It is fiction that an ebook purchase is in any way similar to buying a print book

Another interesting post from the pretty much always interesting Mike Shatzkin. In an earlier post of my own, I wondered what the point was in using a old-dead-tree-type-publisher to publish your book electronically, given that they have essentially no idea how to do it.

In Shatzkin’s latest post, From where I sit, you can’t actually “sell” an ebook (I “sit” in the same place), he makes the important point that in selling an ebook, neither the author nor the publisher is actually selling the book in the same way a physical book is sold. Shatzkin:

You don’t actually “buy” an ebook the same way you buy a physical book. What you actually buy is a license to access a digital file, which — in the developing world of the cloud — you may or may not ultimately “possess” in any machine or device you own. (Of course, you can own the machine or device, which is physical. If you lend, give, or re-sell it, you won’t have it anymore.)

There are real benefits to this — an easy one is that you can take your library with you. That is awesome. But the fact is that the ebook and the print book are fundamentally different entities, each with its own real benefits.

What the consumer/publisher is purchasing in either transaction is a license. Shatzkin says:

It is worth emphasizing here that the publisher is (in today’s world) very seldom delivering the file directly to the end consumer. The fact that the publisher gives the intermediary a clean digital file…

The intermediary being Amazon, B&N, Apple, etc., and all of this would be happening electronically, and for the most part, what would be delivered to the intermediary would be something like a pdf, which would then be “protected” with some sort of DRM so that only the end user/licensee could access it. Shatzkin goes on:

…, which the intermediary then manipulates and copies (or, we could say, “prints” in its own proprietary edition) to deliver to its customers underscores that there is activity betwixt publisher and consumer that falls under a license. And it is a license that is spelled out in a contractual relationship.

If I understand his argument correctly, he means to say that publishers and their intermediaries are deliberately leaving their users with the false impression that in buying an ebook, the consumer is conducting a transaction virtually identical to buying a print book. That is simply not the case with the consumer’s purchase of the license, and also not the case with the publisher’s purchase of the license.

Here is Shatzkin again:

Even though authors don’t sell their copyrights to publishers (they license their use) and publishers don’t sell inventory or even production masters to ebook resellers (they license them to replicate and distribute the publishers’ ebook files), the fiction that Kindle or Nook or Kobo or Google or iBookstore is selling the book to you or me will persist.

That is likely true in the short term. And although Shatzkin laments that agents haven’t really pushed publishers on this, I don’t think that, in the long run, they will have to.

In my view that’s because what they and the publishers are worried about are the blockbusters, without which those publishers cannot survive (see Jason Epstein’s recent piece in the New York Review). But for the rest of us — those kindly called mid-listers — who are actively looking at other ways of getting their work noticed, reaching out to readers, dealing with those in the blockbuster publishing industry doesn’t entirely make sense. What they do well is this: Publish print books.

But back to Shatzkin. Over the next several years, I think we are going to see major changes in the way that ebooks are viewed as hungry young startups without the overhead cost structure that the majors have, with savvy and ingenious marketing methods. Writers are going to ask the same question I am asking: Why does it make sense to sell an electronic publishing license to a publisher who has no clue how to do it very well, and no real incentive to change the idea that the ebook competes with the print book.

I’d argue that ebooks and print books are (as stated above) and should be totally different animals, and viewed as such by writers, publishers and consumers. Each has its own benefits. A savvy publisher of ebooks will likely make the ebook not a competitor of the print book, but one hell of a good advertisement. But if all the publisher is doing is selling a DRMed pdf, then we are not talking about a real ebook.

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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