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March 19, 2013
Authors and (Used) E-book Panic
Ever since the announcement that Amazon had been awarded a patent on reselling used electronic goods
there's been ongoing consternation from some authors that this will herald some new version of the end of the world. John Scalzi famously declaimed that he'd rather people pirated his books than give more money to Amazon by acquiring legal used copies. Presumably he feels the same way about Apple, which claims to have its own patent on a digital objects marketplace, and ReDigi which - while being sued over its plans for a used MP3 marketplace
- has also made noises about applying its technology to e-books.
Earlier this month, Jenny Shank put out a piece for PBS's Mediashift interviewing Scalzi and Ayelet Waldman, another author who sees doom on the horizon. Shank poses the headline question "Will Authors be Compensated?" to which the answer is self-evidently "no".
More elaborately the answer is "No. You don't get compensated for sales of used physical books; why do you think e-books ought to be different?" Well, for one thing a used electronic item doesn't degrade in the way that a physical item does. There's something nice about buying a pristine copy of a book and every used-book marketplace I know of requires sellers to state the condition of the book because a sufficiently degraded physical book can be unpleasant or impossible to use.
In theory, if there are pristine copies of e-books out there it will destroy the marketplace for new copies. Except there are already vast stocks of pristine physical books around. Ever heard of overstock? Or check those condition listing for physical books. I bet you can find descriptors like "unopened" or "still in shrink-wrap" or "pristine" or "like new". It's true that not every copy is like that, but it's simply false to assume that every used book is lower quality.
Scalzi and Waldman wail on at length about how authors need to get paid, a philosophical foundation I share. But the used book was sold, and the author did earn her or his money on that sale. That, as I said last time, is the entire point of first-sale doctrine. If authors or publishers feel that used sales are taking some amount away from first sales then the proper response is to increase the price on first sales to compensate. Teeth-gnashing and trying to shut down entire commercial marketplaces is a sorely misplaced sentiment.
And speaking of misplaced, I think Scalzi and Waldman would do well to watch Amanda Palmer's discussion of the art of asking. Rather than spending their time and energy trying to figure out how to force people to pay, authors need to learn how to connect with people and in so doing encourage them to help the authors.
(Sorry for the week-long hiatus. An unexpected change in job situation sort of threw me off track.)
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