Will a fire sale for ebook buyers become the authors’ pyre?
Ramifications, realizations spread in wake of used marketplace news
Second in a series
From the first, ebooks promised to transform the publishing business. Ebooks joined music and movies as a popular item to be hijacked and distributed by torrent websites. Now the possibility of a marketplace where “used” or previously owned ebooks can be resold has authors, publishers and book lovers wondering what will happen as Amazon and Apple proceed with patents for such a system. Authors’ biggest fear is that a used marketplace will cause new ebook prices to deflate faster than the Hindenburg.
Amazon’s patent was granted two months ago; Apple’s is pending. The two giant online retailers have not said what they plan to do with the patents. In contrast to websites such as Pirate Bay, run by thieves who ignore copyright, new ebook marketplaces outlined in the patents promise controls that will reduce unauthorized duplication of ebooks. A relatively new online “used” music seller, Redigi, has already set up a resale system the company says is similar to a conventional used book or record store. The system for used ebook sales will get rolling, pending the outcome of a lawsuit.
According to news reports, the Redigi system will permit people who have purchased ebooks to offer them for sale online. Like the Amazon and Apple proposals, an ebook will only be sold once and then it disappears from the previous owner’s files. Redigi CEO John Ossenmacher told Time Magazine the company has validation tools that let them determine if digital material has been legitimately purchased, if it has been transferred between computers and other information. Pirated digital merchandise will not be sold, according to Ossenmacher.
The company designed the tools to protect copyrights, Ossenmacher told Time. He said Redigi will suspend the accounts of people who don’t follow the rules.
One side benefit of a used marketplace like Redigi’s or Apple’s is that it might reduce piracy. “By enforcing old-fashioned rules of physical ownership onto modern, non-physical objects, Apple’s patent might support the company’s goal of combating piracy,” Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote recently in Slate. “In creating a used digital store, Apple would provide an easier, safer, quicker alternative to pirating media…,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest (encouraging) surprise in the Redigi plan is that, unlike in the sale of used paper books, publishers and authors can receive compensation. Trade magazine Publishers Weekly recently reported that Ossenmacher appeared at a roundtable discussion with publishers and told them income from the resale of ebooks “represents billions of dollars on the table.”
Billions of dollars into publishers pockets likely will not assuage the doubts of authors as to any potential benefits from a used ebook marketplace. But then, contrary to popular opinion, most writers get paid very little for their books.
“The vast majority of writers are not like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins,” said best-selling sci fi author John Scalzi. “The average author makes a four-figure salary a year from their writing,” Scalzi told Jenny Shank, writing in NPR/Mediashift.
“People don’t see creative people as they are in reality,” Scalzi told Shank. “Ninety-nine percent of everybody in a creative field is barely eking by. Also, when it comes right down to it, people like getting bargains. They’re not following the product chain back to the initial starting point.”
Scalzi said part of the job today is to remind readers that books are created by human beings who have to pay rent and feed their children.
To be sure, writers do not get rich. The most successful book I’ve written sold about 60,000 copies in all editions over several years. That was enough for my publisher at the time to call me a “mid-list author.” What I made from that at 10-15% royalty plus advance was certainly not enough for my family to live on, even at poverty level. And many authors never even make mid-list, let alone best seller status. Most authors have day jobs and working spouses–or should. (Fortunately for me, my day jobs have always been in writing: commercials, direct mail, journalism.)
So, as a used ebook marketplace threatens to remake the book business and further erode authors’ income, questions remain. Several conclusions–perhaps at odds with public perception–seem clear however. We’ll look at those next time.