On Borrowing and Buying e-Books

More on the trend towards the digitisation of books and what that means for culture, politics and society… this time, from George Orwell.

Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…. Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.

Orwell did not forsee the rise of the Amazon behemoth!  Nevertheless, his 1936 essay ‘Bookshop Memories’ is still relevant today (indeed, one might argue that Orwell’s nack for remaining relevant is the source of his greatness).  Our current appeals to tactility-as-a-virtue are there, alongside concerns that the public generally has a taste for low-brow thriillers and romances, rather than classics from the canon.

Elsewhere, he mentions the fact that bookshops were also lending libraries.  In this, I wonder if there is a parallel with Amazon?  Since the early days of the Kindle, we have known that books one ‘buys’ for the machine are actually just licenced.  Three years ago, Amazon remotely deleted all copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four from Kindle devices, a manoever that was at once horrifying and hilarious.  Last month, a Norwegian woman was declared a persona non grata by the company, and all her purchases were deleted from her device without warning.

Since Amazon has the capabilities to do this, it makes sense to view the Kindle not as a book itself, but as a hugely expensive but very powerful library card.  Amazon does actually operate a lending library for its ‘Prime’ customers.  In light of these deletions and revokation of licences, it would be semantically more honest to refer to the entire Kindle enterprise as one big lending library, and then charge accordingly.  This is the model that Netflix and LoveFilm work on for films:  For a monthly fee, you can ‘rent’ films in a similar manner to the old video rental stores.

This semantic change would, in my opinion, also help publishers in their war on unlicenced copying of their work.  At present, there is a dissonance between what the publishers call ‘theft’ and the file-sharers call ‘sharing’.  As Nina Paley puts it in her pro-copying video, ‘Copying Is Not Theft‘:

Copying is not theft,
Stealing a thing means one less left
Copying it means one thing more
That’s what copying’s for

I think a simple change in the language, from ‘buying’ to ‘borrowing’, might change the mentality for those who consume electronic art of any kind.  Avoiding paying a price to ‘buy’ a thing that you have copied seems acceptable.  There is no ‘one less left’ in the process, so it doesn’t feel like stealing.  If this same process was reframed as, say, a ‘copying royalty’ then people might be less willing to avoid the payment process.

Do not expect such a shift to happen any time soon – this idea has a flaw that would make it unacceptable to publishers and to Amazon.  If we modified our language, to speak of ‘borrowing’ and ‘licencing’ rather than ‘purchasing’, the amount we would be willing to pay will decrease significantly.  For example, at the time of writing, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy costs £11.99 on the Kindle. One might pay that to own a book.  But it is unlikely that many people would pay that much for a ‘borrowing fee’.  The language of purchase and objects is inappropriate for the service Amazon is selling, but they maintain the facade because it allows them to charge higher prices.  Yet it is the same sloppy use of language that pyschologically induces people to copy e-Books without paying for them.

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