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Publishers Don’t Like Ebook Rentals

If you were looking forward to a Netflix style of ebook rentals, you’re going to have to wait for a bit. I caught up with Tim Coates, the founder of Bilbary,  here at TOC. He said that his new site isn’t going to focus on renting ebooks, like originally planned. It will be launching as an ebookstore, and the first ebook rentals won’t be coming for some time afterward.

Why? Because when it came to signing a contract, publishers just weren’t that interested in the idea.

Bilbary caught my eye last fall because it was going to offer something new: ebook rentals. As you probably know, the major publishers are growing less and less fond of library ebooks. Rentals could have offered them a steady stream of income while offering  better value to customers. (I, for one,  don’t need to own all the books I read.)

Unfortunately for me, it’s not working out. Tim has met with and signed 7 of the 8 major agency publishers (Agency 6 plus Wiley, Zondervan). Bilbary also announced a deal today with Ingram to supply ebooks from hundreds of smaller publishers. So Bilbary is well equipped to open in the US market on March 7 (UK is scheduled  few weeks later).

But it’s only going to be an ebookstore at first. After it’s been up and running for  few months, Bilbary will add some rentals, but those will almost all come from textbook publishers.

The trade publishers just weren’t interested in the idea of renting ebooks, and that’s because ebook sales are too good at the moment. They’re making a nice profit with a system they understand, so they see no reason to  potentially undermine it by introducing rentals to the market.

According to Tim, ebook rentals might happen next year or the year after. The ebook market is still growing, and publishers probably won’t be interested in new business models until after it levels off. On a related note,Tim noted that it was easier to get publisher buy in than he expected. The pubs he’d met with liked the site design, and they especially liked the analytics that Bilbary will provide.

So do you know what we have here? If you know anything about the history of content industries then you probably recognize the situation. Publishing is behaving like a legacy industry that is content to rest on its laurels. They’re making money with what they know works, so they see no reason to try something new.

But that might change if print revenues keep dropping or if ebook revenues level off. Then the major publishers might be inspired to get out of their comfortable rut.

Do you know what I think? There’s never a glacier around when you need one.

image By acameronhuff

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Mikaela February 14, 2012 um 4:45 am

I am not surprised :(. But I am still hoping that Afictionado will launch sometime this year ( even if it is UK only). After all, Macmillan owns them, which means they should at least get Macmillan books.

Mike Perry February 14, 2012 um 12:32 pm

This isn’t surprising. After WWII, the railroads didn’t grasp that their long monopoly was ending. Their short-distance business, including daily commutes, was endangered by wider car ownership and their long-distance routes would be taken over by airlines. They did manage to continue to dominate bulk freight transport, and they do that well. But that’s because all the advantages in that market lay with them. Transporting grain by truck, much less air, simply makes no economic sense.

The major publishers seem to be making a similar mistake. They’ve adapted (sorta) to the idea that digital is not that different from printing on paper. But they’re still hung up over selling. They can’t quite wrap their minds around the fact that publishing has become a distribution business, with rental being one form of distribution.

There’s usually a fix for follies like these. Since these publishers are refusing to rent their titles, one option would be for authors to insist on retaining the long-term rental rights to their books. For an author, a rental income can be marvelous, since it’s steady month after month much like the bills he has to pay. It doesn’t come in gushes like print publication.

Releasing as rentals might also be an excellent option for an author’s backlist. He’d use the sales of his latest book to publicize himself as an author and rentals to earn income from earlier titles. That’d be a particularly good way to earn money from those who use public libraries almost exclusively. Many libraries won’t buy a book that was published over a year earlier, but they might happily pay a more modest rental fit to please one of their clients.

Peter February 14, 2012 um 6:17 pm

One of the biggest mistakes the publishing industry ever made was failing to tell Jeff Bezos to go jump in a lake on day one. Not because selling things online was a bad idea, but because they had their own mailboxes and just plain didn’t need him.

I see the same problem here- what exactly is Tim bringing to the table that entitles him to 20% of each rental fee?

He isn’t investing in any infrastructure, or even performing any unique R and D, even the most backwards publisher can probably handle creating a website that loans PDFs themselves – that is if there is a market for such a thing.

So why create a new middleman? Just so you’ll have some rental monopoly to fight in the future?

That’s not to discourage Mr. Coates- if he truly believes in the idea he can start his own publishing company and implement it. Or start manufacturing and distributing ereaders and position himself as a retailer. But he’ll need to find a way to take the risk himself.

IF he’s successful, then it might make sense for the publishers to give him 20% to get in on the action.

Diane February 18, 2012 um 3:32 pm

I don’t buy books, movies or music. I borrow it all from the library. Recently I’ve discovered Netflix. It is worth it to me to pay $7.99 a month to get movies and TV shows on my TV whenever I wish without the hassle of waiting for my title to be available, picking up and returning at the library. I thought it would be a great idea if I could do that with books as well so considered purchasing an e-reader. I have no need to own every book I read so until there is a way to rent e-books I will stick with the library. Instead of $7.99 a month, book publishers get nothing from me.

Alison Hooper March 31, 2012 um 8:42 am

For once the UK public service is ahead of the game! Some UK County Libraries (including my local one) have an ebook loan service, free of charge. Has saved me a fortune!

BeaDeer April 17, 2012 um 9:18 am

I only ever borrow books that a) I know I will never read again, don’t want on my shelves but need or wish to read them out of curiosity or for some other reason, and b) they are on my wish list, I would love to own them but can’t afford to buy them just yet. I would be willing to pay 1 euro for having the opportunity to borrow my "read before you actually decide to buy" books. I feel guilty whenever I look at the stack of books I bought and will never read again! I would be great to be able to read books before actually spending a few hundred on those I do not really want. Getting a book to read through interlibrary loan can be as expensive as actually buying it. Google Books sometimes allow me to get a generous enough glimpse at the content to let me decide whether to put a book on the "need to own" list (and I often do), but I do wish I could actually borrow books in an e-brary.

The Digital Reader – The Best News and Info on eReaders and Tablets June 18, 2012 um 12:28 pm

[…] more reactively.The founder of Bilbary remarked that most publishers outside the textbook market didn’t seem to be all that interested in a rental model. How much resistance and disinterest have you faced when trying to sign publishers?What we are […]

Sandeep February 6, 2013 um 7:58 am

Similar Kind or service is available in India on where customers can rent the books for 3, 6 and 12 months.

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[…] Bilbary originally launched in very late 2011 with the idea of offering an ebook rental service. This fell through when none of the majors went for the […]

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[…] Do you know what I find most interesting? The two conglomerates above re the parent companies for a bunchaton of publishers, including Random House and Macmillan here in the US. These are 2 of the Big 6, and neither likes library ebooks (RH just raised their prices for library ebooks). They also didn’t like Bilbary’s ebook rental service. […]

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