Ayelet Waldman and I Discuss Used eBooks at PBS’ MediaShift

The headline there pretty much says it all, so: Here’s the link. Knock yourself out. It’s a pretty good story.

34 Comments on “Ayelet Waldman and I Discuss Used eBooks at PBS’ MediaShift”

  1. While I am absolutely in favor of authors getting paid, and paid first, I fail to see why on earth they should get paid again when an used book is sold, no matter what the medium it is in (paper, electrons, little clay tablets,or cold stone slabs). Once it was sold the first time, it is just another commodity.

    When somebody sells you an apple, or builds you a custom deck, or a fly rod, or a garden fence, or a camper shell, or uncounted other things that they (singularly or plurally) spent their time and energy on, they are not entitled to demand more pay when you sell that thing. How is selling a used book any different? It ain’t. One its sold, it isn’t your anymore.

    I also think you have a greatly exaggerated view of how long books last in the library. I’d venture they can get many more than 30 reads before replacement. I know my book collection includes a lot of books I’ve read and re-read that many times or more. And the books I used in grad school and for work get even more use without wearing out. I read all the time, have since pre-school, and I have a reading/writing job (Historical archaeologist).

  2. Just as a point of clarification: when you say you’d rather I pirate your book than buy it used … does that extend to hard copy? ‘Cause I have to be honest: *most* of my library is used paperbacks, primarily from library sales, but also a fair few from used bookshops, a dollar here and a dollar fifty there. I’m having to change that habit here in Australia; I’ve been here a year and have yet to see a used book that doesn’t cost what it would have cost new in the States, with the result that I haven’t bought any paper books at all. But there’s been many a day when I had $2.50 in my pocket and opted for the 99-cent markdown white bread so I could also buy a book. While I know that money doesn’t reach you … *somebody* bought it new and then passed it on. I wouldn’t have ranked that below piracy on the desirability scale.

  3. kuangning:

    “does that extend to hard copy?”

    No. When someone gives away a hard copy, it’s not in their own library anymore (e-files can be flawlessly reproduced), and the income typically helps a local library or small business, so that’s fine. That said, eventually, if you actually like a writer’s work, you should eventually buy something of theirs new.

  4. I have a hard time discerning the difference between a pirated copy and a “used” e-book file. It isn’t like a book reader will not allow you to read a file you have copied or shared. A used book is a material thing, an e-book isn’t.

  5. There is no such thing as a used eBook. At best, the reseller might be recycling the license or something, but it’s not like the used eBook seller emails the file back to, for example, Amazon, and Amazon sends that “used” file out to your Kindle. Instead it seems like a fairly blatant attempt to cater to people’s desire for cheaper eBooks (and most people don’t actually care whether it’s “used” or not as long as it costs less than some other version), and to capture a larger percentage of the revenue stream, by cutting out authors and publishers.

  6. Yep. When I can, I do. And one day, I will be fully trained and working in a field that will pay me more than the string of mostly-crappy CS jobs I’ve held till now have done. But I’ve yet to earn more than $26K pre-tax in *any* year … so those days are not yet here. It’s not a choice between $10 on a book and $10 at Starbucks for me; it’s the difference between $10 on a book (well, closer to $20 here, because although the dollar has achieved parity with the US dollar, the prices have not and probably never will) or two nights’ worth of real dinner instead of peanut butter sandwiches. I would have given up getting your books used and destroyed the ones I had when I got my hands on my collection again, had you preferred that, but I would have been more than a little regretful.

  7. @Alex Hazlett,

    I think the difference here is the reproducibility. Taking an example you named, let’s do the fly rod. I make a fly rod and sell it to a reseller; I get paid. If someone sees that fly rod and likes it, yes they can buy it. But everyone else who sees the fly road and likes it has to buy another one I make. I get paid again. Even if you buy the original fly rod I made and which the reseller sold to the first customer, the first customer no longer has access to it. Only one of you does. If more than one of you wants to own it at the same time, I get paid for each copy.

    And the same is true for each of those items you named. Only one person can own that apple, custom deck, garden fence, or camper shell at a time. If someone sees that custom deck and admires it, they ask, “Hey, who built your deck (or fence, camper shell, etc.)?” And they come back to the artist who created it to get another one. They don’t copy the deck (or whatever). And EVERY time someone admires that commodity, they have to come back to the creator, who gets paid.

    Now take the case of an ebook. John’s publisher sells it to Amazon; John gets paid. Fred, the customer, reads it and likes it but decides to resell it back to Amazon anyway. Can Amazon really guarantee that Fred didn’t copy the original file? Hell no. For that matter, Fred could have copied it and put it up on a bittorrent site as well as keeping a copy for himself AND selling it back to Amazon (Fred’s a bit of a jerk that way). He’s even emailed it to all his friends telling them how great it is. Now we’ve got hundreds of copies of John’s book out there and John’s not getting paid for any of them.

  8. I’ve taken a look at the patent and find a couple of additional problematic items. First of course is the creation of an entirely new object, the “used” digital file. I suspect that at some point the definition of such is going to cause huge problems; after all, when you download an e-book from Amazon, you are downloading a “copy” of the file on Amazon’s server. In essence, what they have sold you is already “used” (at least within the description contained within the patent). There is no inherent difference between the new “copy” you are initially sold and any other copy, whether it is called used (has a sale associated with it) or new (has no sales associated with it). They really are trying to have it both ways. (If the act of a buyer re-selling confers ‘used’ness upon a file copy, then why doesn’t the same transformation apply when Amazon buys their server copies from the publisher?). Another aspect here is that in normal commerce, used applies to items that have been purchased and actually ‘used’ in some manner; they’re worn, require maintenance, are not as good as ‘new’ and therefore have lost some discernible portion of their value.
    How is an e-book file that I download but never read transformed into “used”? If I transfer it, the condition has not changed in any measurable way; its status is more akin to a physical object that has been sold to a re-seller who then re-sells it. Transfer from the manufacturer to a re-seller does not impart “usedness”.
    Beyond that, the claims structure of the patent reads more like an extension or different ‘take’ on DRM than it does any kind of real system for the re-selling of digital objects. Inherent in the design (and all of the claims) is the use of some kind of “counter” – a flag that will record how many times a particular COPY of a digital file has been transferred (similar to the usage limits offered to library e-books a while back). There is no restriction on what is considered a transfer. One thing that may be going on here is a back-end method of restricting a users (licensee’s) ability to move the e-book they purchased from one of their devices to another (copy or transfer). If you are too free with the e-book you purchased, you may find that you can’t re-sell it, or even transfer it to another one of your own devices. (If the counter limit is two, downloading to your Kindle decrements it by 1, leaving you the option of moving it to another device – your tablet – or retaining the ability to re-sell.
    Implementation of this would also seem to gut the ability of authors to insist on DRM-free issues of their own books. Who needs DRM when there’s an aging counter in there somewhere? If you insist that your book be free of such, it won’t be available used and such a lack will certainly be used to diminish the author’s profile or even their inclusion on a site employing such.
    Finally, this whole thing, while seemingly directed at books, may in fact be an end-run around the folks who are re-selling music files.
    And really finally, this whole thing, in general, strikes me as another step down the path of Amazon not wanting to sell anything. They’d be happy if all you could do was pay to read a file delivered from their server, retaining all rights and control over the content at every step of the equation.

  9. Damn, I agree with a major record label on something. Time for a shower.

    If you’re shelling out that much for something that you’re going to consume in 30 minutes, chances are pretty good that it’s a fair exchange for a year’s worth of effort on my part.

    This gives me an idea that I can hardly believe never occurred to me before (though it doubtless has to others given its obviousness). I think perhaps this is a relic of an exclusively material economy, in that consumers are reluctant to see value in informational goods, that they are blind to the labor it represents in a way that they aren’t when they can physically connect with the product. As our production lines grow ever more distant from the end-user, more appreciation is lost for the people whose work makes those products possible. But holding a material product in one’s hand still stirs a visceral understanding that this thing did not spring fully formed from the uncultivated earth.

    That, and I think a lot of middle-class Western pirates want to rationalize their selfishness by imagining they’re Robin Hood, when in fact they’re small-time robber barons. These “used” content resellers are simply setting themselves up as midsized robber barons. If you’re going to treat the content creator like a serf, at least have the moral courage to do the pirating yourself. Washing your own hands by throwing token change at a bigger pirate is cowards’ thievery.

  10. When I was young, I bought many used books because they were cheap. Now, I see them more in terms of finding stuff no longer in print. For some authors, who have a eBook back list, there is little reason for me to seek out an used book, which takes a fair bit of time.

    I’ve also bought a few used CDs in my time. Though I am astonished at the poor condition of some used CDs, they really ought to be re-playable for a quite some time. A friend once received a flyer for a charity drive recommending that you rip your CDs to electronic storage and then donate them for eventual resale, in other words they were advocating music piracy.

    One problem seems to be whether we should presume that an used digital object was really sold, or whether a copy was retained.

    There are companies that resell licenses for software. Older versions can be quite affordable. The presumption is that the seller has removed the software, but in many cases, the seller probably doesn’t actually know.

    I’m reminded of the old Borland “like a book license agreement”:

    Of course the other problem is that even if every seller of digital material scrupulously refuses to keep an illicit copy, John’s point that his inclination to write is dependent on the willingness of readers to pay still stands, no matter what we deem to be legal and ethical. To that degree, this isn’t so much a question of law or technology, but of culture. If we want artists to produce, then we should pay them, even when no one is watching. What if there were an iRoyalty site where every author has a tip jar? Then if you buy an used book, or get it from the library and really happen to like it, you can just go to one site, look up the work, and send the author a buck. Of course not everyone would use it, but some would if it were easy enough to use.

  11. Talking about a ‘product’ that never really degrades with time, I have to say I like ReDigi’s approach. You have a medium that exists not so much physically as it does ‘logically’. As long as your host device has power, the ‘product’ exists in an unchanged state. This is much different from a physical book that sees a few resales in a used outlet until it falls apart or becomes so badly marked it’s only of minimal value to anyone.

    ReDigi’s approach seems to take into account the perpetual state of electronically constructed and stored ‘products’ like a pdf or epub or mp3 file, compensating for this through payment to the copyright holder and artist. Such an approach assures that the sales life of a re-re-resold epub file includes a reasonable percentage to the ones who actually own or created the content to begin with. Otherwise, creators, like writers, will only reap the benefits from the smallest tip of what could be a very large, and profitable, ‘iceberg’.

  12. I object to the term “used” when we’re really talking about “pre-owned”. A “used” ebook does sound ridiculous. A “pre-owned” ebook and suddenly it isn’t such a big deal.

    Is the buying and selling of pre-owned books really a problem?

  13. You almost wish there was a truly advanced DRM which allowed for a way to “Count” the number of times an e-Book was re-sold WHEN transferred. This would of course be problematic if a book did NOT have DRM or was sold without it. Or how about a software program that took a Kindle file and transformed it into something that could be read in a Nook or by a Sony e-Reader? (such programs do exist you know….)

    But why would you want to count the number of re-sales OR transfers (at whatever price)? You could theoretically have publishing houses and resellers agree on a formula that states at 1,000 re-sales of a certain book (never mind the price), an author SHOULD RECEIVE “X Amount” of compensation for those re-sales. Yes, I understand that a system of this sort could be fraught with abuses, but it could be possible to police those. Essentially, you still get paid for the initial sale, and then get paid for each additional sale as tracked by the DRM.

    But, all of a sudden you get into the slippery slope of privacy, tracking technology, etc., etc., etc. (The DRM has to send this information somewhere, right?) I mean, at this point, you might as well ask me, why not put an RFID tag on every PRINTED book (or CD) and track its re-sale as well….. (Well, you could, couldn’t you?)

    But, we humans tend to be pretty smart and we outwit advanced DRM almost as soon as we develop it. So, although I like the theory, in practice, I think my idea is a non-starter on that front as well, so I am really sorry to disappoint in the end. (Did I just point out the flaws in Amazon’s patent?)

  14. I also suspect that pre-owned eBooks might have considerably higher velocity than used print books.

    Print books probably tend to hang around in basements until someone decides that they have to an used book store, where they might not be resold immediately. I very much doubt that the number of physical readings that a paperback can withstand has much to do with how many people ultimately read it. It will eventually find its way into the basement of someone who tends to accumulate books, rather than reselling them. To resell it you have to take the trouble to gather up several books and take them to a book dealer who will probably give you twice as much for them if you accept book credit rather than cash.

    An eBook is potentially very easy to resell with a couple clicks and the right buyer can happen along right away without having to actually browse a book shop or pay for shipping on an online purchase.

  15. “If you’re shelling out that much for something that you’re going to consume in 30 minutes, chances are pretty good that it’s a fair exchange for a year’s worth of effort on my part.”

    The trouble with this statement is that the effort to create something isn’t a great indicator of its worth. Things get made with a great deal of effort every day that only have worth to their creator, or which cost so much to make that no one would ever be willing to make an equal exchange. People who buy books aren’t (usually) paying for the creation of the story, they’re paying for what they get out of the entire experience of the book.

    If someone feels that they get more value for their money from a paperback book then this argument doesn’t really help. Ebooks definitely have benefits, but they also have a lot of drawbacks that can change how people value them.

    Of course, even though the lack of a secondary market (or even personal trades) is one of the big drawbacks of ebooks, creating a completely artificial secondary market that enriches the marketplace’s owner with minimal effort on their part doesn’t seem like much of a solution.

  16. @Alex Hazlett,
    “While I am absolutely in favor of authors getting paid, and paid first, I fail to see why on earth they should get paid again when an used book is sold, no matter what the medium it is in (paper, electrons, little clay tablets,or cold stone slabs). Once it was sold the first time, it is just another commodity.”

    Does your analogy extend to other artwork as well, such as a musician only being compensated the first time he sells a piece of music? What about the music subsequently being used in the soundtrack of a film? Does the artist have no right to compensation?

    Do film and television artists have no right to compensation for subsequent showings of their work?

  17. Nope, not going there, the same thing at all… the musical equivalent of a book is a written score. Once THAT is sold, why can’t the owner then sell that score to someone else? I see used music books at book sales all the time, will no-one think of the poor starving artistes? Oh, the humanity…

  18. Sorry – “not the same thing at all” was what I meant.

    I ‘m not here to argue over the poor starving musicians and who gets paid for performances, because that was not the point.

    I’m arguing that once you sell a THING, it is sold, out of your hands, out of your control, there is precedent going back to the dawn of history that there is ZERO expectation that you should be paid every time it passes to someone else.

    How to enforce that in the world of easy duplication… well, that’s the problem. I know I see different approaches to the same problem in the modeling world, and it seems that now Apple and ReDigi are trying out methods for books and music.

  19. But I’m a historian and an anthropologist… I know something’s going to change in the book world. Fight it, ride it, rail against it, demand the sea recede… whatever. [insert assorted entropy cliches here] I do look forward to seeing what happens (because it fascinates my inner anthropologist to see how different cultures handle similar problems). Meanwhile, I’ll keep buying books and ebooks. I can afford it, and it keeps authors writing.

  20. The way I look at it is this:

    If I finish a physical book and want to sell that off, I have to take the book to a used bookstore (or, if I list the book online, go and actually mail a package if I make the sale). The book wears down over time being read, and eventually falls apart.

    If Amazon goes down this path, imagine that you finish a Kindle book and, right there on that dialog that pops up now and lets you rate the book, you also have a ‘Sell this back to Amazon for credit’ button that would immediately give you back $2.99 in Amazon credit. And if someone were buying the book on Amazon, it shows ‘there are 247 used copies of this book available’ and let you buy the book for, say, $4.99 instead of $9.99. Many people would just go go, ‘well, that’s five dollars less! And I don’t lose a thing; it’s identical, it’s not like it has battered pages or a water stain on it’ and so immediately buy the used one. And then when they finish the used book, imagine they can sell it back again, on and on and on forever, the same ‘copy’ being resold into eternity rather than ever falling apart as a real book does. And because it takes no effort for someone to sell it back—indeed, it takes just pushing a button when you turn the last page—they recapture many of those copies.

    This is all to Amazon’s benefit; they can resell the same book over and over an infinite number of times, without ever having to pay the publisher (or the author). Which may sound great from a customer standpoint, but then the author has to go do something else to pay the mortgage and, y’know, *eat* and all. And then people get sad about, “Well, this was supposed to be a trilogy, why did they only ever finish two of the three books? That sucks!”

    Now add into that the fact that you could trivially strip off the DRM, back up the book *and* then sell it back to Amazon. So, now you still have a copy of the book, AND you sold it back and someone else buys ‘your’ copy even though you still have one.

  21. That said, I *love* used bookstores. I love browsing them, and finding old Victorian novels or interesting historical references or anything else. But for things where the author is *still writing now*, I will almost always buy new.

  22. @Alex Hazlett

    I’m arguing that once you sell a THING, it is sold, out of your hands, out of your control, there is precedent going back to the dawn of history that there is ZERO expectation that you should be paid every time it passes to someone else.

    Fair enough, except that there’s also a long history of people paying money for certain rights for something, but not gaining full ownership. Renting, leasing, licensing, whatever you want to call it. But when publishers say ‘Hey, give us money and we’ll give you the legal right to do certain things with this’ (much as, traditionally, authors have said the same to publishers) people flip, on the grounds that if they PAY MONEY for something then they OWN it. And so it goes…

    – Everything is changing with the Internet
    – I agree. One thing that is changing is that instead of buying and owning a copy of an expression of art you can only lease it

  23. The computer age has been booming for the last 20-30 years or so, and for software the licensing model seems to have been proven to be the best approach for dealing with digital content. The whole idea of “open source” requires a license.

    I think it is silly to ignore all that we have learned in the digital age for the last 30 years or so and try to turn around and argue that that ebooks should be treated as physical objects. It’s just a different world when you can push a button and instantly and at no cost make a billion perfect, non-degradable copies of a piece of intellectual property.

    I think better education is the key, but it seems to be taking longer to catch hold in the ebook world. Unless they have the physical CD, I don’t think most people demand the right to resell the songs they have on their ipod.

    Years ago, some business owners really thought they had a moral right to buy one piece of software and load it on a thousand computers. Some businesses may still do this for economic reasons, but in general they have come to accept the idea of what licensing is all about.

  24. I think the amount of digital piracy shows that its silly to insist that licenses will be accepted as the only choice. And best for who, exactly? Certainly not for the customers, who are JUST as important in this as the publishers and authors. You want to shift rights (like the right of resale) away from the customers, but you provide no benefit to them for doing so. That kind of thinking energized a whole lot of piracy in the music and video world… I think its silly to ignore all we have learned in 30 years watching the failures to deal with digital media.

    I buy books. I buy ebooks. I WILL NOT rent an ebook, unless you can demonstrate exactly how this makes the purchase better for me, the bookbuyer.

  25. Alex Hazlet said: “You want to shift rights (like the right of resale) away from the customers, but you provide no benefit to them for doing so. That kind of thinking energized a whole lot of piracy in the music and video world.”

    If you mean that denying people the right of resale on a digital file energized a lot of people to mass distribute these files to other people, I think that is BS. It had nothing to do with shifting rights. The mass piracy came about because new technology made it so much easier, and many consumers decided “free” was a better price than non-free.

    In the beginning piracy often involved people ripping files off of physical media like CDs and then distributing electronically. It had absolutely nothing to do with being “energized” about license models on digital files.

    You can make an argument that people have resorted to internal “piracy” because of DRM and not being allowed to use the same file on different devices, but I don’t think anybody foregoes itunes or netflix and instead chooses bootleg digital copies simply because they don’t get the right of resale at these places.

    I think most people don’t have much of a problem with where digital music and digital movies are at today other than the DRM issue (which is slowing dying away) and the trying to limit use to one device (which is a luxury of a digital file to begin with. Trying keeping a pbook at work and home at the same time. The laws of physics requires you to buy two copies.)

  26. “…but I don’t think anybody foregoes itunes or netflix and instead chooses bootleg digital copies simply because they don’t get the right of resale at these places.”

    Right. You don’t think. Why? Is this based on interviews, polling, what’s your proof?

    I do think, based on what I read in other fora. People DO choose bootleg rather than buying music, games, or movies, because they get the digital copy without restrictions. Licenses and DRM, those are the restrictions.

    “I think most people don’t have much of a problem with where digital music and digital movies are at today other than the DRM issue (which is slowing dying away) and the trying to limit use to one device (which is a luxury of a digital file to begin with. Trying keeping a pbook at work and home at the same time. The laws of physics requires you to buy two copies.)”

    What do you think DRM is? It is the restriction, the way you maintain licensing. Look at the name itself – “Rights Management”, controlling what the purported owner, the book renter, the licensee, etc… can do with the ebook they paid for. In what purports to be a store, not a book rental facility.

    And with ereaders (or Dropbox, or Kindle storing my book purchases, or by many other methods) I can have my ebooks at a whole bunch of locations. No need for copies when I can have telepresence…

    And who are you, M.A.? I’ve put up my name and said I do, who are you and what do you do for a living, when you aren’t defending licensing? If you want to hide behind initials anymore, you can argue this with yourself.

  27. Because it’s clearly unpossible that people would disagree with you vehemently and not be industry shills?

  28. Wow, that statement about how many times a library can lend a book is troubling me. I wonder if it sheds new light on a question my friends have been discussing, about how B&N can afford to put out such wonderfully-manufactured compilations of works that are out of copyright, when the most durable object I can buy from normal publishers is a bad paperback between cardboard covers.

    From now on I’m always going to wonder if the current horrible physical quality of books is intended not just to shave costs, but to increase sales. It’s clear that I won’t be able to leave my descendants most of the books I’ve bought, in the way that my ancestors left theirs to me. My niece heard Alice read from her great-great grandfather’s copy: her Sorcerer’s Stone is already in pieces. The suspicion that this change was deliberate both offends me and fills me with concern for the future of reading.

    I wonder what the reaction would be if someone created a better rebinding machine, one that could split and deacidify pages, remount them in signatures, and extend the life of a book indefinitely. Copyright would clearly not be implicated, but I begin to think that many authors and publishers I otherwise respect would still complain that such a machine was unfair or dishonest, even “theft.” If this is really the road we’re traveling down, how long until we’re offered DIVX -style books, wrapped in plastic with ink that fades or pages that shatter in a month or two? What does it mean for writers when only the most carefully-preserved, untouched copy of their work can be expected to survive

  29. @Chris: Realistically, I think the longevity of used and/or library books has less to do with sinister marketing, and more to do with the fact that a lot of casual readers are ridiculously hard on books. (Bend the book open far enough to break the spine, put the whole thing facedown for a moment on a damp table so you don’t lose your place while you take a bite of your sandwich, read a book in a smoking area and cause the whole thing to reek of tobacco, and so on.)

  30. I wonder, would anyone, even the most rabid collector, pay more for an e-book file because it was once owned by someone famous?

    No? Why not?

    Because it’s not the same thing that was once owned by the celebrity. Even if you were to copy the file directly from that person’s Kindle into your own, you don’t own the book that she or he once owned. Even if you immediately delete all traces of it from the other Kindle. It’s not the same “object”. It is a copy of that object. It is no different from a copy that you buy new from the retailer. (Well, okay, there could be highlights and notes in the file that could increase its value, I suppose. Still, my point is that electronic files have no provenance.)

    If a private individual wants to pay another private individual to copy files from one electronic device to another, I have no problem with that. However, when a company which is in the business of selling copyrighted electronic media wants to claim that they don’t have to pay the holder of the copyright for certain downloads because those downloads are “used”, I have to disagree. The file that the purchaser is buying is not the same file that some other purchaser downloaded earlier.

  31. “Because it’s clearly unpossible that people would disagree with you vehemently and not be industry shills?”

    Is it? Who is M.A.? Who are you? It is a comment thread on an author’s blog, why do we need to hide our identities? I’m saying I won’t argue this with anybody who won’t stand up for their words.

%d bloggers like this: