What’s Wrong With Publishing?

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #12: Brought to You By…

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

Short blog this time because I mainly would love to see some feedback in the comments. Especially if you have experience in the area in question, but everyone’s thoughts are, of course, welcome. [Read more…]

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #11: One More Digital Thought

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

Sigh.

I know I said last time that I was done talking about e-books for a while, but, like Michael Corleone, I keep getting pulled back in.

Over the weekend, a thought occurred to me. This isn’t really a full-blown argument or even a rationalization. It’s just a notion that might shed some light on e-books and the pricing and DRM-ing thereof.

Then again, it might just complicate things. 🙂

OK, here’s my beginning: When we purchase something, we are — by and large — making a statement that the thing in question is, in our opinion, worth the price paid. Now, for things like medical treatment and other basic necessities, this isn’t always true. We may not have a choice, for example, but to pay an extortionate gas price. Or electrical bill. Or what have you.

But in general, we pay for something because we think it’s worth what we’re paying for it.

Now, when you plunk down somewhere between six and twenty-odd bucks for a book (depending on discounts and format), you’re making the statement that you believe the book itself is worth that. Especially since books rarely fall into the “necessities of life” category! (I mean, I would feel a lot less alive if I couldn’t buy books, but I wouldn’t die.)

So far, I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial. Here’s where that changes.

What is a book? More to the point, what are you actually buying when you buy a book?

Reading what I’ve said above, you might be tempted to say that a book is specific content made into a physical or digital artifact. That’s a decent enough definition.

Or is it?

What if the definition of a book is really this: Specific content made into a physical or digital artifact, each with varying properties and freedoms.

What I’m getting at is this: People become upset at the idea of any sort DRM (even the sort I consider very reasonable) on their digital books, but might that be because they’re not looking at it the right way?

People say, “When I buy an e-book, I want it to act exactly like a real book, only on my computer.”

To which I say (having just realized this): “But they can’t act exactly the same because they’re not the same thing. The content is the same, but that’s just part of what a book is. And besides, you’re paying so much less for it!”

Say physical books cost anywhere from $6.00 to $30.00, depending. And say an e-book runs you less than that $8.00. (How much less doesn’t matter right now, but let’s stipulate that it’s a nontrivial amount less. Enough that you notice.)

Well, in that case, when you buy the physical book, you are buying specific content made into a physical artifact with specific freedoms. In other words, you pay a premium and you get a premium: The ability to loan, sell, trade, or give away that book. You’ve never thought of it that way before because there was never a different option. In the past, it was impossible to buy a book that you could not loan, sell, trade, or give away.

When you buy the e-book, though, you are paying less. The savings aren’t just from the non-physical nature of the book (as I discussed last time, there may not be huge savings to be had there after all), but also from the fact that you are literallygetting less. You are buying specific content made into a digital artifact without specific freedoms.

So if all you want is to read the content and you don’t care about anything else, then buy the e-book. Or buy the physical book, but that case you are overpaying. You’re buying more than you actually want or need. No one’s stopping you, but that’s what you’re doing. And, yes, this means a lot of people have been overpaying for centuries because the technology did not yet exist to give them the option.

It’s like the difference between free, ad-supported software or TV and pay-for-access, no-ad software or TV. I can watchModern Family on ABC for free, but I have to sit through the ads. Or I can buy it from iTunes, in which case my money buys me freedom from the ads. (Yes, I realize that the sources seem reversed in this example. The sources don’t matter in this case — it’s about the idea of paying more [or paying at all] for specific freedoms.)

It’s your choice: Pay a premium to be able to re-sell, trade, loan, or donate. Or pay the rock-bottom price and get just the content for your own personal use.

Now, I don’t think this is necessarily a perfect solution. For one thing, the price differential between e-books and physical books would have to be perceived to be great enough to justify this distinction in freedoms. Note that I said “perceived to be,” not that it actually would be. The perception part is the problem. Many people already believe that the lack of a physical medium means that an e-book should cost in the smaller fractions of the price of a physical book. No publishers have opened their ledgers to me, but I have a sinking feeling that such a drastic price cut may not be possible. If it is, great! I’ll be happy. But if it isn’t…

Well, if it isn’t, then this argument will be going on for a long, long time.

So, there’s my latest thoughts on e-books. Feel free to tear me a new one in the comments. 🙂 Next time, I really will move on to something else.

I think.

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #10: Wrapping Up Digital

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

OK, I’m going to spend one more (brief) blog talking about e-books and then, next week, I’m going to move on to some new topics.

If you checked in earlier this week, you saw a spirited discussion in the comments about DRM and similar restrictions on digital content. Commenter Tom Franklin pointed to an entry on his own blog on the topic of e-book pricing, which I promised to read.

Read it I have, and I suggest you all do so as well. Here’s the link: http://tommfranklin.blogspot.com/2010/07/problems-with-pricing-digital-book.html. It’s a nicely-done overview of some of the problems of e-books with regard to pricing, and Tom comes at it as someone with hands-on experience (albeit, as he’s the first to admit, experience with a specific publisher in a specific segment of the market).

Still, it has some hard facts that I’ve been craving. And I’ll say this: If the assumption that 90% of a publisher’s expenses come BEFORE the actual physical production is not only true, but also even close to universal throughout the industry, then the battle over e-book publishing is going to get very, very ugly very, very quickly. Because the average consumer (to say nothing of the early adopter) thinks that the figure should probably be more like 50% and is expecting a commensurate drop in e-book pricing. But if a publisher spends 90% of a books price before ever running off a single copy…then that means there’s only 10% to play around with in terms of discounting.

With regard to the DRM/piracy discussion: I think we’ve hammered that poor dead horse quite a bit, but I do want to point out that Mark Evanier (as usual) says it better than I ever could, and more succinctly, to boot: It’s about respect.

Thoughts?

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #9: DRM

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

Back a few weeks ago, one of the comments on this blog said, in part:

here’s the cold, harsh truth: just about anything you put out there to sell can be duplicated with today’s technology.  CDs and DVDs can be ripped and burned, golf clubs can be replicated, clothing, watches, designer handbags can all be copied.  and books can be scanned, turned into PDFs and  distributed freely.

(and don’t think DRM is going to stop -anybody-)

instead of trying to angrily attack a multi-headed beast that grows another head or two for every head you might manage to lop off, or, worse, refuse to go into new technologies for fear of getting ripped off, i think it’s best to acknowledge the potential problems and continue moving forward.  i seriously doubt the people who are either pirating or using pirated versions of anything would likely be paying customers anyway.

The comment was made by a fellow named Tom Franklin, who made many excellent points both on that blog and the one that followed. You should check out what he said here and here (under the handle “fivecats”). For now, I’m just going to discuss his comment above. And, yes, I agree that the existence of piracy should not make us shy to enter into the digital realm. Fear of piracy makes sense when you’re an eighteenth century galleon flying the Spanish flag in contested British waters, but not when you’re a twenty-first century author.

It’s inevitable that a discussion of the future of publishing is going to involve, at some point, DRM (digital rights management, for those of you not hip to the lingo — basically, the electronic copy protection that prevents you from copying digital media and sharing it with the world). Everything sold online attempts — at one time or another — to restrict its use via some kind of DRM. DRM has been with us since even the VCR, when the hated “Macrovision” system allegedly prevented people from copying videotapes (and also, most of the time, made the protected tapes damn near impossible to watch). These days, it doesn’t take long for the crowd-sourced wisdom of the Internet to crack any DRM out there, whether it’s copy-protection on a DVD or even the security “system” built into the operating system on Apple’s iPhone (which is now routinely broken within days of Apple’s updates).

So, Tom’s comment “don’t think DRM is going to stop -anybody-” is not only prescient, but also — so far as we can tell — objectively true.

Except for this: DRM does stop people. All the time. It stops people who can’t be bothered.

Yes, it is almost obscenely easy to crack DRM these days. Hell, there’s even a website that can jailbreak an iPhone with a single swipe of the finger, if you’re so inclined.

“If you’re so inclined” is the operative phrase here.

My feeling is this: Remember the movie In the Line of Fire? John Malkovich tells Clint Eastwood that it’s no big trick to kill the president — you just have to be willing to trade your life for his, is all. What this means is that to someone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, there is no obstacle high enough. The same holds true for piracy and digital rights management: To a truly determined pirate, no amount of DRM will stop them. But you know what? Most people who don’t like the president aren’t willing to trade their lives for his, so if you make it minimally difficult to pull the trigger…they won’t. So I acknowledge that we’ll never stop piracy, but if some barriers can be put up that will stop some pirates, I’m happy.

Why? Why do I care? Well, to me it’s very simple: It’s wrong.

People get twisted into philosophical and ontological arguments about piracy, discussing whether or not it helps sales or hurts sales, commenting on the impossibility of stopping it, etc. But for me, it’s very simple: Pirates are stealing from me. And, yeah, I can’t stop them all, but if I catch someone picking my pocket, you can be damn sure I’m going grab his wrist and not let him go until he’s cuffed. It’s not that complicated. I don’t make a career out of looking for pirates, but when I notice my work pirated, I take the appropriate steps. Not because I’m some old-school traditionalist, not because I hate the freedom of the internet, but just because it’s wrong. I did not give them permission to share my work and they are doing it anyway. Period. End of story.

I genuinely don’t understand why people don’t get this. Yes, a determined crook can pick my lock, get into my house, and steal everything I own. Does this mean I shouldn’t bother locking the door at all?

Right now, there’s nothing to stop me from taking my favorite book from my shelf, photocopying it a hundred times, and giving it free to my closest one hundred friends. Nothing except for the cost and hassle. And, of course, the fact that doing so is both illegal and unethical. That is the “DRM” of the analog world, and no one ever complained about it. “Why do publishers make it so difficult for me to get the book flat on the photocopier? They should publish books spiral-bound so that I can make photocopies more easily!”

Now that it’s easy to make copies of digital products, I don’t see anything wrong in throwing a couple of roadblocks to copying them.

Now, where I have a beef with DRM is here: When I buy a book, I own that physical product. And I can do whatever I want with it, including lending it to a friend, donating it to a charity, or selling it at a garage sale. Not so with an e-book. And that, too, is wrong.

Libraries are already using systems that allow people to borrow e-books. I’d like to see that technology leveraged such that I could, if I liked, allow my friend to borrow my e-book. I could send him an e-mail that has a link allowing him to download a copy of the book that will self-destruct after a period of time I set. For that same length of time, the book would be unavailable to me, just as if I’d loaned out a physical copy. In essence, we would all become lending libraries. (Bonus: Unlike when you lend out a physical book, you know for sure you’ll get this one back!)

Additionally, there should be a little button or menu item or what-have-you that says “I want to sell/transfer this book.” At which point, you would be allowed to e-mail that book to the one person of your choice and it would be deleted from your device. Ta-da. Problem solved.

How would this work? There would probably be some sort of code involved or some sort of check system on the web. Whatever. It’s not nontrivial to design and implement, I’m sure, but it’s also no more difficult than any other “is this person the right person?” system established in the past decade.

Frankly, this is the only reason to dislike DRM in e-books, because it prevents you from giving away or selling your old books, which is something you should totally be allowed to do. Once a solution like the above is implemented, I can’t think of any other reason to complain about it.

I suppose now I’ve opened myself up to all sorts of attacks: I’m anti-freedom, I guess. I hate the amazing liberation of piracy. I’m denying the sales power inherent in free.

No, no, and no.

I have no problem giving away free stuff in order to get people interested in my work. Hell, I was in charge of Free Comic Book Day, remember? I am well aware of the power of free.

The issue, again, is that the decision to give away my work should be mine, not some pirate’s. It is my work. I get to decide. Not you. Not a script-kiddie with too much computing power and too much time on his hands.

Many pirates, it must be said, put their money where their mouths are. They freely give away and allow to be redistributed, for example, the tools they’ve devised to pirate other people’s work. And I applaud them for not being hypocrites at the same time that I exhort them (and everyone reading this) to note that doing so was a choice they made. A choice.

It is not a choice someone else made for them.

So why should they get a free pass in taking that choice away from me?

I don’t think they should.

So, yes — I will never stop the pirates of the world. But that’s OK. I don’t intend to. But I also will never simply throw my hands in the air and say, “OK, everyone — steal from me.”

Because that’s my choice.

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

What’s Wrong with Publishing? #8: What’s Right with Publishing?

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine, a fellow author. I mentioned this little series of blogs about publishing issues and she said, “Aren’t you afraid you might offend someone?”

I explained that I try to avoid that and that — just to be safe — I have a handy disclaimer on each post, but her comment got me thinking. While it’s axiomatic that a series called “What’s Wrong with Publishing?” will focus on the negative, shouldn’t I also give some time to the good stuff about publishing?

Well, duh. Of course.

This entry is by no means intended to be comprehensive. It’s just some things I love about publishing, fired from the hip.

1) Passion. I have yet to meet an author who wants to hack out a book for a quick paycheck. Every editor I’ve ever met wishes every book s/he is editing could be a bestseller and reap rewards not for the editor, but for the author. Selfless! Every publicist I’ve met has wished for a limitless budget to shout the glories of his/her list to the world. The publishing big-wigs — the publishers, executives, etc. — are humble and pleasant, thrilled to speak with their authors. (I’ve never met a “suit” who treated authors as fungible widgets or acted as if authors were to be tolerated.) I have yet to meet an agent who is not unfailingly, unrelentingly upbeat about his or her clients, who would not move heaven, earth, and any other realms to bring success to their clients. This is just a fabulous place to live, this publishing industry.

2) We Create. When was the last time you saw a TV show or a movie that was a remake of something older? When was the last time you heard a song that covered a classic? OK, now that you’ve answered those questions, answer this one: When was the last time you read a book that was a remake of an older one? (And when I say “remake,” I don’t mean “influenced by.” I’m talking about an actual remake.)

3) New Chances. Every single year, new authors are published, fresh-faced debut newbies with new things to say and new ways of saying them. Not all of them survive the cut, but they get the chance. Think about that, the next time you watch a TV show or a movie starring the same old cast. Yes, newbies break out in other media, too, but how many? And how many of them get the opportunities given to new authors? An actor needs to surprise the world with a star turn in a movie or TV show before he or she will be feted and given massive exposure. In publishing, a house can say, “This new guy has promise” and start promoting the new work before anyone knows the new guy’s name.

4) The Words Matter. Your religion, race, age, sexual orientation, favorite Jonas Brother, computer platform of choice, and attitude on the Middle East don’t matter at all. All that matters is the writing. If you want, it’s entirely possible to have books published without anyone knowing what you look like, how old you are, where you’re from, or even what your real name is.

5) Old Chances. Older writers who may have thought their best years are behind them can often find fans at other publishing houses and relaunch themselves. Rare is the publishing professional who will say, “So-and-so is too old for books.” Compare to TV, movies, music.

6) Risk. Publishers take risks. They publish books that may be complicated or weird or off-putting. They try new kinds of storytelling. Since it’s cheaper to publish a book than it is to produce a movie or many other forms of media, they can gamble a little more with an unconventional idea or an out-of-left-field tale. Yes, other media take risks, too, but not on the scale of publishing. Some of the smash hits of publishing were originally books that no one was sure would “take” in the wider audience…but someone took a risk and threw the dice.

7) The Big Support the Small. Now, I don’t necessarily find this an ideal situation and I’d like to see it change, but while the status quo remains, it’s good that the big books earn so much money that publishers can afford to take a chance on smaller books. In a perfect world, each book would be self-supporting and earn its own way, but we don’t live in a perfect world. It would be easy, I imagine, for publishers to say, “Well, we made $10 million on Bigshot McBestseller’s new book. Let’s call it a day and come into the office when the next one’s due.” But that doesn’t seem to be in publishing’s DNA. Instead, someone says, “Let’s carve off a little of that ten million and see what happens with this little book over here that we all love so much.” To those who worry about a “blockbuster” mentality consuming publishing, I point to this as contrary evidence.

There you have it — a baker’s half-dozen of things I love about publishing, things that the industry definitely does right. There are many more, I know, but these are the ones I reflect on often, especially when I write about what the business does wrong. Because even though I want to see things change…I don’t want to see them change to the extent that we lose the many wonderful things publishing gets right.