Ebook Lending: the Good, the Bad, and the Not Quite There

This post was written for Beyond the Margins, an excellent source of writerly wisdom and (sometimes) hilarity. I’ve since updated it, based on comments on that blog and some other recent news stories.

There are bookstores, there are libraries—and then there’s my friend Kim. Every time we get together, she hands me a book. It’s usually a story I really enjoy, and it is always one that leads me into a new world. Best of all, I haven’t had to go seek it out anywhere—the Kim books come to me.

I also pass her carefully selected books, and this inter-friend loan is one reason I didn’t adopt ebooks more quickly. But as we head into 2012, it is now possible to loan an ebook to a friend. We can even take ebooks out of the library.

Now at first, all this ebook lending and borrowing might not seem like it has any benefit to authors. But I would argue that increasing book availability will help reading compete with all the other entertainment options. Borrowers are not always would-be buyers, but they might recommend your book to a friend (or two) who will want to own it. As the logistics smooth out, ebook borrowers will be no different.

Here’s a peek at how it all works—and my vote on whether it’s good, bad, or not quite there.

Ebook Loans
Loaning ebooks from a personal library is an option for both Nook and Kindle owners. Both programs are an opt-in for publishers, but hopefully as the system proves itself, more and more books will be included.

The loan is valid for fourteen days (during which time you do not have access the book), so your friends can’t leave it wallowing on their virtual bedside table for too long.

I did some digging around the Barnes and Noble site and I have to say I wasn’t impressed. One link from the home page to the LendMe Books page was actually broken; even when I finally got there, there was no explanation—just a “Top LendMe NOOKBooks” table of book covers. I’m guessing you can loan ebooks you own to friends/family who also have NOOKs, but a detailed search for program rules led me nowhere. And the most avid NOOK user I know (my hairdresser) hadn’t even heard of the program.

Update: another Nook owner reports that all the info you need about LendMe Books is included in the Nook User’s Guide, which is included (of course) on every Nook.

By contrast, the Amazon Kindle lending program makes it very easy to share ebooks from your library with any U.S. resident. The borrower can download the book and read it on any platform with a Kindle app. Sharing a favorite ebook becomes almost like handing over a paper copy. Best of all, the return is automatic.

Amazon Prime members can also borrow one ebook per month (which some speculate is a trial run at offering a subscription-based Netflix-like library). There’s no due date on these books, so you can read them as slowly as you want. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Amazon is by far the easiest way to borrow and lend ebooks.

Library Loans
For the library lover, all you need is a valid library card to check out an ebook. It may not come from your favorite library, but with digital transfers the actual location hardly matters.

From my local library’s website I can access the Ocean State Libraries E-Zone page.  From there I can browse for a book—though I won’t pretend it’s at all comparable to pulling a crinkly plastic-wrapped hardcover off an actual shelf and inhaling the musty scent of stored paper. Once I’ve selected what I want, I enter my library card number and desired format (Kindle, ePub, PDF, or Overdrive).

So far, books I’ve chosen are only available for a “hold.” When the title becomes available, which is usually after a few days, I receive an email and have three days to download the book.

I’m guessing this is because demand currently exceeds supply, and I expect this will become more instantaneous in the not too distant future. Ebook libraries are still in their evolutionary infancy; even in the two months since I borrowed my first ebook, the process has improved dramatically.

This system has also brought up new concerns about privacy. The Kindle version is borrowed through the Amazon Manage Your Kindle page, which means that Amazon is keeping track of what you borrow. At least in California, that may be illegal under the Reader Privacy Act. Stay tuned for more developments on this topic.

Update: A recent Wall Street Journal article makes it clear that library elending is growing fast in popularity.  “Amazon declined to say how many e-books have been borrowed, but in the past month, registrations have doubled on the New York Public Library’s website. Each day, the library’s website averages 2,000 e-book checkouts and signs up about 200 new users.” Read the full article (Warning: Link may expire after a few days.)

I’m enough of a believer in ebook lending that I’m going to look into donating electronic copies of my three books to my local library network—one very small drop in the bucket of ebook lending supplies. I’ll be able to share my books with a wider audience by helping to fill the virtual shelves of libraries within the local network.

Ebook lending may not be as wonderful as receiving the perfect pre-selected read from Kim, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.

Carol Newman Cronin

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