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February 28th, 2011

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02:15 am - Potential Problems With Ebooks
I love ebooks and find them very convenient, but there are also questions that need to be asked. The ebook transformation is proceeding rapidly, and this makes these questions even more urgent. The two big questions are libraries and the used market.

From my PoV, Libraries are an essential component of any free society, and the current approach to ebooks may prove a threat to them – this article discusses one problem arising from limitations imposed by publishers on ebook use by libraries. The worst of these problems is this bit of nastiness: "In the first significant revision to lending terms for ebook circulation, HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires.". Unlike a physical book, libraries would no longer actually own the books in their collection, but would in effect merely have a temporary lease on them. From my PoV, this is vile, appalling, and deeply wrong.

On a related note – what is the equivalent of the used book market for ebooks? With the exception of a few books by a handful of authors I love and actively wish to support, I rarely purchase new books. I don't have a lot of money, and used books are very important to me and so far there's no equivalent for ebooks. I can see three options here. The first is (thankfully) the least practical, which is the use of some hideously complex DRM scheme that locks down ebooks to particular devices and thus permits a used book market exactly equivalent to the physical used book market. Of course, this would also do an excellent job of keeping consumers from putting their ebooks on multiple devices they own, and so is unlikely to be used, a fact that makes me very happy indeed.

At this point, we're left with two alternatives – the first is what is mostly the case today – the equivalent are illegal downloads via free file-sharing. In the past, I have used these as the equivalent of browsing a bookstore – if I see a book I like, I then purchase a copy. I have also discovered several new authors in this fashion whose books I now buy. In many ways, the economic effect of free file-sharing downloads is identical to the used market, since in neither case do authors, cover artists, or anyone else involved in creating the book get any money. However, it also seems like a rather less than ideal solution. The only other answer I can see is time-based pricing. So, for the first few months a book would have X price, after a few months, the price would drop to Y, and after a year or perhaps several years it would fall so something like the typical used price of a few dollars.

It makes sense to me that the time-scale for these price drops would in part depend upon demand – so a bestseller would decrease in price less fast than an average midlist book, which would in turn decrease in price less fast than a complete flop that almost no one bought. I'm completely uncertain what the economics of this approach would be like, but it would definitely provide authors with more money than they would get from free file-sharing of a book.

In any case, I don't have any solid answers, but given that Amazon is now selling more ebooks than paperbacks such answer are needed quite soon.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(9 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:February 28th, 2011 10:42 am (UTC)
You missed a major option in the "where are the second-hand bookstore equivalents?" question -- as books go out of print authors revert the rights to the books. (With a properly drafted contract, this happens despite the publisher trying to put the book into print-on-demand/ebook format and claiming it's "in print".) The author can then treat the title as earned-out, format it up as an ebook themself, and pitch it through Amazon at $1/copy, DRM-free.

This is actually happening already, and judging by the traffic on a certain mailing list I'm on it's going to be the big new wave of 2011.

So, titles that are over 5-10 years old are coming back from the dead at a very low price. That's not an identical niche to the second-hand bookshop, which also typically has a handful of nearly-new bestsellers, but it's not far removed.
[User Picture]
Date:February 28th, 2011 10:56 am (UTC)
Oooh, I really like that idea. Of course, this all gets more complex when ebooks sales are higher than print sales, but I suppose the best equvilent there is a contract limited either by time or perhaps more logically by ebook sales/month. In any case, the option of paying used book prices directly to an author is for me the best of all worlds for the equvilent of used books.
[User Picture]
Date:February 28th, 2011 11:06 am (UTC)
I have a kindle, but I treat the whole business with great suspicion. I use it for classics that I can get for free or for $1, and possibly would never pay for but feel I ought to read, and for cheapo fantasy novels that I'm reading for escapism more than for literary value.

Anything that I want a durable copy of (such as reference books), or that I might *ever* want to lend or give to a friend, I buy a physical copy of.
[User Picture]
Date:February 28th, 2011 11:10 am (UTC)
I used to feel that way, but the fact that the RPG market is rapidly moving to PDF only has changed my mind. First, companies started sending out reference copies to writers as PDFs and then more companies started producing PDF products. As a result, most of the new RPGs I have acquired have been PDFs.

I'm betting that midlist genre fiction of the sort that doesn't come out in hardback first will go the same way within 5 years.
[User Picture]
Date:February 28th, 2011 11:21 pm (UTC)
I note that your decision is made easier by the fact that RPG PDFs are DRM free or only have watermarking. Once you have the PDF you can back it up as much as you wish and don't have to worry about ever not having it. Outside of Baen and public domain stuff, the same doesn't seem true of other ebooks.
[User Picture]
Date:February 28th, 2011 02:03 pm (UTC)
The idea that library use would be limited is terrible!

And I too have been wondering about "used books" with ebooks. I'm hoping that Amazon and other ebook retailers will set up a system whereby people can sell the rights to an ebook, with the publisher getting a small cut (they have to have a profit motive to do it -- and ideally it would become part of the author's royalties as well). They already have the capaity to lend. I would think it would be a relatively simply matter to list ebook licensing as another "used" option. . .
[User Picture]
Date:February 28th, 2011 08:02 pm (UTC)
The suggestion autopope made for rights reverting to the author when a book goes out of print (which could be redefined as when ebook sales drop below X figure/month) and are then sold very cheaply directly by the author would (for me at least) solve the used book equivalent of the ebook market in a way that's a substantial improvement over the current used book market. OTOH, the library issue needs to be dealt with asap.
[User Picture]
Date:March 1st, 2011 05:35 am (UTC)
Not to be contradictory, but libraries are already fading as an institution because of, well, the internet.

Go to your public library. A lot of the foot traffic is actually people who have accounts just so that they can have internet access.

The move to ebooks *is* compounding the trend, but libraries are no longer the "cornerstone of a free society" that they once were. I would argue that the internet has practically taken their place: I would feel much more oppressed intellectually if someone took away my access to the internet than if someone took away the local library.

20 years ago, if you wanted to read a classic or out-of-print book, you had to go to a library if you didn't already own it. Now we have Project Gutenberg and free ebooks.

20 years ago, if you were interested in a scholarly journal or publication, you probably needed a librarian to point you in the right direction if you weren't already a subscriber or a member of an academic institution. Now we have Google Scholar.

20 years ago, if you wanted to find books on a topic and didn't know where to turn, and didn't want/have the ability to buy the book, you pretty much needed a library. Now we have Amazon and a host of competitors.

20 years ago, if you wanted the *most* up-to-date encyclopedia with the *most* entries, you probably needed a library. Now we have Wikipedia.

I am not saying that libraries are entirely out of place. But the world is changing, and libraries are, well, slow to change. Like so many things, they aren't adapting properly and it might be such that in another 20 years "library" is just a term for the room in a school with all the research computers (and possibly a collection of paper books) and possibly a single floor for "old books."
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2011 05:35 am (UTC)
I've occasionally toyed with the idea of IP-socialism. Perhaps after a certain period of time, your work becomes available for mandatory licensing.

As far as libraries go, I think the future is some kind of device that would not let normal users copy the files or email them out.

Ultimately, I think we are moving, inevitibly toward a society where information is free. I don't know how the getting-paid-for-ideas thing is going to work out precisely, but I don't feel pessimistic.

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