On April 4, the Pew Research Center's released an extensive report on the country's e-reading habits as part of its Internet and American Life project. It is, as is oftentimes the case with Pew reports, quite interesting and exceedingly bland. (You can find an introduction to the Pew report here; the full report is also available online or as a free download.)
Which gave me an idea: Why not tap into our collective brainpower and organize a roundtable? Which is exactly what I did. Today's entry is the second in a three-part series; the first entry, "Crap futurism, pleasure reading, and DRM," ran yesterday.
My role was mainly one of gentle facilitation; the other participants are the inimitable Mr. Zimmer, who, in addition to being the DtU fall guy, has extensive experience in publishing both "traditional" and e-books; Maia Szalavitz, who has written about memory and e-books; and io9's Annalee Newitz, who was already a e-reader vet by the time the Kindle came on the scene. The final entry in the series will run tomorrow. Enjoy! --Seth Mnookin
Seth: Carl, as someone who has written “traditional” print books and dedicated e-books, I’m curious if your thoughts about Amazon changed over the past few years--because mine definitely have. David Carr’s recent column in the Times, about how the DOJ should have gone after Amazon, not Apple, if it wanted to take on a monopoly threatening the book business, is just the latest data point that has me wondering whether I’m contributing to my own demise by patronizing Bezos’s warehouse of goodies.
I’m also curious as to whether you find Stross’s argument convincing -- because I’m not sure I do. Do you really think we’re on the brink of Amazon letting Kindle books out of the garden?
Carl: Stross is arguing that the only way for big publishers to escape Amazon’s lock is to give up DRM (digital rights management), so that you can read their ebooks any way you like, much like you can with a pdf file. A DRM-free ebook would be readable on your laptop, on your iPad with all kinds of apps (not just iBooks), on your Sony Reader (if you still have one), or, yes, even on your Kindle.
Here’s how Stross sees it:
The point is, the big six publishers' Plan B for fighting the emerging Amazon monopsony has failed (insofar as it has been painted as a price-fixing ring, whether or not it was one in fact). This means that they need a Plan C. And the only viable Plan C, for breaking Amazon's death-grip on the consumers, is to break DRM.
If the major publishers switch to selling ebooks without DRM, then they can enable customers to buy books from a variety of outlets and move away from the walled garden of the Kindle store. They see DRM as a defense against piracy, but piracy is a much less immediate threat than a gigantic multinational with revenue of $48 Billion in 2011 (more than the entire global publishing industry) that has expressed its intention to "disrupt" them, and whose chief executive said recently "even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation" (where "innovation" is code-speak for "opportunities for me to turn a profit").
And so they will deep-six their existing commitment to DRM and use the terms of the DoJ-imposed settlement to wiggle out of the most-favoured-nation terms imposed by Amazon, in order to sell their wares as widely as possible.
If they don't, they're doomed. And all of us who like to read (or write) fiction get to live in the Amazon company town.
I’d also direct people to Cory Doctorow’s extensive writings on DRM such as this recent piece for Publisher’s Weekly. Doctorow has long demanded that all his books be DRM-free, no matter what Amazon or other titans might say.
I used to admire Doctorow’s carefully considered philosophy on electronic publishing, but in the same way I might admire a painting in a museum. It was aesthetically pleasing, but not relevant to my ordinary life. I just didn’t have time to become a publishing activist. I simply wanted to write books and let somebody else deal with the work of editing, guarding copyright, arranging foreign rights, promoting, and on and on.
But then I discovered the pleasures of ebook publishing--the quick turnaround, the ability to do without giant superstructures of corporations to create something, the attractive royalty rates, and so on. (I outlined the pleasures of this experience for The Atlantic.)
And then I realized (duh) that the ebook world is not without its giants who don’t mind crushing a few ants. The distributor for my ebooks, IPG, got into a tussle with Amazon, which wants distributors and publishers to pay for promotion on the site, to accept sharply lowered costs, and so on. IPG didn’t want to accept the terms, and so--zip!--all 5000 titles they distribute vanished from Amazon (This article in the Times this week details the conflict). I went from having two ebooks on Amazon to none. People can still buy my ebooks if they know where to look, but I’ve taken a huge hit because Amazon was responsible for most of my sales.
My choices are now to bow down to the power of Amazon and work directly with them, on their terms, or to enter that DRM-free wilderness where Doctorow has wandered for years.
Seth: I guess I should have been more clear -- I actually do find that aspect of Stross’s argument compelling; what I don’t see is why publishers choosing to un-DRM their books would automatically mean Amazon agree to sell books in something other than the AZW format. Wouldn’t they just say, essentially, bully for you -- but if you want to see your books on amazon.com, your going to need to do so under our terms?
I hadn’t realized that your ebooks were distributed by IPG. As someone essentially unaffected by that squabble, I’m rooting for IPG. What are your feelings?
Carl: I’m rooting for IPG too, simply because Amazon is playing such hardball with them, and I don’t like bullying. But I don’t think any short-term settlement between them will last long. IPG depends on access to outlets like Amazon to make money. Amazon doesn’t depend so much on places like IPG. IPG, in its current state, is only good at one thing: distributing books for independent publishers. Amazon, like Google and other web-based giants, is good at many things, and can easily retool itself to become good at many new things. They may have started out as a book dealer, but now they do cloud computing, video streaming, and all sorts of other things that were inconceivable a couple years ago. They can also be their own publisher and distributor, as well as a bookseller. (See for example this interview with the head of their new Amazon New York publishing wing.)
So I don’t see any equilibrium possible between Amazon and publishers. Can publishers gain back some autonomy by abandoning DRM? It’s true, as you say, that Amazon themselves may choose to go on making ebooks readable only on their Kindles as they do now. But It may become more attractive to customers to actually OWN their ebooks, rather than licensing them and only being able to read them on one system. I like how Chris Mims puts it over at Technology Review:
It's abundantly clear that publishers that survive in an Amazon world will be those who disrupt Amazon itself. If Amazon's aim is to "cut out the middleman" then the next logical step is for publishers to cut out the middleman that is Amazon.
This will take some advanced thinking on the part of traditional publishers. And having seen traditional publishers drag their feet for years about digital publishing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have what it takes to take the leap. Still, there's some cause for optimism. Tor, the world's largest publisher of science fiction, has just announced that it's going to publish all its books DRM-free. Doctorow (who sometimes publishers with Tor) has the details.
If most traditional publishers balk, we can't forget that there are plenty of small, new outfits around that have a better feel for the business today and lack the legacy burdens or corporate overlords expecting big profit margins. And Kindle, we should note, only deals in straight text. No videos, no interactive elements. Straight text should be incredibly easy to move from device to device, from vendor to vendor. When it comes to the fancy apps that we’ve also reviewed at Download the Universe, we’re dealing with a different walled garden: Apple’s.
Seth: “This will take some advanced thinking on the part of traditional publishers.” You need to warn me when you’re gearing up to do slapstick; I almost spit my drink all over my computer.
Maia: Advanced thinking on the part of traditional publishers does seem in rather short supply, I agree. I’m rather astonished, for example, that they haven’t bothered to research whether ebook reading affects how well you remember the material or not. It seems to me that it would be absolutely in their interests in terms of defending their print textbook industry— a big moneymaker for both publishers and many academic authors— for them to discover that, say, you recall 30% less if you read on screen. If data suggested that, it would be one of the best arguments for keeping physical books that you could make, especially in an academic context. But there are shockingly few actual studies. I guess this is because they typically haven’t been an industry that had R&D, however, you’d think they’d be extremely worried that piracy of digital texts would trash their business. Students who hate overpriced textbooks are hardly going to feel bad about pirating them— they’re setting themselves up to be the record industry all over again.
And publishers aren’t making many authors happy either in terms of the way they deal with publicity. You would think they’d realize that publicity departments are one of the things they have that Amazon can’t really provide and that they’d invest there. Instead, they stick with the model of investing in one or two potential blockbusters and basically abandoning the rest of their authors. They fail to realize that if they invested just a bit more in some of the “smaller” books, while they probably wouldn’t become bestsellers, they might become steady earners rather than complete write-offs.
Regarding Amazon, I don’t like the bullying and coming monopsony either.
Annalee: Like Cory, I’ve long been an anti-DRM zealot, especially when it comes to books. This is a form of media that is meant to be shared, and indeed old media recognizes this: When magazines count their circulations they generally assume that several people are reading each printed copy.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to see Amazon or any other content distributors attempting to compete by unlocking DRM. I would love it if that were to happen, but what the game and movie industries have taught us is that Big Content wants narratives to be commodities. So we get into a kind of DRM race to the bottom, where distributors all come out with their own even-more-tamper-proof e-book DRM wrappers which will finally let publishers be SURE that everybody is shelling out a few bucks for their copies of 50 Shades of Gray IV: The Re-Grayination. (I suppose somebody will say, “But wait - iTunes has DRM-free music, and so does Amazon!” Yep, that’s true. I reserve the right to be wrong.)
At this point I’m just hoping we can get an e-book format that’s interoperable with multiple readers. I absolutely abhor having to download yet another app to read each and every publication. Yeah I want to read The Atavist, but I don’t want your freakin Atavist app. More apps means more clutter on my iPad, and by that I mean more opportunities for security vulnerabilities and incompatibilities and general cruftiness.
Annalee: Cruft is an old-school hacker term for crap in your code (or on your network) that makes it work really poorly.
Coming tomorrow: Textbooks, preserving history, and the joys of getting lost in literature.