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The Kindle Conundrum: Should You Rent or Buy Digital Stuff?

·Contributing Editor
Kindle book and paper book
Kindle book and paper book

Last Friday, Amazon announced Kindle Unlimited: For $9.99 a month, you can get unlimited access to some 600,000 titles. Amazon adding this all-you-can-read service to its Kindle store provides a fresh opportunity to examine an ongoing digital quandary: Should you rent or buy the stuff you want to watch, hear, or read?

Here’s how I make the call.

If you buy it, is it yours?
Many movie, book, and music sites “sell” you content that has rigid “digital rights management” restrictions on it. These constraints make a purchase more like a lease: You have some rights to the content, but you don’t really own it.

Take video. Please. Apple, Amazon, Google, and other legitimate sources of movies by big-name studios deliver DRM-encrusted downloads that play only on authorized devices or in specific apps.

You buy the “wrong” gadget or program? You won’t be watching your alleged digital property on it. And you can forget about lending or reselling the movie to anybody. So for video content, I stick to rentals.

But if you are going to buy content, you have to give Amazon some credit — especially for book content. With a growing range of Kindle apps, including a Web-based “Cloud Reader” that should work in any modern browser, it’s crafted about the most benevolent DRM dictatorship imaginable. You don’t run into its boundaries nearly as quickly as you would with, say, an Apple iBooks purchase.

The flexibility of a Kindle can’t match that of an MP3 Amazon sells or an AAC-format song at the iTunes Store. Those come devoid of DRM; these digital files will continue to work for you even if Amazon or Apple vanishes.

So Amazon looks good as a digital purveyor. Surely its new all-you-can read program will be equally pro-consumer. Right? Not so fast.

Kindle Unlimited screenshot
Kindle Unlimited screenshot

The new Kindle Unlimited, like the earlier Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (which is free but requires an Amazon Prime subscription and a Kindle e-reader device), suffers from excruciatingly limited selection.

Those of you with enough gray hairs may remember the joys of exploring a video store at 9 p.m. on a Friday, looking for something, anything to watch. That’s what it’s like to browse Kindle Unlimited.

I gave this service a simple test: plugging in the top 10 best-selling fiction and nonfiction titles as ranked at The New York Times this week. Those lists include books from last year and earlier, which I thought would give Amazon a fair shake.

Of those 20 titles, only one — Laurelin Paige’s self-published romance novel “Hudson” — was available via Kindle Unlimited.

It turns out that the top five publishers want no part of Kindle Unlimited.

I struck out with another 10 older titles picked semi-randomly from my own bookshelves. Netflix’s selection can be spotty, but Kindle Unlimited is far worse.

Your tax dollars at work
I had moderately better luck with a source of ebook loans closer to home: Washington, D.C.’s public library. The library’s e-lending catalog featured six of the NYT’s fiction bestsellers, seven of its nonfiction bestsellers, and one from my own sample. Unfortunately, only one of those 14, only William Gibson’s sci-fi classic Neuromancer, was ready to borrow, not just on hold. I’d have had to wait for the digital copies of the others to be “checked in” before I could rent them.

That’s an old problem for libraries: As The Washington Post documented two and a half years ago, booming demand for ebooks and strict lending quotas set by publishers generate hold lists hundreds of readers long.

But while Kindle Unlimited costs $9.99 a month — even if you subscribe to Amazon Prime — your local library demands no extra payment.

So for books, if I want to rent or borrow, I’ll follow my tax dollars on this one and stick to the library.

When it comes to buying a book I think I might want to reread, I’ll look for DRM-free versions of it. Such smaller publishers as the tech imprint O’Reilly Media and the sci-fi house Tor Books do fine without DRM, after all. I reserve my Kindle purchases for titles that I don’t think merit repeat reading.

And if I suspect there’s real lasting value to the book, I’m more likely to buy it in a DRM-free, device-independent, high-resolution format called “paper.”

I used to feel the same way about music. For an album I expected to own forever and play over and over, I’d buy the CD and rip the tracks to my computer. Then, wonderfully, the music industry realized it would live without DRM, and so now it’s a no-brainer for me to buy digital downloads.

Some authors and independent publishers have figured that out, too, taking advantage of Amazon’s option to sell Kindle titles DRM-free. Finding these titles remains frustratingly hard, but the analysts at Author Earnings crunched Amazon sales data and reported last week that “Indie titles without DRM sell twice as many copies each, on average, as those with DRM.”

If Amazon or another ebook shop gave me a choice between cheap, DRMed rentals or paying more for DRM-free purchases — now, that would be a fascinating experiment. But it’s not one Amazon seems ready to run.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.