Monday 18 February 2013

Golden goose, totally foxed

Photo, wikimedia commons
Amazon has just patented a system for re-selling used e-books. That's right, used e-books. Not that there is any difference between a used and a new e-book, of course. It's not the same electrons, slightly foxed. It's just the same 'new' e-book sold for less. So if you're the buyer, why buy the 'original', 'new' copy? The secondhand copy hasn't been slobbered over by someone's dog, it doesn't have coffee stains - it doesn't even have an old-book smell.

But unless Amazon passes a share to publishers and authors on re-sale, it will kill the golden goose. Amazon can effectively sell the same book again and again after only paying for it once. No money to the publisher or author. (They haven't announced any model yet; it is possible they will write in a resale royalty. It is possible porcine mammals will take to the skies.)

You could say, that's the same with other products. Houses, for instance. The people who built my house were dead long before I bought it. They got nothing from its resale. But a house is sold in a market with a different structure. The house-builders were paid for all their work when they did it. The way authors are paid is, in many cases, dependent on sales. We are paid if the book sells and not if it doesn't, paid copy by copy as a royalty. So if the people we have entrusted with selling it give it away, change the deal retrospectively, or cheat, we starve.

A lot of people don't really understand this. They say, "the book has been sold, you've been paid, shut up." But I haven't been paid; I've been given a small advance payment against the income from the book. Do you really think I would write a book for £750 (one of last year's advances)? Do you know how long it takes to write a book? The advance of £750 is only acceptable if I think the book will earn out the advance and pay for my time eventually. (It won't do that if the book is available without the publisher getting any money for it.) It's always a gamble - and it's a very long-term way of being paid. I chose the job, I signed the contract, so that's fine, I'm not grumbling about the existing model - but don't change the rules half-way through the game. 

This time, the perennial argument that we can always self-e-publish if we don't like the way publishing is heading doesn't wash. With this move, Amazon screws self-publishers as well as commercial publishing houses. So unless the model includes payments to the publishers, the golden goose - the writer/publisher behind books - will starve. Of course, it screws real publishers, too (which is why there is some chance of them putting up a fight). But Amazon wants to be a publisher. Would it be very cynical to suggest that perhaps Amazon wants to be *the* publisher?

My advice to publishers is to drop Amazon unless there is a payment on resale. There are other e-book platforms. A one-night stand with Amazon isn't worth a lifetime of regret - you learned that with the net book agreement. And my advice to authors? Add a new clause to contracts to say that if publishers receive a payment for re-sold e-books you want a share of it. Or that the rights you are signing away don't include digital re-sale rights. The publishers will then have to negotiate with Amazon or only sell on other platforms.

And to readers? I will ask that they please get pirate copies of my books rather than give profit to Amazon if none of the money is going to the original publisher/author.

Oh - and to people who say that they have bought an e-book and if they'd bought a paper book they could sell it second-hand? I say it's not really comparable, because it's *not* like a secondhand book - it's in pristine condition. Perhaps I'd be more amenable to the idea if Amazon ran all the returned e-books through an e-foxing program that ripped out random pages, blurred some of the characters and drew doodles across some of the text.


  1. Incredible. I can't believe this argument can possibly be made. What's next, selling 'second-hand music' on iTunes? 'Only listened to 25 times'! This is mental.

  2. arghhhhhh!!!!! The giants will rule the world, little people (that would be you and me) will be quashed - it's just a matter of when:(

    1. Reselling ebooks makes no sense, unless the resale price is the same as the new price?

  3. I think I have come across this today. They offer you a voucher in exchange for your book; as they can take ebooks off your shelves and have done so, a while ago, to an unlucky customer, I assume they can do this when you accept their offer. And I can see some people saying." Hey, I haven't read this in a while, why not exchange it?" But as you say, if they can then resell it without paying the author or publisher again, that leads to losses. Not sure, though, how they then pay for the book the reader chooses in exchange.