As Good As New: ReDigi Plans to Start Selling Used E-Books

Could a new kind of market for books help save the business? This local company thinks so.

selling used e-books

Photo by iStockphoto. Photo illustration by Scott M. Lacey.

Here’s something to ponder: What if there’s money to be made in selling used e-books? A Boston startup called ReDigi plans to start doing just that this summer, using the model by which the company began selling used digital music in 2011.

The key, says ReDigi’s CEO, John Ossenmacher, is software that gives digital goods “physicality.” ReDigi wants to take legally purchased e-books off your computer, digitally watermark them, and then store them on a cloud-based server. Once you sell a certain title, your access to that file would be blocked.

The notion of “physicality” is critical to ReDigi’s legal viability. If you truly own your e-book files, the company argues, you should be able to resell them, just as you can resell a regular book. Capitol Records doesn’t buy that idea when it comes to music. The company sued ReDigi in 2012, claiming there is no way to transfer files without copying them. On March 30, a district court judge sided with the record company, though ReDigi plans to appeal and says it will move ahead with its e-book market.

Meanwhile, publishers are wondering what the new market would mean for them. “Why would anyone purchase a new e-book at a higher price when they could buy the same thing for less?” asks Allan Adler, of the Association of American Publishers.

One reason, Ossenmacher says, is scarcity. If ReDigi can define an e-book as a physical object, a buyer can purchase a used title only if a seller has made it available. Plus, neither publishers nor authors derive income from the existing multibillion-dollar used-book market. With digital used books, ReDigi plans to deliver copyright holders a cut of each resale.

Legal issues aside, many analysts feel these markets are almost inevitable. Amazon has acquired a patent for its own used-digital-media market. Already, each Amazon book page has a space for the price of a used Kindle edition. It’s still blank—for now, anyway.