How the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights Benefits Authors

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By Andy Woodworth, Adult Services Librarian, Bordentown, NJ

About a week ago, Sarah and I posted the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights. We’ve watched it bounce all over the blogosphere much to our mutual delight. But there has been a recurring question in some of the discussions as to what this document would mean to authors. I will try now to explain how authors would benefit under the terms outlined in the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights. Here’s my breakdown:

the right to use ebooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations

As a librarian, I have a carefully honed monologue to inform people who come to the library why or why not their chosen ereader device will be able to download ebooks or audio ebooks. (At present, the Kindle one is the shortest at “Sorry, no can do”. The iPod is the longest since it starts out with a short shopping list of programs needed and permissions required.)  I am the de facto technical support for these devices and yet I am left holding the bag when it comes to explaining the convoluted jargon of Digital Rights Management, proprietary devices and software, and why’s and how’s of loading content into their devices. Now, imagine this interaction happening beyond the walls of the libraries as people look to purchase ebooks.

As an author, these limitations do you no favor when your readers cannot access your literature. When the effort eclipses the reward, people will forgo the attempt to get your work on their ereaders in favor of easier fare. I have seen people give up on trying to download library ebooks; I would hope that they would not give up on authors as easily.

the right to access ebooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses

Ebooks should transcend platforms. What you buy on the iBookstore or the Kindle should be readable on the Nook or Kobo and vice versa. Ebooks should be platform neutral and portable. As an author, in order to reach the widest audience possible, your books should be able to travel wherever your audience wants them to be. You’ve put in the hours and the hard work; why should something like software or technology get between your prose and the reader?

the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share ebook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright

At present, there is an inconsistent ability to do any of these aspects across all of the devices and ebooks. While fair use and copyright should be respected, these limitations work against the reader and their interaction with the text of the ebook. They stifle potential discussion regarding book passages by the inability to copy and share with others. They frustrate the reader by disallowing annotations about significant passages and recording their thoughts or reactions. Finally, in preventing the printing of parts of the ebook, they keep the words in a virtual space when the intention of printing is to share with others for further discussion or commentary. Think of every work space you’ve ever seen where a line of poetry or novel passage has hung; that is one of the beneficial aspects that this is preventing. People find significance in those words and make them part of their daily life. The prevention of printing usurps that urge.

Again, while copyright and fair use should be observed, authors should be mindful of accommodating the habits and actions of their readers that have grown out of print editions of their materials over many years.

the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the ebook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased ebooks

Now, I will admit this is the tricky one that has gotten people tripped up over this document. Retaining and archiving are common practices for people with software; it allows them to make a backup copy in case something happens to the original. There shouldn’t be a problem with that as it ensures the future of the ebooks that they have purchased.

As to sharing, I’ll put it this way: authors benefit from sharing. Neil Gaiman makes a note of it specifically in his Open Rights Group video where he asks audiences how many people found their favorite author through a friend lending them a book as opposed to buying it at a bookstore (I’ve linked to the specific part of the video). The American Library Association has a 2007 study which shows that people who borrow books are likely to buy those books for themselves or purchase them as gifts for others. Libraries are an integral aspect of word of mouth marketing for authors.

“Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising. The forces unleashed by new media technologies seem to have never changed the truth behind this age-old wisdom dating back to the times when human culture was largely oral.” (ComCorp) With the new communication and social media possibilities, people are not simply telling their immediate friends and family about books; they are telling everyone about books. People are sharing the books that they love through sites like Facebook, LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, and their own blogging. The Twitter hashtag #fridayreads (up for a Mashable award for Best Internet Meme) shows how people can make recommendations for books to their followers and to the people who follow the hashtag. That recommendation carries weight with others as depicted by this survey from eMarketer and presented as this graphic:

The 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer survey shows that 90% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know and 70% trust fellow consumer opinions posted online (think #fridayreads, sites like Goodreads, and Amazon/B&N user book reviews). This 2010 Guardian/ICM survey gives similar supporting results of this trust in others (especially question 4).

Sharing ebooks would be word of mouth on steroids for authors since it means  making a recommendation and the ability to put the book almost instantly in the (virtual) hands of another. Sharing is not a lost sale, but a new marketing foray into a previously unrealized potential fan.

As to the question of ebook re-selling, I will admit that I do not have a perfect answer on this point. If there was a limited DRM system that would enable people to do so (ensuring that the old copy is destroyed while transferring a copy to the new owner), I think it would be a fair trade-off to confer ownership and greater content rights.

My primary concern is less about re-selling and more in regard to people being given control over their own reading content. While I’m hesitant to engage in what may be construed as hyperbole, I appeal to you to consider the emotional connections to your own personal libraries and the importance of every book that you have selected to be a part of it. I would implore authors to consider how they would consider outside removals or modifications on your own book collections. Ownership matters, quite frankly, and it is an expression of intellectual pride.

As it concerns the passage of text that followed the rights in the initial document, I personally believe in every word written there. I believe authors can flourish when their work is available on the widest range of media and when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access and share with others. I believe in creating the best possible market for authors to live by and thrive. I also believe ebooks are an important new part of the greater cultural cornerstone of society; and I believe that a document like the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights works towards that goal.

For myself, there are farther reaching issues at stake here since the written word lives on long after our bodies have turned to dust. As a librarian, I strive to preserve the work of authors for future generations. It is a matter of great import and one I do not take lightly. It only gets more complicated when ebooks are locked behind formats and proprietary ereaders. It is my hope that the actions we take today will cultivate a vibrant literature market while increasing access to readers and allowing libraries to maintain their traditional societal role in maintaining the literary and cultural record.

I thank the authors who came here to read this post. I hope I made the meaning of the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights and the benefits authors would derive from it a bit clearer and show that it was constructed around the best of intentions. I welcome any author feedback on this post so that I can further refine the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights.

This post was originally published at Agnostic, Maybe and has been reprinted with Mr. Woodworth’s permission.

Andy is a librarian in New Jersey. He spends his days surrounded by vast amounts of information which he consumes on a fairly regular basis. He was named a 2010 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, an honor bestowed upon fifty librarians each year that are considered to be changing the face and future path of libraries. He writes the award winning librarian blog ‘Agnostic, Maybe’ at http://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com.

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10 thoughts on “How the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights Benefits Authors

  1. I would love to see our ebooks in the library loan system. However, to date none of the distributors who serve the library market will carry ebooks produced by micro-presses, even though the print formats of the books are readily available in many libraries.

    People seem to find those ebooks just fine without the assistance of a library. And the vast majority of our sales are through the Amazon Kindle Store. Since Amazon currently owns something like 70% of the ebook sales market, it seems to me that libraries should be beating on Amazon’s door to make it possible for people to download Kindle editions to their Kindle devices (or one of the many Kindle apps) via libraries. The format itself seems to be quite healthy in the marketplace.

    I would also disagree with the notion that ebooks somehow provide a path to preservation of the written word. In fact, I contend that ebooks are, by their very nature, ephemeral and impermanent. I’ve blogged on the subject repeatedly. I have no doubt that my print books will outlast my ebooks in whatever format they might be produced.

  2. Hi Andy. I totally agree with these points for the Bill of Rights. It’s a changing world and everyone needs to change/embrace with it. There’s a chance that it could be a democratic, rather than autocratic sandboxed, revolution in publishing & reading.

    Personally I’d be pleased if it would be possible for a standard eBook file format – ePub would make a lot of sense.

    All the best

    Adam
    iwritereadrate,com

  3. As a small (very small) publisher, I see what benefits the author also benefits the publisher. One very big difference the way I see lending eBooks compared to hard copies is that when you lend a book you no longer have the book, you must wait for it to be returned. When you ‘lend’ an eBook you still have the eBook. You can then lend it to some one else who can lend to some one else so on and so on with only the original purchased copy being a sale. The rest do not make sales as no one needs to return the eBook to the friend who lent it.

    Lending is a great way to spread the word, but if no one needs to purchase the eBook, why would they. I also agree there should be a standard eBook format. It is not good for publishers or for readers to have so many incompatible formats. I still remember ‘BataMax’.

    • I agree with your lending theory. There is no incentive to buy a book if you can get it for free. If I buy a PDF copy of a book and send it to my large email list, then my entire email list gets a free copy. Why would they buy it? The author gets paid for one copy, but hundreds, even thousands of people now own the book. Where is the justice in that?

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  5. Excuse me, but there is a real fallacy here.

    Readers have NO rights when it comes to a book in any format.

    Books are the legal property of the writer, who owns the copyright. The book is the tangible proof of the writer’s time, creativity, effort and scholarship, etc. The publisher has a legal contract with the writer — offering him or her a sum of money (called an “advance” ) in order to publish and distribute the book. THEY split the profits with the author. Therefore, the publishers DO own a portion of the book.

    If e-readers and libraries want to pay an author for the right to distribute unlimited copies of a book on an e-book platform, then they, too, could OWN the right to publish and distribute the book on their network.

    For regular books, a reader buys the book, and owns the amount of copies they buy. That physical copy is theirs, to lend, to sell to a used bookstore, give away as a present, etc.
    The library buys the book and owns the amount of copies it pays for. That physical copy is theirs to lend to patrons.
    WHAT THEY ARE NOT ALLOWED TO DO is copy the book they bought on a copy machine, or have it reprinted in a million copies and give it away for free. They don’t OWN the book. They own one copy.

    E-books change the entire system. Suddenly, the reader and library has the technology to become a publisher and distributor of as many copies of someone else’s book as they want, with no responsibility for paying for the privilege.

    But why should a writer spend a year or more on writing a book, only to see it given away for free by E-readers? Why would a publisher give a writer money to publish and distribute a book knowing that it can be given away for free to millions?
    Why should a reader have the right to give away something they didn’t spend a year creating?

    Debra

  6. There is a lot of sense here. I’m an author and a librarian, and as such am against DRM (as evidenced by all the posts at http://karldrinkwater.blogspot.com/search/label/DRM !) I am also interested in the issues of e-book lending from libraries (e.g. see http://karldrinkwater.blogspot.com/2012/05/e-book-lending-and-libraries.html) though there are other issues here which I have yet to make my mind up about. The main thing is that the issues are discussed openly, and not left to the decisions and EULAs created by corporations without any consultation with those that love to buy and read books – the readers.

    • I think one area I’m not so sure about is the area of reselling an e-book. By all means, if someone buys one, it should be theirs forever. Unlike a physical book it takes up no space, so you don’t have to get rid of them every so often (or buy a bigger house, or even rent storage space for them as one author I know does!) I also believe in keeping the price low. However I tend to think of them as an experience rather than a tradeable good. Every one pays for the experience if they want it. A tricky aspect though, and I am not 100% sure where I stand.

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