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Steal this book: The loan arranger books/DRM/Scrapbook

Steal this book: The loan arranger | The Economist


AMAZON.COM says soon you will be allowed to lend out electronic books purchased from the Kindle Store. For a whole 14 days. Just once, ever, per title. If the publisher allows it. Not mentioned is the necessity to hop on one foot whilst reciting the Gettysburg Address in a falsetto. An oversight, I’m sure. Barnes & Noble’s Nook has offered the same capability with identical limits since last year. Both lending schemes are bullet points in a marketing presentation, so Amazon is adding its feature to keep parity.

Allowing such ersatz lending is a pretence by booksellers. They wish you to engage in two separate hallucinations. First, that their limited licence to read a work on a device or within software of their choosing is equivalent to the purchase of a physical item. Second, that the vast majority of e-books are persistent objects rather than disposable culture.

If you own a physical book, in much of the world you may sell it, lend it—even burn or bury it. You may also keep the book forever. Each of those characteristics is littered with footnotes and exceptions for e-books. We are granted an illusion of ownership, but may read only within the ecosystem of hardware and software supported by the bookseller with sometimes additional limitations imposed by publishers. Witness Amazon’s remote deletion—since abjured—of improperly sold copies of George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” in 2009. This Babbage recalls an Apple executive, Phil Schiller, extolling to him in 2003 the virtues of purchasing downloadable music when that company’s iTunes Store launched, and the dominant model was for recurring subscriptions. Mr Schiller described buying a song as owning it. Asked if one could therefore sell the song, Mr Schiller said no. He explained:

I do think of it as ownership, and it really does fit the definition of legal ownership. [There are] certain boundaries on your rights, just as on everything I own. I can own a car but that doesn’t give me the right to speed 100mph in it.

That was as tendentious then as it is now, and applies just as directly to Apple’s current e-book offerings. True, Apple removed digital rights management (DRM) protection from its music when the recording industry decided its best tool to fight Apple’s near-total ownership of digital downloads was to make it possible for music to be played on devices other than iPods. But the licensing terms for music didn’t change, and books and video remain locked down, however ineffective such protection is.

But the reason for restricting lending, even with the sham of offering it in Amazon’s or Barnes & Noble’s form, is to distract people from the fact that buyers are spending real money to buy a book they may read just once. To judge from the information Amazon provides, the long tail applies to e-books as it does everywhere else. Many different titles are flogged, but the most disposable and ephemeral have the lion’s share of units sold. Dan Brown’s epics are rarely re-read, judging by how many copies are available for one penny or given away in free book bins weeks after release. Allowing the loan of “The Lost Symbol” by any purchaser to any other e-book hardware or software user worldwide turns each buyer into a one-person lending library. Publishers don’t much like libraries, either, despite the chin-wagging otherwise. (In the US, the public lending right or remuneration right doesn’t hold; the first-sale doctrine allows library lending of physical media without additional fees.)

With a physical book, the afterlife of a disposable read is to hand it off to another party: a library sale, a friend or relative, or the free bin outside a used bookstore. Such books are also purchased in the millions and sold for one penny plus shipping online partly as a marketing effort by booksellers who can then include their own catalogs with each sale. An e-book, however, lives in limbo. Neither moving on to the next life, nor returning to this one, it can never be freed.

That will change. Just as with music, DRM will be cracked. As more people possess portable reading devices, the demand and availability for pirated content will also rise. (Many popular e-books can now be found easily on file-sharing sites, something that was not the case even a few months ago, as Adrian Hon recently pointed out.) The end-game is unclear. Authors can’t turn to touring to obtain revenue in the way musicians can, though some can charge steep speaking fees. Nor can authors produce their work in 3D, only readable in certain special theaters. (McSweeney’s has a proposal in that regard.)

All is not lost, however. Despite fewer adults reading fewer books, billions are still sold worldwide each year, with an increasing portion being digital. Publishers and booksellers need to get non-readers to pick up a device and buy books, and existing readers to read more. Lowering the risk of purchasing a book that a reader may not like would reduce the friction between considering a title and clicking the buy button.

In fact, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks are experimenting with a sort of loan in their bricks-and-mortar shops. The bookseller allows its Nook hardware owners to read books willy-nilly on its stores’ Wi-Fi networks for up to an hour a day. Starbucks has partnered with several publishers to allow full access to some titles, but only while a browser is in the store. Barnes & Noble’s effort is a year old and Starbucks’ was launched just a few days ago.

In other words, they are finally doing with digital books what they have long practised with the printed sort. After all, most bookshops nowadays let you pick a book off the shelf and read it at your leisure, sometimes providing comfy armchairs. Cafés have been making books and newspapers available to patrons for centuries, to entice them to stick around for another cuppa.

The college-textbook market provides another replicable business model. Students pay through their noses for new textbooks at the start of term only to resell them at the end to other students or back to the original bookshop at a discount. Alternatively, they rent books for a fee while leaving a deposit which is returned when the book comes back to the shop. Creating a legitimate digital resale market along similar lines ought to be possible. If, that is, publishers can be convinced to let what are in effect mint-condition digital copies to go at a lower price.

Introducing either de facto rental (purchase and resell at prices set by the bookseller) or the actual sort (read a book in a set period of time for a lower fee) would expand general and specialist readership alike, while discouraging a turn to piracy by breaking the appearance of immutable, high prices. At the same time, it would enable publishers, booksellers and authors to sidestep the first-sale doctrine of physical media, and to rake in revenue each time a “used” digital copy passes from hand to hand.

The music and film industries fought a decade-long losing battle for the digital realm that only put them at odds with their best customers. The book business may yet be able to avoid recapitulating all that pain and disruption, not least by pinching ideas from the off-line world.


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