Saturday, November 27, 2010

E-Books & the Black Friday Blues

For those of you who aren't familiar with certain American traditions, there's a fairly new one that's become part of the Thanksgiving holiday. Black Friday. The day when usually calm, kind and normal people turn into insane, often violent, shoppers with a sense of entitlement that's big enough to try the patience of a saint.

You may ask what Black Friday has to do with e-books. Normally, it would have little, if anything, to do with them. However, a trip to the kindle boards yesterday sent my blood boiling. (Okay, I'll admit, it probably was boiling a little with fever yesterday anyway. Still, the insanity was enough to get to me.). Basically, what happened is that one of Amazon's "lightning deals" -- specials that are for a very limited number of an item at great prices -- was an $89 K2. Unlike a number of other lightning deals, this one had gotten national coverage ahead of time. And, like all those folks who camped out at Best Buy and Target, waiting for the doors to open so they could run for the discounted [insert item here] and who were more than willing to get into fist fights and shouting matches, all those cyber-shoppers were lined up, watching the clock count down to the moment the K2s would be available.

Yep, you guessed it. They sold out within minutes, maybe even seconds. And that's when the howling started. There were claims of bait and switch, threats to never darken Amazon's cyber-doors again unless they found a Kindle for this person or that. Never mind the disclaimer that it was a limited offer was in anything BUT fine print. These people wanted one. They DEMANDED one and screw anyone who didn't agree.

I don't know what it is about certain topics that turns normally sane folks into whiny, demanding toddlers wanting that new toy NOW. But there is a lot of this same mentality when it comes to e-books. You see it when people complain about the prices of an e-book because, gee, it doesn't cost as much because there are no printing or storage prices, nor shipping prices. You see it regarding piracy -- and, as far as I'm concerned, that whining goes on on both sides of the issue. You see it from the publishers who won't or can't see that the market is changing and that they need to change with it in order to survive. The one group you don't see it from, on a whole, is the one group who should be whining -- the writers.

Tomorrow, I'll go into the actual steps required to produce an e-book. But today, let's continue discussing this sense of entitlement that has permeated into the e-book market.

Years ago, the music industry went through a period where they put DRM on everything, worried that the new digital age would mean the death knoll of the business. Yes, it did change the way music was purchased. Most is now purchased online. Gone are most of the music stores we used to go to and browse through the rows of CDs. There were a number of different formats as well, preventing the buyer from listening to their downloads on multiple gadgets. Piracy abounded.

Did it kill the industry? Nope. The industry adapted. A standard format evolved and DRM did as well. Oh, sure, there are still certain companies that load the evil stuff into their music. But, on the whole, if you buy and download a song or album. you can play it on any MP3 player, no matter what the brand.

It is up to the publishing industry to do the same. If I buy an e-book from Amazon, chances are it will be locked with DRM. There will be a limit on the number of authorized devices I can read it on. And, guys, it isn't Amazon putting these limitations on. It's the publishers. Why? Because they are worried about piracy. At least that's what they say.

In yesterday's comments, Rowena noted that she can find her novels on certain pirate sites. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is. There are those folks out there who take exception to DRM and will work to find the code to break it and then offer it to others out in cyberspace as a way to thumb their noses at the publishers. They don't think about how this might affect an author's sales. They aren't even doing it to thumb their noses at the author -- well, if the author is a best seller and has publicly come out against e-books....that's a different story. There will always be someone out there who will post any e-book they can for free download. Same with music and video. They feel like they can do anything they want with it once they've bought it. Gee, there's that sense of entitlement again.

There's another form of piracy - although, to be honest, it really isn't piracy. At least not in my mind - that comes from DRM as well. But a bit of background, a number of publishers AND authors don't look at e-books as "books". They believe that you aren't buying the "book" but a license to read the words. That's why there is DRM. On the other hand, you have the buyers who have paid good money for the e-book and who believe they own it just as they would own a hard copy of the book. They don't see this as merely a license or a "rental". So they look for ways to break the DRM on the book so they can read it on different e-readers and make backup copies.

Why, you may ask, is this important? Say you spend $9.99 for an e-book (which is going rate for a big publisher's e-book from a best seller) this year. Next year, the e-reader you purchased it for dies and you buy a new one. If you purchased that e-book from certain sellers, you may not be able to download it again. Yes, there are download limits at a number of places. Of, you decided to go with a different brand of e-reader. That could mean the digital edition you purchased earlier won't work with your new e-reader because of DRM. Your only solutions are to either buy a new digital copy or find a way around DRM. So, you have those who are good with programming coming up with scripts that let you extract the digital copy, free from DRM. Sense of entitlement? Sure. Justified? In my opinion, yes.

The only group who is being hurt by both sides of this argument are the authors. They do lose some sales because their publishers either won't release their backlist in digital format -- leading folks to scan in their books and then post them online -- or by overpricing their books in digital format. Again, this leads to piracy. Those who pirate the books also hurt the authors because they are taking money from the authors' pockets. However, I would propose one more level here that most folks don't take into consideration. Actually, I have to give Kate credit here. She reminded me that while a number of us might look for a pirated e-book for whatever reason, we do tend to make up for that lost sale later -- either by purchasing that e-book when it finally becomes available through legitimate channels or buy purchasing other e-books (or dead tree books) from that author based on what we've read.

So what's the solution? The only one that will work long term is for the industry to accept the fact that e-books are here to stay. The more DRM that is attached to a book, the more programming folks will work to find and make available the scripts to break it. Either set up e-books as "rentals", where you get to download and read them for a discounted price for a set period of time, or accept the fact that someone who "purchases" an e-book owns it just as much as the purchaser of a hard copy owns that version of the book. Most of all, make e-books available at the same time as the hard copy comes out.

Okay, I just heard the howls going up on that last one, but hear me out. Probably the most famous - or infamous - series of books not released digitally is the Harry Potter series. Think about the number of sales that have been missed because Rowling won't sell the digital rights to her books. Now think about this: digital versions of the last few books were available BEFORE the books came out. That means, imo, someone from the publishing house leaked the files. Why? Because people felt they were entitled to get the book in digital form. Gee, entitlement again.

Okay, this is a long way of saying something very simple -- the only ones entitled to being upset over piracy are the authors. But they need to educate themselves to the realities of the situation and put themselves in the place of their readers. There's a growing number of people who read only digitally. Some because they like the convenience of having hundreds of books with them at all times. Some for ecological reasons -- they aren't killing trees by buying an e-book. Others for medical reasons -- they simply can't hold a book any longer but they can an e-reader. Now, both sides need to talk with one another, learn how their actions impact the other. Somehow, the publishers need to be brought into it as well. I'm just not sure how -- until the publishers are willing to adapt to changing times, things are unlikely to change.

See, this is what happens when something ticks me off when I'm sick. I get all wound up about things. Any way, what are your thoughts? Is e-book piracy really an issue that should be gone after the way the music industry has gone after music pirates? Or is it an anomaly that will go away if DRM is done away with?

11 comments:

Kate said...

I think the Baen experience is the answer. Wholesale digital theft will mostly go away (not entirely, because there'll always be a small minority who insist that if it's electronic it must be free), and people will happily pay reasonable prices for trouble-free ebooks.

On the music side, there's a reason Amazon's MP3 sales are booming, and sites that sell uncrippled music do well. Oh, and the major labels are slowly but surely coming to the party.

All the available history says that if you don't treat your customers like thieves, they won't act like thieves. And that is to the benefit of authors - who, believe it or not, do actually see some benefit in giving away their older stuff (take a browse through the Baen Free Library and read some of the articles about it - many of Baen's more skeptical authors noticed a boost in sales of their other works after making one book available free. Coincidence? For books that were published more than ten years earlier? I doubt it.)

Kate said...

Oh, and on the entitlement question - there are generations of precedent for the "entitlement" of you buy it, you own it, complete with legal documents for any exceptions like leases where what you can do with it is spelled out in fairly exacting detail.

And that's without ranting on the stupidity of a certain court decision claiming that those end user license agreements you don't even see until after you've opened the box are actually binding contracts. Nope.

A binding contract is agreed to by all parties concerned before money changes hands. Again, centuries of precedent for that view.

Of course, in my not at all humble opinion it ain't "entitlement" when you're dealing with longstanding practices that have been going on for pretty much as long as there have been civilized societies. The "something for nothing" crowd, on the other hand, are suffering an excess of entitlement.

MataPam said...

Amanada, I think you've got the gist of the matter. Easily available, accessable ebooks for a reasonable price, and most people won't steal.

Unless they start feeling even more entitled than they are already, imposible though that seems.

Roweena, if I can address you here, are your books not legitimately available in e-book? Or over priced, or DRMed to death?

I'm curious as to whether a "Pirates should support their favorite authors" "donate $2 if you've pirated one of my books" PayPal button on a website might be useful.

Francis Turner said...

In this excellent rant/essay about publishing from Norman Spinrad - http://normanspinradatlarge.blogspot.com/2010/08/complete-publishing-death-spiral-parts_13.html - there is a section where he notes that the sane author can leverage the pirate effort for scanning in OOP books that the author doesn't have the original electronic text of.

I do think that all authors/publishers should have a website that takes paypal and which they can point readers of pirated copies too. And lines of text in the file that say "if you did not buy this book but enjoyed it then please consider making a donation at XXX"

The trick is to make it as easy as possible to do so.

Also related to thsi topic is this UK view - http://www.reghardware.com/2010/11/26/wtf_e_book_pricing/ which has lots of Baen positive stuff in the comments

Dave Freer said...

I'm sorry, but I pay a lot less to rent a car or a house briefly than I do to buy it. If you want me merely to rent your book, make the price commensurate. (I have no problem with the resale of an e-book. With one proviso: You can resell it once, after which you no longer have it. Not keep it and resell it endlessly.)

Amanda Green said...

Kate, you are right, imo, about the Baen experience. Sure, every once in awhile, a pirate site has some of their books up. But it amazes me how much lower the number of Baen pirate sites appear to be when compared to sites pirating other publishers' books.

You'd think the publishing industry would learn something from the music industry when it comes to DRM, etc. Maybe as younger execs take over, we'll see things change. Sort of a change in business plan with the changing of the guard. I don't know, but I hope so.

Thanks for pointing out the Baen Free Library. I'd considered doing so but was still having a hard time thinking when I put this post together. What Baen's experience with the free library proves, in my mind, is that you can use freebies to entice an audience that will then buy to feed the habit you've just started. The key is to have a great product to start with.

Another thing that I've noticed with regard to Baen. Their readers surf the web looking for the pirate sites. Not to download but to make sure Baen knows about the site and does whatever is necessary to close it down. That is wonderful customer loyalty and it means Baen is doing a lot right. Maybe it's time for the big publishers to take a closer look and to learn from what Baen and others like it are doing.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, to continue my response...Have I mentioned that I hate the limits Blogger is now putting on the size of comments?

It's the something for nothing crowd along with the "I don't care if you wanted it, I wanted it more so I ought to have it" crowd that drive me crazy. A person commenting on one of the kindle boards today actually thought that the big stores advertising the wonderful prices on TVs, etc., would have enough in stock to make everyone happy. And, if those stores had more than a handful of great deals then surely Amazon could as well with regard to the $89 kindles. They then went on to wonder why Amazon wasn't giving everyone who wanted but didn't get a kindle at the discounted price a $20 credit to their account to spend on something else. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry at that. Oh, wait, I'm about to go on another tirade. Walking away...no more tirades tonight...well, at least not for another few minutes ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Pam, as Kate commented, Baen has pretty much shown that a good product at a reasonable price will not only decrease piracy but will increase sales. There will always be someone who feels they are entitled. The key is to make it so easy and cost-effective to get a legitimate copy that folks don't see a need to pirate an e-book.

As for your donation button, it will work up to a point. Those readers who pirated a book because it either wasn't available in their country or in a format they could access will in all likelihood donate. But those who feel that they have the right to put up pirated ebooks because they aren't "real" books won't. Still, any income is better than none, imo.

Amanda Green said...

Francis, great links and very much to the point. And I agree that all authors should have a Paypal button to allow for donations for pirated copies. Publishers probably should as well, but that then brings up a contractual problem of how those donations would be accounted for.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I agree completely. The argument I see put forth by some authors that the purchase of an e-book really isn't a purchase of the "book" blows my mind. Other than different media, it is exactly the same as what the hard copy is. Same words, same contract between publisher and author, same artwork.

I also don't agree with the "but they can copy and give away an ebook and they can't a hard copy". Not really. Yes, it is easier to copy the ebook -- if it isn't full of DRM -- but most folks don't. Also, how many people read a paperback book and then give it to a family member or friend? Or they sell it. Frankly, it would be easier to track the re-sale of an ebook than it is a hard copy.

And, if all you are doing is granting a "license" to read the ebook, then it really should be much cheaper than the hard copy of the same book. Same with renting it.

Synova said...

I had thought that there was a certain amount of obvious care that needed to be taken in order to preserve copyright or trademark so that even someone who is unconcerned with pirate sites ought to issue periodic "Hey, that's mine you a**hole!" notices just so no one can say later that the material was obviously released into the public domain.

Or something like that.

Other than that, it seems to me that the DRM stuff is counter productive and that e-books should be relatively inexpensive and portable. Yes, like how Baen does it.