Is Book Sharing Really a Threat to Publishing?

Last week bookseller Barnes and Noble unveiled the Nook, its long-awaited eReading device. Although ill-named, the Nook is a worthy competitor to the Kindle, offering a number of features not found on the Amazon device, including LendMe, a feature that allows for controlled sharing of ebooks. While the sharing feature comes with a number of limitations, it would appear to be a small but important step towards making DRM-restricted content slightly more flexible for consumers. There’s just one problem — publishers want no part of the Nook’s LendMe feature.

Publishers Lunch reported last week (registration required) that many large publishing houses have indicated that they won’t participate in the LendMe program.

To be clear, the LendMe feature is extremely limited. Books are lent for a maximum of 14 days. And unlike the library, there are no extensions. When a book is lent, the lender loses access, and once the book is returned to the lender it can never be lent again.

So, why are publishers opposed to the Nook’s crippled ebook sharing scheme? As one Unnamed Publishing Executive told Publishers Lunch:

“if publishers agree to lending then every ebook offer now and in the future will come with this consumer feature. Over time, I’m concerned that lending won’t grow the market and in fact could hurt it.”

What Unnamed Publishing Executive seems to fear most is a sense of consumer entitlement. If consumers have the right to share ebooks now, they’ll expect to have that right until the end of time. Never mind the fact that consumers share print books all the time. Since the sharing of books is apparently a bad thing, we can only assume that the ease with which consumers share printed books is a flaw inherent in the print format. Fortunately publishers can correct that flaw in the digital realm through the liberal use of oppressive DRM.

I suppose this worldview shouldn’t come as a surprise. If the history of digital media has taught us one thing it’s that media companies see the digital future as an opportunity to exert extreme control over how consumers use and interact with content.

Contrary to the concerns of Unnamed Publishing Executive, it’s easy to see how the Nook’s LendMe feature might increase ebook sales. Given the plethora of media options facing consumers today, a 14 day ebook loan isn’t very long at all. Many of those loans will likely lead to unfinished reads. What happens when a reader is halfway through a loaned novel and the Nookbook expires? If it’s a good book that reader just might buy a copy.

Books are viral by nature, and the loaning of books is one of the main ways that the book virus spreads. We’ve all had friends push a favorite book on us. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s a life changing. Frequently we end up buying other books by the same author as a result of the initial loan. In that respect, loaned books are like a gateway drug. It’s in the publishing industry’s best interest to ensure that the loaning of books continues in the digital era.

The Publisher’s Dilemma: Consumer Perception of Value

There’s a battle raging over ebook pricing. Publishers believe that ebooks should be priced similarly to print books. Consumers, meanwhile, have an entirely different perception of the value of an ebook. eBooks as we know them can’t be loaned or resold, and are only readable on a limited range of devices. Consumers who switch platforms are likely to find themselves with a library of unreadable ebooks. Why pay full price for a product that comes with so many restrictions?

The LendMe feature restores a small part of the value that’s lost when consumers buy DRM-restricted ebooks. The LendMe feature enhances the value of an ebook at a time when publishers are concerned that consumers expect ebooks to be cheap.

Will Publishers Succeed in Crippling the Nook?

There’s some indication that publishers already have succeeded in crippling the Nook. When B&N announced the LendMe feature it was claimed that Nook books could be loaned an unlimited number of times (though not simultaneously). According to the same Publishers Lunch article quoted above, B&N added the single loan restriction when it became apparent that publishers wouldn’t tolerate anything less restrictive.

Now that publishers are balking at even a single loan, it’s starting to look like LendMe will be B&N’s equivalent of Kindle Text To Speech (TTS). Earlier this year Amazon introduced a feature that allowed the Kindle device to read any book aloud. That feature was eventually reigned in when the Authors Guild complained that it infringed on digital audio rights. As a result, Amazon turned control of the feature over to publishers — most of whom promptly disabled TTS on their Kindle ebook titles.

There is some small hope, however. It’s likely that small and independent publishers will see the value of LendMe. Even if the feature is only embraced on a small-scale it could set the very precedent that Unnamed Publishing Executive is so worried about. Once Nook owners become aware that ebook sharing is possible, it’s conceivable that they’ll come to choose books that have LendMe enabled. They’ll certainly consider them more valuable, and may even be willing to pay a bit extra for those books — or maybe they’ll expect books without LendMe to be priced a few dollars less.

One way or another, consumers will work out ebook sharing. Either through a supported feature like LendMe, or by cracking DRM and sharing the unrestricted books with their friends and family. In the digital era consumer always get what they want. In this case what consumers want is also good for the publishing industry.

24 Responses to “Is Book Sharing Really a Threat to Publishing?”

  1. Eoin Purcell says:

    Kirk,

    Nice summary and I totally agree with your perspective on this.

    Sometimes you do have to wonder what planet the executives that think this way live on because it rarely seems to bear any resemblance to our own!

    Eoin

  2. the word that springs to mind is “morons”
    There are hundreds of years of history of fair use encouraging reading. I have bought many new books because I’ve read a friends copy. I have also on-sold (for credit) many used books that I bought because I couldn’t find them at a library and only wanted to read them once (Dan Brown springs to mind!)

    I love the idea of having my library stored electronically and able to read any book any where any time (though I suspect the Kindle won’t last as well as Wired does in the sauna!) but unless there is a financial benefit to me I am not willing to see my fair use rights (and the doctrine of first sale) undermined while handing publishers and distributors (and that line will blur) more control.

    The Nook is better than the Kindle, though not allowing me to extend the loan or repeat the loan is a lame restriction (like the Zune had with 3 plays/3 days on a beamed song) and Sony seem to be looking to push the envelope a little further.

    Sadly I suspect the publishers and niche device vendors are not securing their future but hastening their demise as they force people to find better solutions to either create, distribute or purchase books – for instance like Robin Sloan is doing with his new novel http://bit.ly/4bKSBv

  3. @Eoin – The more I think about this, the more I’m convinced that this is an example of publishers being completely out of touch with the needs and expectations of consumers. As a result it does sometimes seem like they’re living on another planet.

    @offbeatmammal – Thanks for the link to Robin Sloan’s project. I contributed to that a while back, then completely forgot about it. It’s nice to see that he’s attracted so much support.

  4. Ardiril says:

    The analog solution is two ebook owners swapping their physical devices for a few weeks and reading each other’s books.

  5. Mike Morrell says:

    Okay, this makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Lending books is the best thing that could happen to any author, or publisher for that matter – it means that people care, and people are talking.

  6. Danny Bloom says:

    Kirk Biglione told me: re READING on paper surfaces VS reading on screens and there NEED, perhaps, Maybe, one day, organically, naturally, for a new word or term fo reading on a screen or maybe more than just one word:

    “Thanks Danny. You make an interesting point. I tend to think the word will
    have to evolve organically as digital reading environments evolve. If for
    no other reason, because not all screens are the same. Reading on a
    computer is obviously different from reading a printed book. But what about
    an eInk display? That experience is different from both a book and a
    computer. We may need more than one more word to describe all of the
    different types of reading we’ll have in the future.”

    My response: “yes, you are right, and I agree, —- screen reading is diff for
    computer screens and E-Ink screens and with many gadgets out there now
    and more soon, we might need MORE than just one new word….and YES,
    it must happen organically and naturally, we cannot just coin a word
    and make it stick…and i agree…….But the time to start thinking
    and talking about these new terms and tossing sample ideas around is
    NOW……..but the new word or terms won’t really HAPPEN until they
    are meant to happen, maybe 10 years from now, maybe 2025, but they
    will happen….MAYBE…..reading IS reading, and maybe the word
    READING will remain but with new meanings….Esther Dyson told me
    that! CAN YOU BLOG ON THIS IDEA, what I said, what you said, and ask
    readers to say what they want to say about this..JUST to keep the
    discussions going? Maybe ask readers of your blog: what do THEY think
    about new words for
    screen reading
    Kindle reading
    Nook reading
    etc.

    did you know KINDLING is already a verb at UrbanDictionary.com and
    also NOOKING, too., go look

    DANNY in Taiwan
    blogging at “zippy1300″ in the blogspot arena

    indie observer

  7. Dorothy says:

    The whole lending thing by libraries hasn’t crippled publishers, has it?

  8. No, none of you understand what is going on. The fact is that digital piracy is driving publishers’ fear of the lending feature. It’s one thing to share your print book with a friend or two, and it’s another to copy the ebook and share it with ten thousand friends. This is what has been happening with many bestselling books. Each pirated copy is taking money out of the publishers’ pockets, and in turn out of the authors’. So you are not going to gain anything by thinking that publishers will capitulate to the expectations of consumers who don’t care where the content comes from and how they get it. Stealing is stealing, period.

  9. Kirk Biglione says:

    Theresa – I assure you, we are alll well aware of what is going on here. Publishers’ fear of digital media piracy is the reason most require DRM to be used on their ebooks (with no regard for the problems that creates for consumers or the artificial barriers it crEates in the marketplace).

    This article is not advocating for unmitigated file sharing. Rather, it’s questioning why publishers who insist on using DRM to limit consumer rights are resisting using that same technology to give consumers a very limited simulation of the same rights they would have with a printed book.

  10. Steve in SF says:

    The answer to the “analog solution” is bio-ID technology whereby the digital device will only operate when it can recognize (via facial ID, or iris scanning) it’s legal user…
    I’m not liking the future I see coming. We will likely not be allowed to own copies of books, movies or music, but will pay per “play” automatically. You can see a bit of an impact on the concept of privacy…

  11. Paul Sweazey says:

    Even the limited nod to the right of consumers to share is a giant leap forward for which Barnes & Noble deserve credit. The IEEE is working on a standard that will make it possible for items of movies, music, books, and games to be consumer-ownable Digital Personal Property (DPP), in the same sense they they can own, use, and share printed books. We’re going to eliminate all of the ethical motivations that lead consumers to make or give away ripped copies. When the standard becomes available, singular eBooks will be possible that are hard to counterfeit, yet consumers will be able to make their own decisions about how they share their eBooks, with no imposed usage or sharing restrictions, and their purchases will be fully untethered from vendors.

    Few know that this is even technologically feasible, but the technology is the easy part. Barnes and Noble is taking the first steps, but who knows how long it will take some publishers and book sellers before they acknowledge that consumers have a fundamental need to own products — meaning that the sharing choices are a basic right of ownership as consumers define “ownership”.

  12. @Paul – I have no doubt that the IEEE has the best intentions or that it’s technically feasible to do any of the things you’ve mentioned. Technology isn’t the problem. The problem is that media companies would like to use consumer migration to digital content as an opportunity to move from content ownership to content licensing and rental. In the old world a consumer might pay for content and then use that content on a number of different devices. In the new world we can expect to be charged a fee for every usage scenario.

    @steve – You’re killing me. I’m afraid you might be onto something (and it’s not good). Let’s hope you’re just super paranoid.

  13. Todd Beals says:

    We’ve all been down this copy protection road many times before with music and then video…and now eBooks…The publishers need to realize that change is not only inevitable, but inherently good and we’re quickly moving to a dis-intermediated world…Darwin was right about who will survive (i.e. adapt or die) and the technology has been (and always will be) ahead of legislation and emerging business models…Sharing among trusted friends is basically ‘free marketing’ and there’s plenty of empirical evidence out there to support a complementary effect on book sales. I know its hard for the ‘Old Schoolers’, but Publishers need to embrace open and viral content strategies and not restrict the movement of the bits if they want to be around the next decade…

  14. Boo says:

    This could be the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard, how is it any different to sharing hard copies of a book? In fact the difference lies in the terms of lending which is much more restricted to ensure rightful proprietorship of the material. Just another shot in the foot for publishers, what world do they think they’re living in? In an industry which is already struggling you’d think the goal would be to adopt ways to encourage the spreading awareness of titles/authors which would most likely lead to related sales. So disappointingly nonconstructive.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Media Loper clarifies that ‘an ebook can be lent only once’ – To be clear, the LendMe feature is extremely limited. Books are lent for a maximum of 14 days. And unlike the library, there are no extensions. When a book is lent, the lender loses access, and once the book is returned to the lender it can never be lent again [...]

  2. [...] a post on Medialoper, Kirk Biglione reports that many publishers do not like the lending feature of Barnes and Noble’s [...]

  3. [...] contrast, here’s the sort of stuff publishers are focusing on right now: finding a way to keep readers from lending books to each other. No seriously, check it [...]

  4. [...] in fact the very idea strikes horror in the hearts of some publishing execs. Said one, according to medialoper, “if publishers agree to lending then every ebook offer now and in the future will come with this [...]

  5. [...] Is Book Sharing Really a Threat to Publishing? | Medialoper “Books are viral by nature, and the loaning of books is one of the main ways that the book virus spreads. We’ve all had friends push a favorite book on us. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s a life changing. Frequently we end up buying other books by the same author as a result of the initial loan. In that respect, loaned books are like a gateway drug. It’s in the publishing industry’s best interest to ensure that the loaning of books continues in the digital era.” [...]

  6. [...] Biglione wrote recently on another topic that (I paraphrase) ‘in a digital world consumers get what they want.’ At the moment, it seems readers only want lower prices. My hope is that deep-discounting [...]

  7. [...] customers had requested because it was lacking in other e-readers. Publishers, however, rushed to severely restrict the capabilities of the lending features. A book can only be lent once, only for fourteen days, and you have no access to that book while it [...]

  8. [...] Biglione wrote recently on another topic that (I paraphrase) ‘in a digital world consumers get what they want.’ At the moment, it seems readers only want lower prices. My hope is that deep-discounting [...]