eBooks and the Changing Experience of Book Lending

Lending and sharing books is one of the most enjoyable social aspects of having and reading books. So how does this social practice evolve as readers expand from printed books to ebooks?

Since Amazon (finally) decided to allow loaning of Kindle books amongst Kindle users, this seems to have led to a growing community of ebook sharers. (You can find the unabridged version of Amazon’s new Kindle lending policy here).

The Economist has a Babbage blog post (“Lending e-books: Either a borrower or a lender be”) highlighting two relatively new websites that are serving to expand the reach of ebook lending, within the current Amazon and Barnes & Noble sharing policies. Both BookLending and Lendle.me have built in social incentives to encourage sharing and fairness (a “social contract” of ebooks) within its user community:

“Each middleman adopts a slightly different approach, in particular with regard to the social contract involved. Book Lender allows any registered user to request available books, and does not throttle requests. Nor does it require reciprocity, though frequent lenders get a boost in the queues for popular books. Lendle takes a different tack. Before anyone can borrow a book, he has to offer to loan at least one other, racking up two borrowing credits in return. “Lendlers” found to be accepting requests without fulfilling them will be banned.”

The Wall Street Journal (“eBook Lending Takes Off”) also adds soon-to-be-launched eBookFling.com to the mix of ebook lending websites and shares some noteworthy research estimates: “around 10 million e-readers in circulation in the U.S. at the end of 2010, nearly tripling the 3.7 million at the end of 2009.”

Meanwhile, an article from The Globe and Mail (“The rise of the e-book lending library (and the death of e-book pirating)”) speculates that there might be some differences between how users of digital music and movies. I don’t know about this part, though: “‘Book readers are very honest people,’ eBook Fling’s Burke said. ‘They’re not like the hackers who are trying to steal files from each another.’” Can’t hackers be book readers too?

Harper Collins’ recent decision to set loan limits of their ebooks with libraries (Harper Collins ebooks can only be checked out a maximum of 26 times per title before a new license would need to be purchased, where previously it had been an unlimited number of times) has caused some waves. As Publishers Weekly reports, this new policy has left librarians miffed — reactions on both the publishing side and the libraries* side underscore the uneasy relationship involved with opposing sets of interests when it comes to ebooks:

Indeed as the popularity of e-books have grown, publishers have grown even more leery of the role of libraries in lending e-books, fearful that the availability of digital books from a library will make it far too easy to avoid buying them from a retailer. Typically libraries buy licenses to titles that allow e-books to be checked out one at a time like a physical book — another concession to publishers that irritates many librarians — a practice that denies the obvious ability of digital content to be loaned to an unlimited number of library patrons.”

While perhaps stating the obvious, there are clearly many things that still need to be figured out as publishers and libraries shift more and more from books as physical objects to less tangible, digital copies.

*And more generally speaking, here’s a list of libraries that have ebook lending.


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

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