Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Selfish Tech

Why can’t you re-sell a “used” e-book?

I can’t come up with a decent technical reason that it couldn’t be done. Yes, e-books are “licensed,” but licenses can be sold or transferred. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. If I buy (or “license”) a kindle book for ten bucks, why can’t I sell that license to someone else, for, say, five?

The only answer I can come up with is that the booksellers don’t want it to happen. They don’t have much choice with paper books, so they grudgingly tolerate used sales there, but they have the option -- for now -- of not tolerating it with e-books.

In a very limited sense, I can see their argument. Physical items deteriorate with use and with age -- sigh -- so their lower cost reflects at least the risk of lower quality. But an e-book reads just as well for its fourth or fifth reader as it did for its first. If secondary e-books became easily available, why would anyone buy new?

Of course, this is the same logic the music industry used to use. We know how that movie ended.

All kinds of new and nifty technology seem to be designed with a single user in mind. They offer real appeal for a single user, but fall apart when more users enter the picture, and I don’t think technology is the limiting factor.

Music subscription services are like that. Spotify is nifty, but if I want to make a cd for The Boy to play in his room, it’s no-go. For him to play it there requires another two hundred dollar gadget, and The Girl can’t listen to something else at the same time. The tablets I’ve seen, including the ipad, assume a single user; they don’t have the option of multiple sign-ons, the way that even a low-end windows netbook does. Sharing an ipod raises the same issue; it can’t be partitioned, so TB is stuck with my default email and my nerdy podcasts. I guess we’re supposed to buy separate ones for everyone in the house, but again, that adds up quick.

Even cell phone plans are like that. Try putting two smartphones on a family plan and you’ll see what I mean. They let you share an absurdly large and expensive bucket of voice minutes, but you pay full freight per phone for data and even texting. It adds up quick.

Contrast these with their physical counterparts. If I buy a cd -- yes, kids, we used to buy music that way -- I can play it in my car, then bring it inside and let TB play it in his room. It will work with any player. If a buy a book, I can lend it or sell it to anyone, and there’s no issue.

The tech world loves to bandy about the term “social,” but its concept of “social” seems to be based on what single twentysomethings do. “Social” in the sense of “families” is off the radar, as is “social” in the sense of “sharing.” It’s happy to make recommendations for individual purchases social, but shared purchases are verboten.

It’s shortsighted. If the demise of the music industry has taught us anything, it should be that walls don’t work. Sooner or later, demand will find a way around. The blistering success of itunes showed that there’s a substantial market for aboveboard, legal ways to allow people to get what they want; this isn’t just about piracy. But piracy may have to happen to make the literary version of itunes acceptable to publishers.

Put differently, the industry needs to learn to lean into change, rather than resisting it. I foresee a monster market for e-textbooks as soon as they offer something analogous to re-selling your used copies. Until then, the value proposition mostly isn’t there. (Yes, there are issues with disability access, but those strike me as solvable if the will is there.) Students will continue, quite rationally, to buy paper textbooks and re-sell them.

In theory, I could imagine a sort of kickback scheme for ebooks. If I re-sell my e-book license, maybe Amazon charges a buck to the second user as a transfer fee. So I sell my fifty dollar textbook for twenty-five, and the new purchaser adds a buck to Amazon to activate the new license. Amazon (and maybe even the author?) makes more than it has ever made from the secondary market, the buyer gets a flawless digital copy for relative cheap, and I recoup half of what I spent on something I don’t want anymore. This isn’t unthinkable.

Techies, I know that most developers are affluent single twentysomethings without kids. I get that. But if you step outside yourselves for a moment and notice that the world is bigger than that, you’ll open the floodgates of sales. Until then, you’re missing a major opportunity, and many of us will just stay on the outside, looking in. That is, until someone else figures this out and makes all the money you’re leaving on the table. I’m just sayin’...