So, Penguin has now dropped out of the Overdrive library service. Yikes! It strikes me that all of these ‘legacy’ publishers who are panicking because Amazon or Apple or Google or Indie Everyman are going to crush them to bits are taking an entirely wrong approach here. What if, instead of clinging to the way things were done before, they actually innovated? What if, instead of locking things down ever further and driving people away from their goods, they opened things up and brought them in?
I think an ebook rental service, run in conjunction with the existing Overdrive architecture, would be a great solution to the publishing industry’s problems. Here’s how it would work: if your local branch subscribes to the Overdrive system, it would get them access not just to some of the books in the catalogue, but to ALL of them. However, the system would restrict them to one ‘free’ copy of each title per library system, which patrons could wishlist and sign out as they presently do.
However, if the patron decides that they don’t want to be 999 out of 1000 on the waiting list, they will have some options which they don’t have under the present ‘license per copy’ system. Firstly, they can pay a nominal fee to jump the queue and sign the book out right away. The fee would be split between Overdrive itself and between the book’s publisher. The copy the patron signs out would remain a rental, however. It would be administered through Overdrive with the same DRM as the free copies, which time-expire the book when a loan period is up. The fee would not be a purchase for the book; it would be solely for the privilege of renting the book at once instead of waiting in the free queue. For a book I really wanted to read, I would happily pay a dollar or two for instant gratification! It strikes me as really artificial in this digital age to say that the library only has ‘two’ copies of a file that is endlessly replicable. If 1000 people are interested, why not let them have it? If they don’t want to pay, they can wait. But if they do want to read it now, why stop them? Charge them a fair rental fee and let them read!
Alternatively, if the patron does not want a book which time-expires, if they want to own a personal copy they can keep forever, offer the ebook for sale, through Overdrive itself and through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other vendors, as presently. Price it at full retail minus 15% (the figure the publishing industry itself gives as the cost of paper/ink/shipping/etc) and let them buy and own if they choose.
Would there be an incentive to ‘pirate’ a book if you knew you could rent it and read it immediately? I am guessing not. And if you are a collector who truly wants to own the books, will you have that option too? Yes! My point is that the publishers have an opportunity here. Don’t hold back your books and send people running to other options. Let people read them. Let people PAY to read them. A library/rental hybrid system may be the solution the publishing industry is looking for.


  1. This is an excellent idea and one I would gladly support. However, it appears to be a long way off since publishers are afflicted with paranoia and not on the cutting edge of innovation. Perhaps Random House might venture to dip a toe in the waters. They are the only major publisher in the Overdrive system without restrictions (so far). For that reason alone they seem to be the most forward-thinking.

  2. Another crazy way of trying to bolt old ways into a new world.
    The best way of getting eBooks to the masses, and the less well off, is affordable pricing. All of this lending and renting is really a side track.

  3. Howard, don’t forget that under current ebook “contracts”, we only rent an ebook… even when we’ve pressed the Buy button. :(

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail