This is not one of those rants about missing the texture, touch, colors, whatever of paper contrasted with the sterility of reading on a tablet. No, the real abomination of ebooks is often overlooked: Some are so ingrained in the product itself that they are hiding in plain sight, while others are well concealed beneath layers of commerce and government.
The real problem with ebooks is that they’re more “e” than book, so an entirely different set of rules govern what someone — from an individual to a library — can and can’t do with them compared to physical books, especially when it comes to pricing.
The collusion of large ebook distributors in pricing has been a public issue for a while, but we need to talk more about how they are priced differently to consumers and to libraries. That’s how ebooks contribute to the ever-growing divide between the literary haves and have-nots.
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The same applies to ebooks. We don’t buy them, we lease them. It may be a long-term lease, but a lease just the same. There are limits and restrictions on use for all ebooks, and confusingly, those limits and restrictions vary depending on which company is offering the product.
It’s for this reason that we should stop using terminology like “bestseller lists” — when it really should be “most leased” lists — because that language of physical books reinforces a very dangerous notion of ownership. Buyers of physical books can do whatever they want with them, from loaning to friends as many times as they like to reselling at a used-books store. (Note that when a book owner does this, she gets that money — not the publisher.)
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The other way ebooks reinforce the divide is through their pricing structures. The only ones who win are the big e-tailers, not the authors or even the publishers and definitely not the libraries.
Publishers, too, are subject to the pricing (and other whims) of big e-tailers. This issue was at the heart of the antitrust case between Apple and Amazon, where Apple was found guilty of price fixing for working with publishers to raise the prices of ebooks because publishers were angry that Amazon had set prices too low.
Sadly, pricing changes the game for library access altogether because ebook distributors have radically changed the pricing from that of regular books.
Take the example of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous book, Cuckoo’s Calling. For the physical book, libraries would pay $14.40 from book distributor Baker & Taylor — close to the consumer price of $15.49 from Barnes & Noble and of $15.19 from Amazon. But even though the ebook will cost consumers $6.50 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, libraries would pay $78 (through library ebook distributors Overdrive and 3M) for the same thing.