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.



  1. […] Note: The above is reprinted, with permission, from Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog. PB Digg us. Slashdot us. Facebook us. Twitter us. Share the […]


    Pingback by The Guillotine of Change: Off With their Heads | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home — January 18, 2010 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  2. Excellent article. I suppose that I could be considered to be on the anti-DRM side of the argument but I simply exercise my choice to not purchase any book or device that is DRM enabled in any way. It’s pretty simple.

    It comes down to choice and I believe that there’s no point in trying to talk someone out of their Kindle or their Kindle content if they’re enjoying the reading experience and don’t mind the price point.

    What I think is interesting is this equation: Content with DRM = free because one can simply download a cracked copy from a file sharing network. Content without DRM worth paying something for ($9.99 is still way too much… for me).

    Again, it’s about choice. And opportunities to get what you want when you want for the price that you’re willing to pay. It’s not an either/or argument – it’s either/and. It’s a ‘Do I really feel like downloading DRM enabled content for this price and am I able to find it elsewhere without DRM for a better price and is there something else that I’d rather focus my time and attention on than this proprietary, infinitely replicable digital file that is somehow still priced via the scarcity model and maybe I don’t really care about this book file at all but would rather download something from Rapidshare that’s outside of copyright, open source, possibly pirated, contains better information and content fidelity than what the publisher is providing because it’s been scanned by a fan and not an unpaid intern, etc…?’

    Thanks for the excellent read. Looking forward to more from this blog.


    Comment by Sean Cranbury — January 18, 2010 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

  3. […] Canada, pointed me (and everyone else on Twitter) to an interesting post on e-books at An American Editor by Rich Adin. It’s a nice coda to the Guy LeCharles Gonzalez post I mentioned yesterday: No […]


    Pingback by Heads Will Roll | The Casual Optimist — January 19, 2010 @ 1:27 am | Reply

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by sell_ebooks: The Guillotine of Change: Off With their Heads: It is an interesting phenomenon. According to a vocal group of ebo…


    Trackback by uberVU - social comments — January 19, 2010 @ 1:49 am | Reply

  5. The “problem” of DRM—digital RIGHTS management—is not new. American publishers used to replicate British books without regard to ownership of rights, without paying the writer.

    That’s theft. So is distributing “infinitely replicable digital files” without regard to who owns the file, without paying the writer for producing the content.

    At least the old-time thieving publishers made believe they were participating in a market. Today e-book thieves steal because they feel entitled to. It’s the same issue of entitlement mentioned in the blog post. Readers feel “entitled” to read a book whether or not they provide anything in return, such as payment.

    So a thief who hacks into your financial records is “entitled” to use your credit card, right?

    You got a problem with that?


    Comment by SJ Driscoll — January 19, 2010 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  6. SJ Driscoll

    Great comment. Please dispatch your lawyers appropriately. The pirates will quiveringly await your paying the lawyers their hourly fees for tracking down heinous thieves stealing and reading your books and passing them around via the internets.

    Get out there and litigate! What’s stopping you? Or do you think that a guilt-inducing comment on a blog will have some effect?

    I have no problem with your saber-rattling. Please do more of it, as you’re entitled to do.

    Perhaps in the meantime I’ll go download a copy of Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury just to showcase my ‘entitlement’ – – either way, please be sure to have your technical experts tracks these files – it’s really easy and can be done at a very low cost that, when combined with the lawyers fees and compared to the cost of a single infinitely replicable digital file makes for some compelling mathematics!

    Oh wait, Faulkner’s in the public domain! Oh jeez, call the lawyers back and tell them to start tracking Dan Brown files instead.

    Get out there and stop this piracy menace, SJ Driscoll. Get out there and make the world right again to publishers and the poor, poor defenseless writers so beset on all sides by the horrible realities of the modern age.

    And when you’re done you can write a book about your noble battle because history, after all, is written by the victors.

    Best of luck. You’re entitled to it.


    Comment by Sean Cranbury — January 20, 2010 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  7. Hey, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!…..I”ll be checking in on a regularly now….Keep up the good work! 🙂


    Comment by TSwain — February 2, 2010 @ 12:32 am | Reply

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