Last week Amazon announced Kindle MatchBook, a program that allows users to buy a digital copy of a physical book they purchased through Amazon. This applies to new book purchases as well as your entire order history back to the dawn of Amazon. The Kindle versions will cost just $1 – $3 or free, depending on the deal struck with the publishers. This is a feature e-book lovers have wanted for years, though many didn’t think it would ever happen. This is a testament to how much clout and influence Amazon has in the book world, and may lead to something similar over at Barnes & Noble. However, don’t get your confetti out just yet-there’s a fly in the ointment.
The MatchBook program will only apply to books where the publisher has opted in. Depending on how many book you bought and who put them out, your entire purchase history may not be available. And then there’s the sadness that this only applies to Amazon books. If you have shelves and shelves of paper books you bought from other booksellers, second-hand bookstores, or borrowed from friends, you won’t be able to get legal digital copies on the cheap. What’s a book lover to do?
While there are no other services out there offering to let you purchase a low-cost electronic version of a book if you prove you own the paper version, there are book scanning services. These are quite popular in Japan (well, among readers. Not so much among authors and publishers) and at least one Japanese company brought the idea to America. At 1DollarScan you can send in books to have them digitized for about $1. The downside is that the scanning process destroys the book-they cut off the spine to send the pages through an automatic feeder. The paper is recycled, so there’s that.
Book owners can purchase extras like higher quality scans and OCR (image-to-text) embedded in the final file. 1DollarScan sends a PDF, which is readable on most e-readers. And it’s easy to convert that to EPUB format. Scans are checked for accuracy, and the service can keep the physical book pages for a few weeks just in case you need a re-scan.
Illegally downloading copies of them
If the very thought of destroying a book makes you break out in hives, the only other solution right now is the technically illegal one: finding the electronic version of a book you own on torrent/pirate sites and downloading it. While many an author and publisher would balk at this, Randy Cohen, who runs The Ethicist blog at the New York Times, feels that it’s okay to do, legality aside.
“An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal,” she writes. “But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.”
When he gave this advice three years ago Cohen got yelled at from almost every quarter… except for people who love e-books. Back then the very idea of giving people digital copies for free just because they bought the physical version was seen as absurd by content distributors. Now Blu-rays and DVDs regularly come with legal digital copies attached.
The book industry is facing the same pressures as the music, TV, and movie industries are. And, just as we’ve seen before, it may take the realization that they can’t stop pirating to force change. Most people would rather not go through the hassle of searching pirate sites or sending their books off to be destroyed, but they will if they have no other options.
The first step…
MatchBook is the first step toward making the physical with digital copy the norm for books. It wouldn’t be surprising if Amazon came up with a way for people to send in physical books in exchange for a free or cheap digital copy that doesn’t destroy the book. Wouldn’t it be nice if books were donated to schools and libraries? Not that we’re holding our breath for such a thing. It would be too much like right.