At his blog The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas author of The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, revisits a chapter in publishing history to recount the practice of book rental. Striphas argues that given the current economic downturn and cuts in library budgets a rental service for books based on netflix might be worth investigating.
“Rental libraries,” as they were known, used to be a mainstay of U.S. book culture. Striphas writes:
The Waldenbooks chain (now owned by Borders) got its start that way, back in 1933. Founders Lawrence W. Hoyt and Melvin Kafka believed in books, but in the throes of the Great Depression, they decided against opening a retail bookstore. The pair saw books as something of a luxury, and reasoned that few people would be willing to part with what little money they had to purchase these non-essentials outright.
Like the founders of Netflix, Hoyt and Kafka bucked industry trends. They decided to set up shop in a department store in Bridgeport, CT, where they leased floor space in the hope of reducing fixed capital costs. And instead of selling books, they rented them out for three cents per day. By 1948, Hoyt and Kafka had opened as many as 250 rental libraries in department stores spanning from New York to Maine.
The practice died out after World War II but Striphas suggests “Netboox,” a book rental business modeled on netflix might work something like this: The online book rental experience — call it “Netboox” — might go something like this:
You log on to the website, where you’re immediately greeted by name. If you’re a new customer, then you’re invited to sign up for an account — which is free, although you will be asked to choose from among three different monthly rental plans. The plan prices are scaled according to the number of books you expect to check out at any given time.
Netboox allows you to search for specific authors, titles, and subjects. Powerful algorithms aggregate your past selections with those of other customers, and the site makes personalized recommendations accordingly. Ordering is as easy as finding a selection and clicking the “RENT” link appearing on screen. User-generated book reviews and other interactive features round out the picture.
Most of Netboox’s infrastructure exists behind-the-scenes, like Netflix. Its distribution facilities contain none of the amenities of a retail bookstore or public library; they are nothing more and nothing less than large warehouses teeming with books, coveyors, and workers busy filling orders. And in contrast to many public libraries, new releases and bestsellers are always in ample supply. Netboox’s capital-efficiency means that an extraordinary back-list is available, too.
Could it work? I’ll leave that up to the entrepreneurs to decide — but be warned: shipping books is a whole lot more expensive than shipping DVDs! Nevertheless, history shows that something along the lines of Netboox has worked in the past. Perhaps it may work again today.