An Open Letter to E-Book Retailers: Let’s have a return to common sense

Dear E-Book Retailers:

I’ve read so many wacky news stories this week that my head is spinning.

There was the Random House thing—the idea that a publisher actually had to explain to its paying customers whether they owned their bought books or not just boggles my mind. Then there was the Norwegian lady who had all her books deleted, then un-deleted, by Amazon. And the assertion by a Kobo tech support person that accounts belong not to households but the one sole individual whose name is on the credit card …

Please, can we have a return to common sense sometime soon? I am not advocating piracy. I am not advocating some kind of content free-for-all where it’s the high seas and people swoon about with swords and treasure maps and stomp over rightful owners in their quest for gold. I buy my books (except when I read library books, which I pay for via taxes). I reward content creators for their labors, which I make use of. But in return, I am asking—pleading—to be treated in return like a real person, and given the trust to use my purchased content sensibly, and with some allowance for real life.

For instance:


On this issue, I think it should be clear. If the button said ‘buy now’ and I clicked on it and I paid anything remotely resembling full retail price, I should own the book. And therefore, I should be free to read it on any device I choose, with no limits—no ‘only five devices,’ or ‘only Amazon devices,’ or any such nonsense. Do away with DRM, or make it a non-interfering social DRM like a watermark or something. But it should be mine. If you don’t want me to own it, then call it a rental instead, charge me a rental-level price, and I will stop complaining about DRM, I promise. My library books expire after a set number of days. DRM enables that. I am perfectly fine with that system. I am not fine with DRM limiting my fair use on books I pay full price for.


We need to get realistic, too, on the whole ‘registered user’ issue. If retailers are saying that only the user who owns the account can read the books, then isn’t it a contradiction that they’re also selling picture books intended for little children who don’t have credit cards with which to purchase those books? The idea that I am committing piracy if I buy a picture book from Amazon and load it onto a device to read with a little child (who gets to read the book, therefore, without paying) is simply absurd. People are not criminals if they want to purchase a book to read with their mate or their child.  There is a difference between ‘loading it onto a BitTorrent network for all the world to see,’ and ‘I am the household tech person so everyone uses my account and my computer to load their stuff.’


We also need to get over this idea of the ‘lost sale.’ Just having the book doesn’t mean you’re going to read it. Consider again the example of my household—we currently have two e-book readers, one for me and one for him, both registered to my account. We could potentially get more devices later, for ourselves or for the future children or whomever. And odds are, they will treat it the same way he does: They’ll hand it off to me, tell me what books they want and wait for me to get them. The strict letter of the rules would tell you this is not permitted because if we all share an account, we’re buying only one copy, whereas if we all have separate accounts, we’d buy more than one.

But how true is that? Of the 15 or so books he’s read on his Kobo so far, I can think of only one that even remotely interested me. Just because I have his books on my account doesn’t mean I’d care to read them, and it doesn’t mean I would buy a second copy for myself if he got to the point where he cared to download his own stuff. Similarly, people get books for their kids all the time, and maybe they glance through a book to make sure it’s appropriate before they give it to the kids, but clearly, it doesn’t mean they would buy another copy for themselves if the kids were getting their books some other way.

Let’s be real here. Parents buy for kids. Couples share computers, but not necessarily reading tastes. It doesn’t mean they are ‘pirates.’

– – –

Please, retailers: Let’s have a return to common sense. If you want people to buy, let them buy. But then be reasonable about how you let them use their purchases. If you don’t want to be reasonable, and you want to control every eyeball, don’t let people buy. Turn the whole thing into a rental system and adjust your prices accordingly. But you can’t have it both ways—you can’t charge people buying prices and then treat them like renters. If you do, they will simply revolt and take their entertainment dollars elsewhere.

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35 Comments on An Open Letter to E-Book Retailers: Let’s have a return to common sense

  1. Publishers are (understandably) paranoid. Even self-publishers get upset when they see review copies of printed books (sent out for free) show up as a used book for sale on a web site — they feel that the free book is “stealing” a sale that might have given them some revenue. The point is, this attitude runs from the smallest to the largest book publisher — and it applies to software publishers as well.

    Yet the argument that “having” an electronic file (whether book, software, photo, or whatever) does not mean a lost sale to the publisher. The “pirate” or “unauthorized user” might very well never have purchased the electronic file in any event. In that case, there isn’t any lost revenue. (Years ago, I know “hacker kids” who prided themselves by having copies of a huge variety of software … yet they never used the programs but were “collectors” who had bootleg copies of hundreds of programs like Lotus123 or Word Perfect.) The software industry sent out screeds condemning these collectors — but in reality, they did not lose any revenue as few, if any, would have bought the programs they collected.

    It’s a little more difficult to excuse those who widely share electronic files with the general public (not just immediate friends and family) — the music industry did lose considerable revenue due to “free” music sharing services. But the music industry should not be forgiven their paranoia, because while they were losing revenue through Naptster, etc., they were also resisting accommodating a changing market where music buyers wanted the opportunity to legally purchase individual songs one at a time (or as albums). The success of iTunes proves this point (and DRM has pretty much gone away in the music field). The music publishers have had to revise their operations to reflect the new realities of the market — and they don’t make as much money — and performers are now beginning to sell their music DIRECTLY without the big publishers. Of course, this is the real issue.

    When it comes to books, (both print and ebooks), authors are discovering that they can sell directly through Amazon and other vendors … and they don’t need the big publishers. If I recall correctly, the big publishers issued 50 or 60 thousand new titles (in a recent year) while independently published works were 4 or 5 times the big publisher works (for a total of over 400,000 new tritles). 25 years ago, 60,000 new titles was a “record.” Naturally, the middleman (the publishers) are not at all pleased with this growing trend. (Readers tend to suffer from overload and many excellent books get lost in the “noise” of all the so-so titles that are being issued.)

    The Sony Betamax decision (before the Supreme Court) set the legal precedent that a “buyer” of intellectual property is free to use media in the form, location, and time desired, without (legal) interference from the copyright holder. DRM was developed to interfere with this user’s right (and the DCMA was passed to give more leverage for copyright holders to limit user’s rights).

    The use of DRM tends to inconvenience the honest user while leaving the bootlegger free to steal and copy content with only slight difficulties. So the honest users suffer the inability to move content between devices as they ought to be able to do. I understand the feelings of the publishers, but the result that DRM provides does not actually protect them and merely annoys their honest customers. The free market will eventually win this one.

    When it comes to books (even ebooks), there is little value to copying them for resale. It’s hard enough for publishers to sell books, so if a book is reasonably priced, there is little opportunity for a bootlegger to make a profit at the expense of the original publisher.

    The “agency method” (preferred by Apple) allows a publisher to set the price of an ebook, then the vendor (iTunes bookstore) simply takes a flat percentage (usually 30%) of the sale price as set by the publisher. A feature of the agreement between Apple and the publishers, is that they would not allow the book to be sold elsewhere for a lower price. This forced Amazon to adopt the agency method, as well. The Federal Trade Commission has opened a “price fixing” investigation against Apple and several large publishers on this point. All but one of the big publishers have signed consent agreements with the FTC. Apple and the one remaining publisher are fighting the FTC’s action in court.

    Before agency pricing (retail vender receives a fixed percent of publisher’s price) the distribution pricing model was used. The distribution model starts with a “list” price established by the publisher, the book (both print and ebook) is then sold at a discount from list either to middlemen (distributors or wholesalers) or discounted directly to retailers. This is still the method used for print books. The discount typically works out to 15% to the wholesaler, 10% to the distributor (if used), and 40% discount to the retailer. If you do the math, the publisher receives between 35% and 45% of the list price of a print book. (There are differences between wholesalers and distributors — most print books only pass through a wholesaler’s hands.) Ebooks were sold in a similar manner but with different discounts. With the distribution model, the retailer could sell the book at any price — even give it away for free — but the retailer still had to pay the publisher or intermediaries the discounted price of the book. (So for a book that has a list price of $20, the retailer would pay $12 to the wholesaler, who, in turn, would pay $9 to the publisher. The retailer could still sell the book at any amount to the ultimate purchaser.)

    In the end there is much complexity to theses issues that are invisible from the reader/book buyer’s standpoint.

  2. Ed, your point is very well taken. If I really like an ebook I’ve bought and want to make sure I will have it to read on any platform for future, I pirate it. It’s the quickest, easiest way I can insure I’ll have access for the future. It’s absolutely insane that the pirated copy is more useful and valuable than the copy I purchased.

  3. The biggest issue for me is the loss of my right to load a book to a friend, give it to my Dad, or donate it to a charity/bookshop. With a hard-copy we had all of these things. With a DRM eBook, that is gone.

    Hard copy books were typically read by lots of people – there are book swapping clubs just for this purpose, and most people I know swap, give, and donate books. Publishers seem to see DRM as a way to stent this ‘appalling’ profit-damaging practice, and ensure that everyone pays full whack for their own (well, actually, not really their own) digital copy.


  4. Borland used to have a no-nonsense “like a book” license agreement. It was modelled on a physical book, and how one can be used. You were allowed to re-sell your software, loan it (providing you uninstalled it while it was “on loan”). Basically the provision was that you could do what you like, so long as only one person could access it at a time. DRM takes away that freedom.

  5. I think the whole thing will self-correct…though current retailers may or may not last. In my view, their similarities to traditional publishers are more pronounced than most seem to notice.

    Anyway, I did a 3-part blog series on this topic a few days ago:

  6. If the publishers and/or vendors put DRM on books that I buy, I will remove it then store the books in a form that they can’t get their hands on. They clearly haven’t learned from the mess that the music companies created by trying to impose draconian controls.

    There is another point in the UK, paper books are not taxed, however e-books are liable to VAT at a rate of 20%.

  7. This is a great discussion. Even a year ago you would not have seen so much interest in a topic like this because people were enjoying the novelty and convenience of ebooks and not worrying too much about the problems.

    Only now are consumers starting to wake up to just how incredibly limited and restrictive their rights over the ebooks they purchased really are. Mainstream ebook publishers view us as little more than walking cash-registers remotely purchasing fancy reading devices and buying limited and restrictive leases to personally read a tiny text file for big bucks.

    The only way consumers can fight back is to stop playing a game where all the rules are stacked against them. Only buy ebooks that have no DRM whatsoever. Follow common sense when it comes to your ebooks. Back them up. Share them with family. When you are done reading them go ahead and give them to a friend if you don’t want them any longer and delete your own copy.

    Laws in this country are no longer written for the benefit of the people; they are written for the benefit of big corporations. We have no moral obligation to be good little consuming serfs and toe the corporate line.

  8. Please support the campaign for ebooks to respect the same freedoms
    as printed books.

  9. 1. Lose the DRM or not, as you choose. There are already tools in the wild to jailbreak all the common eBook formats, and people do not hesitate to find and use them.

    2. Quit trying to charge hardcover prices (and yes, $10 is HC) for books you’re not allowed to resell. A lot of the literary fast-food that comes out is good for read-once and then what?

    3. And do, please, find a decent way for people to say “I want to hear about new books from (author x) and (author y) and … without having to find out they’re available by monitoring the pirate outlets or putting up with “Here are all the books WE want you to buy.” Fictionwise had just that over a decade ago before Barnes and Ignoble and the publishers collaborated to ruin it.

  10. I think that we should just have an online library that gets paid for the same way real libraries do. It would cost a fraction of the price to run as a real library, there would be no old wrinkly librarians hushing you, no worries about the building falling apart, finding books would be easier, and there would be no reason for late fees, because there is no physical book to return. Think of the access to knowledge that we could get as a result of that!

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