Amazon Wants to Sell Used Ebooks: Everyone is Confused

Feb 28, 2013

When you think of the word "book" there are two distinct and different versions: the first is the physical item with pages, a cover, etc; and second, the story contained therein. The nature of ebooks, whether they are thing or e-thing, has been hotly debated since their inception. Are they a physical entity or disembodied story? Now, a new wrinkle: can you resell a used ebook?

Amazon seems to think so. But is there really such a thing as a "used" bit of code since, for all intents and purposes, it remains exactly the same after use? After all, the spine never cracks on an ebook and the pages are always pristine.

A downloaded ebook is by nature not a unique item. New ebook sales are recorded by the download but the seller does not have a warehouse (or server) filled with copies of that ebook. Each download originates from one original set of code provided by the publisher. Unless it were possible to embed a serial number in each download there is no way to prove that a used ebook really is a used ebook. In theory a reseller could sell "new" ebooks as used, excluding both publisher and author from deserved royalties. Most wouldn't, however whenever there is new technology there is always someone trying to break it.

Plus, how do you prove the ebook provided by the original downloader was acquired legally? Would that mean that only the original outlet could resell? As the PW article states, some sort of verification process will need to be implemented, however there's also an appearance of impropriety that needs to be considered.

There is also the problem of pricing to consider. How do you price a used ebook? By the price the original downloader paid? By a ratio of the current suggested retail price of the publisher? Is it to be one set price across the board for each title? There's no physical "condition" to be taken into account. Ebooks are already (for the most part) less expensive than a paper book. If you got a special $.99 deal are you going to resell for $.50? Or if the price is set, could both the original purchaser and reseller end up making a profit?

And then we come to the question of royalties. When a paper book is resold the author doesn't receive royalties on that sale. However, the amount of money he or she received as a royalty on that original paper book sale is generally higher than on an ebook. (Royalties are based on cover price, or gross price, for paper books and net on ebooks.) Should that be taken into consideration? Should resellers be required to pay an author royalty? It's almost impossible to track used paper book sales but for a reseller of ebooks using a verification system it should be very easy to track.

I have always believed that when I buy an ebook that its lack of physical substance should be what allows me to purchase it for a lower price. There are no paper, printing, and binding costs, no shipping, no warehousing. But all of the other costs associated with a published book are still there and should be figured into the retail price. Personally, I never would have considered the possibility of resale of such an intangible item. But it seems an ebook may not be "intangible" in legal or accounting terms.

When someone buys a used paper book they are purchasing a tangible, physical item along with the story or information it contains. They can read it or set their drinks on it but they still have a "thing" they can hold in their hands. When you take that "thing" out of the equation what exactly are you reselling, the story or the code? Either way, the ebook conversation is about to take a turn for the metaphysical.