Trust: the Economics of Ebooks

IMG_7670 In this season of buying, selling, celebrating, advertising…I’d like to take a moment to talk about ebooks. The market of ebooks actually reveals some profound facets of our philosophy, and points to the worldview that underlies our actions.

From the prices of ebooks (for which I’ll direct you to Jordan Smith) to DRM (which I’ll explain in detail), how authors and readers interact matters – both to how readers view writers and their works, and to how writers are compensated for the toil and tears they put into creating their book.

You Buy It, You Get It

When you buy a copy of my medieval adventure Sons of the King (ahem), you get the option to get the ebook version at no additional cost (AKA free). After all, suppose you took your hard-earned dollars from your day job in the munitions factory and spent them on the Sons of the King paperback – then, in the middle of chapter nine, your family takes off to the beach for vacation and you don’t want to haul your paper-and-ink to-be-read list along. Problem solved: you can take your ereader (Nook, Kindle, iPad…) and keep reading Sons of the King. Because, I mean, you paid good money for that book! You should be able to read it wherever/however you want!

Further, I’ve chosen for my ebooks to be DRM-free. Digital Rights Management (DRM) software is designed to protect the intellectual property of authors by locking up the digital versions of their books and restricting what readers can do with it. However, it really sucker-punches readers and makes it harder to enjoy ebooks.

You Buy It, You Might Get It

For instance, imagine your aunt and uncle get you a Nook for Christmas (it could happen).  You go online and find a free ebook on Amazon (such as In Between, or 1964), and download it, all excited to start reading.

Amazon sends you the book as a .mobi file (this is the Kindle file format). All right – you can read in with the free Kindle reading app (available from Amazon), as long as you have the latest version of the app. If you don’t, because 1) you haven’t downloaded and installed it yet, or 2) you can’t install it because your computer is too old, then…too bad.

What if you want to transfer the ebook to your Nook and read it there? If you have a Kindle, no problem – but what if you have a Nook instead? Then, you can load the ebook file into a free program like Calibre and use Calibre to automatically convert the ebook from .mobi (Kindle format) to .epub (Nook format), then send it to your Nook. Once it’s in .epub format, your Nook can read it fine.

UNLESS it’s DRM-locked. Then, you can’t convert in from .mobi to .epub – the DRM program is like a little Gestapo soldier who prevents you from tampering with the ebook file. You’ll have to go buy a Kindle, or upgrade your computer to run the latest Kindle reading app, or forget about reading the dumb little ebook you got for FREE from Amazon.

There are programs (some of them free) that can unlock DRM, allowing you to convert the files for whatever device you have. I won’t name them here, because it’s technically not kosher – but there are work-arounds. There shouldn’t have to be, though.

You see, it’s the principle of the thing. If you buy something, it should be yours. That’s why you get both versions of Sons of the King when you pay for the paperback – it shouldn’t matter how you want to read it.

Maybe you bought my ebook, and uploaded it to your Kindle, then dropped your Kindle over the side of the boat, and your grandma felt bad and bought you a Nook to replace it (don’t blame her, she doesn’t know better). Should you have to re-buy all your books because you need a different file format? No – that’s stupid! You already paid for my ebook – what’s it to me whether you want to read it on your Nook and Kindle and desktop and iPad…?

After all, you wouldn’t, say, copy-and-paste my entire novel and then send a free copy to all your friends. You’re not like that. I trust you. That’s how this works.P5160012

Trust. It’s How Economies Work.

Writing, buying, and reading ebooks is an economy, and all economies run on trust. Command economies (such as in the former Soviet Union) don’t work very well, because the citizens can’t trust the government to send them their proper pay, the factories can’t trust the suppliers to get them the raw materials they need, the government officials can’t trust their superiors…

In the western capitalistic societies, however, we trust our bosses to pay us, because otherwise all their workers would quit (and they’d probably face a class-action law suit). The store owners trust their customers to pay them, because otherwise they’d report them to the police for shoplifting. The police trust the city to pay them, because otherwise the city officials are going to get voted out of office next election cycle.

Whatever the reason, unless we trust each other we can’t do business. This is eloquently expressed in this article on why stories need moral centers – but I digress.

I trust you to buy my ebook if you want to read it, and use it for your own personal reading pleasure. If you decide it’s the best thing since Dorothy Sayers (!) and all your friends MUST read it, you can buy all of them their own copy, because that’s the decent thing to do.

You trust me to sell you a book – not the license to read my work until I change my mind, not a limited-time access card to my intellectual property: an honest-to-goodness book. Just because it might be composed of bytes and code instead of paper and toner doesn’t change the fact that it’s a product, and you’re buying it. After all, what if Amazon went out of business (it could happen)? No more updates to the Kindle reading app. Would you still have access to all the .mobi ebooks you “bought”?

If I trusted you to resist photocopying the paper copy of my book to give to all your friends (or circulate in the paperback black market), I can trust you to not make digital copies of the ebook to distribute that way. Because that’s what makes this work: trust.

That’s why I’ve refused to DRM-lock my ebooks. Because you should have the choice to read your books you buy wherever/however you want. You trust me to do that, and not yank the rug out from under you.

Placing draconian locks on an author’s ebooks doesn’t make much sense, but it makes even less sense when the book is permafree to start with. They’re already making their book free all the time – presumably to spread their work and draw people in. Why would they cast a shadow on their brand by putting up these roadblocks to readers’ convenient reading of their books?

You can keep trusting me to treat the books you buy as yours. In the same way, I’ll continue to trust you to pay for what you get, and treat me and my labor with respect. Here’s to being trustworthy!


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Kimia Wood has been making stories since she was little, and loves bringing imaginary people to life. You can find out more about her works under the “Books” tab, and/or subscribe to the mailing list (where we explore books from a multitude of genres).

One thought on “Trust: the Economics of Ebooks

  1. Pingback: Author’s Guild Rails at Amazon’s Buy-Box |

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