Lend me an eBook!

If you haven’t yet gotten an eReader, you want to think about several recently developments regarding lending eBooks before you make the plunge. Depending on how you feel about lending options, you may want to wait a bit longer.

Why is lending important? I think this is the killer app for eBooks, and sadly, the publishers and eBook vendors are too caught up in their own version of digital rights management to stay out of their own way.

When I buy a printed book, it is because I want to read it. Duh. But as soon as I finish the book (if it is any good), I want to share it with someone else. Maybe it is my wife, or a neighbor, or my sister, or a friend. Sometimes I actually give this person the book. I don’t need a degree in computer science, I don’t need to go to a Web page, I just hand the book over. There are no programming interfaces required.

But when it comes to lending eBooks, things aren’t so simple. Many eBooks can only be purchased for the individual’s own use. The Barnes and Noble Nook was the first eReader to have lending enabled: it still is a very clunky process and very limited. Only certain eBooks can be loaned. If they can, only once and only to others who have either a Nook or the Nook application. While an eBook is out on loan for two weeks you can’t read it, and if your recipient hasn’t finished reading it at the end of the loaner period it reverts back to the donor automatically.

Amazon over the last few months has quietly been enabling its own lending option. When you order a Kindle version of a book, at the top of the page it will say whether or not you can loan the book. For eBooks you have already purchased, you have to poke around in your digital library and examine each book. Typically, you can lend a book for two weeks at a time. The recipient doesn’t have to have a Kindle, they can download the free Kindle app for iPhone, Mac or Windows. The details on how to do it are located here.

But the bigger marketplace for lending books is – surprise – your local public library. Most libraries use an app called Overdrive that manages their digital collections, including music and videos. And this is where the big money has been so far, as libraries buy a lot of eBooks.

In the past, the Overdrive software works similarly to the B&N or Kindle lending feature: the library loans out its digital copy of a book, and a patron has a limited time to read it. While it is out on loan, no one else can read the eBook (unless the library has purchased multiple copies, just like physical books). But that is changing.

Harper Collins last week decided to limit the number of times that their eBooks can be borrowed to a total of 26. Many libraries have already stated that they will no longer purchase any HC eBooks as a result. They don’t want to spend the money on something that has a limited shelf life of a year or so. Overdrive has to now segregate HC books so that you can tell they have these borrowing limits.

Then there is BookLending.com, a trading service that allows people to post the eBooks that they want to lend to others, and make it easier to match borrowers. It is new and I am not sure what will happen: in theory it is a nice idea.

There are numerous new sites that are popping up to handle exchanging information on books, making the reading process more akin to a social network. These include thecopia.com, Digress.it, Bookglutton.com, Librarything.com and MobNotate.com. I haven’t spend much time with any of these sites, but I don’t think much of them: readers want to read, Gen Y is not a reading generation, and the marriage of the two doesn’t seem likely.

Still, it seems with the latest move by Harper Collins that the eBook industry is about to saddle itself with an unworkable DRM eerily similar to what the music industry went through in the early Napster days. Until eBooks get easier to loan, eReaders won’t be common. Imagine pre-loading an eReader with your favorite books and passing them around your book club? Or having an easy way to refer to your library on some Web site that can bulk load it to a eReader? These are just two of the new kinds of use cases that I can think of. Yes, I still want to browse books in my local independent bookstore: but I want to be able to easily share the books that I enjoy too.


7 thoughts on “Lend me an eBook!

  1. I have owned a Sony reader for a couple of years and find the ability to borrow books from both my local Nassau County library and the NYC library to be a distinct advantage. The reality is that many of the books I read, including “best sellers”, are neither worth the money to purchase or can be recommended to others. Maybe it’s just me, but the publishing industry is loaded with false promise, so if the option exists to borrow rather than purchase I will almost always take that route. The discussion of a limitation on the number of times a book can be loaned is distressing, but this kind of knee jerk from publishers is, unfortunately, not unexpected.

  2. Thanks for this excellent post. Ever since the first Kindle came out, I have been waiting for a “Netflix for books” to appear.

    Why can’t we have a system where, like Netflix, I can pay a fixed fee for one book at a time, pay the fee every month until I return the book, and be able to check out and return as many books as I’d like for that fee, just one at a time?

    I would gladly pay $5 or $10 per month for that service. Sure, sharing books is even better and I’m waiting for my local library to have a viable system with enough titles to entice me. But, if I could be on a pay to play system, just like renting a movie, that would be fabulous. For avid readers, we could read as many books as we can possibly digest, for the same $5 or $10/month. From a business perspective, this has all the same money making potential as the months and months I’ve held a movie (without watching it) before I return it to Netflix.

    The publishing houses would also win. Afterall, rather than having a “26 loan limit” (or some such limit), they’d be paid month after month for the title.

    If I didn’t already have a business, I would definitely be looking into this possibility.

    David – Can you comment on this possibility? Or should I go and look for some VCs who might be interested? 🙂

  3. Some interesting ideas in the comments! As for me, I just cannot believe how difficult everyone is making it to lend e-books, exactly as your column suggests. But then again, I guess any technology in its infancy is really, really hard to use (think DOS prompt and floppies).


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