Three features we'd want in an Amazon used ebooks marketplace

While the ebook revolution has in many cases been a boon for readers, it’s fair to say that the proliferation of Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and assorted other devices has had its downsides, too.

Sharing a book and the ideas it contains, whether it be from friend to friend or from one anonymous reader to another has been nearly impossible in these early years of the digital regime. It’s one of the few places where paper books still have a huge advantage.

The chain of sharing

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my favorite novels. It’s probably not a book I would’ve encountered at all, except that in 1996, my then-roommate picked up a used copy in a box of books he acquired at an estate auction. He brought the box back to our apartment and placed it next to the living room couch; at some point he pulled out Meany and started reading—and became so delighted by the book’s comic moments that he would sit and read passages aloud to me, giggling as he did so.

When he was finished, I borrowed his copy and read it straight through. Within a year, I found a used copy of my own at a local bookstore, bought it cheap, and read it again. And I read it two more times over the next five years—the last time closing it and handing it to a book-loving coffee shop barista as an extra tip for my coffee. A year or so after that, I bought an entirely new paperback copy—this one to be shared with my new wife.

Then the e-reading revolution came along. But though the digital revolution was supposed to ease the flow of information; as far as books go, though, the result has been a constriction.

So when news emerged last week that Amazon had been awarded a patent that would allow the creation of "an electronic marketplace for used digital objects,” including books, music, and video, two thoughts occurred:

• Yay!

• Wait. Who benefits from this? Amazon? The publishers? Will readers get anything more than a gentle discount out of the deal?

Used, but not forgotten

Forgive the cynicism, but one thing that we’ve learned in the digital era is that “ownership” doesn’t have quite the connotations it used to. You might think you “own” that copy of George Orwell’s 1984, but what you really have is a license to that work—and as in all realms, licenses can be revoked, depriving you of access to the stuff you’ve purchased. It’s easy to see an Amazon Used Ebooks Store simply being a way for the company (and publishers) to sell the same content license over and over again, without much real benefit to readers or customers.

That said, there are potential upsides. Here are three features that Amazon could bring to the marketplace that might make a used electronic marketplace into something that benefits readers and scholars for generations to come.

Kindle books can be highlighted and annotated. Those notes should stick with used copies.

All ebooks should retain their marginalia: Any notes, highlights, or other annotations made in an ebook should stick to that license in perpetuity—unless a user purposefully erases their own notes before resale. In the “real” world, lots of people buy books in part because of the marginalia, either out of a sense of nostalgia, or because seeing somebody else’s highlights and notes—like, say, those of one of our founding fathers—can really illuminate a text with fresh perspective. Heck, universities and other other archives often buy an author’s entire library precisely because such scribblings can be useful to future scholars. Such a feature will let ebooks accrue some of the weight that “real” books do, and make the digital versions seem less ephemeral.

Unlimited lending/giving: You can’t give your used ebook to a friend or relative these days; heck, you can barely lend it to them. Amazon does allow users to lend some books—far shy of their entire catalog—to other Kindle users, but every stage of the lending process seems to actively hinder book-sharing. The lending interface is terrible—it essentially requires you to go through your digital library book-by-book—and if you can find a book that allows lending (good luck) the terms are onerous: you can lend a title only once for a term of only 14 days. That short duration makes the feature function a lot like Amazon’s “free sample” offering of book chapters: You can get a taste of a book, perhaps, but you might not be able to get through the whole thing during the limited lending time. The clearly implied message: Why don’t you buy a copy of your own?

Lend an ear: The loan terms for Kindle e-books are so onerous as to be practically useless.

There’s no reason that lending can’t work like it does in the real world: That a lender and lendee workout the length of a loan, during which time the lender doesn’t have access to the contents of the book. And if I want to give you a book outright, with no payment at all, that should also be possible.

(This is where Amazon could establish a real superiority over Apple, incidentally, since both companies compete in the realm of electronic books, music, and movies. So far, at least, Cupertino hasn’t really signalled an interest in letting users share and repurpose iTunes purchases. Some users might opt for Amazon simply to have the security of borrowing or lending a book a year or 10 from now. Certainly, freedom is already one reason I tend to favor Kindle over iBooks for my e-reading purchases: I can read Amazon’s books on my iPad, but I can’t read iBooks on my Kindle. It matters.)

Let a real used marketplace develop: In its pre-Kindle phase, Amazon was actually something of a boon for used booksellers—it hosted (and continues to host) listings from thousands of independent sellers, taking a commission on sales and letting customers rate the sellers in order to govern the reliability of those “outside” transactions.

Amazon, and other ebooksellers like Apple and Barnes & Noble, probably can’t be removed entirely from the used ebook market, since those books are—for now, anyway—largely bound by the prescriptions of digital rights management. But there’s no reason that smart independent booksellers can’t curate and bring diversity to the used ebook market, allowing prices to rise or fall according to demand and reputation.

Ebooks and printed books will never be the same thing; neither will the markets for each. And ebooks have become successful without the sort of market-based secondhand trade that often signals the health of an industry. But for many longtime book lovers, the industry doesn’t feel like a completely organic part of our reading lives, either: Giving people more control over how they lend, share, and sell their used books would be a big step.

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