Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Touched by Authors

"The Library"

Three events took place during the last week or so, events that shook my confidence with the ebook revolution. Yes, yours truly, known for his blatant disregard of dead pieces of wood for over a year now, is starting to have doubts. What could have caused that? Funny you should ask:
1. Charlie Stross, the Hugo winning science fiction author, blogged about the need to rid ebooks of DRM. Nothing new under the sun there; the catch was his reason for advocating so this time around. It wasn’t because DRM is the pure evil that it is (i.e., the argument I have been maintaining for numerous years by now), but rather that DRM only serves to enshrine Amazon as the dominant monopoly in the ebook market with the ability to bend publishers at will.
2. Peter Watts, another Hugo winning science fiction author, wrote a personal email to a friend of mine. That friend paid Watts for a book he legally downloaded for free; in return, he got Watts to email him and tell him that
It still kind of blows me away that people fork out hard-earned cash for something they can get for free. It almost restores my faith in humanity.
3. Leslie Cannold, aka The Best Person onTwitter and an Australian author, tweeted me out of the blue to tell me that
@reuvenim just to let u know my book part of Amazon post xmas ebook sale. My royalty .34/copy
I suspect I was honoured with this tweet as a result of me criticizing ebook pricing policies and using Cannold’s specific book as an example (here and here). Readers of my complaints could easily think I have something against Cannold, but that is definitely not the case: the only reason I used her book, The Book of Rachael, as an example was the fact I wanted to read it quite badly. Yet the privilege of doing so in my preferred way was both denied of me (the book was unavailable for the Kindle at the time, at least until I played my tricks), and its electronic version was priced at more than twice the cost of all the other ebooks I had ever bought.
Back to Cannold's tweet: The Book of Rachael is currently available for the Kindle and sells at Amazon for around $18. Assuming the book won’t be discounted too much for the post Christmas ebook sale, this would put Cannold’s royalty of $0.34 a copy at about 2%. Or, to put it more bluntly, if Cannold is to be able to make a decent living out of the book she worked so hard on, she will need it to sell as much as the next Harry Potter (that is, sell the book in quantities that normally make one a millionaire).

What conclusions can I draw from the above three interactions?
The most immediate one is to do with how mere mortals such as my friend and I become emotionally involved when an author we like and look up to takes the bother to contact us directly. It is incredibly exciting, and flattering too, to be contacted by the people I regard as my intellectual idols.
The second and probably main conclusion I’m drawing here is just how ignorant I am about this whole book/ebook publishing affair. I tend to draw my information from the writers I follow who openly expose their information, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. Both of whom share fairly similar opinions to mine when it comes matters of copyright and both of them sound like they’re doing fairly well for themselves. Yet here come three more authors at the top of their game and expose a world in which things are not as nice as I would like to think they are. With three fell swoops they shattered my confidence in the ebook revolution.

Where do I stand on these matters?
I am an above average consumer of books, and the ebook revolution only pushed me further down the line. Between my wife and I, we bought about thirty ebooks this past year; but even if I don’t like reading paper books anymore, I still buy them in large quantities for my son and as gifts to others. Indeed, books are by far my most popular form of a gift: when I read a book I like a lot I don’t pay its author directly (as my friend did with Peter Watts), but rather buy copies of the book as gifts to others.
There are limits there, though. First, many of the books I love would be unsuitable as gifts: I cannot expect most people to appreciate me buying them a copy of books such as The God Delusion (they don’t know what they’re missing, but never mind that for now). Indeed, too often my book gift giving is distorted by social convention as well as by my appraisal for what I expect the subject of the gift to like.
Another form of limitation comes from the books themselves. DRM stands tall there, because it makes buying an ebook for a gift a major pain in the you-know-what. You have to take into account the particular platform the reader would use, for a start, and then there’s the fact you’re usually prevented – yes, prevented – from bestowing an ebook as a gift in the first place.
Given the above, I consider Renai Lemay’s eloquent description of the state of Internet piracy in Australia to describe very well where my standings on matters of book consumerism are. In the context of ebooks in particular, my demands/opinions are:
  1. I know that books require more than just an author to get published, but I don’t care much for that food chain story; I care for the author alone, and rely on the rest of them to just do their part.
  2. I want to be able to buy any book I feel like buying.
  3. I want a book product I’d be able to use in any way I see fit, and to be able to do so easily.
  4. I do not distribute my books around. Sure, I will lend them to friends, the way people have always done, but I will not post them on the Internet for people to copy. Publishers, trust me on that.
  5. I want my ebooks to be treated just like my books are. Ebooks should be resalable, to name but one example.
  6. I want a product that will be mine forever once I hand my money over.
  7. I want a reasonably priced product. With ebooks, that should mean paying significantly less than what we’re used to pay for books: there aren’t any printing costs, and the costs of storage and distribution are negligible.
  8. I want to be able to easily find and buy my books; I don’t want to start looking all over the world for a particular book just because a particular publisher doesn’t want to work with a particular shop. That is, I want something like the iTunes shop for books. [Yes, I know I can buy books at iTunes; I also know I think it sucks.]
  9. I want my book shop to be easily accessible from any platform I choose to use. One of my gripes with the iTunes shop is that it requires iTunes; a browser based shop would be a million times better.
  10. Once bought, I want to be able to have my books find their way to my reading device of choice instantly and easily. No wires, no messing around.
Looking at this list of my demands, it becomes evident Amazon caters for most of them – all but the DRM side of things. Sure, Amazon's DRM can be dismantled, but why should I be forced to make the effort in the first place?
My second gripe lies with the fact that it is only Amazon that comes close to fulfilling my demands, and then again only when I perform minor level cheats and use VPN to access Amazon's American catalog rather than its Australian one. Clearly, that should not be the case; as I stated above, I (and most people I know) consider it the most reasonable of demands to be able to buy the books I want to buy. However, we are denied this “right” so very often.
Still, I like Amazon; with the exception of Cannold's book, I bought all my ebooks exclusively from them. However, until we get what I’ve asked for, I see no reason for people to stop resorting to book piracy. It’s natural: when one has a need, one looks for ways to fulfil the need. These ways are there: there are plenty of ebooks to be found at bit-torrent, probably the most extensive source of ebooks out there other than Amazon. They’re all free, and non come with DRM – so you can do whatever you want with them! Yet, as good as the pirated product is, I am of the opinion that Amazon is usually better: for a reasonable price, it gives unprecedented ease of use; it’s quick; and it pays the author for their work. If only they got rid of DRM…

Which brings me to my last question for the day: how is my standing affected given the three author inputs I started this post with? This is where my ignorance in the working of the publishing world becomes obvious, forcing me to make non evidence based assumption.
As Stross points out, there is clear danger with letting Amazon become the monopoly it already is; yet just as the music industry did before it, publishers are heading like sheep to the slaughter. Apple showed us with its iTunes shop that once it becomes a monopoly it will abuse its power; there is no reason to think Amazon will be any different. The solution is clear: publishers should sell their ebooks elsewhere (everywhere!) and without DRM. Once that option is popular, we may have to start our book purchasing through a Google search instead of an Amazon search, but the result should be the same.
Cannold’s poor cut out of every Kindle sale of her book only pushes that point forward. It does, however, point at another deficiency of the current book market scene: her ebook still sells for $18, much more than the average ebook (probably twice the average). When Cannold gets only $0.34 for every sale that implies someone else gets more of the rest. Apple is notorious for grabbing 30% out of everything it sells in its iTunes shop; given Amazon does not have the same reputation I am assuming its cut is not larger. Therefore, this implies that the publisher is taking most of the rest of the money and leaves hardly anything to the author. Coming from the consumer perspective of seeking contact with the author but not caring much for the rest of the publishing chain, I can only see this as another major wrong by the publishers. They know the authors need to be in Amazon to gain international exposure, and they make the most of the opportunity. In other words: greed.

In conclusion: the book publishing scene is on the verge of going electronic, but that transition is not going too well, at least as per three authors I look up to. However, given these authors’ inputs and given my own standings and assumptions, I can only conclude the fault lies squarely with publishers stuck in old world business models. It’s time for these publishers to wake up before they take my favorite authors down with them!

Image by Here's Kate, Creative Commons license

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

Since writing this post I've stumbled on mounting evidence pointing at how Amazon treats authors. Check the following for a fine example describing how Amazon reserves the right to determine ebook prices, and thus royalties: