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How Do I Sell My eBook: Kindle, Rights Management, and First Sale

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on February 11, 2009

Kindle 2Every spring, I look forward to the Stone Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart used book sale. The Catholic girls’ school in my neighborhood fills a couple of gyms with thousands of books and I plow through the bargain offerings for classics and popular fiction that will keep me in reading for months. My wife and I also have a lovely library of classic mathematics books obtained almost entirely from book sales and used book stores.

My passion for old books gets to the one thing I dislike about’s generally admirable Kindle digital book reader, a new version of which was announced Feb. 9 (I’m testing the new Kindle and will have a full review soon.) While I love the look and feel and even the musty smell of old-fashioned books, the Kindle is a pretty good substitute. And the ability to carry an entire library in a device that slips easily into a briefcase covers a multitude of sins.

I’m even OK with the fact that Kindle content is protected by digital rights management software to prevent making unauthorized copies. For obvious and selfish reasons, I believe strongly that authors should be paid for their work. Especially for book authors who are not Stephen King or John Grisham, that’s tough enough even if there’s no way for would-be readers to steal their work.

But what does bother me about the Kindle’s DRM is the fact that once you download a book, it is permanently bound to your Kindle account. The new Kindle lets you share the content if you own multiple units and Amazon says it will make Kindle content available on other devices. But what you cannot do is sell, trade, or give away the book when you are done with it.

U.S. copyright law is grounded in something called the first-sale doctrine. First sale means that when you purchase a protected work, you own it outright and are allowed to dispose of it any way you want. In fact, you can do just about anything you please with it except duplicate it.

Kindle’s DRM takes away my first-sale rights. The same can be said about the DRMs that protect downloaded music (where DRM seems to be dying), videos, and games. But those don’t have the same emotional effect on me that DRMed books do, probably because the trade in used books has been an important part of our culture in the way that selling used audio or video recordings has not. Our culture would certainly be much poorer without Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., or Witherspoon Books in Princeton, N.J., or Manhattan’s Strand Bookstore.

It seems to me that there should be a simple solution to this problem. With all of its technology, Amazon should be able to find a way that I could transfer a Kindle book from my account to someone else’s. It might even be able to set up a marketplace for used Kindle books, though I expect it would want to take a bit of each transaction, eBay style. (Since digital books don’t get dog-eared or marked up and their bindings never break, there’s no reason not to prefer a “used” e-book to a new one if its price is less.)
I suspect that the reason Amazon hasn’t done this has nothing to do with technological limitations. Amazon can only offer books for Kindle at the sufferance of publishers, who want to do anything they can to minimize used book sales. I doubt that the publishers would be willing to license titles to Amazon if it allowed reselling the books or even giving them away.

Amazon has vast and growing clout within the book industry, however, as its share of the retail market steadily increases. It should be able to strike a deal for consumers that protects their first-sale rights. The issue will become especially important if college textbooks start to appear on Kindle, something that is very likely to happen once it becomes practical to offer a larger format version of the device. Students count on the ability to resell texts to offset the staggering cost of the books, which can easily run to hundreds of dollars a semester.

So please, Amazon, do the right thing.

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Reader Comments

Rex Hammock

February 12, 2009 08:43 AM

Ta-dah: You've discovered the feature that makes book publishers so willing to cooperate! Having observed these things for many years, I predict there will be work-arounds to shareing-a-book once it's sold (likely not *from* Amazon), as well as a *legal* means for libraries to lend Kindle formatted books. At some point many years from now, the DRM will disappear. (one way or another)


February 12, 2009 10:55 AM

While I do not doubt there will be a future for books in digital format- which will co-exist with printed material- the kindle is not the product. The problem is paying nearly $400 for a device that will be- shortly- a downloadable app.

Steve Wildstrom

February 12, 2009 11:10 AM

@Daniel--Downloadable to what? The Kindle (or a Sony eBook Reader) is vastly more pleasant to read on than any other sort of device that I have tried. The e-Ink display is a lot easier on the eyes than an LCD screen (except in poor light)and the ergonomics are much more book-like.

Sure, we'd all like to see the readers cost a lot less, but for that to happen, the cost of the displays has to come down dramatically,. That will happen--eventually. For now, though, the only way to lower the cost a lot would be for someone to subsidize the hardware cost, and I don't see that happening.

Howard Robard Hughes IIV

February 12, 2009 10:53 PM

It will never happen in a E-format not for a very long time after the internet settles in.Huge studio`s already take whatever they want and soundscans and satellite wireless techs make for a broke ARTISTE today.UNION or ripped off thats the real market place today.


February 12, 2009 11:19 PM

There is also the theory that Amazon will go the Itunes route and build up enough ereaders to force publishers to distribute no DRM'd content. DRM is pointless because the people that will bootleg will figure a way around it while people that would want to buy a product will choose not to because of the limitations placed on the books.

Publishers, similar to TV networks and the music industry, will not provide non-DRM'd content until a good netork of pirated content is available and forces them to move which will be too late.

Mr. W

February 12, 2009 11:55 PM

Honestly, the big impediment here is cost. How many books can I buy for $400.00? That's sunk cost with a Kindle, before I have anything to read. And there is no price break for the digital version of the media, though the product cost is non-existent. For another $200.00, I an buy a fully functional laptop for the Kindle's price.

I can appreciate the convenience of the form factor, but I'll stick with traditional books for now, since they don't break, are not a target for thieves, and won't become obsolete as soon as the next platform is released.


February 13, 2009 12:03 AM

Amazon would be cutting off its own arm if it setup an easy to use solution for reselling your e-book. In theory, it should be a click of a button on the kindle and the e-book is listed at your quoting price on Amazon (just like it does with physical copies). The only problem is, it is vastly easier to press one button and have paypal send you a check than the hassle of mailing the physical book.

So, eventually when enough e-books are being resold, Amazon will have created tens of thousands of competitors.

Additionally, every single DRM technology worth cr(h)acking has been. Imagine flooding Amazon with hacked books... not so good.

Book Worm63

February 13, 2009 12:29 AM

Right, you have identified a noteworthy issue for the e-book\Publishing industry. The solution to the problem is also easy. If each initial sale, with it's rights can be transferred there is a limited supply of "used" E-books with their specific rights. While price may drop initially the due to over supply of some titles, eventually enough will be sold for prices to return to slightly less or equal to the publishers price.

Publishers can make another revenue stream in the secondary market by allowing only certain vendors like Amazon to permit these "used" sales, for a fee. Amazon would pay upfront to be the only house to have this, the E-Book publishers get the fee money, and they take a percentage of the fees that Amazon collects or rights transfer fees.

Amazon offers the "Used" E-Book club as a special program people enroll in an pay a membership fee, or it could be covered by Amazon in the way of Advertising or search results.

Amazon Gets an exclusive service for Members. Collects fees and or Ad\3rd Part revenue.(Amazon could actually buy the books back themselves and offer them back to their membership club.)

E-Book Houses(Publishers) get Amazon's fees to be the exclusive partner, plus a percentage they collect from the fees Amazon charges members.

Members get lower prices on the current supply of E-Books in Stock, Maintain full DRM, get notified once a "used" E-Book is in stock. In the end save money per E-Book purchase and probably make more purchases of other things as well.

A very large number of existing users would subscribe and new users would jump in like crazy.


February 13, 2009 02:51 AM

The second-hand book trade is important when the cost of making each additional copy of a book is high, since there is a limited number of books to spread around. But when the cost of reproducing a book is reduced to near-zero, as is the case with e-books, then we can just make the books cheaper to buy in the first place, and we won't resent the non-tradeability of the book as much. The key is to drop the initial pricing.


February 13, 2009 02:57 AM

You obviously have never been to a large used CD store like Amoeba or any other retailer of large blocks of used Vinyle and CD. The same thing that iTunes is doing, is the same thing that Kindle is doing. The question is, are we better off for it?


February 13, 2009 03:09 AM

Given the smaller carbon footprint, the savings over the price of paper books (and the trees that went into making them), the convenience of carrying your library in a form factor smaller than any single book - I don't think Kindle 2 will have any trouble selling. Also because anyone can self publish in hours - content that you would never have access to because it wouldn't be "popular" enough will be on Kindle owners menus. I own both an iPhone and a Netbook PC and I wouldn't want to read a book on either of them. First I don't want to use up my phone battery - I have that for calls, and the NetBook takes forever to boot up and shut down, as well as do all that stuff in the background. I can foresee a time where you will keep a Kindle by your Computer so you can look up information on how to do things on that extremely complicated piece of high maintenance machinery. Sometimes you just want to read a book. Everyone grouses about cost, but it works out to be $0.98 a day for 1 year. I spend that on soda. Kindle is going to be a big deal. You'll see.


February 13, 2009 05:42 AM

Look at Rhapsody - you download, but never own. I still think that online retailers like bookswim, which rents books is still the way to go -- beyond just affordability.


February 13, 2009 08:28 AM

Amazon is missing a business opportunity here.

With the kindle, there is no reason Amazon should not be a used book store also.

They could charge a fee to transfer a license to a book from one kindle to the other. Every time the book gets passed around, they charge a fee. eBooks never wear out, so Amazon could charge that fee forever. Also, they could limit the number of times a license can be transferred.

There are a lot of things that could be done, and all of them would ultimately grow the ebook's market.


February 13, 2009 09:14 AM

I completely agree with you: first sale is a huge issue with me, maybe a showstopper. I'm old-fashioned that way: I actually like to OWN the things I buy.

KindleFan -STL

February 13, 2009 09:42 AM

Xackr, you are so right! It will be a big deal. This is no different than the hundreds of dollars (over time) we all had to spend in order to listen to our favorite music in the car when 8-tracks first appeared...and then again for cassette tapes...and then again for CDs. Oh, and let's not forget how much money we've spent to have the convenience of movies in our home...first Beta Max, then VHS, then DVDs.

I am a book fanatic; they are everywhere in my home, so I really had to think about that slice of history potentially disappearing for me. All it took for me to consider a Kindle was carrying around two 600 page hardback books when I was hooked on a book series (I was so close to the end of one book I had to take the next book along on my trip so I wouldn't skip a beat!) I knew there had to be an easier way.

I bought a Kindle in January, and just pre-ordered the Kindle2. The first one is going to my 14 year old grandson who is thrilled to be getting it.

It's the wave of the future...believe it.

Ann Weaver Hart

February 13, 2009 03:05 PM

How long has it been since you were in college? Textbooks often cost hundreds of dollars EACH! I had to budget $500 per semester in the late 90s.

The advantage of Kindle for textbooks will be weight. Publishers are never going to give up their profits on textbooks.


February 13, 2009 03:31 PM

The big hurdle to me here is cost. The reader is way to big an investment which it doesn't appear you will recoup in cheaper books. Also with the DRM you are further denied cost reduction via re-selling and trading books.

I'll stick to the library.


February 13, 2009 05:29 PM

Very interesting article. I've always considered the terms of use to be contracts of adhesion anyway.

I am in line for a Kindle, and meantime am using an iPhone App called Stanza which is pretty good but limited by its size.

I agree that the price of the readers must and will go down. There's probably a natural price point, much as with cell phones - remember how expensive they used to be?

What all these discussions overlook is that we already have "used books" available electronically. They are the ones which are out of copyright. And there are already places on the net where you can get ebook versions of works which are still in copyright, for little or even no cost - including Amazon, which has evidently converted a large number of Project Gutenberg books to Kindle form, but also is selling things like Hemingway for under five bucks.

I think that what might happen is the ebook equivalent of hardbacks moving to paperback - new ebooks will have a high initial "hardback" price, and as the publishers perceive that the market at that price has been saturated, the price will be lowered to the "paperback" price. At some point, the books might be released into the public domain, in order to reach a greater audience - the publisher will just add on an excerpt of some other related but newer ebook to the free ebook, along with an built in link to enable the immediate purchase of that newer book. If every Kindle book sold doesn't contain, at the end of the book, a hyperlink of somekind back to Amazon to buy the next book, someone isn't thinking.

If I were a publisher, I'd be looking to embrace electronic books. I'd provide an immediate download of the electronic version of any paper book bought. I'd look to provide "collector's editions" of such books. I'd provide coupons - buy this paper book and get a discount on the e-version of the author's previous books.

I remember twenty years ago when encyclopedias were migrating to CD - I thought it would never happen and I was wrong, but for the wrong reason. I thought it was because paper was so good, and CDs so cumbersome. What I didn't think about was the internet. How could I - there were no web browsers. And now, the encyclopedia is in our pockets.

Same thing with ebooks. Can you imagine, for example, that a publisher might put all its books "in the cloud" and sell a reader which does not need to store the book? Or for a monthly fee, allows the reader to access any book in the cloud? Or allows the reader to electronically "check out" three books at a time? Can you imagine now what you will be able to imagine five or ten years from now? We could be going through the CD encyclopedia phase for ebooks right now, on the way to a completely different manner of accessing the contents of books.

Steve Wildstrom

February 13, 2009 06:00 PM

@Ann Weaver Hart--a very long time, alas.

It's not clear how much cheaper Kindle textbooks might be. Manfacturing and distribution costs are significant for textbooks, but they don;t account for as much of the price as many people think.

The savings of weight and bulk would be very significant. I have a considerable collection of mathematics texts going back to the late 19th century, and it is astonishing how much bigger textbooks have gotten, considering that what is being taught has baisclaly not changed at all.


February 14, 2009 09:13 AM

What I would like to see is a
"NetBooks" service. Like Netflix, I could get a number of books at a time for a fixed price per month. Of course, it would have to be in addition to purchased books that remain on the reader.


February 14, 2009 10:24 AM

This concept will follow the movie distribution formula --- there will be multiple venues for accessing books, just as there are today. Kindle and its brethren will just be one access point. Subscription services like NetFlicks already exist for books ( offer the same "instant" download as Kindle. The difference it you pay a monthly fee to access a number of books. It resembles a library in that you never "own" the books. Checkout limits are dictated by the magnitude of the monthly fee.

This is where I believe textbooks will eventually end up. The publishers will ultimately opt for the monthly fee from millions of students. It will just take an Amazon to unite the publishers and make it viable.

There will also be room for free distribution as a public serve or for the payout of revenue for online or embedded advertising. Like musicians who make tunes available for free to promote their brand, authors will offer initial works for free to try and build a fan following. Just as my grandson's band publishes on YouTube, I foresee a place on "YouBook" for those who want to try authoring a book.


February 14, 2009 01:49 PM

Amazon allows a user to gift a book up to 5 times, at $3 per gifting paid for by the giver of the book. When a user gifts the book to someone else, that user no longer has control of the book, and has to re-buy it or have it gifted back if they want to re-read. Each gifting counts against the 5-time gifting "life" of the book.

One further restriction is that each account is only able to name 5 recipients, and can only change out those at the first day of each month.

Of course, Amazon doesn't actually allow this. But they should. Until this is corrected, everyone who likes to share a book with a family member will be put off by the Kindle.


February 15, 2009 04:28 PM

The cost of the hardware alone makes it much less attractive and if I am not happy with it, I can't use it in the outhouse like I can a book or magazine. Nor can I line the birdcage with it.

Also lets face it, at the rate of the evolution of the net and electronic devices and the short lifespan of them, how long before Amazon or whoever buys it at some point says "Oh we don't support that any more." then there goes all the money I spent and I can't revisit books I wanted to keep.

Hard copy. The whole way. Kindle has a place as a short term toy. It will break, it will be replaces, it is soft copy.


February 16, 2009 01:21 AM

Has anyone noticed that the price of e-books is quite low? That is due to the fact that not only do they not have printing costs,(you are paying for data transport costs, however), but that the publisher is assured that the book will not be passed on. If you could gift, loan, or pass on a book, it would cost you more.

Benjamin Winters

February 25, 2009 07:33 AM

We should have to option to rent books. A lot of people don't need to own a book after they have read it. This could follow a subscription format like Netflix or a per-item format like the iTunes movie store. I would prefer a subscription format as some books take much longer to read than others, which isn't the case for movies.


February 26, 2009 12:12 AM

Now that Kindle 2 is out, the price of Kindle 1 has dropped a lot. I don’t need the newest version so will save money by buying version 1. My biggest concern is I have a lot of older titles and authors they don’t seem to have available. Are they going to ignore older books unless they are very famous?

I have also noticed they may only have a few titles by an author who has a large backlist, or only have part of a series (I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy and they run to series).
I do like the cost of Kindle books, I listen to NPR and am always hearing about books I would love to have but are too expensive in hardback. I can also afford some newspapers and magazines this way.

Does anyone know if the authors are getting decent residuals? I won’t buy if they are getting ripped off.

Steve Wildstrom

February 26, 2009 07:14 AM

@kkbaker--Amazon's goal is to make every book they sell in print form available on Kindle, but actual avaialability is controlled by the publishers.Why some books by a given author are available and others aren;t is something of a mystery. Authors get royalties from Kindle books as they do from paperbacks, audio books, etc., the amounts depending on the contract with the publisher.


April 3, 2009 03:40 PM

I find it interesting (to say the least) that you write about buying all your books at used book stores and sales, depriving authors of any royalty at all on these "buys," then cry about not being able to sell your Kindle book copies of these authors' books, thus depriving yourself of making a few bucks on them (as well as the authors).


May 16, 2009 10:28 AM

My method - It is very simple to sell your ebooks, Just add the script to your website



August 21, 2009 09:23 AM

iwrot abook .how can i sell it.
thank you

Shawn M

November 2, 2009 03:50 AM

What is wrong with you all? Digital books usually cost much less than paperbacks. No. You should not be able to resell them. If that is what you wish, buy hard copy. I am tired of hearing all the wining about protective software. It's there to keep the thieving portion of our society from stealing from authors who, surprise surprise, write to make a living. It's the same thing with the film and music industries. People don't go out and work for free. They have to eat, same as you.
Do me a favor. Quit complaining. The cost of the books online is nominal. Either buy them, or not. It's your choice. As far as complaining about something that will save countless trees from destruction.......shut the hell up.

Janice C

December 1, 2009 10:28 AM

Barnes & Nobel's e-reader Nook offers the ability to loan a book to someone. I don't understand why Amazon can't do the same with Kindle.

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