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For better & worse most books will be read digitally

A day will come when only institutions and rich people buy new books. The rest of us will read them on some type of electronic device, like an Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader Digital Book or — more likely — a smart-phone.

I’m not sure when this day will come but when it does, it will be driven largely by economic and environmental concerns. But there is debate about why eBooks are better than paper ones.

To me, the biggest downside of eBooks isn’t nostalgia for the feel and smell of paper. It’s that — for now at least — it’s not possible for Kindle owners to sell, give away or lend the books they purchase. And once almost all books are electronic, what will be the role of libraries? Will they be in a position to “lend” you copies of books to read on your electronic device?

For the most part, I’m bullish on Kindle. I’ve bought and read several books on an Amazon Kindle and both an iPhone and iPod touch using Amazon’s free Kindle for iPhone app. In fact, the same book that you buy for one device can be read from another as long as you sign in from the same account. Better yet, if I start reading a book on the Kindle and later pick it up on the iPhone, the Kindle service knows where I left off and takes me to the right spot. And if you lose the device, the books are still there to download when you replace it.

The Kindle, whose price was just reduced from $359 to $299, is a book-like device with clear black text against a bright white background. Because you can change the size of the type, insert electronic bookmarks and search through the book, it’s arguably a better experience than reading a paper book.

 But I’m also pleased with reading books on an iPhone or iPod touch. Some people would argue that the iPhone screen is too small, but once I’m immersed in a book, I don’t really care about the size of the screen, especially because it’s so easy to go from page to page by just flicking the screen with your finger. Unlike the Kindle, the iPhone and iPod touch have a backlit screen that is readable in bright sunlight as well as in the dark. That’s an advantage if you share a bedroom with someone who wants to sleep while you want to read.

The biggest advantage of any portable reading device is that you can have hundreds or even thousands of books with you at all times. Paper books are heavy but a Kindle is light and fits easily into a purse or briefcase. An iPhone or iPod fits into a pocket, and the big advantage to reading on an iPhone is that you have it with you at all times. That means you’re never without reading material, even when you didn’t expect to have a few minutes to read a book, like when you’re sitting in a doctor’s waiting room.

I’m bothered that Kindle books can’t be loaned out or sold, but that is a solvable problem. The Northern California Digital Library  has solved the lending problem for books that can be read on PCs and Macs, or audio books that can be listened to on computers or iPods.

Participating libraries purchase a limited number of “copies” that can be checked out for a specific period of time. If all are checked out, users put a hold on the next available copy just as they would do with physical media.

As far as I know there’s no way to lend a Kindle book, although Brigham Young University experimented with lending out Kindle book readers with books on them. Unfortunately, BYU suspended the program until it hears from Amazon as to whether that’s OK. “Being a library, we will follow the rules and until the rules are clear we will wait,” university spokesman Rogen Layden told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha has nine Kindles that it loans out to patrons. For awhile, there were funds to purchase books for patrons but the money ran out. Patrons can still borrow Kindles, but if the title they want isn’t on it, they’re out of luck.

It seems to me that libraries should be able to buy licenses for Kindle books and loan those out to patrons to read on borrowed Kindles or their own devices. And consumers should have the right to sell, lend or give away books or other media that they buy for the Kindle or any other device.

Technology is not the obstacle. It would be relatively easy for Amazon to come up with a way to let people transfer access to media from one account to another. But just because it can be done doesn’t mean it will be done. As with all aspects of digital media, there are commercial interests to consider and powerful forces — like publishing companies and author groups — to be heard from.

As an author myself, I’m all for protecting the rights of copyright holders. But as a consumer I want the right to do whatever I want with the media I purchase.

This post is adapted from one that appeard in the San Jose Mercury News

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