Cengage Learning is turning the unique features of the higher education market into a completely different model for students and publishers: textbook rental. For 30-70% of list price, students are able to use a textbook for a set period of time before having to make the decision to give it back or buy it.
From the New York Times:
Students who choose Cengage’s rental option will get immediate access to the first chapter of the book electronically, in e-book format, and will have a choice of shipping options for the printed book. When the rental term—60, 90 or 130 days—is over, students can either return the textbook or buy it.
Since the used book market is a much bigger part of educational sales than any other kind of publishing, the same book can be bought and sold a number of times with only one time royalty payment to the author. The rental model allows publishers and authors to be paid every time the book is used, making it a happier day for those with highly circulating tomes.
Other higher-ed publishers, including McGraw-Hill, Barnes and Noble College Bookstores and Follett, are experimenting with rentals as well.
Before determining that this model works only for the specific needs of students, attention should be drawn to mass market titles that are, by some estimates, most at risk from being eroded by consumer tastes shifting to eBooks. These types of books might only be read once (beach thrillers, cottage mysteries, romances—whatever) but a lot of people would want them right away and would be willing to pay to borrow with that benefit. Some folks might be happy to wait until the first round was complete but not willing to brave the huge waiting list at the local library.
Other types of instructional but not strictly higher education like books, like curriculum guides for teachers, course books for continuing education, study guides for particular grades, might fit quite neatly into this type of model as well.
With the option to buy the book outright, testdriving titles might help stimulate purchase where once was only wavering.