Many e-book lending services mimic traditional library practices, such as imposing time limits on loans or limits on the number of people who can borrow an e-book at any one time. On first reaction it may appear crazy to apply such artificial limits, originating from the print era, to the new e-book market, but a recent article by Mike Shatzkin got me wondering whether the key to successful e-book lending lies in preserving some level of inconvenience in the process.
Borrowing print books from libraries has always been more inconvenient than buying your own copy, and publishers have been happy with this balance. As a library user you have to comply with set loan periods, remember to return books on time or risk facing a fine, and if you want to borrow a new, popular title, you may well have to wait in a queue behind other users. Library books also betray the wear and tear of multiple readers – at best they tend to be a little worn and dusty, at worst you might discover a missing page or notes scrawled in the margins. Buying a book has always presented you with your own pristine copy as soon as you want it. In more recent years, the advent of Internet shopping has meant that books can now be purchased without leaving the house, meaning the trip to the library itself can now be seen as an added inconvenience.
So for many years publishers and libraries were able to coexist quite happily together. Libraries were there to provide free access to books for all, but publishers could still make an excellent living from those willing and able to pay a premium for convenience.
But the advent of e-books potentially upsets this happy balance. An electronic file doesn’t get worn or damaged. and there’s no inherent reason why unlimited numbers of users can’t read the same text at the same time or need for a limited loan period to be set. And, not surprisingly, this has sent publishers panicking about their bottom lines. If users can obtain e-books from libraries just as easily as they can buy them from publishers, where is the ‘convenience’ incentive to keep these publishers in business?
As a result of this, many e-book providers have already introduced lending models that mimic the inconvenience of print lending. Some providers only allow users to ‘borrow’ e-books for a set period of time, with access to the file disappearing once the loan period has expired. Others only allow a set number of users to access an e-book at any one time. While it seems absurd to cling to the disadvantages of physical objects, and indeed artificially introduce them to the electronic medium, I’m wondering if this might be the most pragmatic lending solution.
I’m not trying to advocate for the publishers. In an ideal world I’d love it if libraries were able to lend e-books with the simplicity with which consumers can purchase e-books for their kindles. But, the current stalemate with publishers suggests this may be an unrealistic goal and I’m starting to wonder if the ‘inconvenience factor’ is a vital component in the publisher/library ecosystem.
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