" 'Ere, mate, wanna buy a second hand ebook? "

Second-hand ebooks...

It does sound a bit like a bad gag or a swindle. My somewhat less than saintly grandsire would have sensed an opportunity - and if you were happy with that, he had some farmland in Wiltshire you might like to buy, and so much the worse if it turned out to be an artillery range. And it's true, to a point: why would you sell an ebook for less just because you've owned it for a while? And if it weren't reduced, why would you buy from some random person rather than from Amazon or Apple? 

What's actually happening, of course, is not the transfer of a physical object, but the transfer of access rights or data. Data don't depreciate, so there's no real reason to discount the product because it's been used. The straight transfer is therefore rather dull: person A yields it to person B for the same amount he or she paid for it, and person B gets the file via bluetooth or similar rather than via Whispernet or broadband download. Um. No measurable benefit to anyone. Or, yes, you'd end up with a market where people would discount in order to make some money back, and ultimately drive down the value of the book. Not great news.


Suppose you could return your ebooks if you decided you didn't want them, in exchange for a given value, to be redeemed against further ebook purchases? You'd never get back the full value - and your supplier might choose to say you could only ever get a maximum of 25% off any given single purchase, so you'd have to bank credit.


What if you could retain access to your own book files, but get a similar reward by selling them on as well? That turns every fan of a book into a reseller.

Both of these options have the additional benefit to the publisher that they get to keep selling the same thing in a way they never have before with second hand books. The consumer gets cheaper stuff and the assurance of a virus free download... and of course, the buoyant continuance of the industry, which isn't bad in itself.




Adaptation or death

It´s surprising that the discussion about this subject is almost inexistent. The secondhand market has always been an important part of the book trade, and suddenly it is at risk of disappearing in the digital enviroment, to the detriment of the readers. But it has not to be that way mandatorily. First, there's a distinction that has to be made: digital "products", digital books in this case, are no objects (physical nor "virtual") but information "packages", so they cannot be considered as "used" after being read, but they definitively can be considered as "second hand" products if transferred from user to user -just like a physical book that, even if sealed and not read, is sold or passed by the original buyer (costumer/potential reader) to another person. Now, a copy of an ebook is another thing. (The book is specifically propitious to copy, since virtuality is part of its nature. I can copy a novel by hand, word by word, and the result will be the same novel, no less, no more.I can copy a PDF book in RTF format, and the textuality at least will be the same, and the reading experience will be the same. Xerox copies are of common use since decades ago). Just like the music industry years ago, the editorial industry is suffering a panic attack that the shift to a digital enviroment entails. "Will the readers share their readings without benefit to us?" "will the writer become his own publisher without benefit to us?" Yes, of course, this is happening, and will continue to happen no matter what efforts are made by the industry to prevent it. People will copy cultural goods whenever is cheaper and faster and better copying them than buying it. Why, whitout the print, store and delivery costs, is an ebook almost equal in price than a physical book? Why, being technologically easier to share it is so difficult legally? Because, when in pannic, persons and companies act stupidly. They are mistaking the reader for an enemy, when he's not. He´s a costumer (that is to say, a kind of partner), a friend, but not a silly one. He will go where he can find the best choice, the best buy, and if he can get the same for free, he will go for it. Because, as the song goes, "information want to be free". The current regulations prevent the existence of second hand ebooks, not only by sale/purchase, but by loan or donation also. It is not forbidden (yet) but is, indeed, constrained. If a physical book can be read by an unlimited number of "users", due to technical and legal (that are not technological or ethical) limitations, an ebook cannot. So, the mere idea of secondhand books is quashed by design. As a margin note: what about libaries (public, semi-public and private)? There are now experiments (limited in scope an reach) that, despite their shyness, demonstrates that a demand niche exists, more social that commercial. Books, always, have been read mainly when access is provided. What I mean is: 1) the purchase of a book, is only one -and never the principal- in many ways to "get" a book. And it will continue this way. and 2) just as the gutemberg press provoked at its time a social change that went far further that a simply "printing and reading" revolution, the digital publishing can, and will, and has already spark cultural shifts that will develop with or without the involvement of the editorial industry. Music and media industries has focused their efforts in prosecution and "re-education" of the public to "teach" them (by exemplary lessons) that sharing is a crime. But they´ll never succeed because the people know that it is a crime without victims (except, of course, of the copyright holders), and there is no real harm nor guilt in that. Editorial industry will do wrong following the steps of music and media industry (altought we all know they are part of the same conglomerates). Among other reasons, because it has few aggregate bussines opportunities: no live concerts, no merchandising, no franchises. The industry, in order to survive, has to adapt itself to the new realities, instead of trying to adapt the new realities to their interests. A new model of businnes is needed, and it has to include -technically and comercially- the possibility of re-circulation. Is the reader who has the power to invent it and demand it. Publishing companies can ride the wave or stay at the shore.

This discussion has flowered...

Nick Harkaway's picture

Reselling and students / textbooks

Nick's reselling idea has all sorts of implications for the textbook market. Imagine a digital market place in which second year students were passing on their digital editions to freshmen, and everyone benefited. Would be nice

Book or code: Why I think there won't be a US used eBook market


There are several reasons why there is currently no secondary market for eBooks. The first and most immediate is the Copyright Office says the first sale doctrine doesn’t apply to eBooks. The Copyright Office has not extended section 109 to digital media. When you deal in printed books, you have a tangible object. When you deal in eBooks, you only have “code”. The file does not follow you as a singular product your copy it. The first sale doctrine says you can re-sell the book or lend it or share it. But copyright law says you can’t re-sell, lend, or share copyrighted “code.”  This means a digital  book is never really “used”. It is simply downloaded code and as such is always "new" because there is no physical product. Just like a DVD you can sell the CD with the movie, this is a physical copy and your only one. You cannot download a Quicktime file and resell sell that. The downloaded file is a copy of the original and you are selling a copy. That is piracy. The argument that an eBook is a single and unique entity is murky water at best. The definition of book is generally accepted as a single unique artifact in the analog world but an eBook is a licensed copy of original metadata owned by the publisher. Amazon has for all intents and purposes been given the right to make and distribute copies of this digital file compensating publishers for each copy distributed. Reselling a copy acquired from Amazon or any other authorized reseller without permission of the original publisher is considered illegal. Your first hurdle would be to successfully argue against all the major publisher’s position that a digital book file is a unique entity different from a song on an mp3 or a jpg of a copyrighted photograph. Authors, publishers, and legitimate eBook retailers would oppose the sale of “used” eBooks. Buy in is not going to happen. 

Legality aside since there is no difference between a "used" eBook and a "new" eBook the establishment of a secondary eBook market has the potential to significantly harm  publisher’s profitability in the eBook market by devaluing the perceived value of the eBook and driving down retail prices at the same time alienating our authors by denying them royalties from the sale of their work. No publisher or author would want a used market to undercut the full retail price of their work. Every publisher and retailer will fight it tooth and nail.

This question of legality also opens up the person selling the used eBook to a used eBook store and buying the used eBook to criminal charges and lawsuits since they will be selling the eBooks without paying royalties to the author. Unlike a traditional used bookstore there is a clear and empirical digital paper trail linking the transaction directly to the seller. With the question of copyright infringement looming sellers would be reluctant to expose themselves to this risk. There would have to be a clear and universally accepted understanding and legal precedent without ambiguity before a business model like this would be realistic. 

The digital music industry is a good parallel and mp3 retail and distribution has been going on longer the eBooks. To date there are no used MP3 store. One major attempt was made to create a secondary market for music downloads called www.Bopaboo.com. Fear of legality seems to have all but shut it down. They have placed it in “extended beta” mode and are trying to reach some agreement with the music industry but investment seems to have dried up. This recent legal paper regarding it gives a very detailed overview of the issues at hand. 


The bottom line is digital book publishing is not going to be any different than the movie industry of the record industry neither of which has and secondary market for pure digital files. It’s a bite the hand that feeds you scenario; with all the key stake holders in the creation and distribution of the content against creating a “used” marketplace. Anyone to attempt starting one will be doing so would be seen as a rogue or pirate company to the industry. It will be a very steep uphill battle to gain investors and support. With books having less inherent customer demand than movies and music the odds of carving a profitable long term business on this model are quite long as Napster et al can attest. 

Here are two other posts that give a good explanation of why there are not secondary digital product markets and why publishers and copyright holders do not want there to be any.

This post explains the legal issues of selling digital books and why the first sale doctrine doesn’t apply.


This is the specific section of the copyright act that applies and is used as precedent regarding the transfer of digital files.


This post explains fairly well why a secondary eBook market is not in the interest of publishers.




Another take on this

James Woollam's picture

A very interesting debate.

I suppose you would look at Spotify in the music industry in the context of this, albeit different to this post as you don't 'own' that music (unless you choose). Is there a Spotify of the ebook world as yet?


Oddly, I was having a chat on

Oddly, I was having a chat on Twitter with some folks about this exact topic yesterday. You've an interesting thought there. The difficulty, of course, will be establishing a suitable technological framework to support it. Would it require a DRM scheme to allow this to happen, because how else could one ensure a "return"? Actually, this might be the one thing that would make DRM useful to the consumer - it provides them a real benefit in exchange for the inevitable limitations it imposes.

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