Why not Book Rentals?

It remains a mystery to me why a Netflix-like system for books does not exist*. What makes such a service non-viable, do you think? What explains why nobody has tried it? I realize that shipping is expensive (as evidenced by Netlfix’s attempts to shift towards streaming over mailing out DVDs). However, is shipping so expensive as to render the entire Netflix-for-books model unprofitable? Is there no combination of price, take-up, and selection under which a business model can be in the black? What economics factors am I missing?

Moreover, what about a “streaming” service for book lending, i.e. lending e-books for a fee? While the First Sale Principle does not apply to electronic materials, thus making lending an “ask the copyright holders (usually the publishers) for permission” business, surely such a deal, if profitable, can be worked out. Don’t publishers have an interest in initiating a lending program since they object to Amazon Owners’ Lending Library and actual libraries lending out e-books? Although publishers have concerns about ebook loans cannibalizing the most profitable part of their business, hardcover book sales, shouldn’t they also be asking themselves, “how do we run a profitable business giving consumers what they want, e.g. ebooks, most of which are read once and never again, thus recommending a rental model?”. Fair or not, why do big commercial publishers come across as being obsessed with asking the question “how do we limit the options so that consumers have to buy our content in the format currently most profitable for us?” instead? Why is it that of all the different e-book lending models being tested, none seems to have been spearheaded or much approved by the big publishers?

Can it really be that book lending as a business is of such poor prospects that neither an all-you-can-eat model a la Netflix nor a per-use model a la Amazon one-time movie stream is viable? Or are publishers, like most of us mortals, too uncertainty-adverse to throw their weight (and money) behind any such attempt?

*: Although Amazon has a Kindle Textbook Rental program and Chegg rents both print textbooks and their electronic versions, rental efforts are aimed exclusively at the longer-term, educational texts market. In contrast, I’m asking questions regarding trade books lending.

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2 Responses to Why not Book Rentals?

  1. According to this article, the CEO of Safari Books Online thinks that the streaming of books a la the Netflix model is “inevitable”. I guess we’ll see, but I’d prefer to see such a service materialize sooner rather than later.

  2. Amazon now has an all-you-can-eat model for children’s content. Check out this Kindle Free Time Unlimited program with the tagline “with this simple, easy-to-use service, kids get unlimited access to thousands of books, movies, educational apps, games, and TV shows” here.

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