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July 31 2012

New life for used ebooks

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog (“The Used Ebook Opportunity“). This version has been lightly edited.

Used Books by -Tripp-, on FlickrUsed Books by -Tripp-, on Flickr

I’ve got quite a few ebooks in two different accounts that I’ve read and will never read again. I’ll bet you do, too. In the print world, we’d pass those along to friends, resell them or donate them to the local library. Good luck doing any of those things with an ebook.

Once you buy an ebook, you’re pretty much stuck with it. That’s yet another reason why consumers want low ebook prices. Ebooks are lacking some of the basic features of a print book, so of course they should be lower-priced. I realize that’s not the only reason consumers want low ebook prices, but it’s definitely a contributing factor. I’d be willing to pay more for an ebook if I knew I could pass it along to someone else when I’m finished with it.

The opportunity in the used ebook market isn’t about higher prices, though. It’s about expanding the ebook ecosystem.

The used print book market helps with discovery and affordability. The publisher and author already got their share on the initial sale of that book. Although they may feel they’re losing the next sale, I’d argue that the content is reaching an audience that probably wouldn’t have paid for the original work anyway, even if the used book market didn’t exist.

Rather than looking at the used book world as an annoyance, it’s time for publishers to think about the opportunities it could present for ebooks. I’ve written and spoken before about how used ebooks could have more functionality than the original edition. You could take this in the other direction as well and have the original ebook with more rich content than the version the customer is able to either resell or pass along to a friend; if the used ebook recipient wants to add the rich content back in they could come back to the publisher and buy it.

As long as we look at the used market through the lens of print products, we’ll never realize all the options it has to offer in the econtent world. That’s why we should be willing to experiment. In fact, I’m certain one or more creative individuals will come up with new ways to think about (and distribute) used ebooks that we’ve never even considered.

Publishers Weekly recently featured an article about ReDigi, a startup that “lets you store, stream, buy and sell pre-owned digital music.” As the article points out, ebooks are next on ReDigi’s priority list. Capitol Records is suing to shut down ReDigi; I suspect the publishing industry will react the same way. Regardless of whether ReDigi is operating within copyright law, I think there’s quite a bit we can learn from their efforts. That’s why I plan to reach out to them this week to see if we can include them in an upcoming TOC event.

By the way, even if ReDigi disappears, you can bet this topic won’t. Amazon makes loads of money in the used book market and Jeff Bezos is a smart man. If there’s an opportunity in the used ebook space, you can bet he’ll be working on it to further reinforce Amazon’s dominant position.

Photo: Used Books by -Tripp-, on Flickr

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November 04 2011

The problem with Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library

Amazon Kindle logoIt's no secret that I'm a big Amazon fan. In fact, I recently took the Amazon side in a debate about platform superiority. (I won that debate, by the way ...) That's why a lot of people are surprised that I'm such an outspoken critic of Amazon's new Kindle Owners' Lending Library. The program is great for Amazon and maybe even for consumers, assuming they're willing to live with the many restrictions, but it's awful for publishers and authors.

Why? As Amazon stated in its press release, "For the vast majority of titles, Amazon has reached agreement with publishers to include titles for a fixed fee." So no matter how popular (or unpopular) the publisher's titles are, they get one flat fee for participation in the library. I strongly believe this type of program needs to compensate publishers and authors on a usage level, not a flat fee. The more a title is borrowed, the higher the fee to the publisher and author. Period.

Even if a flat fee made sense, how can a publisher try to estimate a fair amount? One key factor is the number of Amazon Prime subscribers. There are a variety of estimates on this figure, but those estimates only apply to this specific point in time. How can you possibly know the number of Prime subscribers Amazon will have in six months? In 12 months? Don't assume you can simply extrapolate this number from historical trends. When the Kindle Fire comes out later this month it will include a 30-day Prime trial, and I expect the Fire's availability and the upcoming holidays to create an enormous surge in Prime subscribers. When will Prime double today's levels? It's impossible to say, which means there's no way to estimate how many times a book might get loaned out. That also means it's impossible to come up with a reasonable estimate on a flat fee for a publisher's list.

I hope Amazon reconsiders and switches this program to a pay-for-performance model. That's the only way I'll ever support it as a publisher.

What's your take? Please weigh in through the comments.

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