Friday, November 04, 2011

Renting Books?

My ballet teacher is back and everything in class is back to normal -- including having other people in the class -- so at least that part of my world is right once more. When your main form of stress relief becomes stressful, that makes things difficult. But since I'd missed a couple of classes after being scarred for life by the one-on-one session, I suspect some soreness will kick in later today. I hope it's not too bad because I've got a party to go to tonight, a real grown-up party. It's a wine tasting, so that means no Tylenol.

This week, Amazon started a kind of rental program for e-books. Right now, it sounds kind of like a Netflix model -- Prime members can borrow up to one book a month, one at a time, with no due date -- but it also seems like they're trying to demonstrate that e-book rentals can work before rolling out something on a bigger scale. As usual with anything new, that's resulting in the publishing industry wailing, gnashing their teeth, rending their garments and screaming, "The world's coming to an end!!! We're all going to die!!!"

As a reader, I think this sounds like an awesome idea and might be the sort of thing that would push me into buying a Kindle (I'd prefer something less proprietary -- and if other e-book vendors do this sort of thing, I'd go with that). I might actually start spending money on books again. Due to a variety of reasons, I've bought only two new books this year and I've set foot in a bookstore twice. That's in spite of me being a big-time reader.

One reason is convenience. My book purchasing declined significantly when they opened a new library branch a couple of blocks from my house. I hate to drive, and if I can take a very pleasant walk to a place where the books are free, then that's what I'll do. I imagine I might buy a few more books if it were the bookstore instead of the library just down the street.

But I think a bigger part of the reason is a combination of price, current publishing trends and clutter. When mass market paperbacks were about three dollars, they were an impulse purchase. I was a lot more willing to take a chance on something that sounded interesting because it was no big loss if I didn't like it. Now a mass market paperback is about eight dollars. Buying one is a decision, and it's a bigger loss if I don't like it. Meanwhile, what editors currently think people want to read is not lining up with what I want to read, so there are very few books I'm interested in purchasing these days, and even when I hear they're good, the subject matter is iffy, so I'm not eager to shell out eight bucks to see if maybe the book overcomes the subject matter. In most of the cases when there was something that sounded interesting to me and I bought the book, I've been burned by discovering that the book itself still fit more with the current trends than with my interests. I've gotten into a couple of new series in the past few years, but otherwise all the new books I've bought have gone straight into the "sell to the used bookstore" box. I haven't even shared them with my mom because I know she wouldn't like them. And that brings me to the clutter problem. My house is overflowing with books, so I don't want to add anything new that I don't love. If I buy a book and don't like it, then I have to deal with it in some way. Most of the new books I've bought in the past few years have been either authors/series I already know I like or keeper copies of books I initially read from the library. I know an e-reader would eliminate the clutter problem, but that still leaves the problem of paying eight to ten dollars for something I end up not liking.

But if I could pay two or three dollars to rent an e-book for a few weeks, I'd spend a lot more money on books because it's a lower risk. I'd be a little more adventurous, try a lot more new authors, and I'd get things when they first became available instead of waiting for them to show up at the library. It would be cool if you had the option to buy a book after renting it and your rental fee applied to the purchase price, so if I did like a book enough that I might want to read it again, I could have a copy to keep. If I didn't like the book, it wouldn't be left cluttering my house or my e-reader. I'd probably still buy the same books I already buy, but I'd then be spending a fair amount of additional money on the rentals, and the rentals would likely lead to a few more full-on sales than there would have been without them. I might still use the library a lot, but there are a lot of things (usually the mass market genre fiction) that I can't readily find at the library, and that would add to the library as a way of test driving books before I buy them.

As an author, I also think this is a great idea. I'd rather get maybe 25 cents a copy from a rental book (about what I got in royalties per copy when I wrote mass-market paperbacks that sold for $3.50) than not get anything at all from people not buying my books because they weren't willing to pay the full price for a book they weren't sure about. And then there's always the chance that the rental would lead to a purchase and then subsequent purchases of other books I've written. The boom in self-publishing, with success coming from mass sales of very low-priced e-books, has shown that e-book readers are willing to take chances when there's little financial risk. It seems silly for publishers not to come up with a model to take advantage of that, and rental seems like a way to offer a lower price while still not entirely eliminating the market for selling books. There are people who never re-read books, but they tend to be voracious readers who would still amount to a lot of revenue even just from rentals. I think, though, that a lot of avid readers do want their own copies of books they know they love, even if they've already read them. Even if they don't, I'd bet the numbers would still work out due to volume. You could make more money on five people renting a book than you would on one person buying a book, and while the rental option might mean some would-be purchasers would rent instead, I think there would be far more people renting who otherwise wouldn't have bought the book.

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