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March 2011
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Kindle Books and Lending: The Complicated Relationship

Over the course of the eReader race so far, one of the biggest points of contention has been the potential for book lending. For quite a while, this was a major factor in the Nook’s favor when people considered the Kindle vs Nook question. Later, when the Kindle managed to get an equivalent to the long-standing Nook Lend Me feature, it pretty much because a moot point.  Now the focus with regard to lending has shifted in large part from an individual concern to questions of institutional lending.

At the moment, it is significantly easier for somebody to walk into a library and get themselves an eBook loan if they have an EPUB compatible eReader.  This is a pain for Kindle owners, but overall it makes sense given the current state of eBook formatting and such.  It just makes more sense to go with the more widely accepted, more advanced, and more likely to last of the available options when you think about the problem from the point of view of eBook lending system developers.

Putting aside Kindle-specific concerns for a moment, eBooks in general have problems involving the lending concept.  Take the recent issue with HarperCollins.  They’ve decided to put an arbitrary cap of 26 checkouts on their eBooks on the assumption that this is roughly equivalent to the average number of uses a paper book will see before needing to be replaced.  Even assuming this is correct, which seems doubtful, this is nothing short of ridiculous.  It works to highlight an important point, however.

Can we truly expect to treat eBooks the same way we do their paper counterparts?  There are arguments on both sides, but most of the pro-lending ones seem to stem from either the idea that the improved circulation will be inherently good for a given author or that given the long-standing precedent for lending which goes along with books it will be impossible for eBooks to be a comprehensive replacement for many people while lacking this ability.  I admit scepticism.

The fact of the matter is that as eBooks gain popularity, certain changes will have to be accepted.  Among these will be a reinterpretation of the appropriateness of unrestricted lending.  I don’t agree with the publisher reaction on this one, but I do think that you need to either have your books be freely lend-able or remove the option entirely.  It is impossible to productively compare the durability of a paperback to the period over which a purchased license to lend a Kindle book, or any eBook, should retain its value.

The problem I run into is that I can’t think of where to draw a better line.  Time-based licensing is out, because it would force libraries to repeatedly pay to maintain access to books which may never see use. If you’re going to have a checkout-based system, it should obviously account for the inherent lack of publisher expense involved in re-granting a license, but where do you draw the line fairly for consumers while still making sure authors get the money they deserve for their productions?  Overall, more questions than answers, but I think that for now the issue of lending is going to be more trouble than it is worth for everybody while people get over the idea that free book lending is a necessary part of the reading experience.

3 comments to Kindle Books and Lending: The Complicated Relationship

  • nicole

    Why not combine the two schools of thought and have the institution pay to re-license a book after so many lends? That way they are only paying based on the book’s popularity.

  • Tim

    Going digital is a problem with any medium. Music went through this problem (and still is to some extent). Videos may yet. And e-books are in the midst of it right now.

    The problem lies in the supply/demand relationship. When publishers have a set supply, charging a set price makes sense. There’s actually a physical object for each sale.

    But now that we are starting to transition to digital distribution, the supply is literally infinite (or close enough to it). This unbalances the relationship so much that the value of each copy becomes zero.

    The problem for users comes in when publishers (music labels, etc.) try to pretend that there is some parity between selling objects (books) and selling bit-copies of text (e-books). More fun is had when publishers scream and yell about how lending or pirating is stealing or lost sales. Unlike with physical objects, pirating cannot be labeled stealing (as it is actually making a copy). The original is still able to be sold. The lost sale argument also loses steam when research is actually done and it shows that piracy is actually more akin to free advertising! (see this tech dirt article (http://bit.ly/h9O7jI) and what Cory Doctorow is doing with his books).

    Publishers need to quit thinking about digital distributing like it’s the same as what they have done in the past. They need a whole new paradigm to be successful. Maybe they’ll kludge together a solution that doesn’t put them out of business, but to fully realize the potential of digital distribution, they’ll really need to find a new way of doing business.

  • I would love it if public/school/university libraries could lend ebooks. I would use that all the time. I would possibly even subscribe to an ebook-only library.

    But right now I’d settle just for being able to lend ebooks to my mother and borrow them from her (we both have Kindles). We’re in Australia, not the US, so we’re still waiting for that ability.

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