Thursday, 24 November 2011

Books: An Alternative Reality

Back when our son was born, friends of ours lent us a book called Sleep Right Sleep Tight. The book informs readers on the science of sleep and suggests ways to instil a sleep regime with your baby in a manner that would enable parents to lead a normal life. In retrospect, we found the book to probably be the most helpful single parent support resource in our career as parents.
We liked the book so much that we bought several copies to friends having their first babies, in the hope they’d get as much of it as we did. The result is that the title, for which we never paid when used by us, ended up making numerous sales by virtue of us knowing of its existence. By borrowing a book for free, we created more sales for the book than it would have otherwise had.
Imagine, if you will, what would have happened instead at this alternative universe where ebooks, as we know them today, are the only form of books available. Remember my friends that lent us their copy of the book? They wouldn’t be able to do so; it would be illegal for a start and DRM will probably prevent them from doing so even if they didn’t mind bending the law. In turn, we would not know of the book and our parenting (and sleep) would be hurt. Most notably, the publishers themselves would be hurt because they wouldn’t be making all those extra sales based on our word of mouth, my public book review, and us buying copies for our friends. Everyone’s a loser in this scenario!
Yet this scenario is exactly the one our real world publishers are driving at. Unless you put on your pirate hat and remove the DRM off your Kindle books, you cannot lend your ebooks to your friends. Actually, much worse things can happen: publishers like Penguin can insist on preventing you from using your ebooks the way you wanted to, even ordering Amazon to pull the previously purchased ebooks off people’s readers (see here). Talk about ways to make the public embrace ebook technology!
As my not so hypothetical alternate world example demonstrates, book publishers are clearly out of touch with the needs of their readers (read: the people on whose money they depend). What happened to “the customer is always right”? Not only that, book publishers are oblivious to the damage they are inflicting on themselves: they may lose money when I borrow a book rather than buy it, but they lose even more when I don’t hear about the book in the first place and don’t buy copies for my friends.
It’s time publishers wake up to the fact that book borrowing is not theft. It is a habit ingrained to the very fabric of our culture as cooperative human beings. Instead of fighting it, publishers should embrace it! Publishers lose much more money through people not knowing of their products in the first place than they do at the hands of pirates; if anything, pirates boost the word of mouth effect and boost sales.
Instead of punishing us with DRM that can be overridden anyway, one way or another, they should work to give us a product we’d be happy to pay for. It is not that hard; they’ve done it for decades if not centuries with that thing called “books”.

Image: Sleep Right Sleep Tight


Uri said...

So in your all-digital-no-drm world, wouldn’t you copy the book for your friends instead of buying it?

Moshe Reuveni said...

No, I won't, because baby gift etiquette dictates you buy a gift. Publishers can make sure that's entrenched by offering good products at a reasonable price that give better value than copying. It's not impossible; Amazon is doing it already.
More importantly, you're missing the point here. The point is about publishers losing more money through people not knowing about their products' existence than they do through piracy. My example was but one of many in this department.
You're also missing another point: do you really want to live in a world of DRM, where people are presumed guilty of wanting to override laws whenever possible and it's only DRM that holds them back? By your logic we shouldn’t stop with DRM on books; let’s put DRM on radio transmissions, let’s put DRM on buildings so you don’t take photos of them… Anyway, I don't such a world; I prefer to live in a world where I don't need to circumnavigate DRM.

BTW, Charles Stross wrote an interesting post about DRM on his blog at:
It certainly sheds new light on the matter.