Ownership’s a funny thing. Before I was an author, I didn’t think twice about lending or reselling a book. After all, it’s mine – I can do with it as I see fit, surely?
It used to be the same with music – how many people of my age have gone through the hassle of getting back the records they lent to their ex-girlfriends? Over the last decade, our attitudes towards ownership have changed. ‘Lending’ a music track to a friend is now called piracy, or even theft. What’s changed? It’s my track – why can’t I lend it to someone?
Well, the analogy doesn’t quite hold up of course. When I ‘lend’ a music track, I’ve made a copy to do so; in reality I’m ‘giving’ it them. And this, I think, is probably one of the biggest flaws with iTunes.
One has to wonder, if you could actually lend music tracks, how much of a dent it would make in piracy? You lend a track to a friend – and while your friend has it, you can’t listen to it. When you get it back, you can listen to it again. Your friend gets to find out if they like the track – but it can’t be copied ad infinitum. Such technology can’t be beyond the wit of Apple. Customers and music companies alike would love it.
That’s what Amazon’s just done with the Kindle. Kindle owners can now lend a Kindle title – even a title controlled with Digital Rights Management – to another Kindle owner. While their friend has the title, they can’t read it – and the lending period is fixed at 10 days, no more. Which is easily enough to either read a book or find out whether you want to buy it.
As a reader and Kindle owner, I would have been delighted with this news. Not being able to lend e-books was the Achilles’ heel of the format – the one real and true benefit that real books have over digital ones.
As a writer, I felt somewhat challenged. You only have to look at the price for The Well to realise I don’t make much money from it. It’s priced low – well, I’m not Stephen King, am I? So, if people are lending my books, does that mean fewer people are buying it? Am I losing sales?
After pondering on it, I decided to relax. If digital books didn’t exist, then paper books would still be changing hands – either being lent or sold. It’s a system that’s worked for hundreds of years – I’ll live with it.
In fact, I embrace it – if it gets my name about, on balance, I think it’s a benefit. I’d probably go further, too: if Amazon can come up with a way of people selling their e-books on to someone else – and Amazon, the seller and the author get a split of the revenue – then I’m up for it.
It’s brilliant thinking and demonstrates Amazon’s fundamental understanding of how people want to use its products. Compare that to Apple’s dismissive stance – Steve Jobs famously said: “The fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”
(Yes, the pedant in me would like to point out that it’s one book fewer and if perhaps Mr Jobs read more than one book a year, he’d know that.)
Even if that statistic is true and wasn’t plucked from the air, book publishing is still an industry worth billions every year. As printed books decline and e-books take over, it’s important that the business model is a fair one.
I’d take Amazon’s approach to e-books over Apple’s approach to music any day. Keep up at the back there, Cupertino.