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I hope this post opens a discussion from multiple perspectives regarding the concept of an "eText rental."
Many years ago we had new textbooks, then used textbooks, then in more recent years textbook rentals. As a physical book, a student had the book in her possession or not, but it she couldn't own it in the fall, sell it to another student, and both of them still own it in the spring.
As eTexts began to take shape in recent years, there was a price for an eText and it had certain terms and restrictions. I may very well be wrong, but I don't recall much use of the term "eText Rental" a year ago, and now we are starting to see it marketed more frequently as part of the journey from print to digital…but I'm not really sure why we want digital rentals?
When a student acquires rights to an eText, the cost of producing that work (writing, editing, layout, royalties, profits, etc.) and digitally delivering it are built into the price. If a student reads it once on the first day only or reads it one year later, there are no new costs incurred. If she keeps it for one semester or one year, no other student is deprived of that physical book as digital is different.
Thus, what are the merits of the concept for renting digital products? I get that it is the current marketing label applied to digital items that perish after some defined time. I don't rent songs on iTunes. I do watch some movies streamed via subscription models that give me broad access to whole catalogs for a modest monthly price. Arguably that might be a rental as I don't own further access rights when done, but I also don't need to study many of the movies I watch for months on end.
So to argue the other view…
Longevity of access could create some costs if the eText and student annotations are hosted in a cloud environment or if very specific rights to authors may limit access duration. Thus, there are small, but non-zero costs to providing college seniors access to all their licensed eTexts since their freshman year.
I suspect that all of us are still understanding the real costs and real value of ongoing access, and there are ways to cover that specific cost apart from varied pricing for an eText itself. As professor, I don't know that my senior class students would look back very often at their sophomore books, but if the real cost is negligible, it seems wise to make that an option — especially since their digital books will have a far better search functions than the paper versions.
Likewise, segmenting a market via price discrimination could also be a reasonable motivation if optional buying at varied retail price levels is the model. If the real costs of digital don't vary much after first delivery, then marketing a lower price "rental" and a higher priced, longer access or download could be attractive on the revenue side IF the lower rental price is truly a great price that incents more buyers.
I'm sure there are many angles to the merits of renting digital, and hopefully this post will spur some of that dialogue.
IU Vice President for IT & CIO, Dean, and Professor
Indiana University, http://ovpit.iu.edu