Psst. Wanna buy a used ebook?
New digital marketplace could upend publishing, threaten authors
First in a series
Amazon and Apple have applied for patents on systems that will permit them to create marketplaces for the sale of used, or perhaps more accurately previously owned, ebooks and music. Amazon’s patent was approved in late January, Apple’s is pending. This could snuff creativity and bring an end to the publishing industry.
Authors and others have issued dismal predictions based on reasonable assumptions about how a “used” ebook market might work.
Best-selling author Scott Turow, president of the Author’s Guild, told the New York Times, “The resale of ebooks would send the price of new books crashing.”
Author and essayist Ayelet Waldman told Jenny Shank, at PBS.org, that the idea of used ebook sales gave her “a chill of foreboding.”
Here’s the issue: If a bargain-basement priced preowned ebook, identical in every respect to the new ebook, is on sale simultaneously with the original, who would buy the more expensive product? (Hint: no one except the author’s mother.) This may sound like a boon for buyers, but it could be the epitaph for writers of flash fiction books and all other forms of written expression as well.
Of course, as a writer friend of mine pointed out, someone would have to buy an original for there to be a “used” ebook. How that notion equates to numbers of “new” ebooks that would be sold remains to be seen, as does a long list of possibilities that depend on the way a used ebook marketplace is administered.
In addition to myriad possibilities for a future resale marketplace, are the larger, darker issues of contemporary ethics, the future of copyright laws plus the influence of evolving technology on the latter two subjects. This article, however, will be limited to looking at some of the ways a used ebook marketplace might operate.
When you buy an ebook today for your iPad, Kindle, Nook or whatever, you’re really just obtaining a license to read it yourself, period. The book exists in your ereader or in the cloud, but it’s not really your property. When someone buys an ebook from most legitimate online sellers, the publisher and ultimately the author receives compensation (such as it is). The proposed ebook systems would permit buyers to resell an ebook, just as they might resell a paper book to a used book store or via eBay or Craigslist. When a used paper book is sold, the transaction is strictly between buyer and seller. If ebook resale transactions are conducted similarly, writers and publishers would be out of luck. And obviously, the sale of new ebooks would be seriously compromised.
Apple and Amazon are mum on the details of the proposed marketplace systems–or whether they will be implemented at all–but news reports about the patents in the New York Times and elsewhere provide a little information about how ebook sales might be handled. Both systems, according to David Streitfeld, writing in the Times, would limit resellers to one transaction per book. That is, someone could not duplicate a book or otherwise sell it more than once. Once a book was sold, it would disappear from the seller’s ereader account.
This restriction would probably not allay Turow’s fear of crashing prices. How low would the price of books sink if a used marketplace sprang up? Hard to predict as this hasn’t happened in the book market before. But consider one analogy: prescription drugs. According to the U.S. Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, quoted in an Associated Press report Mar.25, when a generic drug begins to compete with a brand-name drug, “the price drops 85 percent.”
One element in the Apple and Amazon patents could limit the damage. Tech writer and author David Pogue reported in the New York Times that publishers and bookstores could, according to the patents, impose minimum prices for used ebooks, although those prices could be reduced over time.
Jeremy Greenfield, writing in Forbes, offers a possible used ebook sale scenario which would see publishers and authors compensated, online bookstores getting a piece of the action and buyers getting cut-priced ebooks. (One new online company, Redigi, says it will compensate publishers for “used” ebook sales.) Greenfield’s glimpse into the future assumes a used ebook would go for 50% of the retail price. But if prices drop lower–much lower–what would be left to compensate the people who created the work?
One New York Times reader, commenting on a story about the sale of used ebooks, wrote that he has stopped creating language CDs due to piracy. His lengthy comment makes fascinating reading. It took him years to write a Chinese language course, he says, and pirate copies can now be obtained online for next to nothing. What does this say about the effects of a future cut-rate ebook market? Certainly Amazon and Apple are not Pirate Bay (a popular site offering hijacked digital property), but would writers stop writing if the price of ebooks (and royalties) drops to pennies? Could publishers impose strict limitations on resales or simply refuse to deal with online bookstores that offer “used” ebooks?
The subject is, at present, mired in questions.
Next time: The Redigi formula, authors and the brave new book world
Will Amazon and Apple return a portion of the proceeds from the sale of used ebooks back to the publishers as Redigi says it will do? Will the publishers then give authors a cut?
If Amazon, et. al. sell ebooks for lower prices overall, would profits decline or would a lively resale market actually be a boost for Amazon?
Would people be inclined to buy more ebooks if they knew they could resell them?
What conditions will publishers require in the new, used marketplace?
How do you set the price of a used ebook? Is there a comparison with the cost of a used paper book in excellent condition?
Will people choose to keep ebook libraries like many people maintain for their paper books? If so, will that reduce the number of used ebooks available for resale?
Reminder on my use of Hyperlinks: Hyperlinks can be annoying. A few months back I wrote about how reading on the Internet is contributing to our shorter attention spans and generally making dunderheads out of us. Hyperlinks are a convenient way to find out more information about a topic, discover a new resource, etc., and of course they are an element of SEO, important to bloggers. But hyperlinks in the middle of articles invite the reader to abandon his train of thought–weak though it may be–to virtually dash off in another direction, possibly never to return. Therefore in this blog, all hyperlinks appear at the end of articles. You are invited to visit the sites and sources I cite.