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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. Fails as a Reference Source

Anybody try to buy books from this weekend? Odds are you had a problem, because in the midst of a scuffle over price points and definitions of publishing, Amazon pulled all Macmillan titles from their site. The books were still available, but only from third-party sellers (meaning your Amazon Prime subscription does nothing for you). Macmillan publishes books under the St. Martin’s Press and Tor imprints, among many others, and is one of the six largest publishers in the US — so basically, Amazon pulled a sixth of their stock. Smart.

And this morning, they caved. Amazon is willing to allow Macmillan their tiered price scale for ebooks, although they object to what they call Macmillan’s “monopoly over their own titles” (Source: NY Times). Setting aside the arguments over how ebooks should be marketed (and whether offering a unique product means you have a monopoly), I wonder what this means for libraries.

It’d be nice to think this had nothing to do with libraries at all, but I’m afraid that’s just not the case. I know I’ve used Amazon any number of times to double-check publication data when a patron couldn’t remember the correct spelling of a name or title. It’s one of the built-in searches in Firefox and Internet Explorer, and some libraries have used Amazon affiliate accounts for a little extra revenue or as a wishlist for books they couldn’t fit into their budgets. (Heck, Koha offers built-in support for Amazon connections.) The perception seems to be that Amazon is making money off this, so it’s in their best interests to be as complete and up-to-date as possible, right?

This is not the first time Amazon has pulled a stunt like this one, although this might have been the biggest. Last year, authors and publishers noticed that LGBT titles weren’t showing up on sales rank pages. Turns out that they had intentionally removed “adult” books from both the main search and the Amazon Sales Rank pages, which carry a remarkable amount of promotional weight. The inclusion of non-explicit LGBT, health reference and sexuality titles in this “adult” category was termed a ‘ham-fisted cataloging error’ and quietly changed. Whether or not Amazon intentionally de-listed these titles, making them difficult to find unless you knew exactly what title you were searching for, the result was that Amazon’s search was definitely not a good way to double-check information for those titles.

What this incident really brings home is that while Amazon sometimes functions as a reference source, particularly because of its ubiquity and ease of use, that’s not what it’s there for. Amazon as a company sometimes — possibly frequently — makes decisions that librarians would not approve of, and if we use Amazon as a kind of substitute Books in Print, we risk running afoul of these corporate decisions. Yes, I know we allknow we shouldn’t use Amazon this way, but how many of us do? I’ve been trying to retrain myself  to link to books on WorldCat or at least LibraryThing or GoodReads before Amazon, but after this, I will be making a much more concerted effort.

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