An American Editor

April 13, 2011

Frustration in eBookville: Will There Be a Rubicon for Publishers?

I’m one frustrated ebooker! I recently purchased several books in hardcover (The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt and Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg), which is (supposedly) what the publishers prefer I do. But although I bought hardcover versions for my library, I would like to do the actual reading on my Sony Reader.

I already own (and read years ago) Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and I would like to read it again but this time as an ebook. I am particularly interested in comparing the Arendt’s contemporaneous account (who also attended the trial) with Lipstadt’s hindsight account. The reviews of Lipstadt’s book indicate she comes to a conclusion opposite from Arendt regarding Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust.

All three books are available as ebooks. One would think, then that the problem is solved. Just buy the ebooks. Alas, it isn’t solved because of the exorbitant ebook pricing.

I purchased The Eichmann Trial for $16.20; the ebook costs $12.99. I purchased Bismarck: A Life for $21.25; the ebook costs $14.97. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was originally published in hardcover in 1963 (I own a first edition of the book). In 2006, Penguin released a paperback version. I can buy the paperback today for $10.98, but the ebook costs $12.99. Based on the ebook price, one would think Arendt’s book had been released for the first time yesterday, not that it is nearly 50 years since its publication!

The publishers of these books are playing a dangerous game. It is readers like me, that is, readers who want both hardcover and ebook versions of a book, that publishers and authors should be trying to find ways to accommodate. We are interested in buying a book twice.

Alas, it appears that neither the publishers nor the authors are able to wrap their heads around the concept of a decent package price. It is certainly obvious that publishers are fixated on a single remedy to cure all ills, with that remedy being high ebook pricing — even on a book first published 48 years ago. What happened to the promise of lower prices the further away from the initial hardcover release we are? How much farther away than 48 years do we need to be?

As it stands now, the ebook pricing scheme is forcing me to consider the darknet route for the ebooks. Truthfully, I’m not sure that I’d even consider, in this instance, darknetting as piracy, as I bought the version the publishers wanted me to buy — the hardcover version; after all, preserving hardcover sales was/is the rationale for high ebook pricing.

What the publishers should be doing is thinking up schemes to entice me to buy both the hardcover and ebook versions. The first step to accomplishing this is to come up with a realistic ebook price when the hardcover has already been purchased or as a package price at the time of the hardcover purchase. This latter approach would work easily.

Give me the option to buy the hardcover alone, the ebook alone, or the hardcover-plus-ebook combination. In the combination package, charge me $5 more than the hardcover alone. Because I value having hardcovers in my permanent collection but want the pleasure and ease of reading the book on my Sony Reader, I, for one, would readily pay a $5 premium for the package. Publishers should learn from the movie companies, which increasingly are offering DVDs in two packages: DVD alone and a combination of DVD plus Blu-Ray, with the combination package costing only a few dollars more.

With all their complaints about piracy and the threat the darknet raises to their existence, the reality is that publishers are their own worst enemy because they refuse to address honestly what the marketplace wants. Instead of complaining about their problems and doing nothing productive to solve them, publishers should be devising creative solutions to those problems — and packaging the hardcover and the ebook together, although not a final solution, is one interim solution that would increase sales and revenues yet preserve the hardcover that publishers seem to be focused on preserving.

If publishers do not take such steps, they will have met their own Rubicon. They will turn ebookers like me into darknetters, the opposite of what publishers want and need to happen. It is time for publishers to meet head on the challenges of the eBook Age and not continue to try to hide them beneath the carpet.

November 10, 2010

The Internet and Free: A Problem That Will Grow

Cook’s Source magazine has been the topic of conversation in recent days for grabbing a copyrighted article written by Monica Gaudio off the Internet and publishing it without permission or compensation. When Ms. Gaudio complained, she was told that she should be thankful Cook’s Source “improved” the article by editing it and then publishing it with attribution. Cook’s Source‘s editor wrote:

But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!

Ignoring the grammatical errors in the Cook’s Source response, which, considering he thinks Ms. Gaudio should pay him for his editing, adds insult to injury, the real question is whether Cook’s Source is simply reflecting a viewpoint that is becoming more commonplace among Internet users.

There has been a lot of uproar in recent years regarding software, book, music, and video “piracy.” On one side of the argument are the copyright holders whose works are “pirated,” and on the other are the consumers who do the “pirating.” (We need to be careful about using the term pirating or piracy because its use implies that the act is wrong. I want to use it here in a more neutral sense, the sense that it is simply a descriptor of action not a conclusion as to whether the action is right or wrong.)

Are the Internet and the posting of material online changing expectations? From what I observe of “consumer” attitudes, the answer is yes. Increasingly, Internet users expect these things to be free and freely usable — a phenomenon that seems to have an inverse relationship to the user’s age; increasingly, copyright has only meaning between companies and not between copyright holders and consumers.

The situation is exacerbated, at least in ebook world, by agency pricing and DRM. I suspect that there is less piracy of books that fall closer to the low-price-DRM-free side of the curve than of books that fall closer to the high-price-DRM side of the curve. The situation is also exacerbated by such things as YouTube and Wikipedia, both of which encourage sharing and free use. Consumers become accustomed to free use of intellectual property. There is also the problem of a decline in understanding among the general population of what constitutes intellectual property that is protectable and why it should be protectable. Is there any reason other than corporate greed to keep extending the protection life of Mickey Mouse?

Ask a teenager whether the sweater in Macy’s is free (or should be free) and the response usually is no, it costs money. Ask the same teenager whether the text on the Internet is free (or should be free) and the answer turns 180 degrees. The major difference, at least for books and text, is that to the upcoming generations words shouldn’t cost because no one owns them. When the discussion turns to copyright, they are either befuddled or they are familiar enough with copyright to say that it was OK to protect words when the protection was limited but with today’s extensions that make the protection nearly permanent, copyright has no meaning. Besides fair use is in such a state of disarray that few people have any understanding of where it ends. (I know of several publishers who unilaterally declare that x number of words constitutes fair use, with x changing depending on the book and the publisher. Of course, x applies to words quoted from books from other publishers, not from their books.)

If you think about it, the protection extensions in copyright law are contrary to capitalism and free market thinking. Society is willing to tolerate a limited extension, but not an extension that makes it more or less a permanent monopoly. Although Monica Gaudio is right that her work is protected by copyright, Cook’s Source is simply reflecting the capitalist-free market position that when copyright exists into absurdity (i.e., forever), it should be viewed as not existing at all.

This dilemma will never be resolved absent a recognition by the producers of copyrighted material that they are encouraging consumers to pirate their work by their demand for never-ending and increasingly restrictive protection. Consumers look at the ever-narrowing of their rights and take the only tack they can — they ignore the restrictions. The Republicans say that the midterm elections demonstrate that the Democrats don’t hear the people, perhaps the Republicans should listen to the voice of the consumer and reverse course on the DMCA and copyright laws — instead of pushing for increased protections and more onerous burdens on the consumer, they should push for a return to the original limits and a more relaxed view of fair use and what consumers can do with material they have legitimately bought.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: