E-book sharing: Amazon and book publishers' stupid attempts to curtail lending sites.

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March 22 2011 5:41 PM

No Sharing Allowed

Amazon and book publishers' stupid attempts to curtail e-book lending.

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Of course, "used" e-books are essentially identical to "new" e-books, so publishers can reasonably argue that e-book reselling will completely destroy both markets. I'm sympathetic to that argument; indeed, I've made peace with letting go of my right to resell e-books, especially since e-books tend to be cheaper than print books in the first place. (If I pay $15 for a hardcover and resell it for $5, it's the same as paying $10 for an e-book and never reselling it.)

But I'd argue that letting people loan out e-books will produce some of the same advantages that used-book sales provide in the print world. Making e-books loanable will persuade a whole lot of people to read things they wouldn't have bothered with otherwise. It will also ease the public's transition to e-books. Wouldn't you be more likely to buy an e-book reader—and, as a result, buy more e-books—if you knew you could borrow books from your friends? Finally, making e-books loanable will reduce incentives for piracy. The market for e-books would be completely ruined by the sort of large-scale, Napster-like file-trading operations we once saw in the music business. If publishers continue to play hardball, that kind of development isn't out of the question.

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Can I prove any of these assertions? No—there have been no studies that I'm aware of showing that letting people lend e-books will increase book sales. (Then again, there also aren't any studies showing the opposite.) I'll admit, too, that the publishing industry's nightmare scenario is possible. Under that theory, every person who borrows a book represents a lost sale. If I can get David Brooks' The Social Animalfrom Lendle, why would I buy it? And if everyone with an e-book reader could borrow whatever they want whenever they want, why would anyone buy anything?

Yet that scenario seems terrifically unlikely. For one thing, e-book loans are now limited to 14 days. Sure, that's enough time to read most books, but it's not all the time in the world; there's a good chance it will be too short a time for you to finish at a leisurely pace—and if your time's up and you like the book, you might even buy it. What's more, because every book can be loaned out just once, there's no way sales will be completely cannibalized. If everyone stopped buying The Social Animal, the number of borrowable copies would quickly decline—and eventually people would have to start buying them again.

Lendle's Jeff Croft says he's collected a great deal of anecdotal evidence—email and Twitter testimonials—that lending drives sales. People tell him that they borrow a book by an author they've never heard of, for example, and then buy all of her titles. That sort of statement rings true to me. Every theory about how people discover content in the digital age—from Chris Anderson's long tail, to the stunning success of Netflix and Amazon's recommendation engines, to the power of aggregators like Reddit—suggests that the links between ordinary people are very important. You're more likely to read new books that your friends or peers recommend than you are to listen to critics. Lending—not just for books but for all kinds of new media—enables the sort of social recommendations that publishers depend on. It's a shame they don't see this. And a tragedy, for all of us, that as we move to digital books, movies, and games, we're going to lose our right to share the stuff we like best.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.