Posts Tagged used books

Used E-Books?

You’ve probably seen it by now. If you haven’t, the news broke this week that Amazon filed a patent “to create a secondary market for used digital objects purchased from an original vendor by a user and stored in a user’s personalized data store.” Now, Amazon has its fingers in a lot of digital soups, so this would mean music, this means movies, but what most folks are focusing on is that this means ebooks. If you want opinions of people who matter slightly more than I, Chuck Wendig has posted about this, as has John Scalzi. Twice, in fact, with the second post making the point that he’d rather you pirate his ebooks than buy them used from Amazon if he’s not going to make money off of them.

I know people are going to find that last point a little extreme and alarmist. I get where he’s coming from, but I’m not sure I completely agree.

If you’re still here, then you get to hear my opinion.

First, let’s pump the brakes on this a little. It’s trendy in modern reporting to focus on patents awarded to one company or another. Frequently that means focusing on patents awarded to Apple and Amazon. In the case of Apple, it’s an attempt to guess at what will show up in the next iPhone or iPad, though a huge number of the patents don’t end up in any electronics. It’s been with increasing frequency that patents aren’t about protecting a product you are preparing to sell, it’s to prove you had an idea first. It’s to keep other people from using that idea or, if they do, force them to license the idea through your company. This is the land of the patent troll.

Note, I am calling neither Amazon nor Apple patent trolls. However, both company do have multiple patents that do not reflect current, or even future, products. It’s impossible to know whether this used digital object patent is such a patent or not. It will remain impossible up until the point Amazon rolls out the new service. However, let’s go with the assumption that Amazon will move forward, because assuming it won’t means my blog post ends here and I have nothing else to do with this space but post pictures of my baby or cats. This is not that part of this internet, this is instead the part where I opine about things I really lack enough details to really opine about.

It’s called blogging, damnit.

Alright, so let’s assume that Amazon is going to go through with this. They want to create a process by which you can sell back your used digital music, movies, and books, allowing someone else to buy it at a reduced price. What are the problems with this?

To start, let me say that I am an unabashed fan of used bookstores. This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day when I found myself with a day off work and no wife or baby, I didn’t sleep in, I didn’t veg out with the television, or finally finish Dishonored. No. I went on an odyssey to visit seven used book stores in the Northern Virginia area. This weekend my wife and I are talking about hitting two more near Eastern Market. One day I’ll hit I-270 and do all three locations of Wonder Books. I love used book stores.

And I understand something about used book stores. I understand that the purchases I make do not benefit the authors or their estates. Those books have already been bought new and the royalties paid out. While I mostly buy out-of-print titles and books by deceased authors when I go digging through the shelves, I do occasionally buy from a living author, one who would actively benefit from the royalty. That’s how I got the second and third titles of the Old Man’s War series. I’m not making a stand here that every book should be bought new, that any literary transaction should put money in the author’s pocket, because if I argue that I’m a hypocrite and turning my back on every one of those used book stores that I so dearly love.

Of course, as Scalzi points out in his opening reply to the second blog post linked above, “usually, the used bookshop down the way is not an aggressive multinational corporation aggressively pursuing a monopsony position in the market, with billions in yearly gross revenues.” That’s not the point I’d like to focus on. I would like to focus on his very next sentence. “And also, it’s really hard to sell a physical book and keep it at the same time.”

This is where things get a little thornier.

If I go into a used book store and buy a copy of Old Man’s War, I know that the person who originally owned it and read it sold it to that used book store. That he or she no longer owns that copy. In theory this is the case with digital media. In practice, it’s not. While breaking DRM on digital media is illegal, there is software available to do exactly that. So there’s no guarantee that the digital copy of Old Man’s War sold back to Amazon doesn’t also still exist on the original purchaser’s computer. Or another Kindle. Or anywhere else, really. And, actually, Old Man’s War is a horrible example anyway, as Scalzi’s publisher is quite proud of the fact they no longer use DRM, so that makes this problem even more challenging.

Amazon may have considered this, they may have a solution. Again, we don’t know.

So let’s go back into that used book store and its science fiction section. When I go into Hole in the Wall Books, or Wonder Books, I know how many copies of Old Man’s War they have. In my experiences this is typically between zero and two. As a consumer, I know when they sell those two copies they have no other copies. Amazon will need a hell of a lot of transparency with this particular issue, proving that they are only selling the number of used copies that they have the authority to sell. I doubt the methodology for moving these used copies will be keeping a copy of the file in some separate folder then deleting it when someone else buys it. No, it’ll come as a copy from the same master file that they use when serving up any other request for the book. I’m not saying I don’t trust Amazon in this respect, only that writers shouldn’t have to rely on nothing but their trust of Amazon. After all, the words “Amazon” and “transparency” do not go hand-in-hand.

However, that does raise another point. What actually makes this copy “used.” I’ve bought books from used bookstores with brittle pages, with broken spines, with covers nearly coming off, with notes written in them. I’m paying less money (well, that’s usually a lie, I’m often buying books labelled as 35-75 cents originally for $2-5), but I’m also getting a copy of the book that isn’t in nearly the condition that it was new. If used ebooks are served from the same master file…what makes them used? What’s the difference in the file I receive, other than the price?

This creates an incentive to buying the books used. Which means an incentive towards the copy that doesn’t produce royalties for the original author. If I can get the exact same file for less…why would I pay more? As long as there are “used” copies on hand, would anything drive people to buying the “new” copies other than some loyalty to authors and creators. Most people don’t have that. Which meshes in nicely with the question of how Amazon proves they’re only selling as many “used” copies as they have.

Again, with any or all of this, Amazon may have considered these problems and has solutions in place.

There’s no way of knowing this is how Amazon will work the market, they may simply provide a service to link sellers with buyers while skimming just a little off the top. Or they may act as the internet’s new used book store, the alibris of electronic copies, and take a much larger cut.

Amazon may even intend to compensate creators for used copies moved through this process.

Amazon may not even do a thing, and just wants the patent to keep anyone else from doing it.

We don’t know their plans right now. That doesn’t mean that we can’t voice our concerns or look at the possibilities of what’s to come. There’s no reason to necessarily distrust Amazon, but there’s also no great reason to trust them, either. They are a business looking out for their own interests, and they are increasingly such a massive share of their market that they can dictate terms. We’ll just have to wait and see what those terms end up being, and hope that they don’t negatively affect the ability of creators to profit from their intellectual property.

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