A lot of things have been happening of late in the publishing realm and yet I’m having a hard time deciding what to blog about. Sure, I could talk about the continuing debacle that is the Borders trip through bankruptcy. Then there’s the news about Barnes & Noble’s earnings not rising to expectations. Or I could write about agents as publishers and how so many agents don’t understand the phrase “conflict of interest”. Then I heard from a writer friend about one of the most unbelievable bungles of a royalty statement yet by a publisher. All worthy topics.
But I’m going to take a different approach today. I usually spend Sundays either reporting on industry news or skewering idiotic moves in the industry. There’s one thing I don’t discuss often — the often unreasonable demands of readers — but this week has seen example after example and, as someone who works both sides of the industry (as writer and as editor) these demands often send me up a wall.
Every month or so, someone starts a thread on at least one e-book related forum wanting to know why publishers don’t give them free e-copies of a book they have already purchased in hard copy. After all, they’ve spent years — and a lot of money — building their personal libraries. Now they have this shiny new e-book reader and they want their library on it. The catch: they don’t want to have to repurchase the books already cluttering their homes.
Part of me knows exactly where these readers are coming from. After all, I have books in every room of my house. I grew up in a home where books were cherished companions, reading a part of our every day lives. I’d love to have some of them in digital format. The problem is that many haven’t been converted into e-books yet.
But the idea that a publisher should provide, free of charge, a digital copy of a book just because I purchased the physical copy of the book some time in the past is beyond me. First, it assumes the publisher has the digital rights — which very often isn’t the case, especially for a title that is more than a few years old. It also assumes that the title is still in print. Also problematical when you consider how quickly most titles are taken out of print by publishers these days. But the real kicker is that these readers aren’t realizing what this would mean for the writers of the titles in question. What they are asking for would result in nothing short of taking money out of the writer’s pocket — something I am very much against, as I’m sure you can guess.
What really set me off on this was an oh-so-helpful suggestion on one of the boards this week that Amazon “pressure” publishers into accepting a trade-in program. The way this person saw it, readers should be able to trade in their hard copies of books for digital versions. Again, no money would pass hands. But this would allow the hard copies to be kept in circulation forever because they could then be resold over and over again. I guess the reasoning was that, after the trade-in, Amazon (or the publisher) could then resell it to another purchaser who would later trade it in for a digital version and the process would repeat.
Now, there are several problems inherent in this from the outset. The first is the assumption that Amazon can pressure the publishers into anything. For one, the publishers in question are, generally, the large publishers that have adopted agency pricing. If you remember when this issue first came up, Amazon removed one of the publishers from its offerings. Such a hue and cry went up from Amazon customers, all demanding that Amazon let them choose for themselves if they wanted to pay the increased prices, that Amazon capitulated and relisted that publisher. (On a side note, many of those who’d raised that hue and cry are now the ones whining about the prices of ebooks under the agency model and demanding Amazon lower the prices — something Amazon cannot do.)
The second issue with the suggestion is a bit more laughable. That is the assumption that the publisher — or Amazon or similar outlet — would do a trade-in without any money changing hands. Come on, when you go trade in your car, does the dealer let you drive off the lot without paying them something? Do you get to trade in your TV for a new one and not pay for the new one? When you changed from VHS to DVD, were you able to trade in your VHS tapes for the same titles on DVD?
But the biggest issue is the same one I alluded to in the first example: the fact that this sort of program would short change the writer of the book even more than the current system does. Not only would the author not get paid for a sale of a digital title under this program, neither would he get paid for the resale of the book. (No, I’m not saying royalties should be paid on sales through outlets like Half Price Books. But the trade in set-up is one that would have to include the publisher, hence royalties should be paid, imo). This scenario that the poster viewed as a win-win for everyone involved is a huge FAIL for the author.
The truth is that e-books are as much a “book” as a paperback or hard cover. The only difference is the medium used to produce it. Just as a movie is a movie whether you go see it in a theater or in a park or in your home on DVD or via a streaming feed or television, a book is a book whether it is printed on paper or you read it on a screen of some sort. That means the digital format should be paid for just as the paper format should be. Authors should be compensated for the sales of all formats. To demand a free digital version of titles you already own because you have decided to change your preferred reading medium is unrealistic.
In the years to come, we may see more publishers following the Baen example of setting up free digital libraries where some of their titles are available for free download or where CDs with a number of digital titles are included with some physical books. That’s good marketing. But expecting free digital copies for books you’ve owned for years is unrealistic. It just isn’t going to happen. Or at least I hope it doesn’t, at least not without reasonable compensation being worked out for the author, or their estates, first.
I know most people don’t understand how authors get paid. They don’t realize that most of us have to work at least one traditional job to make ends meet because writing just doesn’t pay the bills. That’s why these “everyone wins” schemes that crop up get to me. It may seem like a no fail plan for the reader, maybe even for the publisher. But they usually leave the author — the creator of the work — out in the cold and I don’t know about you but I’d love to make enough from my writing not to have to work an 8 to 5 job.
So, what do you think? Am I wrong? Should publishers and retailers create some sort of program where, if you prove you have purchased a print copy of a book you get a free digital copy?