Posts Tagged ‘e-books’

Is e-book piracy ethical?

Awhile back, New York Times columnist Jeffrey Seglin posed a question that looks at a particular aspect of copyright law: is it morally (if not legally) acceptable to pirate an e-book if you own the original hardcopy edition? Although most pirates offer specious justification for their actions, this particular question warrants more thoughtful consideration.

Historically, I have engaged in similar activities: if I owned a video game, I considered it reasonable for me to acquire the soundtrack to said game, regardless of the means. Sometimes this meant connecting my PlayStation's audio output to my computer's input and making my own recording; other times, it was copying the album that had been released as a separate product. Video games have since adapted to such exploitation with copyrights that individually name the art, design, programming, and music, which would seem to deny any legal basis for my youthful actions.

Moreover, a game's soundtrack provides a unique experience within and without the context of the game, just as a book is different from an e-book. In a game, music is used to complement the on-screen action, whereas separately, it may be used without requiring gameplay to invoke its own imagery. Similarly, a book has a look, touch, and feel all its own, while an e-book is portable, markable, and potentially more transportable. To argue that buying one grants a license to a union of these benefits is dubious.

My response to Mr. Seglin's question was quoted in his follow-up:

I think it's fair to create your own translation of a product you own for personal use — such as scanning a book to put on your Kindle, or digitizing a CD to load onto your iPod.

To enjoy the fruits of someone else's translation efforts means making the investment in their version of that product. To do otherwise is still piracy.

I may not find it ethical for a consumer to steal something they already own in a different format — but to end the discussion there ignores the other party in the transaction. Is it ethical for the corporation to expect consumers to pay twice for the same content? If it were possible to provide proof of purchase, surely a discount for existing customers would be both respectful of their patronage as well as an incentive toward future business, as software developers do when offering upgrades to new versions. When dealing with more physical products, such a policy could more easily be implemented in small contexts, such as when the developer and distributor of said product are one in the same. As an example, Jason Scott's GET LAMP documentary comes with an upgrade guarantee:

What drives me absolutely nuts is buying the same film multiple times.

What I'm talking about is you buy a DVD of something, and you enjoy it. Then they come out with a special edition of the same thing and you buy it again. Then there's a downloadable version, and you buy that. And so on. And so on. It makes some people very rich, but it's just a completely disrespectful thing to do to the people who brought you success in the first place. It sucks.

So here's what I am doing.


It is the right of Mr. Scott as the copyright holder of GET LAMP to determine the availability and value of his product (which is why he chooses to release it under Creative Commons). As Mr. Scott told me in an interview for Computerworld, "You've already paid me, I've already made a profit off you — I don't want to make another profit off you!" It is a generous (and perhaps expensive) approach he has chosen that could be considered the opposite extreme of corporations that charge the full amount for content that is improved but not new. A balance between the two could prove lucrative for all parties.

Like me, Mr. Seglin is not a lawyer, and his column looks at issues from an ethical, not legal or political, perspective. It's a useful prompt for us to look beyond the law and more rigorously examine how our own philosophies concur or disagree with society's external guidelines.

Why would the Atlantic publish on the Kindle?

In a publishing discussion forum I participate in, a friend recently posted her concerns over a recent announcement regarding exclusive content for the Amazon Kindle:

An article in today's New York Times announced that the Atlantic will sell some short stories exclusively on Kindle… This concept bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, the Kindle seems to be the most restrictive of the e-readers… Second, selling a short story exclusively to the Kindle is essentially creating a work that only a privileged few can ever read.

She's right that the Kindle is more restrictive than other readers, but not by much. The only advantage Sony's e-reader has over it in format compatibility is in its support of ePub files, for example. Wikipedia has a handy chart that compares all the hardware's compatibilities.

As for why anyone would choose to make their content available on only the Kindle, check out this table of who owns the e-book market: a quarter of all e-book readers are Amazon Kindles. That's twenty-five times greater than the Sony eBook Reader, and many more times still than the unproven nook. If the Atlantic wants maximum exposure for their content, it makes sense to go with the market leader. (And it's possible Amazon offered them some strong incentives to provide this exclusive content — something e-publishing fledgling B&N couldn't afford while investing in launching their own product.)

However, though there's something to be said for getting in on the ground floor, I think it's too early to be pledging allegiances just yet. It was just last year that early adopters of the HD-DVD format found themselves orphaned in the face of Blu Ray's victory, as this comic strip recently reminded me, for example. How many of today's e-readers will soon be similarly unsupported? The Atlantic may see the potential in taking a risk with a particular product, but I'm more than happy to wait this one out, and then through my weight behind a sure thing.

If e-books were a technology that needed my support to survive — so many people skipped the Sega Dreamcast in favor of its eventual successor that there was never the sales to warrant a successor — then I would be less hesitant. But given the nook's overwhelming presales, I don't think electronic publishing's pioneers will suffer for my economical patience.

The present and future of e-readers

It's been an interesting last week for e-readers.

First, the Barnes & Noble Nook, due in stores November 30th, is enjoying such great demand that, unless you preordered one, your order will not be fulfilled until 2010. I expect demo units will still be available in retail outlets, as I doubt B&N would miss the opportunity to market to the 2009 holiday crowds, thus generating even more sales for 2010.

Then, as a response to growing competition, the Kindle got a firmware update that offers better battery life, PDF compatibility, and easier landscape orientation. However, just like Amazon's removal of 1984 from some readers' Kindles, this update was pushed automatically to users, leaving them to wonder: who's really in charge of their e-readers?

And, despite all these advances, here are eight reasons e-readers could fail:

  1. Price of devices
  2. Price of e-books
  3. Smartphones
  4. Apple's rumored tablet computer
  5. Popular authors aren't sure about e-books
  6. Digital rights
  7. Open publishing standards, or not?
  8. Librarians and small bookstores

In evidence of #5, last week I attended a book signing by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. As we discussed the unknown future of the publishing industry, he offered his own anecdote: Vector Prime, his only Star Wars novel and the one that infamously killed Chewbacca, sold 145,000 copies in hardcover and 500,000 in paperback. The title's e-book sales to date? 147. There are no zeroes after that — Vector Prime has sold under two hundred digital copies.

Despite these experiences, I don't think it's likely e-books will fail. As the technology progresses to offer a more pleasant user experience, and prices drop to more affordable levels, we may see e-readers become as commonplace as Star Trek's PADDs. But, as with the rest of Gene Roddenberry's vision for the future, we're still a long ways off.

Choose your own digital adventure

The move to an electronic format holds many potential ramifications for literature. Is it the same content in a different medium? Or does the move from text to hypertext offer more possibilities for storytelling?

When I was a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These young adult novels were interactive, giving the reader control over the main character's actions by offering branching paths. Do you follow the forest's beaten path, or forge your own? Do you fight the giant lizard, or do you run away? The page you flip to next is determined by your choices.

Interactive fiction is well-suited to hypertext, with each choice becoming a link to a new Web page. Using this format, Choose Your Own Adventure-style games have become playable in such digital venues as a Web browser or even the Xbox 360. So why not the Kindle?

ChooseCo, the company behind the original Choose Your Own Adventure brand, has also recognized this opportunity and is bringing their series of novels to Amazon's e-book reader. House of Danger is currently a free title, with additional CYOA books selling for $6.99, roughly the same price as the print edition.

Rather than try to change the definition of what a book is by adding multimedia or other gimmicks, ChooseCo is taking advantage of the native capabilities of both hardcopy and digital formats by offering their books as they were meant to be read, only better. This is the best example I've found of the possibilities of e-books.

What other possibilities do you see for e-book readers like the Kindle to change how books are presented and read?

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)

Why e-books don't need copyeditors

Copyeditors are essential to quality publishing, yet the economy and advances in technology have made them vulnerable. Many organizations' management philosophy is that the advent of online publishing offers the opportunity for errors to be corrected post-publication. Those copyeditors who remain in the industry often prioritize stories that are destined for print editions, which do not have that luxury.

The ability to improve something even after its mass market distribution has both pros and cons. On the positive side, there is no longer a deadline to a product's evolution; it can be improved indefinitely, eliminating a penalty against early adopters. It is also affordable for the publisher, who can issue updates without a costly reprinting.

However, it also lowers the standard at which a product ships. Does it have a few typos or unchecked facts? That's no longer a reason to miss a shipping deadline; such trivial details can be attended to once sales warrant it.

We've already seen this trend with video games. Twenty years ago, games shipped on physical, immutable cartridges; any defects would require an expensive recall, which was a powerful incentive to get it right the first time. By contrast in today's age of digital media, consumers don't think twice about their Xbox asking them, "Would you like to download the update to your purchase?"

I expect something similar will happen with books. Once these publications move to an electronic format, readers will become copyeditors, reporting typos to the publisher, who can then correct them remotely. It won't be long before Stephenie Meyer fans have to update their e-books to Twilight v1.1.

What do you think? Does the transition from a static medium to a dynamic one bode well or ill for the quality of our literature? And is that because e-books may eliminate more than just the retailer and distributor from the publication process?

No used e-books, for better or worse

A benefit of e-books is the lack of returns, benefitting publishers who have often contended with the fluidity and impermanency of books shipped versus books sold. But the current technology of e-books is such that the reselling of books is also eliminated. With no physical product, customers have nothing to trade or sell secondhand. This isn't true of all digital media: iTunes Plus tracks have no digital rights management (DRM) and thus can be traded or sold (or copied) freely. But I suspect e-books will be bound to the device to which they are sold, leaving them forever locked to their original buyer.

This must be a bookseller's dream, as it means every copy read is another copy sold. No more will used bookstores or library donations cut into the potential to sell directly to new readers. In some industries, such as electronic entertainment, the used market is seen as the bane of publishers, and even some retailers aren't fond of it. As long as four years ago, Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of, wrote to some affiliate publishers: "If your aggressive promotion of used book sales becomes popular among Amazon's customers, this service will cut significantly into sales of new titles, directly harming authors and publishers."

But is that an informed opinion? A 2005 academic paper entitled "Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact" suggests that used books are valuable to the sales of new books:

Our analysis suggests that used books are poor substitutes for new books for most of Amazon's customers. … Only 16% of used book sales at Amazon cannibalize new book purchases. The remaining 84% of used book sales apparently would not have occurred at Amazon's new book prices. … This increase in book readership from Amazon's used book marketplace increases consumer surplus by approximately $67.21 million annually. This increase in consumer surplus, together with an estimated $45.05 million loss in publisher welfare and a $65.76 million increase in Amazon's profits, leads to an increase in total welfare to society of approximately $87.92 million annually from the introduction of used book markets at

E-books are often cheaper than physical books, though, and they don't deteriorate like printed goods. So is the used books model even applicable to digital media? Either way, are publishers and retailers truly doing themselves a favor by eliminating the secondhand life of e-books?

(Hat tip to TechDirt)

Smartphones squash e-book readers in popularity

With a touch interface, accelerometers, and an online store that boasts over 100,000 apps, the Apple iPhone is fast becoming a mobile gaming device to compete with the likes of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP.

But despite the App Store's "games" category enjoying more new releases than any other category in the last year, in September and October 2009, the most popular genre of new app published was book-related. Specifically, "In October, one out of every five new apps launching in the iPhone has been a book… The sharp rise in e-book activity on the iPhone indicates that Apple is positioned [to] take market share from the Amazon Kindle as it did from the Nintendo DS." (This may not be significant data, however, as many of the book apps are duplicates of public domain novels. For example, there are over 30 apps that offer Sun Tzu's The Art of War.)

The trend toward smartphones as e-readers may have already begun. Publishers Weekly recently printed a chart of who owns the e-book market. The iPhone and iPod together have captured 22%, which makes it the second most popular e-book reader, behind only the Kindle itself. It also makes Apple's product line 22 times more popular than the Sony eBook Reader.

Are Amazon and Barnes & Noble approaching the market the wrong way by hawking dedicated e-book readers? Why spend $259 on a Kindle when you can get a multipurpose iPhone 3G for $99?

Issues with the international Kindle

I'm having trouble understanding the concerns raised by the international Kindle, as related in Publishers Weekly. I think that publishers are worried that the correct editions of their catalog will be available in the right territories, lest readers cross borders to buy books that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Is that correct? If so, didn't Apple address this issue six years ago with the iTunes Store, or Microsoft with the Xbox Live Arcade — both of which are available on an international basis? Customers need to supply contact and billing information to make a purchase, and the online stores use that data to determine which products to list. What am I missing?

Is the issue that digital rights are not currently being negotiated on a regional basis, in which case a digital edition currently available only in American markets will now be sold globally, competing with the print editions exclusive to other regions? How is that different from now? As an American, I'm pretty sure I can go to and order a book; if so, then the opposite must be true, and a Brit can order an e-book from the USA store.

The PW article repeatedly reported that the e-tailer (never heard that word before, and can't say I care for it) "has worked with publishers" on this matter. A quotation from an affected or involved publisher might've helped give the article some perspective.