Monday, March 3, 2008

An online lending library?

My friend "Raoul Duke" recently sent me this article, which makes an interesting distinction between review and criticism.

Reading this article sparked an idea: why not an online lending library?

When the author of the article mentioned that "Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism," I felt a stirring of desire to read at least part of that book.

However, it's about $20 with shipping from Amazon (currently published as an addendum to The Last of the Mohicans). I don't want to read it that much. So I probably won't.

I often have this urge. I read about a book, want to read it, but it's not available at my local library and I can't justify spending upwards of $25 for it, since I know I'll only read it once.

So why not an online lending library? Call it NetBoox, say, or maybe OnLibe. You pay a monthly subscription fee, which allows you to "check out", say, three books at a time.

But instead of going to the library and bringing the hard copies home, or having them mailed to you, as a few libraries do, you download an encrypted PDF to your computer, read it, and then "send it back", which deletes your key to that PDF, rendering it useless unless you check it out again.

This addresses one of my pet peeves with the sale of electronic media, such as books and music. The publishers think they can get away with selling the electronic version of an item for the same price they sell the hard copy for, while their own costs for electronic distribution are actually far less than for the production and distribution of a physical copy.

So of course nobody buys the electronic version; if that's what they want, they download it for free via Kazaa/LimeWire/BitTorrent instead.

If, by contrast, the publishers passed on a substantial portion of the savings of publishing electronically to the consumer, they'd make a lot more money, because a lot more people would be inclined to buy the electronic version at a fair price rather than pirating it.

What about Amazon's Kindle? It's interesting. But you have to buy the $400 Kindle and then you have to buy each book as well.

I'd prefer the option of just renting the books I want to read. I don't need to keep every book I read lying around on an SD card somewhere.

That's why I get so many books from the library. I can't understand buying a zillion books that I am almost certainly only ever going to read once. Ditto with movies, which is why I like NetFlix so much.

Of course, my multiple chemical disasters, which have cost me hundreds of books as well as thousands of dollars' worth of other personal property, have influenced my perspective on this point, but I think it's still valid. Some people like to have shelves full of books to impress visitors. Others are more interested in just reading them.

Obviously, the royalties to the author (along with the publisher's cut) for each rental would be less than the royalties they'd get for a sale. But there'd almost certainly be a lot more rentals than sales lost as a result of the availability of rentals.

Are Blockbuster and and NetFlix hurting attendance at first-run movie theatres? Possibly. Are the movie studios unhappy about them - and the revenues they generate for the studios through rentals? I don't think so.

And, unlike checkouts from a local free library, which earn the author nothing beyond the initial sale of the book to the library, each e-book rental would pay the author something.

It seems to me that the publishers are missing a big opportunity here. As it stands, the publisher of the Fenimore Cooper/Twain book won't get anything from me.

But if I could rent the book from an online online library whose membership cost me a monthly fee on the order of my NetFlix subscription, they'd get a few pennies. Add this up over thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of readers, and they'd have a useful revenue source.

Books seem ideally suited to a rental scheme like this, because, unlike movies, they are small and can be downloaded quickly, and unlike songs, you usually don't want to read them over and over.

So why hasn't it happened?

No comments: