Why is an ebook not like a book?

I found this excellent article on ebooks in my Google Reader feed this morning. Mike Shatzkin argues that part of the reason people don’t like the terms of ebook sales is that you cannot actually sell an ebook – just like you can’t really sell any other digital file. Money is changing hands not for an object but for a license to access digital information, and a licensing contract is inherently different from sales in a number of ways.

As he points out, though, publishers have been doing their best to pretend that ebooks work just like paper books, which is confusing for everyone, booksellers and authors alike. I think this confusion might actually be the source of so much of the kneejerk hatred for the frequent claims that ebooks are going to replace print books. It certainly made my emotional reactions make more sense to me. (I freely admit that I am one of those people who hates the idea of paper books going the way of the dinosaurs.)

I think Shatzkin’s article also helps to explain why this overhwhelming destruction of print books by ebooks isn’t going to be happening any time soon. (Publisher’s Weekly reports, at the end of last year, that ebook sales are only about 10-15% of the publishing market at the moment.) An ebook isn’t just a different format of the print book, in terms of what you pay for; it’s an entirely different beast. The advantage of the paperback novel isn’t just the fabled “book smell,” it’s the first sale doctrine, the secondhand book market, the difference between a purchase and a license. And that is far more substantial than the sentimentality we print-lovers are so often accused of.


About Jen Moore

I'm a recent library school graduate in Madison, Wisconsin, looking for a full-time professional job and trying to manage a fulfilling life in the meantime. Oh, and I read. A lot.

Posted on February 15, 2011, in Reviews, The Ebook Wars and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. A good point. As well as it not being a good idea to take an ebook in the bath, you can’t pass it on to a friend when you’ve finished. And goodbye to browsing a second hand book shop. I work at a publishing company (academic books) and we’re currently having a lot of problems with the pictures in our books just not being compatible with the software available. And I hate that kindle and ereader are synonymous in most people’s minds, just allowing Amazon extra ammunition with which to take over the world.

    • I agree wholeheartedly about Amazon’s attempts to take over the world — I’ve collected enough (giveaway and public domain) ebooks that I’m starting to think about an ebook reader just to keep them all straight, but I will definitely not be buying a Kindle.

  2. I will openly admit that I do own a kindle but on the other hand I can’t get ‘into’ it. There is something about the object I just cannot get past and thus, I have only red 1 book on it so far. I don’t even know if it’s charged in all honesty…. My family got it for me thinking it was the ‘best gift for a reader’ and it’s nice, but it’s not the best gift you can buy a reader, at lest not one that likes books. I LOVE sharing books, and buying them second-hand is great as is using the library! This article is timely because I was just having a similar discussion with a friend about ebooks v. books. Thanks for a great post this is a new way to look at the ebook v. book debate for my friend and I! :)

    • You’re welcome! My dad and I have the books versus ebooks debate on a regular basis (which is odd, because he’s actually mostly an audiobook guy), and I try to keep up on new developments and such. But I’ve been interested in copyright and digital licensing ever since I got hooked on Napster in high school…

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