The Use-Value of eBooks: Rent or Buy eBooks?

Would people rather own ebooks, or rent them? That’s the big question at the core of rumors of Amazon’s plans for ebook subscription. CNET (“Amazon e-book subscription? Publishers should join”) gives a solid overview of the issues worth thinking about.

All of this to me raises a rather interesting question about the use-value of an ebook. If it’s an ebook only intended to be read once (“disposable reading” as I call it), would people rather pay for a monthly or yearly fixed rate to read as many such ebooks as they please?

The ownership of digital matter is shaky at best, and the ownership of digital ebooks has some drawbacks to the trusty used paperbacks — “with e-books, selling used copies isn’t allowed, and lending is constrained if it’s allowed at all, so the value of a book that’s been read drops dramatically”

It’s an interesting thought problem. On the one hand, let’s pretend there is a service from Amazon — or perhaps free with Amazon Prime — in which you can read as many ebooks as you’d like per month. Would this cause people to read more? Or, is this going to end up being like what most people do with gym memberships?

Why this is ebook subscription plans are so interesting is that the issues raised have to do with the fundamental makeup of the medium:

“digital technology is radically transforming the old ways of exchanging information — on paper, on CDs, on DVDs, on TV, in movie theaters. There are three reasons. First, the underlying information now can be encoded in digital form. Second, digital data can be copied with trivial ease. Third, those copies can be distributed globally over the Internet with trivial ease.”

Netflix (movies), Hulu (TV), Apple (music) have all succeeded with building successful and profitable models with different species of digital content. So, what about books? Could Amazon do the same? Or, are we comparing apples to kindles?

All that being said, the most interesting side of this question centers around the content producers. You know, book publishers. Should publishers get on board with an ebook subscription plan? Would this help or hurt?

“Here’s the thing, though. The Internet is famously good at disintermediation — a useful bit of jargon that means taking away the middleman. In the book business, the middlemen are bookstores. They’re essential for getting the product into the hands of customers, because distribution of physical books is hard — trucks, inventory, paying the rent for a spot in the mall …

But it’s probably better for the publishers to get on board with a subscription offer. The pride of ownership is already much reduced with e-books — pulling out the Kindle just doesn’t compare with an imposing, well-stocked bookshelf when it comes to showing off your erudition when the dinner party guests arrive. E-books lack the “furniture factor,” as one publishing executive phrased it to me. Books are becoming an entertainment service, and publishers’ catalogs are becoming live assets, not inventory to be shifted out of the warehouse.”

“Furniture factor” aside, that last bit got me thinking. Books as an entertainment service? Interesting. I honestly don’t know if such an Amazon ebook subscription plan is a good or bad thing for publishers (here’s guessing they’re more or less thinking the same thing right now).

And, last but certainly not least: what about the libraries? (See also: Everything You Need to Know About the Amazon Kindle and Library Books). This is where things become very unclear to me, especially as more and more libraries are slowly but surely incorporating Kindle ebook lending within their collections.

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As ZDNET (“Amazon eyes Netflix for e-books: A move to get more Prime subscribers”) correctly surmises, it’s all about Amazon Prime. Just like the strategy behind the Kindle Fire, an Amazon Prime ebook subscription plan would be yet another reason for users to live within the Amazon digital content ecosystem. And that’s pretty win-win for Amazon, as Wired (“Book Publishers Should Be Wary of Amazon’s Subscription Plans”) suggests:

“Once you have it, you will use it; once you use it, you will wonder how you lived without it. And if you subscribe to Prime expressly for the digital book catalog, you may find yourself buying more e-books for your Kindle/tablet and even availing yourself of two-day delivery to pick up a few more hardcovers and small appliances — from Amazon, of course.”

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

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