For Sale: Used Ebooks, Electrons Slightly Creased

"Used Books And Vinyl"Amazon raised eyebrows in the publishing world last week with news of a patent they received for reselling used ebooks. Several authors I follow on Twitter expressed immediate concern, including Chuck Wendig, who wrote a hilariously foul-mouthed blog post and began tweeting jokes about used ebooks.

Now, it’s possible that the patent is just Amazon covering their bases. Apple is known for patenting technology that never sees the light of day, and I’m sure they aren’t the only one. It’s also possible that the patent isn’t exactly what it sounds like at first blush.

However, it’s hard to imagine how reselling used ebooks would work any better than piracy does for authors. Authors don’t actually receive royalties when you walk into a used book store and buy their book second-hand, so would that still be the case if you buy a digital version of their book “used”?

Also, what exactly does it mean for an ebook to be used? It’s not like the files degrade, after all. It’s generally understood that used books are cheaper than new books in part because of wear and tear. Would it make sense, then, to discount a used ebook? Amazon’s currently system involves selling new and used books side-by-side, sometimes with a fairly prominent one-click button to buy the book used, so would they also start displaying cheaper “used” versions of ebooks?

Along those lines, I can definitely understand why the immediate reaction from authors was disbelief and concern. A form of this business model already exists on a website called ReDigi, which bills itself as a “pre-owned digital marketplace” and lists “used” and “new” prices for MP3 files right next to each other despite the fact that the files are probably identical. The whole thing just feels sketchy, and if Amazon goes down the same route, they’ll do nothing but alienate authors and other content creators.

However, I do think there is a counter-argument to consider. After all, as more of the content we consume starts existing only in “the cloud”, what exactly does it mean to own something digital in the first place? In most cases, companies make a clear distinction between owning the “license” to content and owning the actual content. A license is something that can be revoked, and digital rights management means that you can’t circumvent that license.

If I’ve spent hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on digital books and music, what happens to those licenses when I die? Do they just evaporate into the ether, or should I have the right to hand them down to my heirs? What if I read and enjoyed an ebook and would like to give it to a friend to read at her leisure?

If you start thinking about license transfers on the personal level instead of the corporate level, they start making a bit more sense. The problem to solve is finding a way to allow someone to give an ebook to a friend without also making it possible for a corporation to sell thousands of copies of that book without paying royalties.

It might actually all come down to branding, really; the concept of “used ebooks” is patently absurd because calling something “used” is irrevocably tied to its existence as a physical object. However, if you reframe it in terms of digital content, transferring content licenses starts sounding a bit more reasonable.

Ultimately I think there needs to be a legitimate way for content licenses to be transferred between people, and if Amazon has figured out a way to do it, it might not be such a bad thing.

Why Audiobooks are the Best Kind of Digital Reading

Hello, strangers! I come to you bearing book-related opinion pieces! I know I’ve stayed away for far too long, but this blog fell prey to modern life, as is so often the case. Countless blogs gather dust while their owners spend time trying to find the cutest picture of a cat on the internet. I’ve also heard rumors of a strange cult known as the “tumblers“. However, instead of dwelling on my own shortcomings as a purveyor of content, let us instead turn our attention towards all things digital…

The general consensus in the book world is that exciting and/or frightening things are happening on the frontiers of digital publishing, but the discussion is, in my opinion, giving short shrift to audiobooks as a digital medium. Although my Kindle is a wonderful convenience – the best way to cart around various 1000+ page tomes by Stephenson, Martin, and Murakami – it is my audiobook collection that holds a special place in my heart.

eBooks might save space on overcrowded bookshelves, but great audiobooks do them one better by bringing a story’s characters and ideas to life, filling them with breath and emotion, and transporting you into another world. It’s my opinion that audiobooks are a far more exciting digital medium than ebooks will ever be. I also feel like the practical benefits are more compelling; going from a box full of a dozen CDs or cassettes (bulky AND overpriced) to a few digital files seems like such a huge evolutionary leap, even compared to the transition from the printed word to digital text.

Accordingly, I was particularly excited by the recent launch of ACX, the “Audiobook Creation Exchange”. ACX helps authors connect with narrators to produce professional-quality audiobooks for books that might otherwise get indifferent, tone-deaf productions or simply never get adapted. Neil Gaiman used the service to launch his own Audible “label”, featuring books he loves that were never previously adapted for audio. Self-published authors have been podcasting their books for years now, and ACX feels like taking that DIY impulse to the next level. My sincere hope is that the floodgates open and we start getting audiobook adaptations of obscure, out-of-print, or just plain weird authors.

In an interview with Salon, Gaiman says that one of the reasons he became an evangelist for ACX and audiobooks in general is that, when listening to an audiobook, “you often notice things that the author in all probability thought he or she had buried brilliantly in the text, sitting there in plain sight.” This has definitely been my experience more than once; truly great audiobooks bring something to the table that you’d never discover in the text alone. In fact, I’d argue that some authors should only be experienced in audio form.

I doubt that David Sedaris’ stories are quite the same if they aren’t read in his peculiarly expressive voice, and I firmly believe that Woody Allen’s comic writing doesn’t quite come alive without his unique delivery. However, it makes sense that non-fiction would be best experienced when read by the author; the far more astonishing experience is a narrator who brings a fictional narrative and all its myriad characters to three-dimensional life in your head.

Late last year, when I first started my Audible membership, one of the first books I bought was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. The narrator of the book, Steven Pacey, did such an incredible job with distinct voices and accents for every character that I was completely hooked and ended up listening to the entire series in audio form. You know an audiobook is firing on all cylinders when you can immediately tell which character is talking by the sound of the narrator’s voice.

It has actually reached the point where audiobooks are becoming my medium of choice. I’m far more likely to read a brand new book if I buy it in audio, simply because I can listen to it while I’m working, or going for a walk, or doing errands around the house. A few years ago I only listened to audiobooks on long trips out of town, but nowadays I’m finding more and more time to multi-task while listening to a good story. In fact, I’d argue that listening to audiobooks has majorly increased my productivity over the last year, because I’m far more likely to do something mindless or repetitive if I have a good story to keep me occupied.

All of these and more are reasons why my dream future is one where every great book has a great audiobook, and all of them are sold at reasonable prices. I’ll be listening. Will you?

My Kindle (Almost) One Year Later

When the Kindle 3 came out last August, I decided to take the leap into the digital future and pick one up. I’d recently moved across town to another new apartment, and after moving several dozen extremely heavy boxes of books, it occurred to me that it might be worth my time to stop owning so damn many shelves full of books. It also helped that the Kindle 3’s price point and features hit a particularly attractive sweet spot.

Now, I knew going in that the Kindle would probably never fully replace my desire for physical books. I can’t resist a used book store, especially when they have a sale, and I’m never far from a library here in Austin. However, after almost a year of living with the Kindle, I’m surprised at how few ebooks I finished on the device. Off the top of my head, I’d say I finished no more than a dozen digital books, whereas I read several dozen physical books.

The most likely explanation? I have a huge backlog of  unread physical books in my personal collection, more than 300(!) at last count. I’ve also always had at least one library book checked out at all times. I think there’s just something about actually seeing books sitting on a physical shelf that still has power over me. It’s much easier to forget I even own the books in my Kindle collection. They don’t loom on my bedroom bookshelves, demanding to be read. I can’t quite decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

I was also disappointed to discover that Kindle book gifting isn’t quite ready for prime time. When I filled my Christmas wishlist with Kindle books last year, my parents were hesitant to purchase them. They were told that delivery would be instant and I’d get an email, ruining any possibility of a Christmas surprise. When my birthday rolled around I only listed physical books to keep things simple, which just seems like an oxymoron. You’d assume that digital gifting would be the simpler option, but the technology hasn’t quite caught up with common sense yet.

However, the Kindle store isn’t the only viable digital option out there. I actually ended up listening to a lot of audiobooks this year. I’ve been an occasional audiobook listener over the years, but the combination of my iPhone and the extremely well-made Audible app turned me into a dedicated listener. I ended up spending way too much money on a lot of audiobooks this year. It turns out that audiobooks really help me focus at work when I’m doing data entry, so I pulled up the Audible app whenever I needed to buckle down and be productive.

On the whole, I’m glad I bought the Kindle. It’s definitely not my primary source of reading material yet, but I like having the option available if I want to read an ebook. I’ve started buying all of the big new release books as ebooks, which is especially nice for thousand-page epics, but it’ll take years (maybe decades) before I run out of books to read from my existing collection. I think my transition to a full-time digital reader is going to be a gradual thing, happening over the next 5-10 years, rather than something that happens over night.