Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Perils of Used E-Books

Amazon Kindle E-Reader
In late January, Amazon patented technology that would set up an exchange for digital material, including e-books. Basically, they’re looking to set up an online used e-book store and, presumably, earn a commission on each transaction. The argument in favor of such a marketplace is that once a consumer purchases an item, even if it exists only in zeros and ones, that consumer owns the file and can do with it whatever he or she pleases. After all, if you walk into your local Barnes & Noble and pick up a paperback, you can always sell it at a used book store if you don’t feel like holding on to it. E-book buyers, on the other hand, don’t have such an option to recycle. They’re either stuck with their purchases or, if they run out of disk space, forced to dispose of them entirely. 

Here’s the problem: paperbacks get banged up with time. If you go into a used book store, chances are, you’ll find a book that’s dog-eared and crinkled. An e-book, on the other hand, is pristine forever. Whether you buy it new for $4.99 or used for $0.99, you get the same product. So what’s the incentive for buying it new? Also, if you walk into a used book store, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for. Amazon shook that one up as well when they started allowing used books to be sold through their site. The problem with Amazon’s theoretical online used e-book store is that it would cut into already dwindling earnings for authors. Fewer people would buy new e-books; instead, they would browse the cheaper selection of used ones.

Amazon’s free Kindle store has already devalued e-books in an alarming way. While giveaways are a good way for not-so-famous authors to get their works out there, they also give readers the impression that digital books should be free. Why spend money when you can pick up something for nothing? If you’re just browsing new and obscure authors, why not stick to the free-for-all and keep your wallet closed? Amazon’s digital bazaar would devalue e-books further. Before, people would pay for e-books if they weren’t available anywhere else. For instance, books by literary superstars such as J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers. With the advent of used e-books for sale, even these heavyweights would see a loss. If you’re not keen to read Meyers’ latest teen love triangle now-now-now, why not wait a few weeks and snap up a perfectly good copy for mere pennies? So by buying a new e-book, you wouldn’t be paying for what you have, but rather when you have it. The whole market would rely on a handful of impatient readers.

E-Books are lovely, but wouldn't you miss these?
I sometimes wonder whether people appreciate just how much goes into creating a book. Years of dedication and toiling on the part of the author, often accompanied by anxiety attacks and pits of despair, followed by significant labors on the part of the editors, publishers, cover artists, etc. Thousands of hours were spent to create that little text on your Kindle. Are a few dollars in exchange really so much to ask for?

Alas, as it is with every labor of passion, people will continue doing what they do with or without fair compensation. Even if the e-book is devalued to nothingness by Amazon’s machinations, they will continue to exist if for no other reason than that some author somewhere had to write their story before it burned a hole through their head. But the number of quality books will drop as people lose incentive to invest in editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover art. And fewer authors will be able to make a living through their writing, meaning more will be stuck plotting and crafting language during their lunch breaks, commutes, and late nights. Writers write because they must, just as teachers teach and dancers dance.


  1. Great article...
    I doubt the resale of ebooks will work like the resale of print. The major publishers won't stand for it - either publishers/authors will have to get a percentage of the sales revenue (like the droit de suite system for living artists), or they'll just pull all their titles from Amazon and use outlets with better business models. Anything else is suicide.
    Good to hear someone trying to attach a value to books too! Authors giving their work away is madness - not only because it devalues all books, but because it seriously devalues that author's work. If the author doesn't think their book is worth anything, why would anyone else? (I have downloaded very few 'free' books, and I have to say, in every case there's a very good reason why they've been free!)
    We live in interesting times, but I don't think it's all doom. The situation will settle down, and in the end there will be two broad groups of books. Those that have value (in every sense), written by professional authors with professional standards, and those that are free, by authors who... don't!

    1. Thanks! Personally, I'm okay with free books if it's a short promotion to gain visibility, but I agree that in general it seems like a silly thing to do. What's worse is authors who price their work at 99 cents to begin with, since it shows that they don't believe their work is worth anything.

  2. This makes no sense at all, and all it does it hurt the author. Things are changing way too fast in this industry...I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a writer, like 50 years ago, before the technology bubble. Easier or harder? Hmm...