Nalini Muppala

Analysis, observations, perspectives on mobile space

E-books : Need To Rethink Lending, Double Charging

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Current lending options provided by leading electronic-reader vendors — Amazon and Barnes & Noble — are way too restricted.

Amazon recently announced that Kindle users would soon be able to lend books once for a 14-day period. While not being able to read a book that has been lent makes perfect sense, restricting it to just one lending, and to just 14 days does not. Amazon rightly directs user ire to restrictions imposed by content publishers and rights holders. The device-content synergy is an often overlooked and important factor in the success of Apple’s iPods, iPhones and now iPads. After ceding control of music pricing to Apple, publishers are now wary of letting anyone else set the prices for their wares. It is true that publishers hold the cards here, however the end user does not care who is to blame.

The restrictions placed on lending make sense in an institutional setup such as a library. Say a library owns the e-books and the e-readers are either leased/let/rented by the library or owned by the patron. Patrons can check out e-books and will be limited to a lending period of 2-3 weeks, at the end of the lending period the e-book returns to the library and is available for others. Makes perfect sense!

But for individuals, one should be able to lend a book to another person (who owns a compatible e-reader) without any restrictions. Lending books has traditionally been a way of sharing interests. What more, the author could be getting a new fan/follower.

If the restrictions on lending are to address the “problem” that e-books do not wear and tear as physical books do, then we should address the problem directly. The solution is to deteriorate e-books as they are shared more and used longer. One simple solution is to gradually reduce the readability of the e-book with prolonged use — reduce clarity of the font, reduce contrast. How about dog ears, crumbled edges, and coffee spills? It can all be done in software. Piracy is  not the problem. As long as these purchases are restricted to be used with appropriate devices or software (Kindle reader for other devices, Nook reader for other devices) and user credentials there is no fear of letting the content loose in the wild.

While we are at it, let us consider Amazon’s stated vision for books. “Buy Once, Read Everywhere”. Really? Sure, it applies to accessing Kindle content on other devices. Amazon has done a commendable job of enabling books purchased for Kindle hardware to be used in other devices such as phones, tablets and personal computers via the kindle software for these non-kindle-e-reader devices. But it does not extend to physical book purchases.

A book purchased in a hard paper form remains an island. Although the paper version costs more, a user is left to pay again for a soft copy to use on electronic devices. Why should the consumer pay twice for the same content? Have we not learned any lessons from music piracy? Such double stance drives honest people to illegally obtain a e-book version of a paper copy they own.

The 500 year old invention called printed paper is not going away anytime soon. It is here to stay. An e-book provides the opportunity for enhanced content delivery. The economics of publishing adds fuel to e-books. We tend to cling on to old habits and the comfort, convenience of holding a physical paper in our hands. Clearly there is a place for e-books in the future.

It is a mind game. If e-books are to get the respect they deserve, publishers, content creators and device vendors should come together and make the transition easier and enriching.


Written by Nalini Kumar Muppala

November 1, 2010 at 6:30 am

Posted in Amazon, e-reader

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