I’d like to note that Digital Rights Management has won the “Big Bad” title at the O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference for three years in a row! In today’s market and economy, that’s a major accomplishment. Congratulations to DRM for being the most hated aspect of digital publishing in 2009!
You’d think the DRM folks out there would be feeling some shame by now. They’re not, and maybe it’s because there is a lot more fun in playing the DRM Blame Game than in tackling the problem (acknowledging here that players in the Blame Game have legitimate points). Here’s the funny thing: consumers don’t hate DRM as much as they hate what DRM does. In other words, they get that you need to protect your rights. They’re cool with that.
They just wish you wouldn’t do it in a way that turns a mother of two with a full-time non-tech industry job and a rich social life into a hacker just so she can read her legally purchased books. That is all.
I have yet to see solid evidence that DRM prevents piracy. Complex DRM is cracked with relative ease. If someone wants to create a pirated edition of a book, they’re going to put on their eye patches, buy a parrot, and drink a lot of rum. If someone wants an ebook — and there’s no legal alternative — they’re going to get the free, pirated version. Finally, if a reader is bound and determined not to pay for a book, they’re going to find that free copy if it kills them.
DRM, as implemented now, does not deter piracy. It does deter reading. I am going to take as a matter of fact that the last thing the publishing business wants to do is alienate readers. I also have to take as a matter of fact that there is already a mess of DRM and formats in the marketplace. There is a dangerous curve right in front of you.
Okay, so how do we get out of this mess? Education, I say, education. It’s gotten us this far as a society, surely it can help the DRM problem. So let’s think about this…yep, it’s “throw out the smart ideas time”. Below are mine, what are yours?
- Readers: As noted (and I have hundreds and hundreds of comments to support this), readers get why digital books have DRM, they just hate the fact that these locks come between them and books. And I think — based on careful observation over the years — that there is a real sense on the part of the readers that publishers don’t care about them. Malle Vallik says that publishers care very much, and I believe her. So there’s a disconnect. It’s time to fix that.
It’s important to remember that readers of ebooks are early adopters of this technology. Many of them survived the decade-long Music Wars, yet leapt into digital books. Some lost music as services folded or changed. They dealt with locks and incompatibility. They, poor souls, suffered hardware malfunctions due to DRM gone awry. They give you money and can’t open files. Overdrive takes all of its toys away from Fictionwise and goes home. They fight their way through compatibility issues.
Is it any wonder that they don’t trust easily?
All is not lost. But it’s going to require that publishers do something a little different. It’s going to require talking to readers and addressing their concerns now. Today. Before you turn into the music industry. In print book world, your customers aren’t the end user. In ebook world, the customer understands the difference between the service provider and the publisher. They don’t blame Amazon, they blame you.
I think a great first step is engaging in activist reader outreach. You know who the real influencers are in the readersphere, and it’s time to engage them to help you talk about the problems of piracy. Call it a type of social DRM. Call it talking to your customers. Give some, take some, learn some. Stop telling us that piracy is bad — we know that stealing is wrong — and talking about what it means.
- Authors: Authors are scared of this digital world. Think about it. For years, they’ve been hearing about rampant digital piracy and how it’s stealing sales from the mouths of their babes. Is it any wonder that they are asking for more protection from these evil pirates?
We have all seen that authors don’t win by withholding their digital rights. If there’s a desire to create an electronic edition, it will be done. People are just that crazy. They will stand at a copy machine or scanner and do the work page-by-page if that’s what it takes. See above about using reader outreach as an educational tool. Some authors advocate for more DRM. Some authors think the smart approach is keeping their work in print only. They are understandably nervous and confused.
The time has come for better author education, and, sorry, publishers, that one is on you, too.
- Publishers: Angela James of Samhain Publishing summed it up best: let them buy the book, not the format. In those hundreds and hundreds of comments I mentioned above, it was made more than obvious that your customers (again: the ones who give you money) don’t read on one device, on one operating system, in one location. As you move forward with your digital initiatives, think about how real people read books.
Saying that creating a morass of competing devices and formats is not the best way forward is to understate the problem. There’s a reason the EPUB standard was developed. And a reason why it should be used. Religiously. And why you should demand (stamp your feet, hold your breath) that Amazon add EPUB to its list of supported file formats. If you want to succeed in this market, embracing standards is your best choice. Only choice. If you don’t fight for this one thing on the part of your customers, you run the risk of losing them.
How many years did the music industry put into fighting MP3? Rather than picking up the banner for the one format that worked everywhere and was commonly used, they tried this, that, and the other to force their customers to change. It’s not about diluting your power or brand, it’s about creating a common platform. As this market grows and evolves — and it will — starting from common ground helps us all navigate growing pains.
Oh, and it reduces the risk you and your readers being locked into hardware and software choices.
There were books purchased in the writing of this article. Angela James noted during our ToC panel that her house provides customers who buy directly from the publisher a variety of file formats. I think she’d be one of the first to agree that managing so many choices is a pain for both the publisher and the consumer (especially those who don’t know what they’re supposed to do), but that’s how the market has developed to date. Her company offers lots of choices, but they don’t lock customers in. This allowed me to buy books (up to four so far this weekend, pretty good for someone who hasn’t left the couch!) and get them onto my Kindle.
It wasn’t an elegant process, though I did find my USB cable (needed for file transfers). But the fact that the publisher made that option available to me, along with other options, saved time and effort. It’s nice to know that I can reacquire my books in other formats, if necessary.
- Booksellers: DRM keeps booksellers out of the game. Let’s be realistic: the average bookstore cannot compete in terms of online sales and fulfillment. And it shouldn’t have to. I believe that local booksellers should play to their strengths…and those depend upon the store.
But no bookseller should have to be in a position to let a customer walk out of the store, shopping list in hand, and positioned to buy from someone else (thanks to Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand and Random House for putting this idea in my head and making it stick). Booksellers are curators, and we need curators now more than ever. There is so much information, so much stuff.
As we talk about devices and services, we need to remember that closed systems shut out the people on the front lines of books. I’m going to get all fuzzy with thoughts here, but booksellers should, at the very least, be in a position to fulfill digital book orders onsite, in some manner (while, yes, taking a cut because business is business). While there are customers who must have a book right then and there — and given the relative ration of retail space to actual books in print, you can see the complexity — delayed gratification is becoming the norm. If booksellers can better participate in other fulfillment channels, more the better, right?
I’m not naively calling for the death of DRM (a girl can hope, though), but I am trying to find ways to lessen its negative impact. People who buy books hate DRM. They may not know what to call it, but they harbor ill will toward the concept. We’re seeing incremental increases in ebook sales each quarter. It’s small potatoes now (which is why the next post will about pricing. Again.), but it’s a growing market.
The advantage of this slow-but-steady growth is that the book industry has a chance to get it right from a customer point of view. There are a lot of interests to balance, a lot of needs to consider, many perspectives to view. You can’t please everyone and you’re going to get some stuff wrong.