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David Zax

A View from David Zax

With E-Book Lending, Simon & Schuster Takes It Slow

Looking before you leap: a strategy that it might not hurt more publishers to adopt.

  • April 15, 2013

Simon & Schuster will become the last of the Big Six publishers to make its e-books available to libraries, reports PaidContent. The publisher will begin a one-year trial with New York City’s public libraries. No titles are off limits, reportedly, but we don’t know the exact financial terms of the deal. (Other publishers have charged up to three times as much as retail for libraries to have e-loaning privileges).

Some might argue that with a crisis in publishing (cf. Scott Turow’s recent harrowing Times op-ed on the “slow death of the American author” for a primer), Simon & Schuster was foolish to wait this long before opening up another revenue stream for its e-books. But I think the publisher was–and is–right to move cautiously here. Many of the current problems in monetizing publishing in the digital age come from having moved too swiftly. If newspapers across the board hadn’t rushed to give away their content online without any reasonable expectation of pay walls, perhaps the falsehood that “information wants to be free” wouldn’t have been so widly and widely disseminated.

Said Carolyn Reidy, the S&S chief, in a statement: “In making our full list available we think we will get a better sense of lending patterns and patron behavior, and I am particularly eager to start seeing the actual data so that we can better understand this still-new phenomenon.”

Her use of the phrase “actual data” is telling, and biting. There seems to be an expectation that merely because e-books exist, publishers need to rush to make them available in all forms, on whatever terms are foisted on them. Kudos to Reidy for looking before she leaps. So much in technology and in business is path-dependent; a first move can often be decisive, and should rarely be rushed.

Personally, I have checked out e-books from the New York Public Library. I’ve found it to be a mostly seamless experience. Though there is a kind of cognitive dissonance that comes into play when a file that was on your device suddenly disappears, I think it’s healthy to train consumers’ brains this way: just because something is electronic doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, and that it can’t be taken away.

Without knowing the exact terms of S&S’s deal with libraries, it’s hard to know who’s getting the short end of what stick. This is a rare case in the publishing battles where I am, in some sense, rooting for both sides–I love a library just as much as I love a great publisher, if not more. But it’s true that behavior around e-lending will inevitably be different from behavior around the lending of physical books, and it’s important to study that behavior in order to work out a fair economic model for publishers and libraries alike. It’s much easier, after all, to check out an e-book online–all it takes is a few clicks. Will this lead to a higher frequency of lending overall? Will it lead to more “wasteful” lends–cases in which books are borrowed but never opened (which I’ve definitely been guilty of, both in hard and e-copies). How often will e-lending really drive purchases for e-books, as is sometimes claimed?

We don’t know the answers to these questions–and that’s the point. Until we do, other publishers and content providers might learn a thing or two from Simon & Schuster’s restraint.

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