The eBook market continues to grow worldwide at an astonishing rate. While the eBook format has been around for over a decade, the eBook market is really only four-years old. This rapid growth has brought with it rapid change which all corners of the book industry are grappling with; publishers, authors, retailers and libraries to name a few. The digital evolution of books has caught many unaware while others are leading the pack. One area of the book industry that is struggling to adapt is lending.
The issue of eBook ownership is a tenuous one. To lend an eBook to a friend or even loved one is difficult at best. Digital lending through a library should be relatively straight forward but is made overly complicated as publishers and authors grapple with rights, royalties and remuneration issues. Harper Collins for instance has applied a print-minded model where a library must pay for an eBook after every 27 borrows. The logic being a print book would need to be replaced after 27 borrows. An eBook that a library has in their database can also be out on loan to only one person at a time, which completely baffles me on the one hand (it’s a digital file, it can’t be out of stock!) but I understand the logic in limiting access. Authors are also looking at the way they are paid for loans as well. Currently an author receives a payment for every copy of their books that is held in a library. But how do you measure this with eBooks where a library’s catalogue can now be infinite?
While some publishers are trying to find a model to make eBook borrowing from libraries possible others are refusing all together to allow their books to be borrowed digitally. Some publishers are waiting for a uniform model to be adopted across the industry while others are steadfastly saying no. The prevailing attitude seems to be that if someone can afford an eReader then they don’t need to borrow eBooks. This attitude flies in the face of why we have libraries in the first place. Public libraries are there for everybody in the community, rich or poor. They are funded by taxpayers for the benefit of all taxpayers. They provide the community their information needs and are the cornerstone of education and literacy in our society. You don’t need to show a payslip to borrow a hardback from the library why should an eBook be different? It also shows an ignorance of how libraries are using eBooks with many libraries making devices available to borrow as well as eBooks.
I don’t have a problem with eBook borrowing but I do think it should remain the domain of libraries only. Penguin stopped allowing their eBook catalogue to be borrowed after Amazon tried to institute an eBook lending program through their Prime service. Unfortunately this meant libraries lost Penguin books too but I support what Penguin were trying to do. Borrowing from libraries is in the public interest; borrowing from Amazon or other businesses is for their commercial interest and quite rightly should not be allowed.
Now Amazon is trying a new tact, eBook rentals. Instead of purchasing an eBook you can rent it for 30, 60, 90 or 120 days paying progressively more, but never more than buying the eBook outright. This raises some serious questions for the book industry.
Amazon devalued the worth of a book by pricing all their eBooks at $9.95 or below. Amazon’s eBook pricing changed readers’ perception of what a book should be worth. Before Amazon’s aggressive (and predatory) pricing a book would be published in hardcover (or trade paperback here in Australia) at a premium price; $US27 in the US ($30 here). Six to twelve months later a mass market edition or paperback would be published; $US8-$US12 in the US, (or $20 here). Books therefore had two markets to sell in. Some books sold well in one market, others sold well in both and the economics of this structure worked for the book industry; authors, publishers and booksellers.
Having eBooks priced at $9.99 effectively cannibalized these two markets as for the first time two editions, at different price points, competed against each other at the same time. (Audio has never really competed against print editions as price has been either higher or comparable). Making eBooks available to rent will only exasperate this process. It will also devalue ownership. This has already occurred to some extent with eBooks as you technically own a license to read an eBook, not the eBook itself, and we have seen instances where eBook licenses are revoked from readers. The perception of most consumers though is that they own an eBook just like a print book. Rentals will remove this perception as eBook licenses will expire.
So now we will not only train readers to judge the price they pay for books differently we will also train readers to judge the value of owning a book differently. And if an eBook becomes only $2 or $3 to rent for 30 days where is the harm in downloading a pirated copy for nothing? Piracy is not a battle you win enforcing restrictions, boundaries and limits. Piracy is a battle won on perception. If people believe they have ease of access, at a fair price, you will keep piracy to a minimum. If people can’t get the content they want, when they want it and/or feel they are being charged too much they will look for other sources, whatever they are.
It will be interesting to see which publishers and authors get on board with eBook rentals compared to library borrowing. This isn’t the only issue in the eBook market that is giving us all consternation, nor will it be the last, but it again shows that the industry is still trying to play catch up with eBooks while one aggressive player keeps moving forward. The book industry is by no means perfect but it is also not broken. But if we don’t support our public libraries through the digital transition they will become undermined and irrelevant to future generations. And if we allow a powerful retailer to rent books like videos the changes that will occur to our industry will be irreversible and I think fundamentally unsustainable for publishers, authors, retailers and most importantly readers.