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E-Books and Their Potential Impact on Book Law

The New York Times reports that Amazon’s Kindle may be the sign of a tipping point for e-books. My previous posts about Kindle have expressed some praise but a fair amount of skepticism too. The device allows for too much control. Zittrain explores this issue as one of perfect enforcement. As my other post noted, the ability to manipulate text at any time poses wild possibilities about what text is and who should control or manipulate it. The Times piece points to a perhaps simpler problem: what will happen to the book industry?

E-book device sales are growing at wild rates (doubling and so on) but that is expected in a young industry and distorts the current raw numbers of for example $1 million in e-books compared to $1 billion (see what a difference one letter makes?) for Simon & Schuster. The most interesting thing is that with the advent of Sony eReader and Kindle the upswing in e-books being used may signal a shift in reading habits in general. A few professors I know use only electronic versions of articles, and Sony offers 100 classics preloaded onto its device (A so-called “$199 value” for many public domain titles). Maybe more folks will stop using print. Devices such as iRex’s iLiad (which I saw someone using at Law & Society) seem great: it is a reader with a big screen, AND one can take notes which can be transferred back to one’s computer, AND it has access to Web content. I would love to play with one of these and look forward to finding a store model (It is $600 to $700 so I will not be buying one just yet). So e-book devices have grown and there are threats to publishers because of this shift. But before turning to that question (which will be a separate post), the implications for book sellers is important too.

According to the Times, Bezos asserts that Amazon customers still buy physical books in the same amount as before or in other words e-books are not substitutes for print books. Others in the industry disagree. If ebooks start to substitute for print books, several things are likely to occur.

The music and film industry battles could replay in the print world. One key is that Amazon is pushing a self-publishing route for authors called Digital Text Platform. Unlike the music industry, authors will have a large, central, and highly trafficked site through which to distribute their music. So as David Byrne explained for music, a range of publishing options could operate for print.

Cost of books (or perhaps texts is the correct word) should drop as Amazon leans on publishers to lower rates for e-books. At some point a publisher will have to decide whether to sell direct to consumers, let Amazon be an iTunes for texts, find a different distributor, or a blend of these options will emerge. Regardless, DRM copy control debates will increase in print. Still as some authors have found, giving away an electronic version of one’s work can increase or at least not destroy one’s ability to earn a living by writing. Whether this situation persists once ereaders have better screens and interfaces remains to be seen. Despite Bezos ceding “Anything that lasts 500 years is not easily improved upon,” Books are so good you can’t out-book the book, — his and many others — goal must be to try and “out-book the book.” Once that happens, the ability to copy books will be huge and some publishers will rally to combat what they see as the only business model that works (note the book publishers/Google battle in this regard) regardless of whether that position is really about the business position that allows the status quo to remain.

On the positive side, instant access to a back-catalogues could be common. Already ereaders allow one to get a copy of a book sold-out in hard copy as apparently happened with Scott McClellan’s What Happened.

So stay tuned. Print may be the last to face the full impact of digital media. It has a chance to avoid the mistakes and adherence to old business models the music and film industry made. Will publishing houses change? Sure. Will authors maybe receive more direct income? Perhaps. Will someone still need to sort or recommend what is a good book? Of course. Will the law get mixed into the fray and yield baffling or obviously just results depending on which group one likes? You bet.