Published January 27, 2011
The book is dead. Long live the e-book!
The e-book market has exploded, thanks to the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, the Apple iPad and others digital readers. Once you've dropped a bundle on that new tablet, you don't need to spend to get more content for it: There are many ways to get free digital e-books. Here's what you need to know.
Share them with strangers
Amazon just unveiled a much requested feature for the Kindle: the ability to lend e-books for up to 14 days simply by inputting a name and e-mail address. It’s an option that’s also available on Barnes and Noble's Nooks -- but when the industry’s biggest player joins the bandwagon, things change.
Nick Ruffilo and George Burke are the co-founders of BookSwim, an Internet startup that has offered a “Netflix-for-books” style experience since 2007. Following the Kindle update, they released the beta version of eBookFling.com, a site you can go to to loan your e-books to -- and borrow them for free from -- random strangers online.
“We came up with a concept to connect the Kindle and Nook e-book readers and people who like to borrow books in a swapping-style manner,” Ruffilo told FoxNews.com.
“When someone requests your book, you earn a credit. That credit is now good for you to borrow someone else’s book. At the same time, you can also purchase credits.” Pricing won’t be set for another couple of weeks, but the pair estimates them to be from $1.99 to $2.99.
It’s essentially a secondary market for books, Ruffilo said, mirroring the market for used books in the physical realm.
But it's unclear how book publishers feel about the prospect of sharing the content they've so carefully digitized. Spokesmen for Scholastic, Macmillan, and McGraw-Hill didn't respond to FoxNews.com requests for comment.
Visit your library
One institution has been paving the way in e-book lending for years, one you may not have realized was even in the market: your local public library. And it's accessible from the convenience of your home.
Miriam Tuliao, a spokeswoman for the New York Public Library (NYPL), said the act of e-book lending is nothing new for the New York City branch. “Last year the circulation for e-NYPL materials was over 304,000, and over 144,000 of these downloads came from books,” Tuliao told FoxNews.com. “This year -- especially since the holidays -- there’s been a steady growth and a steady audience.”
Tuliao said the digital format has become increasingly popular because of its greater flexibility. Users no longer have to worry about branch hours or returning their books on time. This increase in content accessibility encourages participation and has helped the library reach out to younger audiences, she said.
Available digital content spans a wide spectrum of tastes, with the current list of top downloads including New York Times bestsellers such as Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, comedic works by Chelsea Handler, and political pieces including George Bush’s biography Decision Points.
Much like eBookFling, cooperation from major publishers is pivotal to the ultimate success off the program. The NYPL works with a wholesaler that acts as an intermediary between it and publishers. “[The working relationship] does vary by publisher, depending on what kind of business model they have,” admitted Tuliao.
Yet in spite of a sometimes cautious exploration into a new digital territory, the long-term trend appears clear. “Over the years, many of the big publishing houses have been making more of their content available,” Tuliao said. “There is growth in content. Our users are following that and the publishing houses are very receptive to this audience.”
Neither eBookFling nor the library see each other as competitors. “I don’t see us replacing the library mode, because at the library you don’t have to give anything except tax dollars,” Ruffilo said. “It’s a marketplace.”
Tuliao concurred, citing aligned objectives. “Our library and libraries across the nation are looking to build a community of readers,” Tuliao said. “Obviously eBookFling is a business venture but their goal is to build a community as well. I think it's less of a concern.”
Just don't steal them
The act of borrowing gets hazy in the digital world, given the lack of a physical object. This puts an emphasis on content protection and digital-rights management (DRM), security systems designed to thwart copyright infringement.
They're not succeeding -- barely. On numerous websites, pirates can downloaded illegal e-books to their Nooks or Kindles, books both old and brand new. It's the same issue the music and film industry already faced, and one this nascent industry will have to deal with.
Piracy remains a minor concern for the founders of eBookFling, who say their site won't lead to a rise in it. “Essentially it’s facilitating e-book rentals. It’s not doing anything new,” Ruffilo explained to FoxNews.com. "There’s no new technology going out there because we’re simply connecting people. I would say there’s very little chance for it being a conduit for piracy.”
Ruffilo believes that the existing protection systems are robust enough that your average user won’t bother stealing. “The devices are fairly locked down and the DRM is pretty tough,” he said. “The bulk of consumers are not pirates and the bulk of consumers are buying books.”
Tuliao admits that there is a concern over author’s rights along with other “challenges when it comes to devices and downloading.” And while they would “prefer to have the broadest array of compatibility possible,” compromises sometimes have to be made.
“We’re committed to offering as many ways for our patrons to access content,” she said.
Simply visit Google
The search engine giant has been scanning books for years, building a library that now stands well over a million public domain books. Browse Google's list of the most popular classics, such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Or run an advanced search at Google's bookstore for full text books.
Whether or not publishing houses fully embrace the concepts of free classics and loaning e-books remains to be seen. Their participation will determine whether users can have access to content essentially for free -- something that doesn’t necessarily bode well for book sales.
As of now, lending is available only on a case by case basis. And publisher’s have the right to manage their content accordingly.
Publishing house Harper Collins, while allowing libraries to lend their e-books isn't as accommodating with for-profit ventures. "In general to date, we don't allow lending through our agency partners," Sharyn Rosenblum, a company spokesman, told FoxNews.com. "But it's always something we're evaluating."