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E-Book Lending: Boon or Bane to Publishers?

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

ebook fling

E-book lending may not seem in the best interest of publishers, but it will only lead to additional sales, argue the creators of new e-book lending site EBookFling.com.

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.

George Burke

George Burke

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.”

DISCUSS: Is Monetizing the Used E-book Market the Next Big Opportunity?

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7 Comments

  1. Posted February 14, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    I know that as a reader and listener of music, if I can get my hands on many samples, I’ll fall in love with something unexpected and become a new fan. I for one am a huge fan of used bookstores, music swaps, and love the idea of ebook lending. I haven’t yet used it, but I’m sure I will soon!

  2. Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    As a working author I can only say that there are literally hundreds of book sharing sites out there already. One more may stop me from writing. I am in this profession to share my work and make money at the same time. I don’t think I will be visiting or participating in their site anytime soon. I already post free samples of my work online, and it has translated into NO appreciable increase in sales of the full books. No sales = no incentive to write, and when all the authors stop writing, there will be no more “free” ebooks to read. Stick that in your pipes and smoke it.

  3. Posted February 14, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    As a publisher of print and ebooks, I would never be afraid to have our books shared among consumers. What we as a company consider is that we’re here to build an author’s CAREER and not just to drive the sales of a single title. If by giving away free review copies, for making books available to libraries, and yes allowing titles to lend, we feel we create a reader base for that author that will be there waiting for that next book, and the one after. These are individuals who, while they didn’t buy the first book, might not want to sit on the long waiting list at the library for the next title in the series, or might not want to wait until their friend is done reading it. These are people who will go out and buy that second book, and that third, and every book following. I would much rather create that fan, than to restrict the hard work of the author to just that handful of people who are going to chance the unknown writer.

  4. Matt James
    Posted February 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    How does ebook lending differ from loaning a paperback out to someone? I’m paying close to full paper price for an electronic edition (with $0.00 spent on printing – though there are still typesetting, marketing and editing tasks that must be paid for) that I have absolutely no way of lending to a friend – unless I loan them my reader.

    To blindly say that all book sales will cease because people can lend electronic books is pure hogwash – how is this lending different that loaning out a physical copy? Fewer sales because there’s no physical book to get lost or damaged or never returned forcing the lender to buy a new copy? Perhaps that’s it… Or maybe the sky really isn’t falling.

  5. Jon
    Posted February 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    This is going to come out as pretty rude, but I can’t think of another way to make my point: does working author Theresa M. Moore lack the reading comprehension skills to understand what this editorial is about? The only other reasonable explanation for her comment is that she really thinks there is something wrong with allowing people who have purchased ebooks to loan them to others for a short period of time.

    To follow up on Matt James’ point, here is how ebook lending differs from loaning a paperback to someone: ebook lending is much more restrictive. Some – but not all – of the Kindle ebooks I’ve purchased can be loaned once each for a period of up to two weeks. The rest can’t be loaned at all.

    If I purchase a paperback in the US, I am free to give, loan, or sell it to someone else when I am done with it. This right is specifically accounted for in US copyright law, and is part of the “first-sale doctrine.” Many publishers and retailers (and, no doubt, some authors) would love to be able to control or prevent used book sales, and this is exactly what they have accomplished through non-transferable copy prevention mechanisms that bind digital content to particular devices or customers. I buy ebooks because they’re convenient, but we should all keep in mind that we’re trading some rights for that convenience.

  6. Lars
    Posted February 14, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never seen such a poorly constructed and illogical argument in my life. Books are hardly like music. You read them once and pretty much that’s it. If someone borrows a book and reads it they are not going to go out and buy it, especially not an ebook.

    Lending print books is not the same as lending ebooks. Depending on evolving rights and technologies, you could theoretically lend an ebook to hundreds of people instantly.

    Indie ebooks are already at very low prices. If you want to read one, buy one for three bucks.

    Ebook Lending is not a win for authors/publishers.

  7. Posted February 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s more of a boon to publishers than to authors.
    Tell me one way it can benefit original authors.

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