By October 1, 2009

eBook “renting,” an idealistic request for a different eBook paradigm

I used to read a lot when I was younger. My father had a rule: I had to go into my bedroom at 9PM, but could stay up as long as I wanted as long as I read. It was a win-win for everyone. My father got some quiet time, I read a ton, and eventually reading made me sleepy so I slept better. My parents engendered a desire to read, and I continued to do so throughout high school.

Then I went to college, and double majored in English and History. I read even more than before, but seldom for pleasure — unless you count my native interest in course material. Well, well over a decade has passed since I graduated, but my desire to read for “fun” never really returned. I attribute it mostly to getting burned-out in college (I was assigned over 120 books in one semester), but there are other reasons, too. One is that I have other things to occupy my time, like riding my motorcycle or gaming. Another factor is book portability. I just couldn’t take transporting books every time I moved, and so I bequeathed my nearly 400-book collection to my friend Ed.

Every now and then, though, a series would hook me. Or I’d learn about a book that might be of interest. I didn’t want to stockpile more books, so I’d try my best to borrow them from a friend or borrow them from the county library system. The problem with being a geek in a conservative region is that a lot of the books my friends read aren’t available at the library.

eBooks have been around for a long time, and having an eBook reader may assuage some of the problems I have with meatspace libraries. It has been years since I’ve last read any books in my favorite vampire series, but I want to give them a whirl again. With a real book, I’d have to store (and pay to move) those books until I read them again, if I ever read them. With an eBook, they just kind of hang out in the ether until I am ready to read.

There are a few problems with eBooks:

  • You’re often tied to a proprietary format. If the vendor supporting that format goes out of business, what happens to your library?
  • Dedicated eBook readers are expensive. The Amazon Kindle 2 is $300, for example.
  • eBooks tend to be cheaper than hardback books, but not as inexpensive as paperbacks … and certainly more expensive than a used book. Most Kindle Edition books are $10 on Amazon, although some books I’d like to read are as low as $4.
  • You can’t lend an eBook in the same way you can lend a real book. My friend Ed got me started on my favorite vampire series by lending me the first four. I bought the next eight (and wound up giving them back to him, I think … funny how things work out).

If I could detail my ideal eBook experience, it would more closely follow a combination of the business models employed in the mobile phone industry and Netflix. Behold:

  • A monthly subscription that allows you to “check out” up to three books at once. This would allow me to read one book and have another on standby. But DrFaulken, that leaves you with one extra “check out.” Yeah, I’ll get to that in a second.
  • A deeply discounted reader if you agree to a service contract. I’d pay $100 for a Kindle 2 with a one-year subscription, or $50 / free with a two-year sub.
  • The ability to “lend” an eBook to another subscriber. I was trying to replicate the “hey you may like this book” interaction that occurs in real life. One way would be to wirelessly suggest books, but another cool way would be to use your slots as “lends.” If you aren’t going to read three books a month — say you have some other stuff going on, or checked out a REALLY long book — you could farm out your other slots to your friends. This would keep people subscribing, as they wouldn’t feel like their sub was going to waste. That’s one of the reasons I cancelled Netflix and GameFly.
  • Lend slots would also allow you to keep secondary eReaders stocked with books. Let’s say you buy an eBook reader for your wifepants. She loves it, and while you’d like to read some eBooks now and then she won’t part with the device. So, similar to mobile phones, you buy a second reader at a discounted price (and probably a service extension). Now the two of you can divvy up those three checkouts between two devices.
  • This model implies a monthly rental service. That’s the Netflix and GameFly model I referenced earlier. I would feel comfortable paying $12 a month for three check outs at a time, unlimited checkouts per month. I might buy two or three paperbacks a month if I really liked reading again, so that’s anywhere from $12 to $24 depending on the price of the paperback. “Well, DrFaulken,” you say, “why would they allow you to read $24 or more worth of books a month for $12?” because right now due to storage and reuse issues, I spend $0 on books every month. I’d really like to do $10 a month, but I think that’s overly optimistic. But shit, this whole idea is optimistic, so why not go all-out and say $10 a month? Fine, $10 a month then. Like Netflix or GameFly, you could spend more for more checkouts at a time.
  • Wireless book transfer, like the Kindle. I’d accept an upcharge for newspapers, magazines, or other shit. If you think I’m nervous about storing books, magazines are even worse. I’d pay for digital versions of my motorcycle magazine or Men’s Health in a second.

The one thing that makes me feel better about the rental paradigm is that it doesn’t imply any sense of ownership. When you “buy” a Kindle Edition for $10, you expect to be able to read it whenever you want. If Amazon discontinues their program and your Kindle breaks, what do you do? A one hundred year old book doesn’t have to worry about obscelence. However, and I am sure this is just psychology on my part, if something I rented isn’t around in five years, who cares? I rented that bitch. If I really wanted to keep the book around, I could buy it.

Will this ever happen? I totally doubt it. The royalty / pricing structure around books makes this type of system nearly impossible. Publishers would have to agree on a reduced rate per checkout to make this happen, and I doubt that will happen any time soon.

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Posted in: gibberish, technology

4 Comments on "eBook “renting,” an idealistic request for a different eBook paradigm"

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  1. BushPutin says:

    I have an absolute affinity for books. The smell, feel, and weight in my hands. Not to mention the monthly trips to Powell’s books here in PDX.

    I’ve thought about the eBook reader, but for a couple of reasons I can’t do it. Most notably I don’t want anyone _that_ aware of what I’m reading (see Amazon deleting 1984 from the Kindle after people paid for it). And I don’t need to be another fucking target for advertising when I’m just trying to read.

    Save the used book stores!!!!!

    -BushPutin

  2. Gremlin says:

    I use my Palm TX for all my mobile reading. My situation is a bit different. I really like owning books as does everybody in my family. Last I looked at our library database we were over 2000 items. If I’m reading a particular book, I’ll hunt around until I find an electronic copy. I then translate that copy to mobipocket format and read it at my leisure. A 256mb SD card will hold about 40 books.

  3. Tomax says:

    I totally agree with BushPutin. I like holding a book and dog-earing pages. I also like that Barnes and Noble doesn’t walk into my living room and snatch it back out of my hands. I can’t stand the thought of someone data-mining my book collection and running crazy algorithms to create some type of personality profile in order to send targeted advertising to me. I’m not sure if they do that, but just the thought of it shivers me timber.

  4. nadine says:

    Great post! Agree with you completely!