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Ebook lending vs. ownership

Why not borrow since you're not really buying anyway?

In an earlier article called Free and the medium vs. the message I excerpted liberally from a terrific short ebook by Joshua Gans called Information Wants to Be Shared. (Buy the ebook direct from HBR’s website, use the code ADINFO1 you’ll only pay 99 cents, btw.) I’d like to revisit and excerpt from that title one more time and focus on the subscription model Gans sees for the book industry.

Let’s pick it up here:

Books have the same basic characteristic as scholarly journals. In particular, like other digital media, they are not easy to exclude, and even if they are, you need to subvert their digital core to make it happen. This suggests that the correct approach to selling books is away from ownership and back toward access. Indeed, back to the model that, until the arrival of the printing press, described how people could read books. In this respect, we may soon look back on five hundred years of book ownership as a mere aberration.

Lending is the natural state for books and publishers. So how would the business of publishing look if it were built around lending rather than ownership?

There’s been plenty of speculation about creating “the ‘Spotify’ for books” and I tend to think that model will be more successful than most would assume. A few years ago I never would have considered a streaming music subscription. I wanted to own my songs and have the ability to take them onto whatever platform I chose. Now I can’t tell you the last time I bought a song but I can tell you I use Spotify every week. And whether it’s an ad-supported stream or a monthly subscription it’s clear the borrowing model is gaining momentum in the music world.

So how might pricing work in a lending ebook model? Here’s what Gans has to say:

Gather enough friends to pitch in for a subscription and you can all access it. The mobile phone companies worked this out with “friends and family” plans that reduced the costs of communicating within social circles. If a newspaper adopts a sharing philosophy to information, it should be thinking in terms of clubs rather than individuals when it comes to subscriptions.

Pretty smart. Rather than just selling to individuals why not leverage the power of the social circle and offer better deals to groups of users? He wraps up the topic by saying:

With respect to books, publishers have desperately reacted to digitization by replicating the offerings to consumers available in the physical world. That has meant a model of book ownership rather than of shared use. But book ownership is a recent development, prior to which books were shared goods. Indeed, it is a mistake to think of books as objects at all when they actually offer a claim on attention.

That reminds me of an expression I heard for the first time earlier this week: today’s ebooks are nothing more than “print under glass.” We expect customers want to own their ebooks just like they do their print books. Of course, the main problem with that is they really don’t own them; they simply own a license for them, which is yet another reason we’ll likely see a strong surge in ebook lending over ebook ownership.

P.S. — Joshua Gans is scheduled to speak at TOC NY 2013 in February. Use the discount code below to save 15% on your registration.

TOC NY 2013— The publishing industry will gather at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in New York City, February 12-14, to explore the forces and solutions that are transforming publishing.Save 15% on registration with the code COMM15
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  • http://twitter.com/robpenner Robert Penner

    Are you implying that I don’t own the e-books I bought from O’Reilly? I haven’t parsed the legalese, but it sure feels like I own them. O’Reilly’s usage terms allow me to lend and sell my e-books; that seems functionally equivalent.
    http://shop.oreilly.com/category/customer-service/ebooks.do

    • jwikert

      Great question, Robert. And I apologize for not pointing this out in the original article. O’Reilly’s direct channel is different. If you bought ebooks from our website you own them. And, as you pointed out, you’re also free to resell them. However, when you buy books from other retailers, such as Amazon, you should know you’re actually purchasing a license, not ownership of the content.

      • David Marlin

        Great point – and that’s why libraries can’t just lend ebooks.  First sale doctrine (which allows libraries to loan books) typically is superseded by license agreement (which often prevents them).

        We just did a great interview with Terry Plum of the Simmons School of Library and Information Science and we covered this issue in depth. (http://www.metacomet.com/librarians-and-digital-rights/) It’s a tough issue:  publishers need to maximize their profit and maximize revenue sharing for their authors.  Information wants to be free.