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.