Why am I underwhelmed with Amazon's recent announcment about an ebook lending feature for the Kindle? The Nook has offered that option for awhile now and I don't think it's been a big game-changer for that device. Don't get me wrong. I think lending is nice. It's the restrictions that come with ebook lending that disappoint me.
First, it's only a 14-day program. I can't tell you the last time I managed to get through a book in 14 days. My book reading is generally done in smaller time slices when I have a free evening, so I'm usually reading a book for a couple of months, not a couple of weeks.
Then there's the feature's single-access nature. If I lend an ebook to you I lose access to it. Yep, that's how it works with a print book but can we please stop trying to simply mimic the physical book's limitations in the ebook world? If retailers insist on the 14-day limit, what's the harm in allowing my friend and I to have simultaneous access to the book, encouraging more discussion about it, etc.? And if that's still too frightening for retailers/publishers, how about offering dual access for an additional fee? I might pay an extra dollar or two for my friend and I to have access at the same time.
Next, these lending programs are typically only allowed once per title. So if I lend my ebook to you I'm unable to lend it to anyone else after you're finished.
The problem in all of this is we're dancing around a core issue: Why not enable a model where customers can resell their ebooks? It's been said that ebook prices have to be lower than print book prices because of the limitations of the former. Reselling is an example of one of those limitations. So what would happen if you could resell your ebooks?
Publishers and authors hate the idea because they're cut out of the loop in the resale of used print books. That doesn't have to be the case in the ebook world. I'd love to be able to resell some of the ebooks I've read, particularly the ones I know I'll never go back to. And just like in the print world, I'd be willing to receive less than what I paid for it originally. Right now they're pretty much worthless to me, so I'd accept a lower price to resell them.
I can think of a few books I paid $9.99 for that I'd be happy to get two or three dollars for (each) in resale. Let's say I could put those up on the used ebook market for $8.99, or a dollar less than the original version. I'd keep $3 and the retailer would get the other $5.99, which they would then share with the publisher/author.
I know what you're thinking... Why would a retailer/publisher/author want to sell an ebook for $5.99 when they could sell the same darned thing for $9.99? The answer is this program would have to generate incremental sales. How many people might be willing to pay $5.99 for the book but not $9.99? And there's only one "copy" of my version for $5.99, so once one person buys it, it's off the market.
This sort of a campaign has the potential to increase two things: Interest in ebooks as well as the origianal prices paid for them. It increases interest only if the retailer leverages the campaign though. If you thought there might be someone reselling an ebook you're interested in, you're more inclined to go back to the catalog page to see if a used version is available from time to time. On the pricing side, I'm willing to pay a bit more for my next ebook purchase if I know I can resell it later.
But why do we have to say used ebooks should cost less than originals? I've talked about used ebooks in the academic market and how they could potentially be sold for more than the originals. There are possibilities beyond the textbook area though. Here's an example: I've been a fan of Bill Gates for a long time. I hear Bill reads a lot of books every year and that he makes a lot of notes about ones he likes. What if he were to do all his reading in ebook format and capture his notes digitally? The next time I go to Amazon to buy an ebook he's read, it's available for $9.99 by itself or for $14.99 with all the notes Bill Gates wrote about it. I'm buying the $14.99 version!
Would Gates participate in a program like this? I'll bet he'd be very intersted in it if the additional $5 went directly to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And, of course, unlike the earlier ebook resale model I discussed, this would be for an unlimited number of copies, not just one.
That last example features the resale of a different type of "used ebook." But that example is also something that would be very difficult to implement in the print world. My point is that we need to stop enforcing print book limitations on ebooks and, more importantly, start thinking about new ways to enhance and sell ebooks, especially when these new models allow us to do things we simply couldn't pull off in the print book world.