This week, online seller Amazon announced that it would begin selling books in the form of one-off copies printed onto paper. The question is, is this a viable business model or just a passing fad?
When the new format was announced, there was much puzzlement. A modest library, of say 1,000 books, currently fits onto a memory card the size of a fingernail. In the new format it would take up a whole room. Who would want that?
For booksellers though, there are many advantages to the new format. For example, because copyright only lasts for a limited number of years the vast majority of all the books every written are now out of copyright. This is why the electronic versions of these books are free. But you can print and sell a paper version for the same price as a new book and just keep the money that would be paid to the author.
There is also the issue of re-selling. Paper copies are not only damaged by the reading process, they eventually rot even if they are not read. They can also be, lost, burnt or even stolen. As a result of these things, consumers will eventually be in the position of having to buy a new copy even though they have already paid once!
This has already led to speculation of a backlash from authors and consumers.
It is my opinion though that there is an even greater flaw that will sink the new format: piracy.
Quite simply, because of the nature of the new format there is no possibility of Digital Rights Management. Forcing each customer to add their name or photograph their copy is all very well, but who would police it?
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that sooner or later these paper copies will change hands. People will sell books to each other and not one single penny of this sale will go to the publishers, let alone the authors. The owners will sell the books on to reduce clutter and get some of the purchase money back. People will buy them because not only are they they are cheaper than legitimate copies, but there is no delivery delay. There may even be people who lend, share purchase price or just give copies away. Either of these is a lost sale (and therefore a theft) from the publisher. And let us not forget that this sort of thing funds terrorism.
Furthermore, I foresee that this problem can only get worse. Somebody who has purchased a pirated book is less likely to have any moral qualms about selling it on. Even now our children and young people might be being exposed to sinister 'book clubs'.
Experience of MP3s has shown that the more pirating occurs, the more acceptable it becomes. So, although pirated books my start out as furtively exchanged black-market items they will eventually become common place. Charity shops would of course avoid them but not all shops will be so ethical. I predict that criminals, operating from small premises in obscure side-streets will eventually sell them openly!
It is even possible to imagine the nightmare scenario of a 'Public Library'. Allow me to explain. This would be a building containing legitimately purchased copies of books that anybody could go and read. Once established, their popularity would be such that Police and Government would have no choice but to look the other way. If only one of these were successfully established they would spread to every city. So many people would have access to them that the entire publishing industry would collapse.