Writing on The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder reports that a French court has awarded consumers the right to resell downloaded digital games. Hoffelder predicts that this ruling will eventually be extended to ebooks.
For all we know, Mr. Hoffelder may very well be right.
What this would mean, then, is that when you visit Amazon, you’d find used copies of ebooks for sale, just like you now find used copies of physical books.
We can also predict a new business model: the website that exclusively sells used ebooks.
Physical books vs ebooks
The sale of used physical (paperback and hardback) books is mostly uncontroversial. This is for two reasons:
1.) Limited substitutability: A used book is seldom a true substitute for a new one. There is wear and tear. The binding may be cracked. The cover might be dog-eared. And what are those funny stains on pages 236 and 237…the ones that look suspiciously like bodily fluids?
2.) Limited resale potential: There is a one-for-one limit on the physical books you can resell. Buy one copy of Stephen King’s latest novel, you can resell one copy.
Oh, and someone is going to have to pay for shipping, packaging, etc. This means that used book reselling is inherently a low-margin business.
Ebook reselling would not be restrained by the above factors.
Buy one copy of a digital book, and you can copy and resell the thing a gazillion times. There would be no limits, and few transaction costs.
Amazon would probably attempt to establish a one-for-one resale limit. But there would be no such limit at the third-party sales sites. Ebooks would be copied by the millions, and resold by the millions.
The end game: the end of ebooks
I understand the argument in favor of resale rights. The argument exists.
But here’s the rub: Once you establish mass, above-board resale rights for ebooks (or any digitally downloaded product), you completely eliminate the incentive for anyone to produce such a product in the first place.
The excuse they’ve been looking for
Let’s start with the big five traditional publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.
Traditional publishers have resisted ebooks since their inception, because ebooks cannibalize physical book sales. (Ebooks also opened up new avenues of competition from small publishers and indie writers.)
Traditional publishers are itching for an excuse to simply stop issuing ebooks. A legally recognized secondary ebook market would be the excuse they are looking for.
What will they do instead? Simple. They’ll go back to what they were doing a decade ago: They’ll only sell physical books.
Ebooks aren’t inevitable.
The digital utopians who predicted the demise of the paper book fifteen years ago have been proven wrong many times over. In fact, physical book sales have regained a portion of their market share in recent years, while ebook sales have leveled off.
The simple fact of the matter is: The publishing industry doesn’t have to make ebooks available at all. Ebooks will exist only so long as they’re profitable to make and sell.
Yes, scanned and digitized pirate ebooks of the megabestsellers would still find their way on to the Internet. But if the content stops coming through the regular channels, sooner or later the Kindle, the Nook, and all the other e-readers will be abandoned by their manufacturers. That sort of thing can and does happen, as anyone old enough to remember the Betamax or the 8-track can tell you.
This means going back to the age of reading ebooks as RTF and PDF files in front of a computer screen….but only the ebooks that find their way onto the black market.
What about indie authors?
Indie publishers are already losing money from Amazon’s decision to move to a pay-for-play marketplace, in which almost no books are sold without paid advertising anymore. If every ebook sold can suddenly be resold a dozen or a thousand times, look for indie authors to stop publishing ebooks, too. The margins simply won’t be there.
What would I do, you ask?
I’m a big fan of free content. (I serialize a lot of my fiction on Edward Trimnell Books.) I’m not a fan, however, of giving online pirate sites new ways to make money off creators. I’d continue to publish free content here on my website, and sell paperbacks.
But as for publishing Kindle versions of anything? Every Kindle book I sold would simply be copied many times over and (legally) resold. What would be the point?
Conclusion: The ebook may be an endangered species.
Contrary to past predictions, many consumers still haven’t adopted the ebook. Publishers are suspicious of them because of intellectual property concerns.
Far from being inevitable, the ebook is a tenuous thing.
If a secondary ebook market becomes the law of the land, we may quickly reach the point where there are few new ebooks to resell, because so few are being published anymore.