Win-Win Scheme — Riiiiiiight

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?

16 comments

  1. It sounds like the people making the suggestion are trying to electronify the second hand book shop. They walk in with a hard cover, get a store credit for 1/4 the cover price, but instead of walking out with a couple of used paper backs, get a electronic copy of the same book they brought in.

    If they did walk out with a second hand book or two in this situation the author gets zilch anyway(except someone new to their works may get a taste for their writing leading hopefully to more sales of newer titles).

    One of the problems with the people’s intent is with e-books – Can the terms new and used be used in a digital mstketplace? Can there be a ‘used’ e-book?

    What if Amazon or whoever offered to do it with a 15% surcharge(5% each to Amazon, publisher & author)?

    1. Brendan, I know what you’re saying and I purposely didn’t get into the used book market issue with regard to authors because, frankly, I’m torn. As a writer, I’d love to get royalties. However, I also realize the second hand stores are a form of promotion for my work. If someone buys my novel at a discount and likes it, they are more likely to buy my next book when it comes out. So that’s a win for me.

      The issue was really with the posters on the fora I follow thinking that Amazon 1) has the authority to make publishers do as the poster wants and 2) would be the one to do the buy back and then make the publisher give away a free version of the e-book. I pointed out the fallacy of the first supposition in my post. The problem with the second proposition follows it. The publishers mostly involved are those who have adopted the agency model. That means they set the price of their e-books and all Amazon is is a middleman in the sales. Since those same publishers don’t yet understand or appreciate the e-book market — in fact, they still see it as a danger to their business — they aren’t going to consider any marketing approach that will tip the balance of their business plan (one that no longer works, imo).

      As for offering to do it with the surcharge, the issue would be percentage of which form of the title? Besides, those same folks demanding the “trade-in” would bitch and moan because of the surcharge.

      1. I realise that my idea isn’t really realistic(the surcharge would be on the e-book or whatever secondhand title the purchaser(?) picked up. It was simply a suggestion of insentivising book reselling. I know there is a bit of lobbying to bring in an artist payment when an art piece goes up for auction. How can authors with thousands of copies of their works out and about profit in a similar way?

        I didn’t get into the demands on Amazon because people making such demands are clearly idiots;-)

  2. Or allow a person to scan a book they already own for their own use. If that’s not allowed I suppose I can see the argument for getting an official electronic copy instead.

    E-books cost too much. I can get two best-sellers from Baen for what it costs me to get one out of copyright Heyer from Barnes and Noble.

    If publishers were smart, they’d charge less than they do for electronic books. They’d also sell new hard covers and some paperbacks with an e-book as an extra freebee.

    1. Synova, you can scan a book now – if you have a scanner and don’t mind taking your book apart to do it.

      As for the cost, it really depends on the publisher. Yes, the major publishers do charge too much. Most of those are the same publishers who adopted the agency model and they simply do not understand the change in the market. If they aren’t careful, they’ll see their publishing houses joining Borders on a rapidly sinking ship of failed business plans.

      I’m not sure we will see fiction publishers doing much of the buy the hard cover get the book free for awhile yet. There are several technical book publishers who have been doing just that. Others have started putting the reference material online that they used to put onto CDs and bind into the book. But, as we have been seeing over the last few years, most of those in power in the publishing industry do not like change and react to it with the speed of a glacier.

  3. If Disney runs one of their classics (perticularly “AristoCats”) back through theatres, I’ll be at the head o the line to cough up ten bucks to see it on the big screen again. I wouldn’t *dream* of asking to be let into the theatre for free just because I already own almost every one of their movies in both VHS and DVD formats. It may be the same story, but seeing it in that format/venue is a *different* product than my cherished stack of DVDs. The same holds true of books. Laura *loved* “Born in Blood” and “Impaler”. (I’m still trying to wade through the cubit-deep stack of other things I already should have read …) I have every intention of acquiring the DTF version, and presenting it to Kate for autograph the next time we cross paths at a Con. I don’t expect that I should pay some discounted price for the hard-copy just because I have the e-book. I see moving the other direction the same way.

    I love the “Honorverse” CD. I was tickled to no end when I discovered it inside the back of my shiny new hardcover of the latest Harrington novel ten years ago, and I would have been perfectly happy to pay the HC cover price over again to acquire that disk, just to be able to fit the whole Harrington saga into my incredibly-cramped space on the submarine. Because it was, to me, a separate product. I want the HC of the authors I really love, and I want as many e-books as I can get to before I die. For those I love enough to want in both formats, I expect to pay twice, just as if I were buying two physical books, or buying two downloads.

    1. Stephen, I look at it much the same as you do. An e-books is as much a separate item as is a paperback or a novel. I don’t expect to get the paperback free if I purchased the hard cover. So why should I expect to get the e-book free?

      And, that said, I have gone out and bought the paperback or hard cover versions of books I’ve discovered through the Baen CDs. Much as I love my e-books, I still love curling up with a “real” book from time to time as well.

  4. Wow, Amanda, I didn’t realise readers were wanted to ‘trade-in’ their books free of charge to upgrade to e-books.
    People expect things they get off the web to be free. There are heaps of sites where my books are available for free download. I actually found one where they were complaining because my earlier trilogy hadn’t been put up for free download.
    Publishing is a business. Publishers aren’t benevolent institutions set up to nurture writers and readers. Sigh…

    1. Rowena, there have been “pirates” for authors’ works as long as there have been books. The form and format changes as technology does. The issue with internet piracy of books now is more a question of availability of an e-book in a particular part of the world as well as the price of e-books. Too many publishers think they can charge the same, or almost the same, for an e-book as they can for a hard cover. They think readers will believe them when they say it costs the same to produce and e-book as it does that hard cover. They don’t understand that the reader knows that they aren’t buying the same cover twice and paying the same price for it, nor are they editing the book twice, etc. The other issue is the red flag of challenge publishers wave when they load a book with DRM (something that actually raises the price of the e-book). As long as they add DRM, folks are going to break it and then offer the book for free because why should they respect a publisher that doesn’t respect them?

      You’re right about publishing being a business. Unfortunately, it’s a poorly run one right now. While it doesn’t have to be a benevolent business operating at a loss, it should be one that nurtures and promotes its writers. Now, unless you are one of their darling literary heroes or a “best seller”, they do neither.

  5. II look at it this way. I want to get rid of my DVD collection. I want a massive hard drive and I want to upload every DVD I have onto it and make a backup and ditch my DVDs. I should be able to do it easily. Why can’t I? Because THEY won’t let me.

    But before I don that I want to replace all my DVDs with Blu Rays. THEY should let me do that because I’ve already bought all the movies once. But THEY won’t exchange my DVDs for blu Rays, even if THEY stop making DVD players altogether.

    I’m going to write THEM a letter and complain. Anyone got the address?

    1. Chris L, LOL. I hear you. The encoding on DVDs strikes me much the same as DRM on e-books. And, even though I haven’t done it, I understand it’s about as easy to break as DRM. If you get the address, let me know and I’ll join your letter of complaint 😉

  6. I do think that I should get to make copies of what I already own, and accept that I should have the expense of doing it. I don’t think that anyone should have to give me a copy in the new format at their expense because I bought it in an old format. But I do think that it’s wrong for them to prevent me from making a copy in the new format at my own expense.

    1. Synova, I absolutely agree. Which is my big issue with DRM. If I pay for an e-book — and it doesn’t matter if I pay 99 cents or $9.99 or more for the e-book — I should be able to make backups of that e-book and I should be able to read it on any device I own in any format I want. But I should do those conversions at my cost.

  7. Personally I think part of the reason for this whole mess is there is a disconnect with electronic media over what ownership means.

    If I own a piece of music now I can play it staight from the CD(if I own the CD) or on my computer, iPhone, stereo, car stereo, iPod Nano(for when I am excersising). I can store that music on the web and stream it to wherever I am in the world, be it home, Rome, New York or Timbuctoo.

    It is called content shifting, and the big boys are battling in US courts about one aspect of it’s legality in relation to video streaming in a case between Time-Warner and Viacom.

    It is a lot harder to “content shift” a novel which is why the industry is behind the ball on this issue as it is for so many things. If you(the industry) develop a head in the sand approach why should you be surprised when people come up with weird and wonderful ideas on how to make the idea work for them.

  8. It’s all about control. Readers want full control of content – although free content is a misnomer. There is always a price, and if you’re not paying it up-front it will bite you.

    Authors mostly just want lots of people to buy their stuff.

    And publishers want to control the content they publish.

    Enter all manner of dopey schemes to try to prevent readers doing what they want to do with the stuff they bought. Way back in the pre-Internet dark ages, it wasn’t uncommon to see students counting the number of pages in a required text book to work out whether it would cost them more to photocopy it than to buy it second-hand (the ones making that calculation never had the money to buy new texts). And lots of students used photocopied texts. Sometimes they’d copy the book in shifts, depending on whether the librarian paid attention to the copyright notice.

    The point being, if something costs more than people can pay and they need it – or more than people are willing to pay when they want it, they will copy it.

    What authors need to be doing – all of us, all the time – is hammering at the message that we earn pennies on the dollar of every sale (except in very rare cases) and every book someone doesn’t buy makes it more likely an author will be dropped by their publisher. (This is why I don’t buy – or read – books by authors who’ve pissed me off too much. The list is very short, but I will only buy books by those authors if they’re written in collaboration with someone I want to support.)

  9. Well, these readers should do what I plan on doing later this summer — sell their supperfluous hard copies and use the MONEY to buy ebooks. Problem solved. Oh, and the author gets more.

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