Why Lending Books And Used Book Sales Are Important To Authors & The Publishing Industry

by Randy Murray on April 12, 2011

Penny and I have remarkably similar tastes in books. That’s rare. Over the years we’ve each introduced books and authors to each other. It was very simple. She’d bring me a book she loved and lend it to me. I’d have a similar stack for her.  We exchange books nearly every time we meet. Patrick O’Brian, Barbara Tuchman and countless others have become shared favorites over the years through this practice.

And over that same time each of us has bought literally thousands of dollars of books. Our personal libraries carry many of the same books. It’s not unusual for one of us to buy a copy of the book the other lent us.

And this is not unusual. In fact, it’s the norm for the book buying public. The most powerful marketing force in publishing is word of mouth. And the most effective word of mouth is this, “I loved this book. Here, borrow my copy.” Don’t take my word for it. Hear what Neil Gaiman, another of our shared favorites, has to share about lending books and fears of piracy.

I also discover authors and books at used bookstores. I do the same thing on Amazon, purchasing used copies for a fraction of the cost of new for an author that I don’t know. Once I fall in love with an author I typically buy their new work hot off the press. I’ve done that over the years for James Lee Burke, Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Neil Stephenson, Steven Pinker, George Dyson and many others.

All of these authors get paid, by me, because someone first lent be one of their books or I found one of them in a used book store.

But eBooks make this very difficult. The Kindle and Nook have very restrictive and awkward lending. Apple’s iBooks and store do not allow you to lend books at all.  I don’t blame these tech companies. They have to abide by the restrictions that the publishers put on them. And the publishers fear piracy. They’re afraid that people will take their books for free. And because of this they’re killing their biggest marketing advantage.

Yesterday I wrote about becoming hooked on George R. R. Martin’s “The Song of Ice and Fire” sage. I have a friend who’s been telling me about it for years and years, raving about them. I always nodded and said, “That sounds interesting.” But I never went out to purchase the book and he never brought me the first book to see for myself. If he had, I’m betting I would have purchased the other books immediately AND I would have shared them with others. The net effect would have been more book sales, not less, all by lending a single book.

For eBook lending to be effective it has to be completely simple. It cannot be time limited. I can accept the restriction of only lending an eBook to one person at t time, but I think that restricting the time of lending or a restriction on the number of times it can be lent out is damaging to the publisher and the author. And for biggest effect, eBooks should be lendable regardless of platform. If I’m reading it on the iPad in iBooks, but my friend has a Kindle, why should that be a restriction, especially if the book is available in both stores?

As I’ve bought more books on my iPad the thing that slows me down the most is this single thought, “I won’t be able to lend this to anyone.”  For example, I recently bought a book for a friend, someone with significant technical chops who also loves his iPad, but I bought the physical book for him. Why? Because it was Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and I wanted him to be able to share it with others. This is a book that must be shared. Penny owned a copy and lent it to me. I bought a copy for myself and just bought another copy for this friend. The publisher has a two-fold return on this to date all because the physical book could be lent.

Books are wonderful things. We want to share wonderful things with others. The restrictions on lending make eBooks a little less wonderful.



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