What is a book?

We used to know what a book was. It was words on paper, bound together into a primitive manually-operated reading device. We easily comprehended the components: copyrightable content plus the delivery mechanism. These days, our simple definition blurs. Is a “book” merely the content? Or is an “e-book” also a thing in and of itself, just like the paper version it replaces? Is it  both the memory of the words and the ghost of the paper? What do I sell you when you buy my ebook? To paraphrase my own poem, does the poetry remain when the poem is removed? 

This becomes interesting when you consider resale rights. Should you have the right to resell an ebook? If so, is it still “new” because it remains perfect or it used because, after all, it’s been used? Should the publisher  inflate the original price because, after all, a new book is worth more? If I let you (the buyer) resell it, and you price it below my price to you, are you competing with my own sales with a product identical in every way? Are you undercutting the bookstores like Amazon and Barnes and Noble that I rely on for my livelihood? Dare I risk their wrath? Shoot, I don’t sell my own paper books to the public at a discount just to help protect their profit. Should I, therefore, place a restrictive covenant on the price you may resell it for?

Conversely, if the book becomes hot after you buy it, (maybe Angelina Jolie makes a movie based upon it) is it reasonable for you to make the profit on your copy because, after all, you bought it and own it?

So far, publishers have decided that you only get to buy my ebook, you don’t get to resell it. Nor can you copy it, lend it, duplicate it or otherwise profit from it. After all, the book was priced comparable to (or cheaper than) than the printed version. That price was based on a one time use. If you want to lend it out (as a library, for example)  those publishers will sell you a license to do so with very strict rules. The book vanishes after so many check outs. The library is no longer buying a book, it’s buying a temporary right to use the content. The library has become a renter instead of an owner. Libraries don’t like that.

On the other hand, as an author, I did not intend for millions of people to gain access to my immortal words for free just because someone paid ten bucks for one ebook. On several occasions, I’ve had to take action against pirates who scanned one of my books, converted it to PDF and made it available as free or cheap downloads. They paid for one copy of the book, but threatened my entire livelihood. That did not seem fair either.

I’ve been helping Colorado Independent Publishers Association put together a deal with a couple of large libraries (including Douglas County Libraries of Colorado and Red Rocks Community College) to buy e books for lending. Our model is revolutionary because we’re not selling them a license to loan the book, we’re selling them an actual ebook with the right to lend that out to one patron at a time. We had a very pleasant meeting today and the resale issue arose. I suspect that the head of the library district and I could spend a delightful evening arguing this issue back and forth because we see it from opposite ends of the shotgun. My first instinct is that no, they can’t resell the ebook they buy from me. His first instinct is that of course they can.

Because whatever we do will set some precedents in the industry, we want to be careful.  But we don’t want to get bogged down either.  We both want to be fair, if only we can define “fair.”

Here’s my current thinking. Just like with real estate, any sale includes a particular bundle of rights. The right to resell is one of the rights that might be included in the bundle, like water rights or mineral rights or the right to possession. Most homeowners in Colorado don’t own the mineral rights to their property. Most city and suburban properties don’t include water rights. Sometimes you buy a property with covenants and restrictions; you may or may not own development rights, air space rights or the right to build a new barn. As long as it’s spelled out in the deed, you don’t risk changing the last four hundred years of property rights law, which is really what we’re worried about.

I suspect our solution is to agree upon exactly what bundle of rights are included in the e book sales we contemplate, and agree that we aren’t in a position to define those rights for the entire world quite yet.

Publishers Weekly wrote a nice article about our project here.

9 replies on “What is a book?”

  1. My e-book is already resold, back to Amazon, who sells the book for a lower price than originally sold. I believe I still get a profit from this, since they share that information.

  2. Jamie LaRue says:

    Good and fair, Kenn, but I have a couple of comments.

    First, the reason used books sell for less than the original is not about their condition. It’s about their currency. Most books have a window in popular attention. Call it two years for the hot stuff. After that, the demand falls off sharply for the vast majority of what’s published.

    Second, the second, third, or fourth life of a book is profoundly important, not only growing literacy in the land through the increased availability of reading matter, but also in helping authors find their readers. When we release books to booksales, charter schools, other libraries, etc., we enable people who would NOT have purchased the new book to have a shot at it. I’ve bought a lot of new books in my life. But I found out about most of those authors through libraries and booksales. If we eliminate that “after-market” of books, we’re shrinking the first market, too.

    Third, you conflate “resale” with “millions of sales lost.” But the library wouldn’t release millions of copies. We would release just exactly as many copies as we bought. Each one would have the same digital rights protection that the original came with. To lose millions of sales, that copy would have to pass through millions of purchasers. That just isn’t very likely.

    But your point about bundles of rights is interesting. Maybe there’s another creative solution. Our “resale” might be back to CIPA. We delete copies from our database, and you give us a credit (some percentage of the original sale) for new purchases from you. How’s that?

  3. Kenn says:

    Don’t feel bad: it’s just because you don’t know me very well. Had you plied me with wine first, I’d probably be agreeing enthusiastically with you by now. Now you know.

    I think we’re close, but still struggling to frame the issue in a way we can both agree to.

    I’ve bought nearly everything Steinbeck ever wrote, used, for a buck a book because of the condition of the book, even though his new (that is, unused) books sell over a million copies each year at full retail. My own books have been selling steadily for over 20 years, at brand new prices. So I’m not quite convinced that fresh books carry an expiration date.

    Second, I don’t own a Kindle yet, or I-Pad, or Nook. I doubt the starving masses we’d like to expose to new books have one yet either. For guys like you and me, (cheap, but curious) I give away scuffed paper copies routinely and send out hundreds of free review copies each year. So I agree with the concept, and might agree completely a few years down the road. But I don’t think most people discover new titles by ebooks yet.

    No, I don’t think one sale by a library will result in millions of copies given away. But then, I did not think some of my wisecracks sent to a few friends via email would spread around the country and become cliches either. And people have pirated my books many times. So I’m wary.

    The issue maybe isn’t really one of legal “ownership” but of technology. When Gutenberg owned the only printing press, there wasn’t much danger of “unauthorized duplication.” With copy machines, it became huge. PDF and email made it downright trivial. DRM copy protection ensures that a digital edition can’t be printed or recopied or sold again. If a library sells my ebook as “used”, would the new “owner” also have the right to resell? If so, how many times? If not, why not? And how would that new owner, the poor kid who can’t afford to spend ten bucks on a new version, add the DRM to it for that resale? As I understand it, the DRM would have to be removed and then added back for each subsequent sale, which is not a trivial process. That is probably the core of our difference– I just can’t see how it would work on a practical level, not that I’m really concerned about you selling the copy you bought from me.

    As to the credit for deleting the ebook, I guess I just don’t understand. What benefit would CIPA be receiving? It can’t “resell” the book either. Wouldn’t that be like your burning a hardback because you don’t want it any more and then asking the publisher to give you credit for it? Or using a mule I sold you for ten years, then shooting it and asking me to compensate you? Clearly I am not understanding this concept the way you are.

    But these seem like very interesting, but probably peripheral issues. I don’t feel like we have a huge disagreement.

  4. Kenn says:

    Jamie also sent me a link to an interesting and thoughtful article about lending and reselling ebooks.

  5. If anyone is going to be setting precedent for writers, I’m glad it’s you, Kenn. Thanks for putting yourself on the cutting edge of this.

  6. Becky Clark says:

    This is my favorite comment from the Slate article … Paper books and ebooks are not the same product, even if we want them to be. When you lend someone a paper book you are giving them something that is less valuable because it is used. Also, you can’t lend someone only the words off of a paperback book, which is essentially what you would be doing with lending ebooks. An ebook is the same product user to user so there really could be no resale market and lending to other consumers is a loss for publishers. Shocker, businesses want to make money off of the sale of a new product, that doesn’t make them greedy.

  7. I went to a funeral in rural Nebraska recently. The preacher rhetorically asked the congregation how he knew the Bible was true. He answered himself, “Because it’s written down on paper. I read it in a book.” Imagine my thoughts at that moment. Me, a fiction writer, with a PAPER book, as well as an ebook. Not even I worship the written word to that extent.

  8. Jamie LaRue says:

    Kenn: ply you with wine? When there are microbrews and Irish whiskey? But if that’s what it takes… I’ll bring my banjo.

    You made me think with that question about credit for a deleted copy. On the one hand, bookstores do returns all the time, right?

    You tell me that you’re worried about library books escaping into the wild, stripped of DRM; so my deleting a book should reduce that risk, right? Why not match up that perceived benefit to you – an action to remove a copy we paid for – with credit for a future purchase? That generates ongoing sales of new materials (good for both of us), while still looking out for your concerns.

    Right now, I seem to think that we COULD sell the book with DRM, but I’ll certainly look into that. And again, may be that’s part of our partnership. You sell us a book, we attach DRM to it, we circulate it, we delete it from our servers and give it back to you with DRM attached for YOU to resell. Now we’re adding value to those small publishers, right?

    Again, my goal is nothing more complicated than to buy as many books from you as we can afford. A deal like this lets me do that — and just might get those books into far broader markets, including that interesting secondary or thrift market.

    But hey, I’m still figuring it out, too.

  9. Kenn says:

    Shannon– thanks for your kind sentiments. Obviously, you were in Nebraska when it wasn’t football season, if they were talking about books.

    Becky, yes, I do think e books are different from paper books. Sort of like plays are different from movies in a theater which are different from DVD’s of movies. Good comment.

    Jamie– well, it will take more wine to convince me if there’s a banjo involved. Unless I get to bring my guitar and a little stage amp, in which case I’m guessing there won’t be time to think about e books.

    I like your thinking, maybe we’re getting close here.

    Bookstore returns are usable, at least as review copies. They are also the bane of publishers everywhere.

    Adding DRM would certainly be a benefit to a small publisher. Interesting idea. And yes, deleting it prevents it from going feral. As does archiving.

    I’m not really too worried about my books escaping from your library. Beyond the philosophical aspects of “what’s fair?” I think my main concern is that I don’t want to screw up my (or any other publisher’s) relationship with Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, etc. and I don’t feel completely competent to guess what might trigger their wrath.

    Once, when Baker and Taylor hadn’t paid me for six months, I said they had to start prepaying for their orders. That infuriated them, they returned all their inventory and listed my books as ” out of print–unavailable from any source” Then they reduced the discount to ten percent and started accepting returns from bookstores they had not sold to, sent me the books, and demanded that I pay them 90 percent of retail, because that’s what their computer said the discount was. Although I had not sold them one book at that rate. When the bill they sent me for these bogus returns reached several thousand dollars, after dozens of attempts to work it out, I said it was time we parted ways. Haven’t dealt with them since then. One would think I was too small to irritate a big company, but apparently I have irritation skills beyond my size.

    If that’s really my concern, maybe my real issue boils down to this: If you resell a book for two bucks, are you acting under the umbrella of vicarious liability? That is, to Amazon, is that equivalent of me selling it for two bucks? And therefore, do they declare the new price of my Kindle book is two bucks, because of the agreement I signed saying I would give them as good a price as I give anyone else?

    I bet it becomes clear to us.

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