Amazon’s Kindle Textbook Rentals

Amazon had some good news this week for college students who like to save money, announcing a Kindle Textbook Rental program (Huffington Post: “Amazon Kindle Textbook Rental Offers Deep Discounts To Students”). For all those non-English major types who have to deal with hefty textbook prices every semester, Amazon’s foray into the online textbook rental business potentially means savings of up to 80% off of the egregiously high list prices. At first blush, there’s a lot to like. Students renting the Kindle textbooks can customize rental periods for how long they’ll need the books — anywhere from 30 to 360 days — and of course one of the best selling points for the Kindle is that rented texts are going to be available on any platform that supports the Kindle app.

Wired (“A Quick Guide To Kindle Rentals and the World of Digital Textbooks”) has a great breakdown about all of this in more detail. Among the reasons why Amazon’s approach with Kindle textbook rentals could work is the fact that it isn’t solely dependent on the Kindle device itself:

“Textbooks haven’t had much success on e-readers, partly because their bright-color, high-detail illustrations don’t translate to E Ink or even most color tablets. That’s a cost a textbook publisher can’t get back, and a student still winds up paying for.

Amazon gets around this through its PC and Mac applications, which can show off those illustrations in color and at scale. The E Ink Kindle becomes an ancillary device here, much like the mobile phone app is for a paperback novel: you can study up and make notes on the go, but most of your reading will be on the machine where it’s easiest to type notes and where you do the rest of your schoolwork.”

Moreover, there is a lot of truth to how the digital textbook market is a much different thing than the market for other kinds of ebooks, with its own set of problems. There hasn’t been one solution that’s clearly won out over others, at least thus far. Primarily, it’s a difference of how the books are read:

“Textbooks, though, are a constant reminder that the book industry is both gigantic and fundamentally weird. Textbooks have less to do with trade paperbacks than distant relatives in the same family. The publishers are different; the readers are different; and most importantly, the ways that readers buy and use their books are different. And even within the subdomain of textbooks, reader expectations and behavior vary wildly.

Textbooks are typically built to last forever, but are constantly updated and reissued. They’re chosen by teachers, but bought by students. They’re read for information, not pleasure.”

And could this new Kindle textbook initiative have something to do with the rumored upcoming Amazon tablet? (I’m guessing, “yes”).

Keep in mind that the Kindle DX was originally marketed as the device for ebook versions of textbooks (check out this Wired article for some good background thoughts on the Kindle DX and textbooks). MacWorld (“Amazon unveils Kindle Textbook Rental”) makes a useful point on the economics of ebook textbook rentals — “since there’s no ‘used’ aftermarket for ebooks, students often found that used paperback textbooks could be priced competitively compared to their Kindle editions” — Kindle textbook rental prices makes more sense from a buyer’s perspective.

And here’s something that hadn’t occurred to me until I read it: Information Week (“Amazon Tablet’s Secret Sauce For Beating Apple”) speculates that Whispersync could be the real story within the story:

“Whispersync is Amazon’s syncing service that works in tandem with Whispernet, a free cellular-based network piggybacking off Sprint that 3G Kindle users can already connect to for free. Up until this week, Whispersync has been used mainly for bookmarking Amazon e-books. It allows readers to pick up where they left off reading, even when switching between different Kindle devices and platforms.”

To me, what makes Amazon’s Kindle Textbooks interesting and useful is the fact that the company made the right choice when it comes to user note-taking. Notes and highlights from the texts are still available even after the textbook rental expires:

“We’re extending our Whispersync technology so that you get to keep and access all of your notes and highlighted content in the Amazon Cloud, available anytime, anywhere — even after a rental expires,” said Limp. “If you choose to rent again or buy at a later time, your notes will be there just as you left them, perfectly Whispersynced.”

As this theory goes, while this use of Whispersync is certainly useful for books, it could be a much bigger deal when it comes to movies, music, and other digital content — in other words, a potentially very useful cloud service that could make an Amazon tablet something quite competitive in relation to an iPad. Hmm. Sure, it’s all speculative, but it’s an interesting theory.

Here’s a link to Amazon’s Kindle Textbook Rental program.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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