a new Nook Color next week.