Thursday, December 30, 2010

Amazon's ebook lending scheme unsettles the usual suspects

Amazon has a new feature for Kindle books where someone who has bought one may lend it to someone else for a limited period of time. I'll skip all the really boring details that would only interest a publisher--if even. I'm a small publisher, and even I find the numbers and terms and little nuts and bolts of it really fucking boring. But for Kindle users, it seems pretty damn cool. But for some small e-publishers, it's the end of the goddamned world because people will illegally steal all their books, because Amazon is a hegemonic Great Satan, they will opt out and even pull all their titles from Amazon, et cetera (at least today, and really just in the way that everything Amazon ever does is the end of the world for a day or two until everyone either forgets about it entirely or takes a pill).

I'm a lurker member of a forum for digital publishers. I keep up on what they discuss by way of emails from a Google Group. I have only commented to the group twice in about a year and a half because I generally don't know much about what they are talking about since I am not as big an ebook publisher as most of the other members and I don't feel as smart as most of them on most topics that they discuss. The first time I spoke up in the group was to suggest to some members that they call off the hysterical lynch-mob mentality over that douche in Colorado with the stupid pedophile book on Amazon (that no one would ever have heard of were it not for internet echo chambers). The second time I commented was just a little while ago this evening. This is what I said in response to a thread of comments that seemed overwhelmingly of the "AMAZON IS THE DEVILLL" and "PEOPLE ARE STEALING OUR STUFF" bent:

What about the possibility that lending could attract new readers that you don't have now to buy new titles? That's exactly how it works with print books. Nearly every author that I have gotten excited about and bought books from is one that I learned about because someone lent me a copy of a print book that that they liked or I read something cool that I got from the library and then ended up buying my own copy or buying other titles by the same writer. Or bought a used copy of something and then later bought new stuff from the same author. This is especially true of some of the more obscure and unknown stuff.

Things are always changing with e-publishing and none of it's perfect yet, but I think that any publisher who believes that they can expand their business by NOT dealing with Amazon is living in a total fantasy world. Amazon's not going away and they are not going to give up on all their plans because a few minor pubs are worried about file-sharing. And opting for a lower percentage to avoid the lending scheme is going to do nothing but reduce your royalties and probably ultimately limit your readership. We'll see how this plays out over time, but I will be shocked if anyone loses a dime because of this. Because the people "borrowing" your reader's copy weren't ever going to buy it from you anyway--you didn't even have that customer to begin with and probably were never going to get them. But now you might because someone new, some friend of friend, might say, "Wow, this is cool! Where do I get more?" Almost everything on my shelves of print books got there in exactly this way, and it can work like that with ebooks, too.

So, what does anyone think about this? Did I make any sense, or am I totally smoking something? It just seems like common sense to me that if you have an interesting book and author to offer, then the more people who know about it will ipso facto result in better sales. My little press makes no money, but it brought in a lot (relatively speaking) more in Year Two than it did in Year One. Year Two was a year in which I straight up gave away lots and lots of content just to get it in front of some new people. I'd really like to sell a lot more copies of M-Brane SF Quarterly #1 (a print book, not a Kindle book). While it has not been made available as an ebook, I do have a PDF of it that I could release if I wanted to. I bet that if I gave away a hundred copies of that for free and encouraged those hundred recipients to share it with at least one other person, I would sell at least ten copies of the print book to people who had never heard of M-Brane before. And I'd have at least two hundred people who would have thought about us recently and might buy something from us later. And what I would lose? Nothing. In fact, I'd gain about thirty bucks in royalties from selling ten print copies and I'd get new readers that I didn't have before. Who might buy stuff later. Because of how frakkin' cool our stuff is. I'm considering it. 

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karen wester newton said...

When I checked my list of Kindle books (I have over 200) quite a large number do not have the "Lend" button which means the publisher of that book has turned that feature off.

I agree this is short sighted. The lending feature is very restrictive at best -- one 2-week loan per book -- so what's the big deal with trying to get new readers for an author by lending a book?

Of the books I checked, the 3 small press (all Hadley-Rille, I think) were lendable, as were the 2 from Macmillan (one Tor and one Minotaur Book). Not so Houghton Mifflin, Sourcebooks, or Simon & Schuster. All those publishers seemed to have turned off lending.

Christopher Fletcher said...

As I understand it, if a publisher opts out of the lending program then they also have to downgrade to a lower percentage. A while ago, Amazon offered e-publishers a way to collect 70% percent royalties on their Kindle sales (twice what it used to be). There are some rules on that (which some pubs also hate), but still: 70% versus 35%. Evidently one can no longer get that 70% royalty if one opts out of the lending. Which just seems dumb for a small-time publisher with relatively unknown authors. That a Big Time Player like Simon & Schuster would not participate seems dumb in a different way--that they are still "Old Media" and don't get it that sharing is what makes culture grow. It's the same attitude that record companies have always had, and look what's happened: more music is selling than ever before even in an age of supposedly rampant theft but not all that money is going to the same places anymore.

T.J. McIntyre said...

I think the new lend feature is great from the perspective of a reader and a writer. I see a future where online social networks of various fans in different genres can become their own libraries across state/national/even continental lines. How cool is that???

Red Bakersen said...

You nailed it right on the head. ;)
I don't know why, but so many people love to get themselves worked up in a lather over stupid little things that will probably be good for them. Some people just need to be pissed I guess.

Christopher Fletcher said...

TJ: Agreed. Lots of cool possibilities there, and a lot of things will happens that we probably can't predict now.

Red: Agreed, and it also strikes me as a douchey "First World Problem." While people in the US are worrying over "piracy" of types of ebooks that hardly anyone wants to read anyway--I mean, let's face it, yo--cheap e-readers will soon become available and help spread reading and new ideas and create new creators all over the world in places where they can't afford to buy shit on Amazon anyway and have no access to traditional bookstores. This will happen in large part by lending.

Anonymous said...

Back in high school, my friend lent me his Dragonlance and Empire Trilogy books. I borrowed them twice, if I remember correctly.

Then, years later, I bought copies of my own because I missed visiting those worlds. When I lent the books to others, in what seems to be a one-way deal, I bought new copies.

I really don't see the logic in complaining about Kindle's lending capability. If a book is good, no matter the form, bibliophiles will end up buying it for keeps. We love revisiting good stories.

Now, if only Kindle is made available in Malaysia. More choices at iBooks would be good, too.

Ed Robertson said...

It's definitely foolish to get too up in arms about this. Readers live for voices they can dream with. That means two things: rereading the works they fell in love with, and devouring everything else that author puts out.

Anecdotal: a couple weeks ago a friend lent me Cloud Atlas, a book that's recently been on my radar. It was good. I'm soon going to mail it back back to my friend, and may never buy a copy for myself. But the chance I'll buy Mitchell's other works, or copies of Cloud Atlas for my friends and family, has instantly jumped from zero to probable.

Anonymous said...

I was just talking with a friend at Christmas about how the inability to lend an ebook is one of the big reasons neither of us have bothered with an ebook reader yet. In my opinion the current lending option is too limited (when someone lends me a book, I rarely have the time to get it back to them in only two weeks), but it is a step in the right direction.


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