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Will there be an Oxfam for second-hand eBooks?

August 9th, 2010 by karenmartin


Thing of the past? Oxfam books in (l-r) Huddersfield, Leamington, London

Over the weekend I found myself thinking – what if eBooks (for eBook readers not the bookleteer type of eBooks..) become the dominant way of reading? What will this mean for people who buy secondhand books?

It’s clear that many people are thinking about the possibilities of secondhand eBooks – and that this fits in with the 3 ways of sharing I wrote about last week. In their posts Nick Harkaway on Future Book and Chris Meadows at teleread discuss how secondhand eBooks aren’t currently possible because of their intangibility (when you download an eBook you essentially ‘lease’ the code which you can’t legally pass onto anyone else) and because secondhand eBooks are indistinguishable from new eBooks (so their value doesn’t decrease in the same way over time). Which is very interesting but I feel it doesn’t really address the potential social effect of increasing dominance of eBooks except to mention that the lack of secondhand eBooks is bad news for second-hand booksellers. And that’s true.. but I think it’s also bad news for second-hand book readers..

What if you can’t afford full-price books? Textbooks especially can be prohibitively expensive and often aren’t needed for more than the duration of the course. At the moment the cost of the book can be regained in part by selling the book on when you graduate. This option will be lost.. As will the option to buy a secondhand textbook for less than full-price. Or what if you’re a teenager beginning to explore the wide world of literature – secondhand bookshops are fantastic sources for classic books at low-cost. Will eBooks be able to match this? Not to mention of course that the teenager would have to be able to afford an eReader in the first place..

Perhaps this will all work itself out in the future when the entire publishing / reading experience has become digital and eReaders are as accessible as library cards. However, I imagine there’s going to be a transition before this happens that might need to be negotiated if secondhand book readers aren’t going to lose out.

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