Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 16th Apr, 2012

Swapping Shackles

Charles Stross talks here about why book publishers are afraid of Amazon and that the publishers have given Amazon control over them by insisting on DRM. The problem I see with this analysis is that, actually, the publishers have another option: publish their own 'free' app that can read their own DRM. Cut Amazon out of the equation by selling direct to the readers. There may be contractual reasons why the Big Six can't set up a web store to compete directly with Amazon, but I'm sure that's a matter that their lawyers could sort out. There might be a possible legal reason - I don't study this field and Charlie does, so he might correct me there, but I don't see anything in his comments on it and a few people suggest it.

The cited reason that the Big Six don't sell their own books directly seems to be that they just haven't set up their websites. Bad news for Amazon: that's easy with the budgets the big publishers have - Baen already do sell their own ebooks, for example (without DRM, too). More bad news for Amazon: generating more sales by referrals (the "other readers also bought" stuff) isn't a matter of customers or catalogue, it's just a matter of data. Start selling books and you've got that kind of referral. Each publisher has reams of back catalogue begging to be digitised and sold. They've got the catalogue, they've got the direct access to the readers, they've got the money to set up the web sites, and they've now got the motivation to avoid Amazon and sell direct to the reader. That to me spells disaster for Amazon.

But it also means disaster for us. Because you're going to have multiple different publisher's proprietary e-book reader - the only one they'll bless with their own DRM. Each one will have its own little annoyances, peccadilloes and bugs. Some won't let you search. Some won't let you bookmark. Some will make navigation difficult. Some won't remember where you were up to in one book if you open up another. Others might lock up your reader, have back doors into your system, use ugly fonts, be slow, have no 'night' mode, or might invasively scan your device for other free books and move them into their own locked-down storage. And you won't be able to change, because none of your books will work in any other reader than the publisher's own. After all, why would they give another app writer access to their DRM if it means the reader might then go to a different publisher and buy books elsewhere?

We already have this situation. I have to use the Angus & Robertson reader (created by Kobo) for reading some of my eBooks. It doesn't allow me to bookmark places in the text, its library view has one mode (and it's icons, not titles), I can't search for text, and its page view is per chapter (e.g. '24 of 229') not through the entire book. In those ways and more it's inferior to the free FBReader that I read the rest of my books in - mostly from Project Gutenberg - but I have no choice; the only way to get the books from the store is through the app. These are books I paid money for and I'm restricted by what the software company that works for the publishing broker contracted by the retailer wants to implement. This is not a good thing.

What can we, the general public, do about this? Nothing, basically. Write to your government and they'll nod politely, file your name in the "wants to hear more about the arts" mailing list, and not be able to do a thing. Write to a publisher and they'll nod vacantly, file your name in the wastepaper bin, and get back to thinking how they can make more profit. Write to your favourite author and they'll nod politely, wring their hands, say something about how it's out of their control what their editor's manager's manager's manager decides, and be unable to do anything about it. Everyone else is out of the picture.

Occasionally someone suggests that Authors could just deal directly with the readers directly. At this point, everyone else sneers - even fanfic writers look down on self-publishers. And, sadly, they're right - because (as Charlie points out) we do actually need editors, copy-readers and proofers to turn the mass of words an author emits into a really compelling story. (I personally can't imagine Charlie writing bad prose or forgetting a character's name, but I can imagine an editor saying "hey, if you replaced that minor character with this other less minor character in this reference, it'd make the story more interesting", and it's these things that are what we often really enjoy about a story.) I've written fiction, and I've had what I thought was elegantly clear writing shown to be the confusing mess of conflicting ideas and rubbish imagery that it was. Editors are needed in this equation, and by extension publishers, imprints, marketers, cover designers, etc.

Likewise, instead of running your own site, why not get a couple of authors together and share the costs of running a site? Then you get something like Smashwords or any of the other indie book publishers - and then you get common design standards, the requirement to not have a conflicting title with another book on the same site, etc. So either way you're going to end up with publishers. And small publishers tend to get bought up by larger publishers, and so forth; capitalism tends to produce this kind of structure to organisations.

So as far as I can see, it's going to get worse, and then it's going to get even worse than that. I don't think Amazon will win - if nothing else, because they're already looking suspiciously like a monopolist to the US Government (it's just that the publishers and Apple were stupid enough to look like they were being greedier than Amazon). But either way, the people that will control your reading experience have no interest in sharing with anyone else, no interest in giving you free access to the book you've paid to read (and no reason if they can give you a license, call it a book, charge what a book costs, and then screw you later on), and everyone else has no control over what they're going to do with an ebook in the future. If the publisher wants to revoke it, rewrite it, charge you again for it, stop you re-reading it, disallow you reading previous pages, only read it in the publisher's colours of lime green on pink, or whatever, we have absolutely no way of stopping this. The vast majority of people are already happy to shackle themselves to Amazon, to lock themselves into Apple, and tell themselves they're doing just fine.

Sorry to be cynical about this, but I think this is going to be one of those situations where the disruptive technologies just come too little and too late. Even J. L. Rowling putting her books online DRM-free isn't going to change things - most of the commentators I've read just point to this and say "oh well, the rest of us aren't that powerful, we'll just have to co-operate with (Amazon|the publisher I'm already dealing with)". Even the ray of hope that Cory Doctorow offers with his piece on Digital Lysenkoism - that the Humble E-Book Bundle has authors wanting to get their publishers off DRM because there's a new smash-hit to be had with the Humble Bundle phenomenon - is a drop of nectar in the ocean of tears; no publisher's really going to care about the Humble Bundle success if it means facing down the bogey-man of unfettered public copying of ebooks that they themselves have been telling everyone for the last twenty years.

So publishers are definitely worrying about Amazon's monopsony. But the idea that that will cause them to give up DRM is wishful thinking. They've got too much commitment to preventing people copying their books, they don't have to give up DRM in order to cut Amazon out of the deal, and if DRM then locks readers into a reliance on the publishers it's a three-way win for them. And a total lose for us, but then capitalism has never been about giving the customer what they want.

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