Will we see secondhand ebooks in the future?

This is a guest blog post by Karen Martin, who also blogs for bookleteer. You can connect on our site with Giles Lane, director of Proboscis who developed the bookleeter app.

Digitisation of a product often brings about a shift from the tangible to the immaterial. For example, exchanging music used to be about swapping CDs. Now we email MP3 files.  This change has implications for how these products are shared and exchanged as we no longer have to give away an item to be able to share. Russell Davis suggests that this alters the value of sharing and uses Clay Shirky's three ways of sharing as a way of thinking about this.

3 ways of sharing

  1. Sharing Goods the hardest to do, because if you give a physical good you no longer have it, you’re deprived of it.
  2. Sharing Services like helping someone across the road – you don’t lose out on physical stuff but it’s an inconvenience.
  3. Sharing Information like giving someone directions – you don’t lose stuff, it doesn’t take much time, no inconvenience.

In this view the physicality of a CD or book increases its perceived value because giving it away, exchanging it for something else or selling it, involves a loss.  On the other hand, once you buy or receive a book it is yours to swap, lend, sell or give away as you like. In contrast, buying and selling e-Books is more like sharing information. Booksellers don't actually lose a tangible product in this exchange and e-Books have lower production costs than paper ones. This is the challenge facing publishers and book sellers (a challenge already faced by the music and film industries) as they seek ways to commercialise loss-free sharing.

One way publishers are trying to increase the value of eBooks is to limit customers’ potential to share them. Nick Harkaway on Future Book and Chris Meadows at teleread discuss how currently it isn't possible to share or re-sell eBooks. Firstly, when you download an eBook you essentially ‘lease’ the code which you can’t legally pass onto anyone else and secondly, secondhand eBooks are indistinguishable from new eBooks so their value doesn’t decrease over time in the same way as the value of printed books does. This lack of secondhand eBooks will be bad news for second-hand booksellers but could also be bad news for second-hand book readers.

No more secondhand books..?

There are several reasons people might prefer secondhand books to new ones. Firstly there is the price. Textbooks, for example, can be expensive and often aren’t needed for more than the duration of the course. At the moment the cost of the book can be regained in part by selling the book on when you graduate. If eBooks can't be shared or re-sold this option will be lost, as will the chance to buy a secondhand textbook for less than full-price. Or you might be just beginning to explore the wide world of literature – secondhand bookshops are fantastic sources for classic books at very low prices. Will eBooks be able to match this? While smartbookworms.co.uk offers hundreds of eBooks to download for free, or at lower than the price of printed books, there is still the cost of the e-Reader to take into account. One day eReaders may be as everyday as mobile phones. However, I think there is a transitional stage to go through first.

The best of both worlds?

Give away a printed book and you lose that object but the person you give it to feels valued as a result of the exchange. However, email someone a music track or eBook and, because you don’t lose anything except the time it takes to write the email,  the value of the gift may be somewhat diluted. But there are ways of maintaining the value and pleasure of tangible printed material while making the most of the distribution potential and accessibility of digital technologies. bookleteer and newspaperclub are two online applications which enable you to produce A6 or A5-size booklets (bookleteer) or newspapers (newspaperclub). Having created your publication at your computer you put in a request for it to be printed and in a few days your booklets (called eBooks) or newspaper arrive at your desk ready for you to share.

Of course, one day, e-Books may be available on flexible electronic paper, like that currently being developed by Sony. When that happens sharing e-Books will be possible in a whole range of new ways. These may well bring us full-circle to Shirky’s Sharing Goods model. Sharing as we know it now.

Last updated at 11:00 Tue 18/Jan/11.
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It´s surprising that the discussion about this subject is almost inexistent.

The secondhand market has always been an important part of the book trade, and suddenly it is at risk of disappearing in the digital enviroment, to the detriment of the readers. But it has not to be that way mandatorily.

First, there's a distinction that has to be made: digital "products", digital books in this case, are no objects (physical nor "virtual") but information "packages", so they cannot be considered as "used" after being read, but they definitively can be considered as "second hand" products if transferred from user to user -just like a physical book that, even if sealed and not read, is sold or passed by the original buyer (costumer/potential reader) to another person.

Now, a copy of an ebook is another thing. (The book is specifically propitious to copy, since virtuality is part of its nature. I can copy a novel by hand, word by word, and the result will be the same novel, no less, no more.I can copy a PDF book in RTF format, and the textuality at least will be the same, and the reading experience will be the same. Xerox copies are of common use since decades ago).

Just like the music industry years ago, the editorial industry is suffering a panic attack that the shift to a digital enviroment entails. "Will the readers share their readings without benefit to us?" "will the writer become his own publisher without benefit to us?" Yes, of course, this is happening, and will continue to happen no matter what efforts are made by the industry to prevent it. People will copy cultural goods whenever is cheaper and faster and better copying them than buying it.

Why, whitout the print, store and delivery costs, is an ebook almost equal in price than a physical book? Why, being technologically easier to share it is so difficult legally? Because, when in pannic, persons and companies act stupidly. They are mistaking the reader for an enemy, when he's not. He´s a costumer (that is to say, a kind of partner), a friend, but not a silly one. He will go where he can find the best choice, the best buy, and if he can get the same for free, he will go for it. Because, as the song goes, "information want to be free".

The current regulations prevent the existence of second hand ebooks, not only by sale/purchase, but by loan or donation also. It is not forbidden (yet) but is, indeed, constrained. If a physical book can be read by an unlimited number of "users", due to technical and legal (that are not technological or ethical) limitations, an ebook cannot. So, the mere idea of secondhand books is quashed by design.

As a margin note: what about libaries (public, semi-public and private)? There are now experiments (limited in scope an reach) that, despite their shyness, demonstrates that a demand niche exists, more social that commercial.

Books, always, have been read mainly when access is provided. What I mean is: 1) the purchase of a book, is only one -and never the principal- in many ways to "get" a book. And it will continue this way. and 2) just as the gutemberg press provoked at its time a social change that went far further that a simply "printing and reading" revolution, the digital publishing can, and will, and has already spark cultural shifts that will develop with or without the involvement of the editorial industry.

Music and media industries has focused their efforts in prosecution and "re-education" of the public to "teach" them (by exemplary lessons) that sharing is a crime. But they´ll never succeed because the people know that it is a crime without victims (except, of course, of the copyright holders), and there is no real harm nor guilt in that.

Editorial industry will do wrong following the steps of music and media industry (altought we all know they are part of the same conglomerates). Among other reasons, because it has few aggregate bussines opportunities: no live concerts, no merchandising, no franchises.

The industry, in order to survive, has to adapt itself to the new realities, instead of trying to adapt the new realities to their interests. A new model of businnes is needed, and it has to include -technically and comercially- the possibility of re-circulation. Is the reader who has the power to invent it and demand it.

Publishing companies can ride the wave or stay at the shore.

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