THE BLOG

Do You Mind If I Just Rent Your Book?

03/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Looking forward to the new Apple tablet that will be announced next week, I've been wondering if we might eventually see online book rentals.

There'd be nothing new about it. In the 1930s, before the modern era of paperbacks, the U.S. had maybe fifty thousand rental libraries of one kind or another. Many bookstores also rented books, as did general stores. Drugstores were another common outlet. Some rental libraries were part of a chain. Waldenbooks began as a rental library company in 1933 and didn't open its first retail store until 1962.

The reason was price. In the late 1930s, when a white-collar civil service employee could expect to earn about twenty-five dollars a week, a hardcover book cost two or three dollars. A three-day book rental cost only about fifteen cents. (Yes, there were late fees. Nothing new about those.)

For both publishers and authors, renting electronic editions would be a better deal than renting printed books was. In the past, publishers made money by selling printed copies to the libraries. The libraries kept all the rental fees. Now it's possible for the publisher and author to share in every rental because computers can keep track of the tiny transactions.

Both Amazon and Apple rent movies already. Why not books?

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