April 16, 2010

It's Time for A Digital Used Book Store on the iPad

While many of us may be wrestling with defining the role Apple's new iPad will play in our digital ecosystem, in a world of smartphones, fully-powered laptops, netbooks and single-use devices (like Kindles), there's no question it is a very good platform for reading, especially due to the availability of the iBooks application and the many titles available on Apple's iTunes Store.

On Thursday, April 8th, at the iPhone OS 4 event, Apple announced more than 600,000 iBook titles were purchased following the iPad's debut, and it's likely that number is now approaching or has just passed 1 million. But unlike music files, which are often listened to over and over again, books are rarely read more than once, and, at least in the offline world, there has always been a side business of selling and purchasing used books, or passing older titles to family members. In the digital world, however, this is not an option at all, and it's high time this changed.

My mother and I share an interest in Stephen King books. I can't say who was addicted to the world's best horror writer first, she or me, but it has practically become second nature to pass along our books when completed. But she has "early adopter syndrome" when it comes to his work, while I tend to wait until the paperback version arrives. If she doesn't wait, as was the case with King's recent Under the Dome, weighing in at more than 1,200 pages, the massive tome can find its way into my bookshelf, where it sits and taunts me with the width of two complete local Yellow Pages. Just imagine trying to cram that particular book as reading material on the plane, and even the price, $33, seems to be out of control. But Apple offers the same book, in digital edition, for half the price, $16, for the iPad.

The Four Books in My iBooks Library, to Start

But, as with all of Apple's digital purchases through iTunes, there is no option to share beyond just me. I can send the iBook or iTunes album as a gift for its full price, or I can send money or gift cards, but it's just not the same. If I am done with an iBook, I should be able to designate a recipient and send it to them, relinquishing my own rights to the iBook, and enabling Apple to charge the recipient a reduced price for their acquiring a "used" book. After all, I am just going to delete the iBook anyway, or let it continue to sit, unused, gathering digital dust on my hard drive, once I am done.

Apple's much-discussed Digital Rights Management (DRM) could be used to ensure that when I pass along the iBook, that it is erased from my machine, exactly as they do with rented iTunes movies that have crossed the imposed 30-day limit for viewing. And the receiver of said used iBook would always have the option to refuse the gift, declining without giving Apple another dime.

Is there risk to this proposal? Of course. There's always the potential that user groups could be made online for digital cheapskates to beg for used versions of iBooks instead of paying full price. But these are the same people who likely purchase used books from Amazon, or might be willing to pay a few dollars instead of getting the book free offline.

Apple has already had to do battle with countless record company executives, book and magazine publishers, and film studios to bring their content into the iTunes Store. After a slow start, the iTunes Store can be counted on to find practically any artist or title - with some exceptions, of course. The media industry's position, thus far, has been less innovative, and more in favor of preserving their old ways, hoping that Apple's iPad and iTunes ecosystem can help drive them premium prices. But premium prices don't work for all, and the way we have been consuming and sharing media for decades offline should be replicated here. I don't want to fill up my bookshelf with these monstrous books just to get the opportunity to hand them off down the road. I want to use what I think is the most versatile platform for reading books (and doing much more), but still have the option to share the content forward when I am done.

So, Apple... you just might have the best hardware device for books today. You have the most discussed and possibly most successful digital devices on the market today. You have an incredible number of titles available through iTunes. It's time to open up new opportunities for revenue for you and your partners, and give greater flexibility to your customers. I would absolutely be more than pleased to share with my friends some of the books I have been reading, once I am done. Find a way for me to do so.

Editor's Note: Jeremy Toeman of LIVEdigitally had a similar idea last year, related to the Kindle: Where’s the Kindle Used eBook Store?

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