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Used ebooks: Why your assumptions are wrong and the opportunity is huge

Amazon has a patent and now Apple does too. I'm talking about the techniques both companies might use to let you resell your digital content. They join ReDigi, who already offers a platform to resell your digital music.

Ebooks are next, of course, and the concern I hear isn't so much about the legal aspect but rather the risk of cannibalization. Most publishers seem hung up on the notion that a used ebook sale will mean one less original sale for them. And even if they participate in the used ebook revenue stream, they're concerned that the selling price will be lower, so they'll make less when cannibalization happens. I think that's a very shortsighted view of the opportunity.

This isn't just about lower-priced versions of the original work. It's time to think about the added-value aspects of a used digital content platform.

I've written before about how consumer might be able to resell their highlights and notes. Let's take that a step further. What if someone reads a 300-page business ebook and condenses the key lessons into 10-20 pages? Think of it as the Cliffs Notes, summarized version. Let's further assume that reader bundles their summary with the original ebook they bought and sells it via a used ebook marketplace. Could they charge more for their version? Absolutely.

You're concerned about this being more attractive than the ebook by itself? You should be. But what if the publisher owns this platform? What if all these sales were done directly by them, so they're capturing 100% of the revenue stream and sharing the appropriate cut with the author? Now let's take it another step further... What if that reader isn't just able to sell the one copy they bought, but an unlimited number of copies that come bundled with their summary? The consumer price of this version would be higher than the version with the ebook by itself and the reader who created the summary would receive a portion of the difference between those prices, essentially making them a royalty-based author on the bundle.

Btw, there's no reason the original author couldn't create this summary instead of or in addition to whatever is created in the reader community. In fact, why not open this up to all readers to create their summary of the ebook and let consumers decide which version they want? Use a voting system so that the best summary writers build a reputation and generate the most income.

These summaries aren't limited to written material either. There's no reason video couldn't play a role here. There's also plenty of room for an idea I suggested a couple of years ago: The "VIP Notes Edition." The key is to create a model where author, publisher and summary writer all share in the revenue stream.

So let's stop thinking of the used ebook market as yet another step towards the race to zero content valuation. This is different from the used print book market and it represents some very interesting opportunities for publishers who are willing to embrace a new model.



Doesn't this assume that the reader who adds value/content for resale can sell more than one copy? I agree that publishers, if they got into eBook retailing, could partner with authors to promote value-added editions of eBooks, share proceeds with authors--if that's what you're envisioning here.

Joe Wikert

Peter, I'm tossing a couple of options out here for consideration. The first is the traditional one that comes to mind where a reader buys one copy and can resell that one copy. What I'm saying is that there could be another model where the reader adds some great value and the publisher creates a platform where that reader can now resell to multiple other consumers. Assuming the publisher gets a cut that's similar (or maybe even identical) to what they make when they sell the original version, why should they care? So in this model, maybe the ebook was originally $9.99. If the reader creates a summary version and bundles it with their original version they might sell the two together for $14.99, for example. Where it really gets interesting though is when the publisher lets that summary writer sell multiple bundles of their work. The first one might have one set of terms but the second and anything thereafter would pay the publisher the $9.99 while the summary writer keeps some portion (or all) of the other $5 for the bundle.

Marilynn Byerly

All these ideas are predicated on the belief that copyright will allow this. It won't. According the US Copyright Office, "First Sale Doctrine" doesn't apply to digital goods.

Unless the copyright laws are rewritten or the court makes a really bad decision in the ReDigi case, no one will be able to sell/license a "used" ebook.

As to customer-added value, if this happens, does this mean those of us who write fiction have to look forward to readers "improving" our books by inserting porn or rape or nonsense into our stories? Oh joy.

Joe Wikert

Marilynn, yes, there are legal obstacles in the way of all of this right now. I'd like to think we can bring copyright and licensing legalities into the digital era, so I'm optimistic we'll figure that out. I just hope it happens in my lifetime.

Regarding your concerns about porn and other unwanted content into your work, if the publisher owns the platform they should plan on curating that community content, not just leaving it open-ended for anything to appear.


Thanks, Joe. I get it. Very interesting and a great conversation to have right now, as eBook platform lock-in and DRM is really weaking publishers already weak position with both eCommerce sites and self-published authors.

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