Wednesday, May 22, 2013

No-Return eBook Lending

CC BY-NC by RoadSidePictures
When I was a kid, glass bottles were sold with deposits- a few pennies each. As a six year old I would help my dad collect our bottles and put them in the huge trunk of our car. I got to keep the change that the grocery store gave us in return for the "borrowed" bottles. This racket was foiled by new technology: the bottle companies figured out how to make bottles so cheap that returning them didn't make sense any more.

Library books, in a funny way, are like deposit soda bottles. We borrow the bound paper objects and consume the stories and knowledge they contain at home. Then we return the book to the library so someone else can drink deeply at the same fountain. The technology is changing, and the books have become ebooks.

So why do these library ebooks, which cost nothing to duplicate, need to be "returned"? It's only the license that gets returned; the bits themselves just get deactivated (via some form of digital rights management, DRM). The reason for the return is market segmentation. Publishers want to make their books available in libraries, but not in such a way that the library book substitutes for a consumer book purchase.

How does this market segmentation come about? You buy print books instead of borrowing them from a library for two reasons:

  1. buying the book is more convenient.
  2. if you buy the book, you get to keep it.

Whether you get the book from the library or buy it from a bookstore, you get to read the same book.

Library ebooks have so far tried to create both of these distinguishing factors. If someone else has an ebook on loan, you can't read it. Just try borrowing a popular ebook from your public library. Chances are you'll have to wait in a long queue before it's your turn. There are also usability barriers caused by the library's DRM that add "friction" to the lending process. When the lending period expires, the ebook vanishes from your ebook reader. That's more convenient than with print, because you don't have to go back to the library to return the book.

If you think a bit more deeply about the ebook, you'll realize that purchased-book attribute #1, ease of acquisition, is a completely separate thing from attribute #2, getting to keep it.

Imagine two new types of library books: one that's super-easy to acquire, but it vanishes after two weeks. With a second type, you have to wait your turn to get the ebook, but you get to keep it.

What? Impossible, you say?

Au contraire!

This past week, we witnessed the world's first example of an easy-to-get-but-vanishing library ebook. It's titled The Four Corners of the Sky and it's the ebook being offered in over 4,500 public libraries around the world through Overdrive, the dominant vendor of ebooks for public libraries. On June 1, or thereabouts, all these magic copies will vanish.

The other type, the one-user-at-a-time-but-you-get-to-keep-it library ebook, has actually been around for a while, in a very below-the-radar way. I think it's time to turn on the klieg lights. Because unlike the vanishing ebook, the get-to-keep-it ebook doesn't depend on DRM for its reality.

Publishers such as Carina Press have been allowing Overdrive to sell their ebooks to libraries without DRM. When lent, these books don't get returned, and the DRM doesn't vanish them, but the library doesn't lend the book to another patron until the end of the lending period. So the borrower doesn't have to return the ebook, except on the honor system.

When a library licenses a Carina Press title, what they get is a lending-rate-limited ebook, rather than a one-user-at-a-time book. It's my hypothesis that lending-rate-limits are responsible for the vast majority of library-ebook market segmentation today, and that the return requirement is relatively inconsequential. If that's true, we can eliminate DRM for library ebooks.

In Italy, a company called Medialibrary has done exactly that. They work with about 40 Italian publishers and a network of 2,500 libraries. Libraries pay the standard market price of the ebook to get an "archival copy" (for ever). Then they pay a fee for each lending. The ebook downloaded by patrons has a digital watermark identifying the user and the library. There's a limit of 60 downloads per copy, after which the library has to buy a new copy.

And I'm not saying there's never value in "keeping" an ebook. A cookbook, for example, is not something you're done with after a week. Libraries aren't about these books, for the most part. So the conclusion still holds: libraries can eliminate usage restricting software from most of the ebooks they lend.

The end of deposit bottles changed the workflow of households, retailers and the beverage industry, and created other changes, good and bad, that required a lengthy period of adjustment. Today, thanks to a more efficient and convenient delivery system, we spend more money on bottled liquids than ever.

I think it’s worth working on better ways to distribute the stuff inside books as efficiently as possible. And I think libraries can help make it happen. With no-return ebooks lending.

What do you think?


  1. "lending-rate-limits are responsible for the vast majority of library-ebook market segmentation today, and that the return requirement is relatively inconsequential. If that's true, we can eliminate DRM for library ebooks."

    I'd think publishers are also significantly influenced, in their pricing/term-setting, by perceived risk of unauthorized dissemination, if titles DRM-free. If the non-returnable library ebooks are fully DRM-free, perhaps just watermarked, wouldn't it seem more likely that I'd send copies to friends or post on my book-club or Torrent site, and negatively impact other sales?

    In theory, these possibilities can be explored via distribution arrangements like the ones you cite (Four Corners, Carina, Medialibrary). That is, if the conditions for rational experimentation are kept relatively open: which happens the more all parties consider their real goals, consider all possible practices open-mindedly, and are willing to do well-designed experiments and act upon the data.

    Incidentally, there are container deposit-refund systems in use around the world & in 11 U.S. states now, but based on legislation that sets the refund price, which may not have any relation to the materials/processing cost. The goals may be recycling, litter reduction, landfill diversion, etc.

    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick Palo Alto, CA

    1. Note that "Four Corners" is distributed with DRM.