Sunday, 26 September 2010

Book rentals: where are we heading?

Catching up on a few weeks' worth of reading this evening. Obviously, working in publishing the business models for selling book content is a fascinating and important topic for me. Particularly academic publishing. So this article from TechCrunch was an interesting one. The growth of book rentals (725% growth for one retailer mentioned in that article) is really interesting. Particularly how much growth there is in the textbook market for this model.

In a way, it shouldn't be surprising that the rental model works for students, since in a way it mirrors the the way students generally engage with their learning. They will use a particular course material for a short period of time: during a particular course or period of their learning. Once they've gained what they need from that resource, they typically don't return to it, except perhaps for revision.

But is that the way we'd actually want our students to engage with scholarly content? Unlike with a fiction title (or actually generally any read-for-pleasure title) I think textbooks are things you dip in and out of over and over again. I guess that depends how many titles, and how relevant. But I know that I still have books I had in college that I turn back to, and the same for several business titles and professional development titles, not to mention light psychology titles!

The traditional models for accessing content over and over again like this were previously: : owning a copy of a book and knowing it's there on your shelf; or having access to a library copy which you can return to over and over again when required.

There are downsides to both options which the book rentals service would suggest it gets around. For the purchase option, the book rental claims it'll save you money. For the library option, there's the risk that 10 other college kids have gone in to find the same book at the same time.

You have to remember at this point in time I'm still talking about TRADITIONAL print publishing.

So how does the rental model hold up in a digital world? When I first started reading the TechCrunch article I immediately assumed that it was digital rentals. I mean, surely in the world of iTunes that is where our rental experiences now lie? I'm amazed that a printed rental model is proving so successful and am happy to admit I have some scepticism, based on the dip-in-briefly-but-often model I set out above.

So in digital? Does Rental overshadow ownership? Digital is immediately more attractive: for one thing providers (e.g. Vitalsource) provide tools so you can annotate and add notes in a way you could never do with a loaned print copy. The model (a la iTunes) is also more familiar here, and much more accessible/immediate compared with the print rentals. But is it better than ownership?

I think I need some more time to think about this one.