Rent-A-Book, Anyone?

Amazon has just released a DVD Rental service (Motley Fool write-up here).

Predictably, there is talk that this is a threat to NetFlix, UK incumbents, etc. But here’s the thing: this could be about renting much more than DVDs.

Already, some services offer console game rentals as well. Amazon will probably get around to that. But Amazon has a great opportunity to handle book rentals. I don’t know about public access to libraries in the USA (though I’ve heard bad things), but in the UK, it’s a frustrating experience. I was accustomed to walking straight into any university library, with myriad texts and journals, back in Australia. But doing the same here in the UK is near-impossible, and council libraries offer nothing like the selection that Amazon could offer. Even when I could access libraries in Melbourne, any siginificant literature search led to half a day driving around to several libraries across the city. A for-pay book library would have saved so much time..

Books have traditionally been sold for permanent use, but I’d expect many books are used for a period of a few weeks, then only occasionally if at all. When doing research, I’ve sometimes had to purchase books which I knew I’d only look at for a couple of hours. This happened recently, for instance, when I was writing a paper and needed to check a referenced source. If I could walk into a library and read such a text for an hour or two, I would have no need to purchase it. So I would be glad to pay a significant proportion of ful price — perhaps a third — to access the book for a few weeks. I’m sure many students and researchers are in the same boat.

Likewise, I could imagine a certain proportion of readers would gladly switch from reading new books to reading used books if they could find them easily. Trawling through old book shops has always been too difficult for people who want to save a few bucks on a $10 novel. In contrast, Amazon’s service makes it a no-brainer to locate a book, and even offers numerous ways to get recommendations.

Admittedly, larger books can’t be sent as easily as DVDs and will degrade over time. But, books are still quite portable compared to most products – indeed, Amazon originally began selling books simply because Bezos viewed them as the best product to sell online, and a big reason was to do with ease-of-sending. Also, a single scratch on a DVD can cause it to be obsolete, but that hasn’t stopped DVD rental sales from flourishing.

Amazon may have offered used books sales for some years (which was controversial with publishers at the time they released it, but they have stuck to their guns). It has also experimented with purchased downloads, but it’s a long time until all books are exclusively electronic – most people don’t want to read on PDAs or PCs. So Amazon, with all their inventory and knowledge, is well placed to create a substantial book rental market.

Update Dec 22 Next day (Dec 13), Google announces massive online library project. It might accelerate the end of dead tree books, or at least those not printed on-demand. But I maintain there is a viable market over the next decade for renting books a la DVDs and games. Amazon can still be the biggest library on earth!