Archive for April 16th, 2012

Shakeup, Shakedown

Today is Monday, April 16th.  The 11th, with its suit from the DOJ against Apple and five of the Big Six publishers is most of a week behind us, and lines are still being drawn in the sands.  In the end there’s one guarantee, this entire issue is bringing the future of publishing to much more public light than anything has in a good long time.  That’s probably for the best, it’s good that there is an informed public seeing, perhaps for the first time, just how their sausages are being made.  Even if it comes hand in hand with many of the predictable questions about why digital books should be so “expensive,” considering there’s no price to printing.

So a rundown of what I’ve been reading and what I’ve been thinking, starting with what’s turning into one of the bigger lightening rods, Charlie Stross’s weekend post “What Amazon’s ebook strategy means“.

And the peculiar evil genius of Amazon is that Amazon seems to be trying to simultaneously establish a wholesale monopsony and a retail monopoly in the ebook sector.

He makes an interesting point about DRM as a player in this game.  I’ve always had a rather funny feeling about DRM, embedded technology intended to prevent pirating of copyrighted digital material.  As a producer of intellectual property (even if it’s not all that intellectual), I’ve got a stake in the protection of copyright.  However, in the end, most DRM technology has proven only to make it difficult for legal owners of material to enjoy it, rather than stemming any actual piracy.  DRM on music, DRM on eBooks, DRM on movies, all are non-trivial to overcome, but all are also nothing more than annoyances for those who know their various workarounds.  So in the end, DRM misses its mark by hindering not the pirate but the casual user.

Stross says that DRM allowed Amazon’s near monopoly of the eBook market, they very one that the alleged collusion of Apple and the publishers was meant to combat.  It was the DRM/wholesale one-two punch that created the problem.

So, because Amazon had shoved a subsidized Kindle reader or a free Kindle iPhone app into their hands, and they’d bought a handful of books using it, the majority of customers found themselves locked in to the platform they’d started out on. Want to move to another platform? That’s hard; you lose all the books you’ve already bought, because you can’t take them with you.

By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers—and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony.

Amazon could take a loss on its sales of eBooks purchased under a wholesale basis (this loss is not in question), then have books locked to the Kindle thanks to the DRM.  Publishers didn’t entirely understand how the DRMs would work, but they wanted them because they would prevent piracy.  This was the advent of the modern eBook market, where most selling sources lock you into one format readable on only one reader or a family of readers.  Which means that consumers aren’t buying books, they’re buying licenses.  Stross sees the next move being the death of DRM.  Even as a content creator, I’m for this, as I don’t believe there would be any significant uptick in piracy, but there would be a significant uptick in availability of intellectual properties.  This is a net positive.

Want a dose of pessimism?  Baldur Bjarnason in his post Today is Not Tomorrow (reblogged with some additional commentary by Charlie Jane Anders on io9) looks at what the effect of an Amazon ruled eBook market could have on eBooks as a whole.  He identifies five problems:

  1. No margins (mostly due to hardware)
  2. No moat
  3. Subsidised hardware
  4. Integrated silo
  5. Specialised user-base (expert readers)

Basically by creating a specialty market, like the rise of the comic book store, Amazon ends up bracketing off a portion of the market that is more than happy with the developments, but makes it harder for someone new to get into reading eBooks.  They’re not on the newsstand, so to speak.

But, having captured the expert reader populace, Amazon is in the position to squeeze the market dry as it slowly fades away over the next twenty years. They won’t have the margins to expand novel reading and the Kindle is in many ways as unfriendly to casual readers as a comic book store is.

The Kindle as a device is a shibboleth for expert readers and as such drives casual readers away. ‘Why should I buy a Kindle? I only read a couple of books a year.’ It’s a symbol for a clique they know they won’t ever be a member of.

A free app, on the other hand, is a no-brainer decision for most people. They’ll download it, just in case.

But none of that addresses the problem of renewal once novels are removed from the public sphere. Comics have taught us that you can’t rely on parents training their children to love a medium, it needs to be instilled through exposure. The industry needs strong, healthy, and vibrant libraries. Ask any adult expert reader and they’ll all rave about how much time they spent in libraries as kids.

And here we get into another core issue, one that I don’t talk about much.  Libraries.  Publishers serve libraries in a way Amazon as yet doesn’t.  This makes sense.  Publishers support libraries because they benefit from people stumbling across new and interesting stories.  Amazon doesn’t because libraries buy one copy once and there’s no profit margin in that.  Publishers envision better profit through support, Amazon through neglect.

So what do we do?  We the writers who are just pounding away on keyboards and seeing the publishing world outside our windows going to hell in a handbag?  We do what we should always do: listen to Chuck Wendig on Prepping For The Publishing Doomsday:

Calm down.

Breathe easy.

In. Out. In. Out.

Maybe have a drink. Take a walk. Sip some oolong tea.

Then, when you’ve relaxed: keep writing.

Stay the course.

Which is what I’m going to do.  Because it’s all I can do right now.  Anything else is a course to madness, or worse, distraction from writing.  So yesterday I finished the rough draft of Chapter 34.  The outline goes 38 chapters plus an epilogue.  So I’m just going to keep writing it.  Then editing it.  Then see what comes when it comes.

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