Used Ebooks?

There have been a number of articles published recently about the possibility of reselling “used” ebooks. Here are a couple:

Some people, mostly consumers, seem to think it’s a great idea; others, mostly authors and publshers, think it’s terrible. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in modern digital life, if something becomes possible, it will be done. The only question is going to be how.

A minority of people already resell their used ebooks. It’s called piracy. Some make money off it, some don’t, and some just facilitate this crime. I say crime because it’s both unlawful and immoral, but I’m not going to get all huffy about it. Like shoplifting, it’s a fact of life.

The fact that at least it is recognized as illegal and immoral and is somewhat suppressed means that many law-abiding readers would rather pay a small fee for the convenience and peace of mind to download a legal ebook, than go through the trouble of searching out a piracy site, and by the way, risk acquiring some malware with their “freebie.” In this sense those sites that actually propagate that malware are the author’s friends by creating risks for doing so. As we learned with the iTunes model, if the legal download price is reduced to a reasonable level – for songs, it turned out to be 99c – most people move away from pirate sites. Add to that the fact that your lawfully-purchased library is fully recoverable through the vendor (Amazon, B&N or whatever) should your reading device get lost, stolen or destroyed, and most people will buy legally.

The twist here is that if Amazon and eventually everyone starts reselling ebooks, how do we tell the original from a perfect digital copy? Just like with piracy, if there is not some DRM-like system in place, one person could “resell” their book many times.

The whole foundation of the concept of reselling a used ebook is “First Use Doctrine.” I am not by any means a lawyer but as I understand it, this means that if you buy something, you own it and can do whatever you like with it. But the law seems to treat digital properties differently. They say that a digital property is not subject to first use doctrine. And currently, ebook owners do not actually own the books themselves, they merely own a license to use the ebook. Since it is the license they own, my common sense says they should be able to resell the license. Because the rights-owner, that is, author and/or publisher, gets part of the sale price for a new license, they should get part of the sale of the resold license.

Of course, who manages licenses? The licensing vendor – for example Amazon. For Amazon to make this work without cutting its own throat, they would need to get a piece of every resale for transferring the license to the new owner. If they tried to do this without giving the author and publishers a cut, especially the big publishers that still have clout and legal departments, they would never make it work, in my humble opinion.

There are many ways this could play out, and I’m not going to try to make predictions. I’d just say to my fellow authors and readers – expect it to happen sometime. Until then, all a little guy like me can do is keep writing the best books I can, and hope the big boys don’t kill off their golden geese.

The “Death” of the Hardcopy Print Bookstore

Some say there will soon be no more bookstores, ebooks will take over everything. They base this on seeing Borders go belly up and Barnes and Noble getting shakier by the day.

I don’t think so. I think the busineess is, more or less, just returning to where it used to be long ago.

Let me explain.

When I was growing up and buying books in the 70s, suburban bookstores were either independent mom-and-pop affairs that carried new and/or used, or they were mall chains like Waldenbooks or Barnes and Noble before they had standalone stores. I can’t speak to large urban bookstores, though I did visit a couple of big ones in real cities like San Fran or Los Angeles. But for suburbia, bookstores were seldom larger than any other small shop, perhaps 1000-2000 square feet.

Then in the, what, late 1980s and 1990s to the early 2000s Borders and Barnes & Noble reinvented the book market – good for them! just in time to create a print bubble. I think this happened because of the wealth effect of that time period, and people were buying a lot of luxury books such as coffee-table books etc. to outfit their McMansions, or hanging out at those stores to meet other readers – this was the center of the baby boomer wave in late youth and early middle age. There was a lot of socializing going on there, before smartphones and the expansion of the internet.

Also, those boookstores sold CDs, movies and other things so they became something of one-stop media entertainment shops. Even before ebooks there were jokes about how people spent more money on coffee and biscotti there than books. They also fed a lot of fanboy demand from the children of wealthy baby boomers raised on video games and Star Wars culture for series genre fiction of all sorts – graphic novels, D&D rulebooks and novels, Star Wars and Star Trek fanchise (yes, that’s FANchise) novels, and ever-longer series of epic-style, if overwritten and tedious, fantasy series.

They gave the people what they wanted.

Then several things happened at once. By “at once” I mean in the space of about 3 years.

First, the economic crash made new books into luxury items. A frugal reader could go to used bookstores and get twice the value with a bit more diligence for their usual fiction fare. Luxury books themselves – $100 art coffee table books for example – became dinosaurs for most people who were worried when their house lost half its value.

Second, the rise of Kindle and ebooks and all the platforms for them allowed heavy readers to save a lot of money in the long run, and never need to leave their homes to shop for their books. It’s also a heck of a lot easier to find a specific book, or fill in your missing series books, via ebook.

Third, the tradpubs were slow to recognize the price competition they faced. When paperbacks soared from $5 to $10 in less than ten years, during years of low inflation, the real cost of a new paperback did not compare well to a $3.99 ebook.

Fourth, the rise of Amazon and its Amazon Partner system mean that now, readers don’t need to go scour bookstores for that specific print book – just go online and almost anything is available somewhere through Amazon, delivered right to your door, at used book prices. So now the new book market is competing with, in essence, a worldwide used bookstore.

Fifth, books in general now have more competition for entertainment dollars and time – games, streaming video, endless free internet content – so all books are under some competitive pressure.

All of these things mean that only the hottest and most desirable books are bought at a high price point. The rest either have to be heavily discounted or they will not sell. Witness all the discounting going on now. List price for a trade paperback? $11-$15. “Normal” discounted price? 40% off,so now we are back to or below the old paperback prices, for frankly a better product with larger, easier to read print that looks better on your shelf. The market has spoken.

Which brings me back to my point – big-box bookstores in every suburb are temporal anomalies, abnormal products of a bubble and luck, not a sustainable business model. Even before consumer electronics, new books were a steady semi-luxury, and used books or cheap paperbacks sustained the masses. Everything old is new again. Hardback print books are a luxury, and ebooks have taken the place of the really cheap paperbacks. There are some other differences but bottom line, the bubble is over with and there is simply no place left in modern American suburbia – right now – for the big box bookstore. They were flukes.

So now the print bookstores are, voila, just like when I was growing up.