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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

E-book lending services ramping up as e-readers storm the market

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consumer electronicsAmazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and other sellers of electronic books and readers have been working to improve upon the experience of getting lost in a good read. Until recently, however, the rapidly growing e-literature market has been hard-pressed to emulate one of the fundamental joys of book ownership—lending.


Over the past month Amazon, Barnes & Noble and a number of startups have begun to remedy this by offering the ability to share e-books purchased for Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers. E-book lending is pretty straightforward but often comes with restrictions. Not all e-books are lendable—it's up to the book's original publisher to allow sellers to offer lending for a particular e-book title, and the loan duration is typically only 14 days. In general each e-book can be loaned only once and, while the book is on loan, the original owner isn't able to read the book on his or her device.


With Amazon Kindle's lending service, available in the U.S. only, any notes or highlights that the lender has made are not visible to the borrower, although when the book is returned, the owner's notes and highlights reappear. Likewise, the lender is unable to see any notes or highlights made by the borrower during the loan.


Efforts by Amazon and Barnes & Noble to get publishers to loosen up rights management have begun to open up a market for startup service providers looking to facilitate different forms of book swapping. BookSwim.com, an online book rental company that operates like Netflix, last week launched its eBookFling rental service, where readers use credits to borrow the rights to download a particular title from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Lenders choose which of their e-books they want to offer and receive one credit for every five books they list with the site (credits are also earned for each of their books that is borrowed). They are notified by e-mail or text message when a borrower selects their book and upon acceptance, they must complete the transaction through Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com.


Another new service, Kindle Lending Club, matches lenders and borrowers of Kindle e-books via Facebook. The Internet Archive is also developing a book-lending and sales service call BookServer. Not to be left out, thousands of libraries are likewise offering e-books on loan and are rapidly expanding their catalogs. Sony enables e-book borrowing from libraries via the company's Reader lineup.


Amazon says it is now selling millions of its third-generation Kindle. Since the beginning of 2011, the company is selling 115 Kindle books for every 100 paperback books sold (and that doesn't include e-books that Amazon gives away for free). Barnes & Noble is similarly vague with its exact e-book and Nook sales numbers but did point out recently in a press release that the company "sold virtually its entire inventory of NOOKcolor and E Ink devices during the holiday season." Spurred by the Nook's success, Barnes & Noble's Web site saw its sales increase 78 percent during the 2010 holiday season, compared with the same time period in 2009. Apple isn't afraid to supply actual hardware numbers, claiming to have sold nearly 14.8 million iPads since they hit the market last April.


Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once remarked, "What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?" With the runaway success of e-readers, trophy shelves are about to get a lot lighter.


Image courtesy of Igor Terekhov, via iStockphoto.com

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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