I got a call today from Laura Sydell of NPR in San Francisco to have a conversation about DRM. I found myself telling the story this way.
From the beginning, there were multiple ebook formats, the leading ones being Adobe, Palm, and Microsoft Dot Lit for a time, with Mobi originally intended to be the format that bridged the gap (at that time) between devices. Then Amazon smartly took Mobi out of play, blocking anybody else from peddling a device-agnostic solution. And now we have e-readers…
From the beginning, there has been a reluctance of people to read BOOKS (goodness knows they read many other things) on screens, or at least on the screens that were presented to them for the purpose. This distinctly separates the book business from the music business, which I know I wrote about last week, but which also applies here. Your ears don’t care whether the speakers or headphones got the sound from a download or a record. It all works the same to you. But, as we all know, reading a screen for most people is a sufficiently different experience than reading on paper that they’re likely to have an opinion about it (often whether they’ve actually tried it or not).
From the beginning, some people in the book business (mostly, I suspect, agents for very big authors and their publishers, who have the most at stake) have been concerned that there would be a spread of unauthorized digital copies if they didn’t “protect” them. They were apparentely learning a lesson from the music business. But the music business was “stuck.” The format they sold music in was a “gold master.” They distributed digital copies.
From the beginning, there has been a romantic notion called “interoperability”, which says it is a wonderful thing if the same file can work on lots of different devices. So you should be able to read the book on your PC, or on your Sony- or Kindle-like device, and on your iPhone and/or Blackberry and your Sony Play Station, for that matter. Believe it or not, there are not only quite a few of the publishing digerati who think this is very important, there are many who actually blame the slow growth of the ebook market on the fact that the industry hasn’t accomplished the ability to deliver it. (Seems preposterous to me.)
The multitude of formats presented costs and hassles to the publishers. They had to do more work to put each book in shape for each format, and they had to do pretty meticulous quality control because a lot could go wrong. With ebooks not selling much at all, the difference between spending $250 to convert to one format, say (starting with a PDF print file), and then adding $50 or $100 more for additional formats created a whole decision-making cascade. This all choked off books from the ebook stream, on one format or another or at all, as publishers needed to “decide” to publish each book in one or more formats.
The multiple systems also prevented interoperability and restrained piracy. The DRM was actually a bit of window dressing; even unprotected files wouldn’t have traveled very far.
But then the industry, through the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) developed the epub standard, which was code that could be read by many different systems and/or converted inexpensively to other systems. So the publishers could provide just one file, the epub file, and the distribution channels could do the conversion to different formats. A giant step toward interoperability (and efficiency.)
So now DRM is the one barrier to interoperability and so the drumbeat to get rid of it gets louder and louder.
Also from the beginning, people have noticed that, in most cases, the more of a book you give away digitally, the more you sell. This would almost certainly not be the right strategy with high-value scientific reference, or a directory, but it is the experience of many people over a long period of time. Tim O’Reilly has famously pointed out that obscurity is a much more prevelant problem for books and authors than theft through piracy. Cory Doctorow is certainly the most vociferous and among the most eloquent expressing contempt for the whole idea of DRM, the insult it constitutes to the audience of book readers, and its self-defeating nature. He has given away huge amounts of digital content and he credits doing so with growing his sales as a novelist.
My officemate and colleague Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media has been doing an ongoing study of the effects of free distribution with O’Reilly Media and Random House. They are documenting both the fact that there is no significant piracy of ebooks and that free distribution, even the limited piracy, seems to have a stimulative effect on sales.
We are at a moment where publishers are noticing this and taking it on board. O’Reilly and Thomas Nelson are the first I’ve noticed to start offering ebooks in multiple formats, with Nelson doing so to any buyer of a print book who registers on their site for it. (A nice way to capture names, too.) Others, noteably Hachette’s unit Orbit, and Random House, have started giving away ebooks (for free or, in Orbit’s case, a buck or near-free) to promote books and authors. The ROI on these is close to infinity if it sells one more book!
I hope that this is an accurate summary of events so far, except that I left out the Kindle (on purpose). Now I’d like to offer some forward-thinking and observe an enormous irony.
1. Forward-thinking. This notion of giving away ebooks has a tragedy of the commons built into it. It’s free and it works. So everybody’s going to do it. The choice of ebooks you can legitimately download for free or under a buck will grow by leaps and bounds (it already has.) At just the moment that the ebook market is growing, and lots of new people are coming into it, many people will be able to form the habit of choosing from what is free or near-free. Ultimately, this will have two negative effects. One is that it will depress the pricing across all titles. And the other is that the giveaways will lose their stimulative effect.
I would not suggest that anybody voluntarily try to save the commons. It would not be in their own best interests to do that and they would not succeed.
2. Because there is going to be a culture of free or almost-free, piracy might well become an issue for the most popular ebooks as takeup of ebooks grows. It clearly has never been a problem, but that doesn’t mean it never will. Things change. (See number 1.)
3. The Kindle. Amazon not only steered clear of the epub collaboration, they are aggressively blocking people from selling content that would be compatible with the Kindle. Everything about what they do is closed. The problem is that they’re defying history so far: growing faster with a closed system than all their competitors for ebook eyeballs combined.
But it’s not what’s most ironic.
I personally never got the thing about interoperability until now, when I am reading the great new biography of Abraham Lincoln by by Ronald White on both my Kindle and my iPhone. Whenever I switch over from one to the other, it knows my place and asks me if I want to advance to it. This is great! I love interoperability. I have no use for it between any other two devices, but between my Kindle and my iPhone? Terrific!
Of course, Amazon is probably able to deliver this functionality so seamlessly partially thanks to the fact that they have a closed system and more control.
That’s really ironic.