How The eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights Benefits Authors

About a week ago, Sarah and I posted the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights. We’ve watched it bounce all over the blogosphere much to our mutual delight. But there has been a recurring question in some of the discussions as to what this document would mean to authors. I will try now to explain how authors would benefit under the terms outlined in the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights. Here’s my breakdown:

the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations

As a librarian, I have a carefully honed monologue to inform people who come to the library why or why not their chosen ereader device will be able to download eBooks or audio eBooks. (At present, the Kindle one is the shortest at “Sorry, no can do”. The iPod is the longest since it starts out with a short shopping list of programs needed and permissions required.)  I am the de facto technical support for these devices and yet I am left holding the bag when it comes to explaining the convoluted jargon of Digital Rights Management, proprietary devices and software, and why’s and how’s of loading content into their devices. Now, imagine this interaction happening beyond the walls of the libraries as people look to purchase eBooks.

As an author, these limitations do you no favor when your readers cannot access your literature. When the effort eclipses the reward, people will forgo the attempt to get your work on their ereaders in favor of easier fare. I have seen people give up on trying to download library eBooks; I would hope that they would not give up on authors as easily.

the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses

Ebooks should transcend platforms. What you buy on the iBookstore or the Kindle should be readable on the Nook or Kobo and vice versa. Ebooks should be platform neutral and portable. As an author, in order to reach the widest audience possible, your books should be able to travel wherever your audience wants them to be. You’ve put in the hours and the hard work; why should something like software or technology get between your prose and the reader?

the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright

At present, there is an inconsistent ability to do any of these aspects across all of the devices and eBooks. While fair use and copyright should be respected, these limitations work against the reader and their interaction with the text of the eBook. They stifle potential discussion regarding book passages by the inability to copy and share with others. They frustrate the reader by disallowing annotations about significant passages and recording their thoughts or reactions. Finally, in preventing the printing of parts of the eBook, they keep the words in a virtual space when the intention of printing is to share with others for further discussion or commentary. Think of every work space you’ve ever seen where a line of poetry or novel passage has hung; that is one of the beneficial aspects that this is preventing. People find significance in those words and make them part of their daily life. The prevention of printing usurps that urge.

Again, while copyright and fair use should be observed, authors should be mindful of accommodating the habits and actions of their readers that have grown out of print editions of their materials over many years.

the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

Now, I will admit this is the tricky one that has gotten people tripped up over this document. Retaining and archiving are common practices for people with software; it allows them to make a backup copy in case something happens to the original. There shouldn’t be a problem with that as it ensures the future of the eBooks that they have purchased.

As to sharing, I’ll put it this way: authors benefit from sharing. Neil Gaiman makes a note of it specifically in his Open Rights Group video where he asks audiences how many people found their favorite author through a friend lending them a book as opposed to buying it at a bookstore (I’ve linked to the specific part of the video). The American Library Association has a 2007 study which shows that people who borrow books are likely to buy those books for themselves or purchase them as gifts for others. Libraries are an integral aspect of word of mouth marketing for authors.

“Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising. The forces unleashed by new media technologies seem to have never changed the truth behind this age-old wisdom dating back to the times when human culture was largely oral.” (ComCorp) With the new communication and social media possibilities, people are not simply telling their immediate friends and family about books; they are telling everyone about books. People are sharing the books that they love through sites like Facebook, LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, and their own blogging. The Twitter hashtag #fridayreads (up for a Mashable award for Best Internet Meme) shows how people can make recommendations for books to their followers and to the people who follow the hashtag. That recommendation carries weight with others as depicted by this survey from eMarketer and presented as this graphic:

The 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer survey shows that 90% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know and 70% trust fellow consumer opinions posted online (think #fridayreads, sites like Goodreads, and Amazon/B&N user book reviews). This 2010 Guardian/ICM survey gives similar supporting results of this trust in others (especially question 4).

Sharing eBooks would be word of mouth on steroids for authors since it means  making a recommendation and the ability to put the book almost instantly in the (virtual) hands of another. Sharing is not a lost sale, but a new marketing foray into a previously unrealized potential fan.

As to the question of eBook re-selling, I will admit that I do not have a perfect answer on this point. If there was a limited DRM system that would enable people to do so (ensuring that the old copy is destroyed while transferring a copy to the new owner), I think it would be a fair trade-off to confer ownership and greater content rights.

My primary concern is less about re-selling and more in regard to people being given control over their own reading content. While I’m hesitant to engage in what may be construed as hyperbole, I appeal to you to consider the emotional connections to your own personal libraries and the importance of every book that you have selected to be a part of it. I would implore authors to consider how they would consider outside removals or modifications on your own book collections. Ownership matters, quite frankly, and it is an expression of intellectual pride.

As it concerns the passage of text that followed the rights in the initial document, I personally believe in every word written there. I believe authors can flourish when their work is available on the widest range of media and when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access and share with others. I believe in creating the best possible market for authors to live by and thrive. I also believe eBooks are an important new part of the greater cultural cornerstone of society; and I believe that a document like the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights works towards that goal.

For myself, there are farther reaching issues at stake here since the written word lives on long after our bodies have turned to dust. As a librarian, I strive to preserve the work of authors for future generations. It is a matter of great import and one I do not take lightly. It only gets more complicated when eBooks are locked behind formats and proprietary ereaders. It is my hope that the actions we take today will cultivate a vibrant literature market while increasing access to readers and allowing libraries to maintain their traditional societal role in maintaining the literary and cultural record.

I thank the authors who came here to read this post. I hope I made the meaning of the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights and the benefits authors would derive from it a bit clearer and show that it was constructed around the best of intentions. I welcome any author feedback on this post so that I can further refine the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights.