Bookish musings: Life after death for a Kindle library?

What happens to my Kindle books when I die?

Not (I hope) that that’s imminent or anything… but my family was discussing giving away books, and one thing led to another, and this is the question that bubbled to the surface.

It all started with hearing about an acquaintance who was moving to a smaller home, and decided to give away all her non-essential books by inviting friends over for a book giveaway. She’d already sequestered her must-keep books, so she basically had a party where her shelves were open for plunder, and ended up loving seeing her friends from all different parts of her life come together over a love of books. Nice.

Of course, my husband then straight up suggested that I do the same thing! Um, no. Because (a) we’re not moving and (b) I don’t need the space my books take up for something else and (c) THEY’RE MY BOOKS AND I LOVE THEM AND I’M NOT GETTING RID OF THEM. Period.

But then we got to talking about the (hopefully) long-distant future… and I’m clear on my wishes. When I die, my lovely daughter, my partner in crime (ya know, if reading obsessively counts as a crime — which, no, it doesn’t) gets first pick on all books in the house, and once she’s done, she should first invite over a set of my book-loving friends to choose what they want, then donate the rest to the public library.

See? All nice and tidy.

Then I starting thinking about my Kindle. I currently have 817 books in my Kindle library. (Ssh, don’t ask me how many I’ve actually read.) All 817 represents some cost, because most were not free, even if I do tend to buy my e-books when there are price drops.

But do I really own the books on my Kindle? Sadly, the answer is no.

According to the Kindle terms of service on the Amazon website:

Use of Kindle Content. Upon your download or access of Kindle Content and payment of any applicable fees (including applicable taxes), the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Kindle Content an unlimited number of times (for Subscription Content, only as long as you remain an active member of the underlying membership or subscription program), solely through a Kindle Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Supported Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.

The red highlighting is my addition, but the point is, when we “buy” an e-book, we’re actually just paying for the right to view the content, but the content doesn’t become our property in the way that a physical paperback does. We can’t give it away when we’re done reading it or if we end up not liking it. We can lend a title, but with limits — not all titles are lendable, and the ones that are can only be loaned for a certain length of time, and only one time. (See this article for more on lending Kindle books).

Which brings me back to my question about what happens to my e-book collection after I die? Can I bequeath my e-books to a loved one?

I’m guessing not. Based on skimming through a bunch of random articles (thanks, interwebs!), as far as I can tell, the only thing I actually own is my Kindle device. If I don’t own the content (which, again, we apparently pay for the right to use, but don’t get the right to say it belongs to us), then it’s not mine to pass along to the next generation. Which doesn’t really feel great to me, considering that each and every e-book on my reader represents a sunk cost that, at the time, I considered a purchase — just like the money I spend on all the paperbacks and hardcovers scattered around my house.

The work-around, I suppose, is all about the physical device. Theoretically, anything downloaded to my Kindle should stay there indefinitely (especially if the wifi is turned off). If I hand someone my fully-loaded Kindle as a gift, then they can read all my stuff as if they were me.

So, I guess that my loved ones who live on after I’m gone can enjoy my e-books on my devices… and just to be safe, I should probably leave them all my account info (user ID and password) when I hand them my Kindle device from my deathbed (ooh, I’m getting morbid here). I may be gone, but my Amazon account can live on! But no, my e-books don’t become theirs, and if they lose my device and/or my account information, they’ll be out of luck.

How do you think about your e-books? Do you consider them yours? I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this… and let me know if I’ve gotten something wrong when it comes to “life after death” for my Kindle books!

For more on the topic of e-book ownership:
Do We Really Own Our Digital Possessions?
There is a Psychological Divide Over E-book Ownership

26 thoughts on “Bookish musings: Life after death for a Kindle library?

  1. I would think you could pass on your Kindle to someone of your choosing, and they would then have the right to read what’s on the Kindle. Or more likely by the time you would have to do that, Kindles might not even be around!

    • Yikes, I hope that’s not the case (that Kindle wouldn’t be around) — I’m too attached! From continuing to poke around online, it does appear that so long as the Amazon account remains open, the content will be available to that account.

  2. Great post!
    It’s something I’ve definitely thought about since I read almost exclusively on my Kindle. It’s just easier for me to switch devices between work and home instead of carting around one device. But the consequences to that ease…

    • Yes, absolutely! We’ve switched over more and more to Kindle versions of books, largely because my husband is not a native English speaker, and after years of prodding, he finally tried an e-reader and realized how convenient it is to have dictionary content right there at his fingertips. 🙂

  3. The problem with that is, on my Kindle I’ve noticed that when I don’t connect to WiFi for a while, then suddenly do, or when I don’t connect every day sometimes, that I get an error saying either something about ‘license expired’ or ‘Amazon App store not on this device’ which it is, since I never messed with the Amazon official apps that my Kindle came with. This happens with all content, from apps to books and other media. When this message comes up the thing in question doesn’t open and becomes useless until I reconnect to WiFi and open all disabled apps/books.

      • It can be. It’s a Fire 5th, and while it’s 2 years old now, I’ve been having problems for a while, but recently it seems to affect everything instead of just a few apps/etc.

        • Maybe it’s a Fire issue, since it works like a tablet and is assumed to be always connected? I’ve only had old Kindles and paperwhites, and I keep them offline most of the time to preserve battery life.

          • Probably, but still, it’s made me leery of electronics (ex. smartphones/tablets) since they really can erase everything without telling anyone, and that’s a lot on money we can’t get back. I still love ebooks since as mentioned, they don’t take up room the way a print book does, and I enjoy that it’s cheaper and more convenient.

  4. It’s frustrating and I really that we don’t own the ebooks we buy (or apps/etc.) since like you I have a large library, and there’s no way I could ever afford (or make room for!) many of the books that I am able to read and ‘own’ with my ereader.

    • Very frustrating. It annoys me too that there’s only a 7-day window to return a book. Chances are, I won’t have even started a new e-book within seven days. (This is why I’d love to be able to give away or donate the e-books I end up not wanting to read or keep)

      • Yes, I’ve thought of the same thing. Especially if I buy a series, or later book that’s on sale and later find out I didn’t enjoy the first book/lost interest in the series. I have a few where I bought trilogies on sale, and now realized I didn’t like the story and have no use for them.

  5. This is such an interesting discussion, Lisa! It’s true, I do think of the books on my Kindle as “mine” but, actually, if there’s no physical object how much of the stories that we pay money for do we actually own? I have paid to read it, which obviously I’m perfectly happy to do, but I don’t own the words in much the same way that while I might own a physical book I still don’t actually own the words inside it. It’s such an interesting thing to consider what might happen to our e-shelves when we’re not around to read them anymore.

    Like you said I guess the easiest thing is to leave behind the device(s) that we’re consuming our digital books on. I think this is actually another really nice way to leave something behind that’s a little more personal if, like me, you don’t tend to write in books but you do highlight quotes and sometimes make notes on ebooks. I do really like that the Kindle stores my highlights and notes in one place, and I think that’s a really nice thing for people to have because it’s a way for them to see into what touched you or annoyed you or stayed with you in some way.

    But I guess that in itself raises the question of who our marginalia (if we do make notes while reading) is actually for? I highlight a quote because I like it and I leave a note sometimes so I don’t forget something when it comes to reviewing the book, but am I also leaving those notes for another reader? That’s a conversation for another time, though!

    • Great points! I like highlighting for myself for future reference (and it also helps when writing reviews) — but I’m not crazy about the sharing function, where you can set your Kindle to automatically share your highlights.

      The other thing about counting on ebooks that worries me (which is ridiculous, but I do read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction) is what happens when the energy grid is no more, or if we’re stuck on a deserted island? (I think Amazon needs to develop a solar-powered Kindle, just in case.)

  6. It’s interesting to think about – we can’t just hand over individual titles – I guess the best thing to do is what you say, allow your family access to your devices. I wonder if Amazon, Apple and other companies will come up with a policy, since this is a new issue. The trick is to allow handing over separate book titles. Great post!

    • It’s such a dilemma. I mean, intellectually I get that it’s about access and not ownership, but in my heart, I can’t see how it’s different for my ebooks than my physical books, which I can loan to as many friends as I want or give away. I would love to be able to gift some of the e-books that I haven’t read — that should be an easy one for them to address, I’d think.

    • That’s interesting — I guess I see my Kindle books as an investment, in a way, but yet I don’t have the freedom to use them any way I see fit.

  7. I remember (vaguely) couple cases in the past where Amazon revoked some people’s access to the Kindle books they bought, so I don’t think of e-books as something I own, which is why I refuse to spend many and only get them on discount. I see it as only purchasing access to them for a time.
    Lol at your husband using what your friend did to hint that you should get rid of some books.

    • I think I’ve read about some situations like that — I believe there was a fairly recent one where a woman bought a kindle in the UK, but actually lived in another country, and there was some reason why they thought she’d violated her terms of service. I don’t remember the details, but the idea of Amazon being able to take away “my” ebooks is upsetting.

      Ha, my husband does way more than hint! He makes all sorts of pointed comments about my “library”, implying we should use the space for something else. Not gonna happen. 🙂

      • Yup, that’s the last/most recent one I heard of too. It happened couple years ago.

        Lol! I’d love to have a library space with a sweet little reading book by a window 😍

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