On Lending eBooks

By Deane Barker on November 12, 2012

You can loan books on your Kindle.  Here are the rules:

Kindle books can be loaned to another reader for a period of 14 days. […] it is up to the publisher or rights holder to determine which titles are eligible for lending. The lender will not be able to read the book during the loan period. Books can only be loaned once.

The Nook has the same feature, seemingly using identical rules.

It’s an interesting concept.  The key in the rules is this: “Books can only be loaned once.”  Without that caveat, it would be a mess. Here’s why:

Physical books have limitations.  And loaning a physical book invokes these limitations, which makes the marketplace work.  When you loan a physical book, there are at least three built-in limitations to that transaction:

  1. The book is a physical artifact that needs to be conveyed.  You need to be in physically proximity to the person which you want to loan it to.  (Yes, you could mail it, I suppose…)
  2. Being a physical artifact, the book can get damaged.  Therefore, you have some skin in the game and wouldn’t loan to just anyone.  You want your book back in the same basic condition in which you loaned it.
  3. There’s no automatic return.  You have to keep track of every book you have loaned to someone, so every time someone wants to borrow a book, there’s a small mental speed bump because you know you have to remember who has it, and you have to make sure you get it back.

No one invented these limitations.  These are just unavoidable due to the “physical-ness” of the book.  This is just how physical objects work.

With an ebook, none of this applies.  I don’t have to be in physical proximity to you, nor do I need to know you or have any relationship with you. Additionally, I never actually lose the book – its bytes stay in the same form on my machine, and you just get a copy.  This means that nothing can get damaged.  When the loaning period is over, I’m going to get access to the book in the exact condition in which I loaned it.  Finally, I don’t have to keep track of who has what, nor do I have to hunt you down – the book will boomerang to me automatically at the end of the lending period.

These three things make loaning an ebook virtually frictionless.  Thus, I will loan to anyone without a care in the world.  My only concern – since I can only loan a book once – is that I get something decent in return.  In this sense, the book becomes a weird form of bartering currency.

What’s to stop people from setting up “ebook loaning exchanges” whereby someone who wants a book posts a notice, and someone who has it is willing to loan it?  There’s no cost to either of them, and they barely have to go out of their own way to do it.

Surprise!  They exist.

The Nook Owners Book Exchange on Facebook has almost 3,000 members.

Do you own a nook, the new e-reading device from Barnes & Noble? Do you have “LendMe” eBooks you’ve finished reading and feel like exchanging for something new? Then this is the group for you!

And the eBookExchange eases loaning between either platform.

Once you’ve read an ebook, put that purchase to work rather than letting it stagnate in your e-reader’s archives.

So, in the end, it’s that one pesky rule: you can only loan a specific book once, ever.  Without this, all the limitations come off and the marketplace essentially breaks down.  One person could buy a book, then loan it over and over, indefinitely, using it as never-ending currency to exchange books with people.

What they’ve done here, is invent a limitation to compensate for the fact that the “digital-ness” of ebooks throws all the other limitations off.

The marketplace only works with some limitations.  The physical books have them built-in.  The digital books have to have them arbitrarily invented.



  1. Or, you strip from from the book and do whatever you want with it.

    Book publishers should go talk to movie studios and record labels to see how that drm utopia’s working out for them.

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