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.

26 thoughts on “How The eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights Benefits Authors

  1. Sending this around far and wide… excellent and thoughtful, your essay brings a measure of deliberation to the ebooks and DRM discussion. Keep thinking and writing!

  2. Well done, Andy. Thanks for pointing out how things like first-sale rights are tricky when it comes to electronic books.

    And now, some shameless self-promotion: I mentioned on my blog ( that one of the reasons that ebooks and the HarperCollins/OverDrive controversy are so contentious is because the text is locked into a particular hardware. Breaking the this-software-must-equal-this-hardware paradigm will go a long way towards making ebooks more proliferate; the music industry knows this very well.

    I’d love for libraries and geek librarians to lead the way with new apps and cheap ebook devices. My only concern is that instead of “reverse engineering,” these attempts may be seen as “jailbreaking.”

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    • Thanks, Kim! I was thinking of you when I wrote it based on the conversations on Facebook. It was a case that needed to be made because it is the authors who have a sizable stake in eBooks.

      Let your fellow authors know that I want to hear from them too!

  4. Such a complex issue, this, but you’ve made an excellent case for arguably the most influential audience affected by all of this: the author. While many authors favor the use of DRM (if mostly thanks to misinformation about the causes and effects of piracy), I suspect many more hold libraries in high regard, and the thought of publishers limiting the reach of their books will be disconcerting.

    I was glad to see at least two HarperCollins’ authors speak out against it — Neil Gaiman and Marilyn Johnson — but it’s going to take more focused action and clear solutions to incite any real change. One route might be having agents including riders on digital rights explicitly calling for optimal library distribution. Another might be a Kindle Direct Publishing option via consortia where authors can opt into a patron driven acquisition model.

    Thanks for such a great post. I’ve quickly become a fan of your blog; keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Guy.

      I think you hit on something that is being overlooked at the moment; that authors do have the power to control their own destiny when it comes to content. That they can make it easier for people to access and share with others. It just takes some to step up to the plate and assert that idea.

      There are options here. They just need to be considered, tested, and then implemented.

  5. Pingback: How the Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights Benefits Authors | Digital Book World

  6. Bravo for making the case to authors, Andy. I think too many writers secretly worry about the fact that libraries are out there freely loaning copies of their books and taking away sales….when in fact those loans so often lead to sales and are the best advertising that their books could get. And of course the libraries have *bought their copies!*

    Neil Gaiman’s video is a wonderful thing to have out there, reminding us that readers do not invest in books they don’t know about. Libraries buy books, keep authors alive, and promote a culture of literacy. What will authors do if libraries disappear and/or are shut out of the next format of publishing?

    There is a wonderful market out there for e-books and I think publishers are excited about the possibility of all those impulse buyers. Meanwhile, they are negotiating royalty rates for authors that are unfair, and they are not thinking creatively about ways to make this new format work with libraries. I love your and Sarah Houghton-Jan’s idea to ask for a universal format for e-books (and while you’re at it, can you get the manufacturers of printer ink to settle on one-size-fits-all?) and I’m intrigued by Steve Lawson and Iris Jastrom’s suggestion to have e-books circulate a limited time to each patron, with no renewals, but the option to buy direct from the publisher when they’re due.

    • Thanks Marilyn for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate you doing so. Posts like Steve and Iris’ tell me that librarians aren’t out of ideas for new borrowing or buying schemes; we just haven’t been asked. As someone who deals with an end user, librarians have a pretty decent idea of what people might like in terms of lending or buying schemes.

      In being pro-libraries and pro-author, I’d like to point out that I’m not anti-publisher. I think they offer great services in terms of editing and talent scouting (among other things). But this hamfisted approach to libraries and miserly treatment of authors is really going to put them in a bad spot with both groups. It’s just not a good position because if it continues on we’ll just build around it.

  7. Not many writers would dream up schemes to prevent people reading their books or to require readers to buy the same book several times over. You’ll certainly have the support of the current writing community for the first three of your tenets. Increasingly, I believe, writers will opt to take responsibility for their own e-publishing, not because they can’t find a publisher but because they resent the constraints that the industry is trying to impose on the relationship between readers and writers.

    We’re fortunate to have – in Smashwords – a tool that permits multi-format e-publishing, and it would be relatively easy for authors to create a ‘replacements’ model for lost or broken copies.

    Sharing and selling on? Contentious, I suspect, for many writers, but your points are well-made, and I for one will be altering my copyright notices to take on board your important ideas.

  8. Pingback: The eBook User’s Bill of Rights « Agnostic, Maybe

  9. 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.

    I’m largely in agreement with much of your bill of rights, but I do think you’re a little glib and a lot naive on the topic of reselling someone else’s work.

    As an author who has observed pirates wailing my life is over, where oh where will I find Josh Lanyon’s books now that Astatalk is closed to torrenting ebooks (the idea of actually supporting the author and BUYING a book never entering their heads); as an author whose books are pirated everywhere and in thousands of free downloads; as an author whose entire body of work has been collected illegally, turned into a digital file and sold by a third party for their own financial gain at my expense…I do see a problem.

    And I think if you want authors to get behind this bill and stop actively legislating against you, you need to take into account that authors have fair and genuine concerns here. There’s a incredibly dismissive attitude toward authors in all this, as though our giant and inflated egos kid us into believing we’re losing sales that, in fact, we’d never have had.

    It’s possible that we’re over-inflating the numbers of lost sales in our imagination — and it’s equally possible that you’re underestimating them. You’re also taking it for granted that ten lost sales would mean nothing to a writer, where in fact it could mean the difference between paying the electric bill and not paying it.

    It’s ironic that the concerns of authors seem to be one of the least considered (or respected) points of the equation, and yet without authors, the desires of readers becomes moot.

    • It dawned on me today that the issue is about clarification. The reselling I’m talking about is taking my personal copy and selling to another, not packaging it up and redistributing for sale to thousands of people. That’s the interaction I’m talking about. Does it make it clearer?

      What I am finding interesting is the hostility towards the end user (whether it is libraries or readers) that is on display in some of the comments I have received (not yours, mercifully). If I was a reader and read some of the authors comments that were on this post and others, I’d actually stop reading those authors. Because I’d rather not feel like I’m being treated like a potential criminal with every interaction.

      • I’m an author who gives away hundreds of ebooks. I’m also a book collector (vintage paperbacks) and a devoted supporter of my local library. I have zero problem with my books being shared through Amazon’s kindle program or through a library or even amongst a small group of friends.

        But the viral nature of digital content does change some of the ethics of ownership, and I think that does have to be addressed.

        Maybe I feel this more keenly because I write in a niche market where the percentage of piracy is higher than perhaps in mainstream.

        I’ve seen threads — and heard live — people boasting that they never pay for books. Never. It’s a point of honor with them that they don’t pay for books. I’m not sure where the honor lies in that, but that’s how they view it.

        As someone who makes a living writing, that’s distressing when those people follow up such comments by saying they’re a “fan” of my work.

        Yes, you’re right. This is a difficult subject for many of us, and it’s not easy to try and stay objective. We have copyright laws for a reason and much of digital sharing — at this point in the game — strikes at the heart of those protections.

        Perhaps we’ve finally reached a point in technology where only amateurs and the wealthy can afford to write.

        • Thank you for your comments and your fair minded and objective approach. I think there can be a ‘everyone wins’ balance where authors get paid, readers get books, and libraries get to collect them for posterity. There isn’t going to be a silver bullet to this problem, but talking about it will move the proverbial football down the field.

          And if you were eating dinner with any of those people, I’d confront them on it. You need to put a face on the problem otherwise people do not see the results of their actions. It may not be comfortable, but if you can say, “This actually hurts someone and that someone is ME”, it’s no longer bits and bytes on a computer file. It’s a person, a real live human being.

          In writing the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights, it was to get the ball rolling on bigger issues than simply libraries and eBooks. It was to get authors, readers, publishers, and everyone between to come to the table and work on a long term solution that helps everyone. There may be a series of perfect solutions, but to get people to talk about it the first step.

  10. And if you were eating dinner with any of those people, I’d confront them on it. You need to put a face on the problem otherwise people do not see the results of their actions. It may not be comfortable, but if you can say, “This actually hurts someone and that someone is ME”, it’s no longer bits and bytes on a computer file. It’s a person, a real live human being.

    Of course. But it isn’t just authors who need to speak up. It’s everyone who finds such creative theft abhorrent.

    Most readers do support the arts and literature by paying for the books they read — and bless them for it because authors could not continue doing the work they love without the support of readers. But we’re in the midst of a publishing revolution driven by technology, and if writers and quality fiction aren’t to be one of the casualties of this revolution, there has to be serious consideration of the long range effects of viral sharing.

  11. To suggest a possible solution, would you be willing to read eBooks that had advertising in them? Just as in movies, you might find it jarring at first, but if the story was interesting enough, you’d stop noticing. That way the author would be making something from the advertisers, even if the book is pirated worldwide.
    E-publishers by and large do not pay advances. The royalties are often paid quarterly, and when third-party sellers take their cut, there is often little left for the publisher and author to divvy up. Popular authors like Neil Gaiman who even tour doing book-signings, of course have a different opinion on their books being free-reads, from someone like me who is e-published and working 2 p/t jobs to help pay the bills. I give up sleep to write because I love writing…but then I have to pay for promoting my books because e-publishers don’t. I spend hours on blogs and chat groups, only to find that other people may be making money off of my work by combining it with other romance books and selling them as a package.

    Maybe Josh is right and only amateurs and the wealthy, along with retired folks who don’t need the money, will be able to afford writing. I wonder what that will do to the quality of what is available? It will certainly cut down on variety.

  12. Andy,

    Have you looked at eBay recently? Sellers –who cheerfully admit that they haven’t read an e-book romance for years and have never heard of half the authors they are ripping off– are taking your advice to heart, it would seem, and are burning multiple DVDs and CDs for sale in multiple auctions.

    On eBay, you can find sellers listing “2010-2011 Bestsellers” and claiming that they own the copyright to these contemporary, recent bestsellers.

    I think that you should clarify that what you are suggesting is a wish list, not the current law.

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  15. There is a lot of sense here. I’m an author and a librarian, and as such am against DRM (as evidenced by all the posts at !) I am also interested in the issues of e-book lending from libraries (e.g. see though there are other issues here which I have yet to make my mind up about. The main thing is that the issues are discussed openly, and not left to the decisions and EULAs created by corporations without any consultation with those that love to buy and read books – the readers.

    I think one area I’m not so sure about is the area of reselling an e-book. By all means, if someone buys one, it should be theirs forever. Unlike a physical book it takes up no space, so you don’t have to get rid of them every so often (or buy a bigger house, or even rent storage space for them as one author I know does!) I also believe in keeping the price low. However I tend to think of them as an experience rather than a tradeable good. Every one pays for the experience if they want it. A tricky aspect though, and I am not 100% sure where I stand.

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