Tag Archive for rental culture

Book Rentals — A New Road to Serfdom?

Last week I blogged about the proliferation of book rental programs, particularly those focused on college students and their textbooks.  I raised questions about their promises of savings over traditional purchase and buyback, and asked whether most college students ever truly bought their textbooks, anyway.

But there’s more at stake in book renting — beyond the possibility of manipulation by advertising, or even the mutation of a business model.  There are broader social, economic, and attitudinal considerations that arise when people like you and me cease being the owners of books and instead become their lessees.

The last time book renting really caught on was during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  I’ve blogged about this before; it’s how the now-defunct Waldenbooks chain got its start.  What’s interesting to me is the context out of which book rental first emerged: a severe economic crisis — a time when the gap between rich and poor became a chasm, and disposable income all but dried up for ordinary people.  While I don’t believe the present-day renewal of interest in book renting is reducible to the economic meltdown of 2008 (and beyond), I cannot help but be struck by the similarity in the timing.

Indeed, in the United States, we’ve been hearing report after report about how the income of the wealthiest Americans — a tiny minority — has been growing, while that of the majority has been slipping.  Right now the wealthiest 20% of the population controls a whopping 84% of the nation’s wealth.  In crude terms, we’re moving in the direction of a society consisting of “haves” and the “have-nots,” or, more to the point, of people who can afford to own property (broadly construed) and those who cannot.

Now, I don’t mean to deny the benefits that come from book renting.  Realistically, most people don’t want to own every book they read, and for good reason.  Not all books are keepers; they’re also heavy and consume valuable space — the paper ones, anyway.  Beyond that, when books become too expensive for people to own outright, it’s good to have some type of affordable option (in addition to libraries) to keep people reading. Rental may be something of a boon from an environmental standpoint, finally, because you can produce fewer goods and consume fewer resources in the process.

But there’s also a major downside.

Renting books, as with rental more broadly, means you no longer get to set the terms of your relationship with these goods.  Can you underline, highlight, or annotate a book you’ve rented?  What about dog-earing important pages?  Legally speaking, can you loan a rented book to a friend?  Can you duplicate any of the pages, assuming they’re for personal use?  In a traditional ownership situation, you’re the one who provides the answers to these questions.  You’re in control.  When you lease, the answers are dictated by the property owner, or rentier, who naturally puts her or his interests ahead of yours.

Renting is, then, a type of power relationship in which the rentier holds all of the cards — or, at least, the really goods ones.  And here I’m reminded of a passage from the cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams, who, in his magnificent essay “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958), talks about how the coming of power and consumer goods to the impoverished Welsh countryside transformed people’s senses of themselves.  The ability to own consumer goods, Williams said, heightened the “personal grasp” his friends and family felt over their lives.  The presence of these items and their ability to use them however they saw fit made them less beholden to wealthy, outside authorities.

Today, the tide seems to be shifting the opposite way.  Economic conditions are such that rental is becoming a more attractive option again — and not only for books.  And with it slips that sense of personal grasp Williams talked about.  Often, signing a lease is an exercise in having to accept terms and conditions someone else has laid out for you.  More disturbingly, doing so over and over again may well reinforce an attitude of deference and resignation among we, the lessees.

With apologies to Hayek, renting books could be a pathway leading us down the road to serfdom.

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Rent This Book!

I’ve been struck this start of the school year by the proliferation of textbook rental outfits here in Bloomington, Indiana and elsewhere.  Locally there’s TXTBookRental Bloomington, which brokers exclusively in rented course texts, as well as TIS and the IU Bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble), both of whom sell books in addition to offering rental options.  The latter also just launched a marketing campaign designed to grow the rental market.  Further away there’s Amazon.com, which isn’t only offering “traditional” textbook rentals but also time-limited Kindle books.  These are “pay only for the exact time you need” editions that disappear once the lease expires.

There’s been a good deal of enthusiasm about textbook rentals.  Many see them as a welcome work-around to the problem of over-inflated textbook prices, about which many people, including me, have been complaining for years.  Rentals help to keep the price of textbooks comparatively low by allowing students the option of not having to invest fully, in perpetuity, in the object.  Indeed, the rental option recognizes that students often share an ephemeral relationship with their course texts.  Why bother buying something outright when you need it for maybe three or four months at most?

My question is: are textbook rentals simply a boon for college students, or are there broader economic implications that might complicate — or even undercut — this story?

I want to begin by thinking about what it means to “rent” a textbook, since, arguably, students have been doing so for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, I purchased books at the start of the semester knowing I’d sell many of them back to the bookstore upon completion of the term.  Had I bought these books, or was I renting them?  Legally it was the former, but effectively, I believe, it was the latter.  I’d paid not for a thing per se but for a relationship with a property that returned to the seller/owner once a period of time had elapsed.  That sounds a lot like rental to me.

So let’s assume for the moment that the rental of textbooks isn’t a new phenomenon but rather something that’s been going on for decades.  What’s the difference between then and now?  Buyback.  Under the old rental system you’d get some money for your books if your decided you didn’t want to keep them.  Under the new régime you get absolutely nothing.  Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for bookstores to give you a pittance if you decided to sell back your course texts; more often than not they’d then go on re-sell the books for a premium, adding insult to injury.  Nevertheless, at least you’d get something like your security deposit back once the lease had expired.  Now the landlord pockets everything.

Some industrious student needs to look into the economics of these new textbook rental schemes.  Is it cheaper to rent a course text for a semester, or do students actually make out better in the long run if they purchase and then sell back?

If I had to speculate, I’d say that booksellers wouldn’t be glomming on to the latest rental trend if it wasn’t first and foremost in their economic self-interest — even if they’re representing it otherwise.


Coming next week: textbook rentals, part II: what happens when books cease being objects that ordinary people own and accumulate?

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And…We’re Back!

It’s been awfully quiet around here for the past six weeks or so.  I’ve had a busy summer filled with travel, academic writing projects, and quality time with my young son.  Blogging, regretfully, ended up falling by the wayside.

I’m pleased to announce that The Late Age of Print is back after what amounted to an unannounced — and unintended — summer hiatus.  A LOT has gone in the realm of books and new media culture since the last time I wrote: Apple clamped down on third parties selling e-books through the iPad; Amazon’s ad-supported 3G Kindle debuted; Barnes & Noble continues to elbow into the e-book market with Nook; short-term e-book rentals are on the rise; J. K. Rowling’s Pottermore website went live, leaving some to wonder about the future of publishers and booksellers in an age when authors can sell e-editions of their work directly to consumers; and much, much more.

For now, though, I thought I’d leave you with a little something I happened upon during my summer vacation (I use the term loosely).  Here’s an image of the Borders bookstore at the Indianapolis Airport, which I snapped in early August — not long after the chain entered liquidation:

The store had been completely emptied out by the time I returned.  It was an almost eerie site — kind of like finding a turtle shell without a turtle inside.  Had I not been in a hurry (my little guy was in tow), I would have snapped an “after” picture to accompany this “before” shot.  Needless to say, it’s been an exciting and depressing summer for books.

Then again, isn’t it always?  More to come…soon, I promise.

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Amazon Goes All 1984 on Kindle Owners

News broke over the weekend that Amazon.com decided to remove legally purchased but unlawfully licensed editions of books by George Orwell from the Kindles of some customers.  The company did so without asking, although at least it had the good sense of sending an email explaining the action and of issuing refunds for the transactions.

Ever since, Kindle customers and technology watchers alike have been aghast at how Amazon essentially reached into the Kindles of unsuspecting Orwell fans and deleted what they had mistakenly believed to be their private property.  Take Hugh D’Andre of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, who wrote: “Can you imagine a brick-and-mortar bookstore chasing you home, entering your house, and pulling a book from your shelf after you paid good money for it?”

Others such as Jonathan Zittrain have rightly pointed out that you don’t actually own Kindle content.  Instead you basically lease it from Amazon.com, who as the custodian of your Kindle controls most of the rights to that material in the end.

Amazon, for its part, has promised never, EVER to take such drastic action again — sort of.  “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices,” notes a company spokesperson, adding, “in these circumstances.”  The devil, it seems, is in the details.  Thus I am inclined to agree with Cory Doctorow over at BoingBoing who states, “Amazon claims that they won’t do this again. But as every good novelist knows, ‘A gun on the mantlepiece in act one must go off by act three.’”

By now most everyone in the literary and tech worlds has chimed in on the scandal, and the consensus seems to be that Amazon overstepped its bounds.  Clearly.  But my question is this: why is anyone surprised at all by the company’s actions?  Did anyone actually believe that Amazon would act in good faith toward its Kindle customers and their Kindles, when it has a direct portal into the inner lives of each and every one of their e-readers?

The problem stems from a fundamental misrecognition of what Amazon is.  It started out as a bookseller, and with its recent foray into Kindle it’s continued to cultivate an air of bookishness.  But indeed this is little more than an air.  Despite what CEO Jeff Bezos and others might say, Amazon.com is totally and completely dispassionate about books.  What it is passionate about is making money, and it will sell anything — from books to toilet paper to excess server capacity or warehouse space — to earn a buck.

What that means, then, is that Amazon does not subscribe to the liberal sensibilities with which book culture has long been associated.  In other words, it holds little regard for the sanctity of property (other than its own), privacy, or free expression.  For Amazon these are values only insofar as they can contribute to the company’s value stream.  When they don’t, or when they prove too costly, those values are dispensed with algorithmically.

The other issue concerns the apparent irony that many of my fellow bloggers have already pointed out.  Amazon didn’t just delete any old books from people’s Kindles.  Among others it deleted George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984, which dramatizes life in a futuristic totalitarian state.  The problem here, though, is that however “deliciously Orwellian” Amazon’s actions may seem, Amazon.com is not a state. It is a corporation, which is accountable not to “the people” but to its shareholders.

I understand the reasons for wanting to draw the comparison to 1984, but ultimately it’s an inappropriate one.  As Daniel J. Solove points out in his wonderful book on privacy The Digital Person, the more apt literary reference in circumstances such as this may be to Kafka’s Trial, in which people are prosecuted without ever fully knowing what if anything they’ve done wrong.

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What Publishing Can Learn, Part III

This is the third and final installment in a multi-part series reflecting on how the publishing industry might connect better with readers.  You can read part I, on The Da Vinci Code, by clicking here.  Part II, on Oprah, is available here.


III.  What can the publishing industry learn from Netflix?

In the realm of video, I’m fast becoming a fossil.  I’m not still spinning VHS tapes, thankfully, although in the age of Blue Ray even my DVD players are beginning to seem like (I love this euphemism) “legacy technologies.”  No, I’m a fossil because I persist in renting videos from a local video store, while almost everyone I know subscribes to Netflix.

Since 1998, Netflix has emerged as one of the leading DVD rental outfits in the United States.  It has quickly distinguished itself from — and gained extraordinary ground on — its competitors by challenging video rental’s prevailing business model.

Instead of relying on a vast network of physical storefronts, à la industry leader Blockbuster, Netflix interfaces with customers exclusively online.  With infrastructure consisting mostly of computer servers and regional warehouses, Netflix is a far more capital-efficient operation than its competitors.

The company’s other key innovation has been to replace the traditional video store membership program with a subscribership.  For a flat monthly fee, Netflix delivers any in-stock DVDs you’ve requested straight to your door through the mail — postage paid, both ways.  An added bonus is that there are no late fees.

With over 10 million customers and more than a billion DVDs shipped thus far, it’s no wonder why Netflix has garnered so much attention.  What might the publishing industry learn from the company’s success?

This probably seems like a bizarre question to ask.  After all, when was the last time you or anybody you knew rented a book?  And why would you even want to, given the preponderance of bookstores and public libraries?

It turns out that so-called “rental libraries” used to be a mainstay of U.S. book culture.  They filled an important niche, especially during economic hard times.

The Waldenbooks chain (now owned by Borders) got its start that way, back in 1933.  Founders Lawrence W. Hoyt and Melvin Kafka believed in books, but in the throes of the Great Depression, they decided against opening a retail bookstore.  The pair saw books as something of a luxury, and reasoned that few people would be willing to part with what little money they had to purchase these non-essentials outright.

Like the founders of Netflix, Hoyt and Kafka bucked industry trends.  They decided to set up shop in a department store in Bridgeport, CT, where they leased floor space in the hope of reducing fixed capital costs.  And instead of selling books, they rented them out for three cents per day.  By 1948, Hoyt and Kafka had opened as many as 250 rental libraries in department stores spanning from New York to Maine.

The rental library business declined after the Second World War.  Rising wages and fuller employment meant that rental culture could once again give way to consumer culture.  Waldenbooks followed the trend by introducing retail book sales in 1945, and abandoning book rentals in 1957.

Given the current economic downturn, the rampant fears of plummeting book sales, and the slashing of public library budgets, now seems like an opportune time in which to revisit the book rental option.  A 21st century book rental outfit might look to the early Waldenbooks for inspiration.  It would do better in the long run, however, were it to model itself on Netflix.

The online book rental experience — call it “Netboox” — might go something like this.  You log on to the website, where you’re immediately greeted by name.  If you’re a new customer, then you’re invited to sign up for an account — which is free, although you will be asked to choose from among three different monthly rental plans.  The plan prices are scaled according to the number of books you expect to check out at any given time.

Netboox allows you to search for specific authors, titles, and subjects.  Powerful algorithms aggregate your past selections with those of other customers, and the site makes personalized recommendations accordingly.  Ordering is as easy as finding a selection and clicking the “RENT” link appearing on screen.  User-generated book reviews and other interactive features round out the picture.

Most of Netboox’s infrastructure exists behind-the-scenes, like Netflix.  Its distribution facilities contain none of the amenities of a retail bookstore or public library; they are nothing more and nothing less than large warehouses teeming with books, conveyors, and workers busy filling orders.  And in contrast to many public libraries, new releases and bestsellers are always in ample supply.  Netboox’s capital-efficiency means that an extraordinary back-list is available, too.

Could it work?  I’ll leave that up to the entrepreneurs to decide — but be warned: shipping books is a whole lot more expensive than shipping DVDs!  Nevertheless, history shows that something along the lines of Netboox has worked in the past.  Perhaps it may work again today.

Have you rented any good books lately?

–in loving memory of anne

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