What is the Future of Books? Kindle Lending Library, Piracy, and More!

Going to your local public library? Don’t forget your e-reader. Amazon recently announced that their new Kindle Lending Library feature will be arriving “later this year”. The Kindle Lending Library will allow over 11,000 public libraries in the US to lend copies of digital books to Kindle users for short periods of time (probably 7-14 days). This lending system will be run byOverDrive,which already has similar programs in place for iPads and other platforms. Now that public libraries, one of the last bastions of printed media, are thoroughly open to digital lending, the death of physical books seems more inevitable than ever. How will the demise of print change reading in the 21st century?

While Amazon hasn’t released many of the details of their Kindle Lending Library scheme, OverDrive’s software for managing public loaning of digital books, called Media Console, is old news. CNet gives a good look at how it works in the video below, but there aren’t any big surprises. You download digital rights management (DRM) protected books from your library. After these copies hit their expiration date they get removed from your copy of Media Console. Typical lending periods are either one or two weeks, and each library is limited by the number of copies it legally owns. The only news to add to CNet’s coverage is that OverDrive is now working with Apple for the iPad and will be bringing their expertise to Kindle sometime in 2011.

So public libraries in the US can now lend ebooks out to their patrons. Big deal, right? I mean, that alone can’t kill printed media, could it? No, of course not…but this trend is far from being alone. Everywhere you look, the rise of ebooks over printed copies seems clear. While digital downloads still only make up about 9% of the total book market, other indicators show that this share is going to increase considerably. The Kindle is Amazon’s top seller with ebook sales surpassing paperback sales this past January (2011). Barnes and Noble sold 1 million ebooks on Christmas Day in 2010. Apple has sold 100 million digital tomes since the iBooks store opened. According to Codex Forrester and Gartner Research 30% of all readers in the US consume both digital and physical books, with sales of digital books totaling about $70 million per month in January 2010. During that same period, adult paperback sales dropped to $83.6 million, down from $104.2 million the previous January. Codex Forrester and Gartner Research predict that there will be 18 million e-readers sold in 2011 (basically double the 2010 figures) and that 35% of readers will consume digital books. These trends will continue in the years ahead.

There are differing opinions as to what year will see digital downloads become the clear majority of book sales by number and revenue. Could be as early as 2015, probably not going to be later than 2025. There’s also debate as to what level printed media will sink to. It’s unlikely that physical books will completely disappear, but will they account for just 30% of sales? 10%? 1%? As interesting as that debate can be, I find it is dwarfed by a much larger question: how is the ‘death’ of print going to change media forever?

Things are already changing. Your average physical book is retailing for around $15, while ebooks average closer to $9. The difference can’t be attributed to the loss of physicality alone, in traditional models of publication making the book usually only accounts for 10-20% of the price and generally is less than $3 for most titles. It may have something to do with the nature of book return policies (unsold physical books are returned to the publisher who passes the cost onto you the reader via higher prices). Fundamentally, however, I think we value digital books less, and probably at least in part because they are essentially free to recreate.

Which brings us to the 600 pound gorilla in the room – why are people going to pay for something that is free to copy? Publishing companies are scrambling to find ways to maximize their profits by making deals with Google, Amazon, Apple, and other ebook providers about shared costs, availability, revenue rates, etc, etc. These companies, along with publishers, spend millions making sure that books are available digitally in their special little DRM-protected zones of distribution. Yet anyone with a scanner, some object character recognition, and some time can produce a DRM-free copy of any book that is sold (physical or digital). Pirating books is really really easy.

That is probably why it’s so rampant. Even the briefest of web searchers will find you hundreds of torrents that contain massive lists of books. Text files are small and easy to share. You can get an author’s entire lifework in less than half an hour. And that’s for really prolific writers. Most novelists can be pirated in ten minutes or less. Many torrents don’t even focus on a single writer, they put hundreds or thousands of books in a single group totaling a few gigabytes of data. You thought theft of music and movies changed those industries – think what it could do to books! Everything you could ever want to read could be yours in minutes, for free, and at the same quality as the DRM versions available for $10. What would you choose?

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