Book industry continues to shake up: Scott Turow’s odd views of book rights

While I am (as a reader and as a librarian) rather concerned about Amazon’s undue (let’s say ‘huge‘, whether it’s ‘due’ or not is another question, thanks decasm) influence over the book industry (and the apparent death of the local bookstore) — I don’t find Scott Turow’s arguments or concerns in this Salon interview particularly compelling (as a reader and as a librarian):

The Guild’s beefs with Amazon became pronounced over the issue of the resale of new titles some years ago. This was something that Amazon pioneered. They would sell you a [just-released] book on Day One, buy it back from you on Day Two, and then resell it to another customer on Day Three. This was legal, but certainly not what anybody ever intended.

Wow, if that’s what he thinks of used booksellers, imagine what he thinks of libraries!  I don’t know who said it first, but if libraries hadn’t been invented already and someone tried to invent em in 2012, they’d be illegalized as ‘book sharing’.

Actually, I think allowing used books to be bought, sold, leased, traded, shared, and given away was exactly what a bunch of people intended.  Turow has some unusual ideas about the history of copyright and history of the book trade.

….Now, the reason you don’t see used bookstores within new bookstores is that the used books compete with the new books and the publishers supplying the new books would object. Either you’re doing business with me or you’re competing with me. I’m not going to sell you books so you can take some percentage of sales.

What are you talking about, Turow? There are a variety of stores I frequent that have both new and used books (including Powell’s in Portland OR, which may be the best bookstore that exists in the US). I think the reason it’s not more common is simply because they are different sorts of businesses, requiring different competencies and attention — and also that retailers don’t want to undercut their own new book sales. Perhaps the mega chains like B&N or Borders (RIP) would have had trouble getting their mega-wholesale discounts if they had sold used books too (update 14Mar-11am: A friend informs me the B&N in Rochester MI does sell used books!), but I’ve never heard of an ordinary local bookstore getting any pressure not to sell used books (can anyone say if it’s actually happened or Turow is just being weird?) (Also, isn’t the producer/wholesaler/retailer relationship always about the retailer taking ‘some percentage of sales’, what?)

But yeah, seriously, I wish the interviewer had asked him about libraries. If he considers buying back a book from the first customer and selling it used to the second to be stealing from authors, one can’t imagine he’d look kindly on buying a book once and letting a bunch of people read it for free.

The Apple ebook anti-trust investigation

This Turow interview is in reaction to a reported anti-trust investigation regarding Apple’s ebook business. I don’t entirely understand the legal issues here (Grimmelman, we could use a write-up!), but it’s got something to do with Apple’s policies on eBook selling forcing Amazon to sell books through the ‘agency model’ where publishers set the retail prices. Something to do with price-fixing/collusion.

I don’t know enough about the law here to have any opinion on what is likely to be legal or illegal (copyright, I know a bit about. antitrust, I’ve forgotten most of what I may once have known).  But it strikes me that retailers — like anyone, individual or business — ought to have the right to buy books wholesale and sell them at whatever price they want, and it’s bad for consumers and readers (and libraries) if they end up not being able to do that, whether because of legal restrictions or market pressure from publishers.

And it is indeed, as Turow says,  all tied up with the end of the first sale doctrine in the dawn of the ebook era.  It’s just that Turow has it backwards what’s new and what’s old. It’s not Amazon’s ‘disruptive’ used book selling that’s changing the game; the new thing is the end of the ability to sell or loan used (e)books, the end of the first sale doctrine in an ebook world, the rise of an assumption that any unmonetized consumption is ‘theft’ from content creators.

On the other hand, publishers ought to also have the right to produce ebooks themselves and sell them via whatever channels they want, and have those ebooks be readable on popular devices. Part of what both Amazon and Apple are trying to do is say “you can only load content on our device if you buy it from us,” which is definitely something Amazon was trying to do that is rolled up in here, as Turow mentions.

Then they told Amazon they were going to follow this new model, and that they were going to produce the e-books themselves rather than Amazon doing so.

When the first publisher, John Sargent [of Macmillan], told them that, Amazon responded by removing the buy buttons not just from all of Macmillan Publishing’s e-books — about which you can say, yeah, there’s a legitimate dispute — but from their print books, too. Paper, physical books! It was another demonstration of their ability to abuse their market power.

Turow just neglects to mention that Apple is playing essentially the same game, from a consumer’s perspective, with regard to controlling the content that can be loaded on Apple devices.

Citizens to consumers

I am scared of Amazon’s undue (‘huge’) influence, but I’m just as scared as Apple’s. In fact, Apple is presiding over what I think is one of the most threatening trends to our relationship with technology:  The rise of the iOS model where device owners do not have the ability or right to install whatever software or customizations they want on their computers, but can only install what the vendor gives them permission to install, for the vendor’s own business reasons.

I think it’s quite likely that in the future most people’s computer use will be mostly on mobile devices, and if the iOS model continues to be as successful as it is now, that means most people’s computer use will be on devices they do not have control over, by design and to some extent enforced by law. It is in fact quite analogous in my mind to the book/first sale doctrine issue — tilting the balance of rights and abilities in the consumer/vendor relationship way over to the vendor side, illegalizing hacking, re-use, re-mixing. Take what the vendor gives you, pay for it when they say to pay for it.

(And don’t get me wrong, I find the iOS an incredibly well designed product and UI).

Brave new world.

And also note

In other book news, Britannica has ceased publishing an encyclopedia in print. 

One thought on “Book industry continues to shake up: Scott Turow’s odd views of book rights

  1. As an author of 3 books, i dont mind if someone sells my books at their used book store becayse thats their right and it doesnt impact my sales much becsuse most likely, it was an impulse buy as opposed to peopke seeking the books out (they are not thst old). But here is the problem with amazon. People all over the country and wprld go to one place: amazon. For my first book, they csn choose from 94 copies, 54 at tge moment are used and offered for hslf tge amount my new ones are. I wont be paid fpr those 52 books and people will be more inclined to but those. Many of these people if not moat would not have shopped around for the book at used stores themselves. Most authors earn 10 percent of what publishers bring in. We are only getting about 70 cents per book if that. I estimate because of what amazon has set up, im losing thousands of dollars i wouldnt have if they werent providing this hub for buyers. Buywea arent going to go to one state and then another till they find the book. No one cares about the authors. The government is sueing apple and publishers because they are hurting amazons sales, tge same company that put most others out of business. This world is insane. Meanwhile, our publishers continue to not pay us on time, not pay according to our contracts, and we are just supposed to be happy we are published.

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