What is the right royalty for an e-book? That’s one discussion, which I indulged in last year, but here’s another question — what’s a sale of an e-book? When readers “buy” an e-book, are they really buying something, or just licensing the right to access something? In what sense do readers “own” their e-books? The truth of the matter seems to be — not that much. Amazon tells you “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider”. Perhaps if you buy an e-book direct from a publisher and plan to read it on your desktop computer without the help of any e-reading device, maybe then you may own something, but probably not. So are we really only licensing access? Probably, and unless you get into one of the rare situations where this does matter, this situation is pretty irrelevant to most readers. Motherboard‘s 2013 story reminds us of the sort of situations which can disrupt your “ownership” of your e-books.

It may mean little to readers, but to authors this all might mean a lot: Copylaw (via The Passive Voice) has an interesting piece on a class-action suit against Simon & Schuster claiming that e-book sales are not sales but licensing deals. As a licensed “sale” the royalty due the author would be 50%, not the lower royalty due on a sale in the traditional sense. This promises to make for an interesting discussion. Of course all that’ll happen in the long run is that publishers will change the wording of their contracts to redefine e-book sales as e-book licenses, and allocate to them a royalty lower than the 50% for other licensed and sub-rights sales. Still, if they succeed in their suit, authors may get a little temporary boost in income.

The negotiation of contracts remains an uneven contest: whoever has more power controls the outcome. It remains the case that publishers tend to have more power than individual authors. Of course, many best-selling authors have enough sales power behind them that they can push for more favorable terms. But this has little to do with this current lawsuit. Powerful authors are no doubt already able to get the royalty they want for their e-books. Will this tip the scales towards self publishing? Maybe a bit, but the arguments in favor of going with a traditional publisher remain what the have always been, and are unaffected by this sale/license discussion. Of course anything which frames the discussion in terms of conflict between authors and publishers cannot be helpful for the publishing industry. In reality their interests are aligned: the more books and e-books we sell the better both parties do.