Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Used" e-books: can an electronic copy be "used"?

Used e-books. Sound good? Sound cheaper? . . . sound like an impossibility? After all, e-books won't be worn out when you get them second-hand. They will be just as pretty as ever. So why would anyone buy a full-price e-book when they could get one second-hand for fewer dollars?

Take a look at the chain of reasoning here:

I can't see this leading anywhere GOOD for writers. Publishing is tenuous at best right now. Profit margins are always slim, and this could lead to a vanishing return. This could push New York houses over the cliff. I know, you're gonna say that libraries always lent books and used bookstores have not put writers out of business. But the difference is that the library books wore out and had to be replaced or got sold off in a library sale so the library could buy more books, and the used books only lasted so long (you might get three or four trades out of one book before it got shabby, waterlogged, dirty, or thrown away for some other reason.) E-books will not wear out. They can be cloned/copied easily.

Amazon has plans for selling used Kindle e-books. A book gets branded within the system when it is first purchased. Let's say that this buyer reads it and decides to sell his copy. The buyer puts it up for resale at the Kindle store and that copy is removed from his account and transferred to the buyer's account. Amazon receives a small fee for each sale. That is the plan as we know it right now.

But! BUT! And again, BUT!! (to quote one of my fave passages from _Chitty Chitty Bang Bang_)

You don't own your copy of the data when you buy a Kindle book or other e-book. Strictly speaking, you pay for a LICENSE to read and own that digital copy. So you can't handle it in the same way that you would physical items.

Bolstering this viewpoint are those specialists in copyright law who point out the "doctrine of first sale." By their lights, this would be against the law because digital goods aren't physical entities, and cannot be resold. (My understanding of this comes from Marilyn Byerly's article at http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2009/04/first-sale-doctrine-and-ebooks.html.)

A legal battle is underway between ReDigi, a used digital music store, and the various groups in the music industry over a similar system. If ReDigi wins the lawsuit, then Amazon will have a precedent to point to and will probably move forward.

"Well," you're saying, "so what? Maybe authors will be hurt, but what do I care, as long as I get my cheap and free reads?"

Let's look at the bigger picture and how Amazon will come to dominate the market like WalMart and put others out of business, shall we?

Buyers are thrifty little tightwads and very clever. If the used Kindle e-book is cheaper than any other version of the book, buyers will dump the Kobo, the Nook, iTunes, and whatever else in favor of the Kindle--and probably the Kindle e-reader itself (rather than using the books on a Kindle app). Kindles will become the majority--nay, the steamroller that crushes the competition.

"Couldn't the competitors do the same thing, though?" you are asking. In order for the competitors to create a similar setup, they'd have to spend a lot of time and money. Amazon would have the advantage in the market for the foreseeable future.

Of course, once Amazon dominated the used e-book market, it could cancel used e-books entirely, and people would have to pay whatever price Amazon named for new books. They'd be the monopoly.

Marilyn Byerly goes so far as to theorize, "Some in the industry believe that Amazon is intent on killing off publishers so authors will have to go the self-publishing route, and authors as individuals have no real bargaining power when it comes to the terms Amazon will set."

Now, THAT should scare you.

Am I "overthinking this," as many non-analytical types claim whenever I go into detail about why their pet project won't work or has plot holes? I don't THINK so. I think we'd better take this seriously NOW.

Although I don't know what we can do about it all, other than refrain from buying "used" e-books.


  1. Since ebooks are cheaper than paper books in the first place, and many books are offered at 99 cents or for free, I see no reason why anyone would need or want a "used" ebook. In this age of free music and book downloads, people are conditioned to want something for nothing. You have good points about author payments; however, I don't see Amazon as a monster. Amazon merely filled the void left by the chain bookstores that only carry books by big-name authors. Amazon provides a market for the self-pub and small press authors.

  2. Sally--I hear you, and I am also a fan of Amazon, especially because it levels the playing field for us and for other small press and indie authors. However, I can see some of this stuff happening, because corporations tend to get megalomaniac and try to take over the entire market rather than sharing. It'll be interesting (but frightening) to see what actually shakes out.

    I agree that people have been conditioned to expect something for free. It's kind of daunting for someone who has been working at this writing business for years and years to suddenly find that she's expected to give her work away. I'm glad I have a sugar daddy.

    I've found that not all ebooks are cheaper than the paperback. Some of the ebooks are going for $16 and up, just like the hardcover. I can usually find that same book in a used bookstore for less. This is probably wicked of me, but that's what I do with Big Steve King and other New York authors much of the time. These authors are the ones whose ebooks would probably appear on the resale market first.

    Thanks for commenting!