eBooks and new business models (updated)

POSTED BY Rick Shera
06 July 2010

posted in l@w.geek.nz | Business | Intellectual Property | Digital Publishing



It is easy to fall into the trap of taking the arguments used by the music and film industries as proxies for the general rights holder community.  Equally, the counter-arguments of fair-use and free and open internet adherents tend to be a reaction to the overly aggressive litigation and lobbying efforts of those industries.

Typically, this leads to arguments about how musicians and film companies can make a good living from tours, merchandising and the like so copyright restrictions should be relaxed rather than tightened.

But, spare a thought for the original copyright work - the book.  Not much chance of merchandising or book tours adding a lot to a typical author's income (unless a book gets made into a film, in which case, see above).

So, with Kindles, Kobos, iPads, iPhones, androids and every other device now being touted as eBook capable, which business model is going to work for authors and publishers in the new digital environment?  I've written before about the Googlebooks settlement which of course is the elephant in the room in this area.  Another aspect of that which is relevant here though is the role libraries are going to play.  Two very interesting posts on this that I came across coincidentally on the same day; one by Martin Taylor over at the Digital Forum and the other by Associate Professor James Grimmelman on his Googlebooks blog, The Laboratorium.

The upshot seems to be that there is a move towards libraries making eBooks available, which then begs the question of whether they are freely available or will be "rented" for a fee.  Some might argue that people will not be that keen on renting a book for a period because they like to own books and in any case hard-copy will always prevail.  I'm not so sure about that now that I've read this study which seems to indicate that people like the added functionality an eBook reader can provide. I won't even get into the issue of digital rights management (DRM) upon which such models seem to depend but what interested me was the New Zealand context for this.

You see in New Zealand we have what is called the Public Lending Right administered under a special statute by the National Library of New Zealand.  Under that regime, an author is compensated for libraries making his or her book freely available, provided that there are at least 50 of that book in the library system (surveys are conducted every three years to estimate how many books an author has in the system).  Authors don't get much - about $2.65 for every copy of their book in the system.

Two things to note there though:

  1. The books are made freely available by libraries; and
  2. The compensation is only payable to authors, not publishers.

Overlaid on this we also have Copyright Licensing's collective licensing scheme (which does not yet apply to eBooks) and its formation earlier this year of the company, Digital Publishing (New Zealand) Limited ... a suggestive name.

So, it looks to me like there is going to need to be a whole new discussion around eBooks, for the reasons Martin explains and there are plenty of people who will want to be involved in that discussion.  To come full circle, we may well see an analogy to the music and film industries in terms of removal of the ability to charge at each step in the delivery channel.  If I can rent an eBook from a library online, who gets to clip the ticket?  I can see a whole new round of jostling for position and even competition here, between libraries, book stores, publishers and authors, particularly as self publishing and print on demand gain traction.

UPDATED 26 July 2010:

Well we can now add literary agents to that list of competitors.  Wylie Agency, one of the most powerful international literary agents has set the cat amonst the pidgeons by reportedly bypassing traditional publishers and making works of authors in its stable available via Amazon.  Not mentioned in this story, but one of Wylie's authors is New Zealand great Janet Frame, for who whose literary estate I acted recently in securing an apology from CK Stead for his unauthorised copying of Frame's work.  Not sure if Frame's works are included in the Wylie-Amazon deal.

As the story from the Guardian highlights, this is another development in the battle over whether traditional publishing contracts cover digital rights, where such rights are not mentioned.  But, more importantly, it is yet more evidence of the traditional vertical channel sales model (author to publisher to distributor to book store) being disrupted by the internet and new publishing/printing technologies.  It has been happening in the music world for some time and now it is coming to a booksite near you.

POSTED BY Rick Shera
06 July 2010

posted in l@w.geek.nzBusinessIntellectual PropertyDigital Publishing



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