E-Books and Their Potential Impact on Book Law

sonyreader.jpgThe 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.

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5 Responses

  1. How are eBooks a threat to publishers? Companies often want to fight new technology rather than embrace it (movie companies fought home video before embracing it and making more money). Digital distribution is a natural evolution, a beneficial to publishing more books (using the Long Tail that Amazon has already begun mastering).

    On that I far from recognize Amazon’s Kindle as giving too much control. It uses extensive DRM, charging $1.99 for public domain books, $1 to access a small number of approved blogs (250 at release), and $13.99 for New York Times access, all of which is already free online and Kindle has internet access – so why charge.

    The only threat to book publishers is failing to embracing the internet as the music and movie industries have. Business models will need to change, but that’s innovation. And that’s supposed to be a good thing in capitalism.

  2. Deven says:


    Of course ebooks are a potential threat. As the post notes, authors could cut out publishers as a middleman. Whether that will happen and how publishers will react remains to be seen. Did you read the links? The Bryne article shows the range of possibilities for music and those seem to track text as well. The point about models changing is the point the post makes.

    As for the control issue, I am not sure what you are saying. The post suggests the control issue applies more for new texts. The public domain stuff and charging for it goes to whether free versions (it takes time to convert the material) will be used or whether folks will find that Sony and other versions are worth the payment.

  3. Deven,

    The threat to publishers is only if publishers don’t offer something to the authors. Musicians are leaving record labels because these labels aren’t representing them well – the labels sue their fans, limit their online revenue, and withhold royalties. Book publishers will always have a place if they offer value to their real customers, the authors. The strength of a publisher is in marketing, getting the author on talk shows and stuff, in addition to getting the book in stores, online and brick and mortar. Publishers also help fact-check, handle acquiring artwork or rights for passages used. A publisher will have a large network to make this happen where few individuals do.

    This is why musicians, like Madonna, are leaving record labels for marketing firms. They still want representation to handle the business while they do the art. They just want someone who will serve their best interests.

    On control, maybe I misinterpreted what you were saying – I took you to say that Kindle gave too much control/power to the user to use it and its content as they please. That I would disagree with. Please elaborate if I’m getting this wrong.

  4. Deven says:


    Yes that is the point the post makes. Publishers will be threatened unless they change their model. And they are threatened in general because new models and competition will likely displace their ability to stay at the current system. Please try the Byrne piece. It is on point and shows the range of publisher outcomes.

    Not only was I not saying the Kindle gave too much power to users; I was and am saying that it gives too much power to Amazon.

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    1. As a matter of technology, and as I’ve noted in a comment to one of Deven’s earlier posts, I see lots of people on the Tokyo subway reading print, or reading their mobile phone’s LCD, but I don’t recall seeing anyone reading e-book readers, even from Sony. I also remember my “Dilbert”-ish boss of a decade or so ago telling my colleagues and me about the paperless office. Right.

    2. “It has a chance to avoid the mistakes and adherence to old business models the music and film industry made.” “Publishers will be threatened unless they change their model. And they are threatened in general because new models and competition will likely displace their ability to stay at the current system.”

    It’s sad that we so easily accept the rhetoric of business models and competition in a matter of such cultural moment.

    First of all, this attitude is a relatively recent one in the publishing business. See, e.g., André Schiffrin’s “The Business of Books”. Second, it’s also especially American. Some publishers in Germany, France and elsewhere feel that they have a civic duty to make works available, even when they don’t sell. E.g., a publisher interview I read in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about 2-1/2 years ago mentioned that they thought it their civic duty to get Nobel laureates’ works translated and published in German, even if they sold only a few hundred copies. For evidence that this attitude is an old one, and that it could be maintained in the face of technological change, see, e.g., “The Rise and Fall of the House of Ullstein,” by Herman Ullstein (1943).

    Now, possibly digital distribution will make it easier to distribute some less-profitable works. But for how long?

    3. Maybe not very long, because there’s another technological issue: the obsolescence of formats. You can still read printed stuff that’s centuries old (and even older stuff that was baked into clay), but try to read 30-year-old digital stuff and you run into big problems. (Maybe some of you don’t remember punched cards, to say nothing of punched tape.) Back during the dot-com boom I recall reading a book called “The Digital Dark Ages”; ironically it now seems to be out of print. A short précis of the argument can be found here: http://www.ifla.org/IV/ifla63/63kuny1.pdf . I myself have lost plenty of early 1990’s work product that was on floppies, either because it was in WordPerfect versions that Microsoft Word ceased to be able to read long ago, or on diskettes that became corrupt with the passage of time.

    Embracing change and all can be great. But it’s a great weakness of American culture to be so ready to justify, or even celebrate, every result of market forces, even when the results are stupid. There are times when society needs to sit back and ask, is this change appropriate? This strikes me as one of them.

    So yes, there may be interesting legal issues out of all this. But enjoy them now, because in a few decades you might not be able to recall them.