Editorial by Chip O’Brien, BookSwim.com
“The reality is that the biggest threat to book-writers and publishers is that their works are simply invisible to people who get all their information from the Internet.” – Cory Doctorow
When Barnes & Noble and Amazon announced that their eReader devices would now include the ability to swap e-books, they tackled one of the most common complaints about e-books. Reading itself is a solitary act, but if the proliferation of book clubs and online forums like GoodReads are any indication, contemplating what we’ve read is an experience we seem to enjoy best with others. With lending enabled, these e-book things begin to resemble the socially experienced books we’ve known and loved.
BookSwim has created a website that takes the physical book analogy further with what is, to some extent, a cross between a used bookstore and abook swap for e-books. EBookFling is a free service wherein users can swap e-books (in accordance with Nook and Kindle’s identical lending Terms of Service, of course: one lend per book, fourteen day lending period). The mechanics are simple: ebook owners sign up and list books that they want to allow others to borrow. When someone borrows one of the ebooks you have listed, you earn a credit. Credits can also be purchased for as little as $1.99 from eBook Fling. One credit is good for borrowing a single ebook from any of the borrowable titles listed by other website users. The service is still in Alpha and we have signed up thousands of lenders in anticipation of launching later this month.
And once again we come face-to-face with that great and tantalizing promise of the digital information age: the ability of the “free” to generate both traditional and non-traditional profit. Many have argued that this was the central idea which sank the dot-com bubble and built Facebook, the idea which has made unlikely heroes of bloggers and web cartoonists. It is, famously, an idea still troubling the RIAA and the music industry on a daily basis, with traditionalists claiming enormous sums lost through both piracy and, some argue, legal file sharing — and adopters claiming that the music industry’s never had a boon as great as the easily-shareable MP3.
Of course, the music industry lags behind the publishing industry in this regard. Granted that the Library of Alexandria wasn’t exactly a free public library, we nevertheless can point to 23 centuries of open access to books, and a clear correlation between that sharing and increased market size on all fronts.
hat being said, the idea of being able to swap e-books is a clear benefit for the consumer. But how is it helpful to the publisher? Whatever else might be said about digital information, there’s still the age-old question of free supply: why buy the goat when you can get the feta for free?
“This is a clear boon to e-publishing,” says my colleague, George Burke, CEO of book rental service BookSwim.com. “It’s a proven model: try before you buy.” He goes on to point out the clear records which show that those who share music are also some of the biggest purchasers of music. “This model is perfect — it broadens peoples’ ability to have access to e-books, which should help broaden the entire market. Similar to a network of libraries, this allows people nationwide the opportunity to have access to more books than most consumers could afford to buy, which will increase the desirability of e-books in general. This will bring in more people interested in e-reading — and we know that the e-reading market is a buying market.”
It is also worth mentioning that several authors have given away free e-books in the past: not a trial, not a loan, but a completely free e-book. The general consensus is that this expands the author’s potential audience for future releases, which more than makes up for any lost sales on the free title.
There’s another powerful advantage here: BookSwim argues that it is not only broadening e-book availability, but actually increasing the value of every participating e-book. According to Burke, “Your e-book now has more than just its intrinsic value. People have shared their books for generations, and now, every Nook or Kindle e-book has the capacity to be loaned out. We are creating a system which directly rewards that loan, turning a feature many people may not use into a clear, visible benefit.”
What are the possible downsides? “There are always going to be people who believe that giving something away for free represents a loss, regardless of circumstances,” Burke notes. But the e-publishing industry is still a new frontier in a time when media wants to be shared in easily disseminated forms. It may be time to approach publishing with not only an awareness, but acceptance and approval of the cultural progression toward media sharing. “This is essentially the first ever secondary market for e-books, a way to turn something – the e-book you already own – into something from which you can extract value,” Burke adds. “There will be a time when a large number of books may not be available for lending, particularly if publishers get scared and decide to take a stance against commercial lending. But that, I think, would be a mistake. One thing we know is it will be exciting to see how things develop over the next year.”