For anyone wondering what it is I’m getting up to when I’m not Dalsarion‘ing nor marking a lot of student papers!
Amazon’s lending program… It’s actually all quite clever on their behalf. Many of the publishers ‘involved’ in the 5k+ books in the programme had no idea it was happening; in fact, they’re now wondering about potential legal recourse. After all, how can Amazon be ‘discounting to free’ these items without permission? The trick is that amazon is actually purchasing the books (at full price) on their Prime customer’s behalf.
What this brings up is that if ebooks are sold by license (which, given Amazon’s own 1984 debacle, they are), can Amazon actually ‘resell’ or give them away to their Prime customers (see: erosion of the first sale doctrine). Of course, they could argue that the fact that they are paying for their customers does not mean that they ever own it corporately (equivalent to someone buying an item for you on their credit card, but having it delivered to your address.)
The likelihood is that publishers will be losing this one.
The real issue, however, is what does this ‘free to the consumer’ deal do to the public perception of an ebook’s worth? This is exactly the problem that led to Apple’s gambit (along with publishers) to the agency model, which stopped Amazon (and anyone else) from discounting ebooks on the consumer end—historically, they had undercut themselves as distributor in order to capture market share. Agency says that it is the publisher who sets the actual sale price.
This has left us in a ‘lovely’ situation of the 9_99 Boycott tag in Amazon reviews. Any ebook sold at higher than $9.99 is given (by some members) a 1 star review, for the very audacity of being sold at higher than the old practice of Amazon having sold ebooks at a loss (the Wholesale model). If you want to see some really scary anger directed at ‘fat cat’ publishers and ‘ripoff,’ ‘rich’ authors (I wish!), then go look there.
However, this 9_99 Boycott does demonstrate part of the problem of a cheapened perception of ebook worth. I’m not going to cite any argument about the sky falling re: devaluation of book content v book object—while this is actually one of my own concerns, at the moment the figures show a different story, where readers are actually still paying, and whilst at a lower margin, are buying greater numbers of copies. Instead, I’m more concerned with this being a further example of publishers becoming invisible to their audience.
Publishers and authors don’t want to become invisible, after all, they add a great deal of value to the process of making book content. However, the way the distribution is heading, readers won’t see anything but an author’s name, either traditionally or self-published (without any perceived value on either), and the distributor. Content value is then collapsed into ’subjective’ language. That is, readers come to view the differences between the two as one of taste and not of professional processes having been performed.
The thing is, readers must be educated in what publishers do. Ok, this sounds painful, but it can be smoother than the equivalent of those “DON’T PIRATE” ads.
Instead, publishers and their many imprints have to show personality once again (my best example is Del Ray Books, an imprint of Ballantine, which, you know was named after Lester Del Ray and used to be a signifier of his curatorial taste.) Readers have to know that publishers are not faceless entities, they have discernment, too—and maybe that is what editors have to be allowed to show.
In an age of online deluge of content? Perhaps this means allowing readers to subscribe to a feed of their fav eds, of then getting to know them and to see that not every corporation is the same: a distributor is not greater than nor equal to a publisher.
EDIT: Note that I can see a potential advantage to pubs of ‘giving away’ ebooks, it keeps readers in the habit of reading, and can serve as a driver for further sales (sales that they may not have made, otherwise)—this is obviously what amazon hopes, and it’s Amazon who is *paying* for them after all!
The main issue for pubs is to make sure that they’re not lost in the buyer/distributor ker-shuffle. In making sure that they stay relevant.
Also note that pubs must be kept on brand, something which using ‘free’ ebooks as a lead in to a laser tight imprint could, again, drive further sales.