An American Editor

January 18, 2010

The Guillotine of Change: Off With their Heads

It is an interesting phenomenon. According to a vocal group of ebook devotees, publishers must change their business model or die because they are not giving ebook consumers what they want: very inexpensive, perfectly edited and formatted, DRM-free ebooks released no later than the day that the hardcover version is released. Fail to give me what I want, then off with your head!

Amidst all this posturing there is a deafening silence from the publishers.

No industry changes overnight, so it is certain that publishers aren’t going to change their business model tomorrow just because a handful of people demand it. It’s like the digital rights management (DRM) argument. There is a group of Kindlers who demand that Amazon do away with DRM. If Amazon isn’t lying through its teeth, Kindles and Kindle edition ebooks with DRM are selling like hotcakes with few complaints about Kindle’s DRM and Amazon goes merrily on its own DRM way. Why? Because the clamor for no DRM is really a hoarse whisper. There are a handful of objectors out of the universe of ebook buyers. But the anger of the devotees, as few as they may be in number, continues and becomes increasingly strident, with neither side willing to “hear” the other.

How did we get to this point in the nascent war about ebooks? What is it that makes each side in the debate so planted in concrete that rational discourse is impossible?

I haven’t quite put my finger on the cause of this dissatisfaction other than recognizing it as the birth child of the Internet. A colleague who lambasts book publishers for their DRM and pricing, merrily goes along with his cable TV bill, even though he has no choice regarding TV provider but can choose from among myriad publishers, some with and some without DRM and objectionable pricing. Similarly, I go merrily along with publishers’ use of DRM and exercise my right to not buy a DRMed book, but I vigorously protest any attempt by cable to increase my TV cost. Perhaps the difference is that with ebooks I have a choice but with cable TV I don’t; there is competition in the ebook world, whereas there is no competition in the cable TV world, so I feel helpless in the latter but empowered in the former.

But perhaps we are at this point because of a more fundamental issue: The Age of the Internet has birthed a belief among some consumers that they are entitled to everything they want when they want it at a price they want to pay. This strikes me as being particularly true in the arguments of the ebookers. Although they demand, the questions remain: What entitles them to an ebook version of a book? What entitles them to a price threshold of $9.99? What entitles them to a DRM-free ebook? What entitles them to simultaneous release of an ebook and a hardcover?

Granted that the market can dictate terms. Eventually, the ebook market may require publishers to do away with DRM, release all book formats simultaneously, price no ebook higher than $9.99, and the like, but market-forced changes are significantly different than demands based on beliefs of entitlement. Entitlement says I have rights that are more valuable than your rights (or that you have no rights), whereas market-forced change says we both have rights and they are equally valuable, but one of us will give way because the market forced it.

I don’t know how this will shakeout, but it is clear to me that all parties will need to compromise. The ebookers have thrown down the gauntlet, the publishers need to pick it up and accept the challenge. Simply because some ebookers have decided that publishers have no role to play in the future ebook world doesn’t make it so. Publishers need to redefine themselves in 21st century terms, not rehash 20th century concepts.

Publishers do have a role to play, even if it is nothing more than preventing publishing from becoming wholly anarchic. But until publishers define their role in an ebook world, the call to off their heads will continue. If the call remains unchallenged long enough, it will become self-fullfilling, with publishers having no one to blame but themselves.

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