Friday, February 24, 2012

An Idea for Lending Ebooks

Did you see the Annoyed Librarian's post this week? A year ago HarperCollins decided to cap library borrowing for their ebooks at 26 copies. Many librarians were outraged and vowed to boycott HarperCollins ebooks. Now the boycott is breaking down.

Well, here's the Annoyed Author's take on it. I wish the publishing industry would get its crap together. Librarians are great customers, and we should be treating them like royalty.

It shouldn't be that hard. There are three competing interests here:
1) Library patrons want to borrow ebooks for their ereaders. Preferably without having to wait forever.
2) Librarians want to keep their patrons happy and their budgets under control.
3) Publishers and authors want to get paid for their work.

So all we need to do is find a solution that satisfies each of these three groups. Here's one possibility, although I'm sure there are others: rent the ebooks to the libraries instead of selling them.

Ebooks aren't really a tangible good like paper books anyway--they're a license. (If you're curious where I draw the line between tangible and intangible, it's this: anything that's gone after an EMP burst is not tangible. Also, anything that Amazon can gank off your Kindle is not really yours.)

So, let's take a hypothetical book priced at $26 to libraries. Instead of charging $26 up front for each e-copy and only allowing readers to check it out one at a time, HarperCollins would charge the library $1 each time a patron checks out the book. The net effect is the same--the library is buying 26 uses of that book.

Everyone wins. Library patrons can borrow the ebook without waiting for someone else to finish reading it first. The loan of the ebook is still free for patrons, just like borrowing a physical or ebook is now.

Libraries only pay for the books that actually circulate. Offering the books to lend would be free, so every library could offer a massive collection. If demand from patrons is so great that it strains the budget, libraries would handle it the same way they do now--cutting back on purchasing materials, i.e. limiting the circulation of ebooks so that the library stays within budget. If I were running an out-of-money library, I'd put a donation button right there with the ebook checkout button and allow patrons to pay the license fee even if the library can't.

Publishers and authors at a minimum would be no worse off than today. They're getting the same amount per use as they do under the current model. I suspect publishers and authors would actually do much, much better under this model because more of our work would be available for e-checkout. Also, just like with physical books, many patrons will check out the ebooks, not get around to reading them before the check out period is up, and wind up buying them. Or buying them to reread. The bottom line is any model that exposes more books to more people while providing a revenue stream back to the publisher and author will be good for the industry in the long term.

This shouldn't be so hard. It's basic customer satisfaction work. Here's hoping the publishing industry figures it out before someone (like Amazon) does it for them.