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DRM concerns on ebooks are overblown

13 Jul

I had a lively debate with a fellow author on Twitter yesterday after I linked to a story about ebook payments on The Guardian’s website. The story was about how the UK Society of Authors is seeking either an increase on their ebook royalties, or a limitation on the length of such deals. The debate, though, went in many directions.

In a nutshell, authors are typically getting 25% of ebook sales from their publishers. That’s considerably better than the six to 15% we get on printed books, but as the society says in the Guardian story, the ebook rate should be higher still because there are virtually no costs for the publisher. There are, after all, no warehousing or distribution costs associated with selling an ebook.

The authors group therefore either wants 50% of sales, or they want ebook contracts limited to two years, whereupon writers would be free to renegotiate terms. The real foundation of their argument is that if authors don’t get more return from their work, the big names will soon find it preferable to go into business for themselves, which will be bad for everyone – something I’ve been saying for a while. As the society’s chair says:

It’s a danger publishers need to recognise and a danger for writers as well. If JK Rowling controls her own ebook rights [then] there’s less money for her publisher to invest in new authors. We could face a situation of very big-name authors pulling the ladder up after them [and] we have a stake in seeing a healthy publishing industry.

I couldn’t agree more, and that’s without the story even addressing the elephants in the room: Amazon and Apple. Both companies are offering authors royalties of 70% to self-publish through them. I’ve gone on and on before about how appealing that is to both established and newbie authors.

But Kevin McArthur, a web developer in B.C. and author of Pro PHP – a book aimed at software developers – didn’t agree. He pointed out that there were tons of people involved in helping him put his book together, from editors to designers and so on, and that they deserved their cut.

True enough. Certainly there were agents, editors, designers, artists, publicists and even truck drivers involved not just in the improvement of Sex, Bombs and Burgers, but also in making it possible at all. Surely they all deserve a piece. The question then becomes (and I’m far from the only creator to have asked this): how much of a piece should they get?

The answer depends on how you value each role in the project. How much weight should each be given? I’m of the obviously biased mind that the creator should get the majority of the weight, since without him/her there is no pie to divide up. There’s also the issue of how much time and effort each role contributed. It took me two years to research and write my book, the editors a few weeks to edit, the artist a few hours to design a cover for, and the truck driver a few minutes to load and unload.

By that measure, the author should clearly be getting the lion’s share of the cut. But, as with every other creative industry, somehow books evolved into completely the opposite set-up. The creator, despite doing most of the work, gets a relatively small portion of the take. Somehow the distribution of the work has been deemed more valuable than the work itself.

This is why the self-publishing options on Amazon and Apple are so appealing to so many; they finally nudge the work-to-reward ratio in the right direction. Much of this is made possible by the elimination of a whole bunch of physical obstacles, such as the need to pay for shipping or retail space.

There are obviously many challenges to self-publishing and it is certainly not for everyone. Authors who choose to self-publish will likely have to find and pay someone to edit their book, to design their cover, and/or to publicize the whole thing, all of which will eat into that 70% royalty. But the benefit of what Apple, Amazon et al bring to the table is that they give authors the option to earn more if they’re willing to do more. Ultimately, there is room for both models and I’m excited about being able to take advantage of both.

My debate with Kevin didn’t end there, though, as it veered onto a topic that all such conversations between tech nerds inevitably come to: copyright. Kevin took a position that was rather opposed to the likes of Amazon and Apple and their designs on the book market. In a nutshell, there are many people who are worried about the future of books as they dive further into the digital world, and that companies such as Amazon and Apple are exerting too much control through copy-prevention technologies known as digital rights management, or DRM.

In light of that conversation, I thought I’d try to address some of the concerns regarding DRM and ebooks, many of which I think are unfounded. I’m no fan of DRM, but when it comes to ebooks, I think the issue is a bit of an overblown boogeyman.

I don’t want to buy ebooks from Amazon because they come with DRM and won’t work on other e-reader devices.
This is a common criticism that stems from a belief that Amazon wants to dominate the e-reader market with its own Kindle device. Mark my words: if Amazon is smart (and I believe it is), the Kindle device will soon be discontinued. The market Amazon wants to dominate is book-selling, not hardware-selling. The Kindle reader was just an attempt to jumpstart that market. Now that real electronics companies such as Sony and Apple are making readers, it would be really, really stupid for Amazon to go head to head with them. Continuing development on the Kindle hardware would be a major financial drag on a company that otherwise does all its business digitally. That said, it makes every kind of sense for Amazon to be on as many devices as possible.

But Amazon still sells books with DRM?
So what? Amazon has released the Kindle app for Apple’s products (iPad, iPhone, iPod), Android phones, BlackBerry phones and the PC. Anything you buy through the app on any one of those devices is instantly accessible on any of the others. There are even nifty little bonuses, like the ability to bookmark your page on one device and pick up where you left off on another. You may not be able to technically copy your book from one device to the other, but if you have universal access to it, does it really matter? I suspect the companies that will succeed in the ebook market are those that try to address the widest possible market by going for as many devices as possible. Those that try to keep things proprietary are not likely to do well because they’ll be limiting their market.

But doesn’t this put Amazon in charge of the books you bought and paid for?
Sort of, but that’s only bad if you’re a paranoid anti-corporate type. Competition will keep Amazon from doing anything bad to your stuff – if they mess up, you’ll take your business elsewhere and lawsuits (probably class actions) will follow. Pissing off your customers is just bad business that’s usually reserved for telecommunications companies.

What about Apple? They also sell books with DRM.
Yes, Apple’s iBooks store does sell some books that will only work on Apple products. Apple has, however, adopted the ePub open standard which, in theory, means its ebooks should be readable on most other devices. In practice, Apple is up against a number of tough competitors (including Amazon). Apple will have to make its ebooks readable on other devices, similar to how it made iTunes work on PCs, if it wants to have a hope in hell of competing against them. Same goes for anyone else selling ebooks.

I can’t resell an ebook, especially one with DRM.
That’s probably true, but if the ebook is priced correctly (read: considerably lower than the printed version), that shouldn’t be an issue unless you’re really, really cheap. You also generally can’t resell the albums you buy on iTunes, even though you could resell CDs, but nobody seems to be complaining about that.

I can’t loan an ebook to a friend, especially if it’s got DRM.
True, but if you really want to loan someone an ebook, you have two options: lend them your e-reader with the book on it, or download a pirated copy.

Isn’t that illegal?
Possibly, but what’s the real difference between sending your friend a pirated PDF of a book and giving them your printed copy?

Isn’t the Canadian government’s proposed copyright reform legislation, Bill C-32, and its clause that would make it illegal to break DRM placed on an ebook, bullshit?
I realize that some of what I’ve said here makes me sound like Heritage Minister James Moore, who has argued that “market forces” will alleviate all concerns with DRM. To some extent, I agree with him – the ebook market is still very nascent but it’s got a lot of people salivating over it. I do think it’s going to be a no-holds-barred fight to grab commanding positions (there’s already evidence of this – new feature announcements have been coming fast and furious from various players recently), so I suspect “market forces” really will result in favourable outcomes for consumers/readers. Where I come into total agreement with fellow Canadian author Cory Doctorow and call “bullshit” on C-32 is in how the bill is supposedly all about protecting creators’ rights. Doctorow and Moore had an awesome back and forth on Twitter about this issue a little while back, but to summarize the creators’ position: if C-32 was all about protecting our rights, why are distributors such as publishers and technology companies such as Apple and Amazon being given legal protections for locks they choose to put on the works that we own? In other words, the copyright to Sex, Bombs and Burgers belongs to me – why should anyone but me have the right to lock it down? Amen on that one. Let’s be honest – the copyright act, whatever its flaws or merits, isn’t about protecting creators’ rights, but rather about preserving business models.

All of this said, DRM on ebooks is already an issue that’s being addressed by those supposedly almighty “market forces.” I suspect it’s going to get even better for buyers. Could things get worse in the long term once the market shakes out into winners and losers? Of course, but we should probably cross that bridge if and when we ever come to it.

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Posted by on July 13, 2010 in amazon, apple, books, copyright, internet

 

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