An American Editor

March 5, 2010

The eBook Wars: Reality vs. Fantasy in Expectations

One of my favorite op-ed columnists is Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald. I don’t always agree with him, but like certain other columnists (Froma Harrop, Paul Krugman, Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, Linda Chavez, and George Will), I always read his opinion piece. Some people are worth reading and their opinions worth considering, whereas lining the litter box is the proper place for certain other columnists (Michelle Malkin comes readily to mind) — they simply lack any pretense to intelligent conversation. (If I want to be harangued, my wife and kids can do the job expertly.)

In a recent column, Pitts observed: “But objective reality does not change because you refuse to accept it. The fact that you refuse to acknowledge a wall does not change the fact that it’s a wall. And you shouldn’t have to hit it to find that out.” This made me think of the ebook war between ebookers and publishers.

Each side in this war has firm positions and beliefs from which they seemingly will not bend. eBookers expect low prices, no DRM, no geographical restrictions, near-perfect editing and formatting; publishers expect high prices, DRM, and good-but-not-perfect editing and formatting. Pricing and DRM are the hot button issues (along with geographical restrictions for those ebookers living outside the United States).

The reality for ebookers is that in the near term DRM is going to remain. Bang your head against that wall as often as you like, but until publishers find a way to minimize their financial gamble and until authors feel confident that ebookers will pay and not pirate, DRM will be part of ebooks. The financial stakes are simply too high for some publishers and many authors to give it up. Even the ebookers’ “friend” Amazon hasn’t been touting a non-DRM world for ebooks. (What would happen to the Kindle if one could buy any device and also buy books at Amazon?)

Yes, I know that DRM is really treating honest folk as pirates but let’s take another look at reality: Given the opportunity to get an ebook free or to pay for it, most people will take it for free. That’s just the way of humans. They might not go to the effort of stripping DRM and putting something up on the darknet for the world to access, or even visit the darknet themself, but there is a strong likelihood that they will e-mail the latest book to dozens of their friends if they can. It’s just being human.

So faced with the reality of DRM, what is the most productive thing for ebookers to do? I suggest urging publishers to adopt a single DRM scheme to which all publishers adhere and to which all publishers require all ebooksellers to adhere, and which they make available to all device makers. It doesn’t eliminate DRM but it reduces the “evils” of DRM for 97% of ebookers. Such a universal scheme would be a compromise win for both sides to the argument and we can move on to other pressing matters such as price. Yes, you’ve read this before; it has been part of my pitch for the central repository system, but it needn’t be part of such a system. What really matters is the universal DRM scheme, just like we see on CDs and DVDs — they can be purchased and played on any player from any hardware maker, which is the way it should be with ebooks.

Pricing is the second great evil of ebooks. To many ebookers, few fiction ebooks are worth more than $10; in fact, to many ebookers, few fiction ebooks are worth more than a few dollars when they come packaged with DRM and lackadaisical editing and formatting. Publishers, however, would like to see more ebooks sold at a price above $10 than a price below and with DRM. But neither side is living in the real world.

We already know why ebooks aren’t worth more than $10: they are leased, not owned because of the DRM; they aren’t really portable (e.g., for Kindlers, if Amazon goes out of business, so go ebook purchases); for many ebookers fiction ebooks are one-time reads; and the list goes on. Publishers, however, see great value in ebooks as mirrors of the print book. And authors want to collect a fair share of the proceeds.

This ground has been churned numerous times in past months and neither side has sole ownership of fantasy expectations. The question really is whether both sides are willing and able to give up some of their fantasies and meet in reality for the betterment of the vast majority of ebookers? This is an open question today.

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