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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.

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