The Sorry State of Peer-to-Peer E-Book Lending


For most of my awkward life, books have been a way to escape or avoid stressful social interactions. Only recently have I realized that books also allow me to serve a social function: recommending titles to friends and family members, based on my understanding of their interests and character. Some people find book suggestions obnoxious and presumptuous, but in my experience, some carefully thought-out picks can transform a nonreader into a book liker, if not a book lover. When a friend raves about a book and asks me to suggest another, I gloat a bit and then attack my shelves, to find another delightful tome to pass on.

But the e-reader! Oh, the e-reader. The Kindle is a childhood dream come true, an opportunity to carry with me enough titles to assure that if I finish a book, I will not be left to make uncomfortable small-talk on the plane. But it is ruining the one bit of social currency I can offer. In only limited circumstances can one lend a book to a friend, and when you are attempting to convert a nonreader, being able to give them the book instantly, for free, is vital.

Of course, e-book lending is a fraught topic for publishers and public libraries. In May 2013, the divine Ursula K. Le Guin laid out the absurd terms on which the “big five” publishers permit digital titles to be lent. But slowly, that situation is getting better; some months after Le Guin wrote her pierce, Macmillan announced that it would make its full backlist available. HarperCollins still demands that library obliterate a digital copy of a book after it’s been lent 26 times, which is an abomination. Still, this isn’t likely to last much longer; as Cory Doctorow detailed in a convincing column in September 2013, it’s in the best interest of the publishers to make libraries their allies.

But even as publishers and libraries warily come to agreements—slowly though they might—person-to-person lending remains nigh impossible. On the Kindle, for instance, digital rights management sometimes permits owners to lend a title—but only once per book. Most books don’t permit sharing at all.

Publishers’ concerns about consumers lending books to people they don’t know through book-swap sites could be ameliorated: For instance, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici has proposed a self-described “pretty good solution” that would entail people meeting in person, physically, to “bump” titles from one device to another. True, that would require social interaction, but I think I could handle that brief encounter.

Without creating a mutually acceptable way to permit easier, more widespread book sharing, the personal social networks that exist between readers will fray. While Americans continue to read at about the same pace as in years prior, the rate of e-book reading continues to rise, according to the Pew Research Center. The rise in digital book consumption is particularly sharp among 18- to 29-year-olds. This is despite the death of the e-reader, which websites have been predicting since at least 2011. Even if tablets render my beloved Kindle obsolete, e-book reading will continue to grow. Permitting readers to swap titles will only accelerate that adoption, not diminish it. Because reading truly is a social activity, no matter how solitary the individual curled up with a book may appear. One could even make notes or highlights with a particular fellow-reader in mind, then delete them or adjust them for subsequent borrowers. This would only complement the strong social networks for readers that have cropped up online.

So please, publishers. Don’t take away my only bit of social utility.

Performing the Book


As a scholar, I’ve long been inspired by Julio Cortazar’s comments that great writing is like Jazz—improvised, in the moment or “the take” (Tebeau 2011). The best public history and digital humanities, I’ve argued, are performative, like Cortazar’s best writing—like the best books.

Of course, books are performative—written, read, engaged—but that quality is rarely discussed when we mull the future of the book, with our focus being mostly on form, publishing, and preservation. As digital technologies have exploded publishing, they’re allowing us to recognize (once again) the performative aspects of the book as a knowledge system.

Digital technology, especially the emergence of mobile technologies and cloud computing, mean that books can now be performed—produced, experienced, and engaged—more fluidly and in more places. Of course, we could always read and annotate our dog-eared edition of Ulysses while walking the streets of Dublin, drinking in a local pub. But, now we can “read” Ulysses hyper-textually in Dublin (or in a pub anywhere) with comments and annotation, as well as video, audio, and other media expressions. We can fully experience literature.

As digital innovation has democratized writing, it also now allows communities to not just experience literature, but also to produce it. This production occurs in multiple contexts, with producers building communities through open-source technologies that publish in a variety of fashions: aggregation, multimedia, micro-blogging, long-form journalism, and mash-up. The work has redefined narrative and storytelling, and built communities of professionals, experts, amateurs, and crowds. These communities not only engage story and narrative, they transform text through their engagement. This is conceptually apparent in crowdsourced projects, annotation, and social media sharing.

Additionally, the emergence of smartphones (and now tablets) has allowed (coupled with cloud computing) for new publishing forms to become part of and to engage the physical landscape. Indeed, locative media allows us to explore narrative and stories in place. The landscape becomes hypertextual because it allows us to connect a book—or, for that matter, multiple books, annotations, links, and media—to a particular geography, structure, and physical context. That landscape moves from the object of narrative to part of the text itself. It evokes space, identity, landscape; it helps us individually and collectively to remake “place.” Perhaps more importantly, for us, the book becomes a space of play, a play space, a place of itself.

In accentuating longstanding qualities of books—their fluidity and interactivity and portability—the digital has reemphasized books as performative. Digital knowledge systems and the future of publishing books demand that we engage the dynamism of books as living performances.

cross-posted at urbanhumanist