If You Have to Steal My Book, Steal My Book

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share dinner with a guy from Amazon’s KDP and CreateSpace services (e-publishing to Kindle and Amazon-enabled print-on-demand, respectively). Also there: a couple other authors with published work out on the market. The conversation turned to ebooks and publishing and things like Digital Rights Management and all that sort of stuff; it was sort of inevitable.

I ended up arguing with one of the other authors a bit, because we had (and probably still have) fairly different views on these topics.

“I hate DRM,” I said. “I hate anything that says ‘since criminals theoretically exist, we need to put something in place that treats everyone like criminals, in order to deal with a few theoretically bad people.’ Even more, I hate something that artificially limits one story medium – e-books – so that it’s as equally crippled as some other medium – books.” (This was in regards to big publishers putting a usage cap on any ebooks purchased by libraries, which we’d already been talking about, and which I’ve previously opined is just a publishing company trying to charge rent on products the purchaser should entirely own.)

“Books do wear out,” said the other author.

“Sure,” I replied. “But e-books don’t, and there’s no reasonable excuse to force them to do so. Making e-books ‘expire’ because a paper book would wear out is like engineering cars to fail after thirty thousand miles because a horse would die if you rode it that far. Don’t confuse the actual story with the bucket being used to carry it.”

“You’d give up the sales you’d make from libraries needing to repurchase your e-book?”

“Absolutely!” People at another table glanced our way and I lowered my voice. “Look, I get paid… what? A buck per e-book sale? Maybe a buck and a half? Do you think I’d give up a buck and a half if it meant twenty five more people would read the story at the library? If I could be sure that would happen, I would happily give away a hundred or a thousand times that, because it would create readers who’d seek out my next story, out of hundreds or thousands of people who don’t currently know me and don’t care. There is absolutely no margin in restricting e-books in that fashion: in forcing a librarian to ask ‘Do I have the budget to re-order a new copy of this story?’ when the competition for their dwindling budget is always growing.”

The other author got that look on their face that says they don’t have any kind of counterargument, and aren’t happy about it. “That doesn’t have anything to do with normal DRM, though,” they muttered.

“Let me tell you about DRM,” I said. “When my book came out, one of my buddies – jokingly – said he wasn’t going to buy it, he was just going to wait until the e-book showed up on piratebay and download it. I told him when he found it on there, to tell me where, so I could post the location on my website and point people there if they liked.”

“Sure.”

“And when he does, I will do that, and here’s why: most people — hear me out — most people are not grabbing the e-book off a pirate site because they hate the idea of paying the author: they are doing it because either (a) they want to do with an e-book what they can’t do on Amazon and what they CAN do with a paper book in a store: read the first couple chapters to see if they’ll like it or (b) they already bought the story in some other format and feel they’ve bought the story and deserve that story in other formats — which is a stance I happen to agree with, because I care about whether they bought the story, not whether they paid for a particular format.”

“Actually,” the amazon guy said “we’ve just started doing that with music. If you’ve bought a CD on amazon – like, ever – you can now download the MP3s of those albums. You bought the song, not the format.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Which means that publishing will eventually get there, once they finish imitating all of the music industry’s mistakes, because publishing is copying the music industry’s evolution pretty much exactly, but fifteen years behind.”

“What about audiobooks?”

“Totally different thing,” I said. “You bought the story. You did not buy the right to hear Morgan Freeman read it to you. That, you should pay for separately, and as a general rule people do because — as a general rule — people aren’t criminals and shouldn’t be treated as though they are.”

“But what about piracy?”

“Prove to me piracy exists as a sales-damaging activity — I don’t believe it does; the biggest file downloaders are statistically those spending the most on the stuff they’re supposedly stealing — and I’ll spend time trying to fix it.” I thought for a second. “Actually, I know how to stop piracy. Entirely.”

The author across from me crossed her arms, but the Amazon guy leaned in. I pointed at him. “Amazon needs to get make it so that everything you can do with piracy is easier with Amazon. Hell, not even easier. Just “as easy”, or even “almost as easy, but guaranteed safe with no viruses.” I smiled, thinking of my wife, whom I missed more and more every day of this trip. “I’m not much of an optimist, but I’ll say this: people are generally good — give them an option where they can do the right thing, not be treated like a criminal, and actually OWN the thing they paid for, and they’ll pay for it, even if a shady-but-free option exists.” I looked at the author. “Some won’t, but they were never going to become a long-time reader anyway — they’re already a lost cause. You didn’t lose anything with them.”

None of this conversation was new thinking for me. I’ve said much it before, more or less, but it was new to them, and maybe it will be new for whomever is reading this, so that makes it worth repeating.

The Amazon guy, at any rate, thanked me, and thanked me again the next day, and in an email a week later, so maybe some good will come of it.

Here’s hoping.

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