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.”


“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.

Revisting, briefly, the source of my Publishing Predictions

As I’ve already said, all of my predictions about publishing come from observing other industries that have recently gone digital (in some cases, unwillingly).

From that, I’ve projected things like the demise of chain bookstores; their failure slowed but not stopped by stubborn publishers clinging to DRM in a vain effort to make digital books work like paper books, and as a result making ebooks not more ‘secure’, but less attractive for early adoption by the casual consumers who (understandably) prefer to actually own the shit they buy.

It’s just fucking math, guys.

In 2001, we got the iPod. Three million iPods were sold in two and a half years.
Nine years later, the number of employees of music stores has dropped from 80,000 people to 20,000.

Three million iPods were sold in two and a half years.

Three million Kindles were sold in two years.

Three million iPads were sold in eighty days.

Three million iPhones were sold in three weeks.

Just do the fucking math.


I am like some kind of genius at predicting stupidity

Twenty days ago, in this post, I made a prediction:

At least one — probably several — big publishers will try to introduce their own ebook reader or ebook format, despite the fact that popular formats exist and are already being whittled down to a few survivors. These things will suck huge amounts of money that could have been spent partnering with existing solution providers and solving the problem with already-adopted tech.


Check this bit of brilliance out:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced a tabletish color ereader targeted at children in mid-2011. Called the Fable, the seven-inch touchscreen device will sell for between $149 and $179 (plus cellular connection fees). “Several” HMH books will be pre-loaded on the device, and Isabella ceo Matthew Growley says they “have right now four other publishers signed up,” though he would not name them. (That implies, but does not state, that the company is thinking of a proprietary store and/or format.) The device will be sold from their own website and “select retailers.”

Nook Color notwithstanding, HMH svp of digital strategy and planning Cheryl Cramer Toto says “there is a real market need out there for a kids’ color tablet.”

In other device news, E Ink [Doyce: the technology that Kindle uses] is unveiling their first color electronic paper display at a trade show in Tokyo today.

Tomorrow, Ford will announce a product called an “fTire” that will, in the words of one insider, “reinvent the wheel”.

Jesus wept.

People: Kids books make up twenty-five percent of Kindle sales. It’s the fastest growing category for Kindle. I needn’t mention what percentage of all ebook sales Kindle and Nook represent.

Can someone else compete with Kindle? Yes. Can someone build a better, cheaper ereader than Kindle? Yes.

But you know who won’t?

Publishers. Building the next great electronic gadget is not what they do. It is, in fact, one of the best examples of Not What They Do.

Okay, I’m done ranting. I’ll wrap up with another prediction. Here we go:

This isn’t over. At least one other publisher will announce some similar project in the near future.

(Because why just compete with Kindle when you can compete with each other as well? *headdesk*)

Publishing, Charlotte*, and John*

Today, kids, it’s storytime.

But first (and related to the story), I’m going to revisit the Macmillan/Amazon Weekend Event and talk about publishing in general.

Now, Amazon came out yesterday with a statement about the whole weekend drama llama. Yes, they attempted to paint themselves, disingenuously, as “fighting for the little guy”, and I rolled my eyes, but I was surprised that most of the snickering and snide commentary from the internets was directed at their use of the word “monopoly” when describing Macmillan’s control over their imprints.

I was also kind of disappointed. The people doing the snickering are readers (and writers), and they should understand the meaning of the word well enough to know that it was perfectly apt.

Monopoly: exclusive control or possession of something.

Of course Macmillan has a monopoly on the books produced by their various imprints. It could not be otherwise. It’s not a monopoly in the “Ma Bell” sense, but that wasn’t the sense in which it was being used.

Does Amazon likewise have a monopoly on ebook sales?

Nnnnnnno. Maybe no. Probably not. They do not control ebook sales to the degree that Macmillan controls who gets access to Macmillan books.

But hey: it’s close enough that if someone said “Amazon essentially has a monopoly on ebook sales”, I would not bother to argue, because it’s not worth the effort and gets us nowhere. For the sake of argument, let’s say both Amazon and Macmillan both have “exclusive control or possession of something” that the other one wants some access to.

Ultimately, all that happened this weekend was Macmillan and Amazon fighting over which monopoly interest gets to exert their pricing desires, not whether. And the thing to remember about that is that pricing determined by a monopoly is, generally, never good for the consumer.

So who was I rooting for in that weekend fracas? Please: that’s like betting on a fight between two rabid weasels — I’d prefer they both lose.  Amazon’s just trying to maintain their hold on epublishing and push Kindle sales, and Macmillan won’t earn authors one cent more by forcing Amazon to sell books for $15 bucks (they should, but only if the author has the sense to renegotiate contracts based on the change to the market Macmillan’s trying to push through), and their justification for the ebook pricing is an insult to my intelligence.

Who do I think will ultimately win? In the end, any of the Big Six publishers will probably come out ahead in a game of chicken with Amazon unless technology provides a new model for publishing, because publishers have more leverage as the content provider.

(Really, authors should have the most leverage of all as the true source of content, but that logic only works if authors acted in unison, which… well, come on. The most influential move most of us make in a given day is deciding whether or not wear pants.)

For me, all that this weekend did was remind me how much is broken with regard to the way publishing works.

Writers, whether published or not-quite-yet, please hear this: I need you to think like a reader for a little bit. I know you are readers. I know. Shh. Shut up and bear with me. This isn’t a trick: I’m not going to steal all your royalty checks while your eyes are closed. Just… think like the person who, at the end of the day, finally buys and reads a book.

Because here’s the thing: in the world of paper publishing, publishers don’t give a tin can fuck about you, the reader.

  • In the world of paper publishing, you are not their customer.
  • In the world of paper publishing, the book seller is their customer. This means that it doesn’t matter if you think a book costs too much; it only matters if their customer thinks so.
  • In the world of electronic publishing, you are not the publisher’s customer either. Amazon is their customer. Mac iBook store is their customer.
  • In the world of electronic publishing, you *could* be their direct customer, but in almost all cases, you aren’t.
  • Here’s a dirty little secret: the Big Six don’t really want you to be their customer. If a bunch of people are their customers, there are suddenly all these individuals who ‘want things’ and ‘have opinions’. Right now? There’s a handful of customers to deal with/please/coerce. The current set up is better and easier for publishers.

Please don’t think that I hate publishers for this. They are businesses. This is how the business works right now and, unless the technology available forces a sea change, it is how it will continue to work.

And please don’t think I’m lumping writers in with publishers. Writers (all those I know, and I know quite a few) love readers, even if they aren’t their readers. As I said, they are readers.

So, be that reader for a second. Let me help.

Let me tell you about Charlotte*.


Charlotte is one my coworkers. Charlotte loves to read. She doesn’t really read the same kind of stuff that I do, but we still manage to find lots of reader-stuff to talk about, because there’s a kind of commonality two avid readers can usually find.

Right now, Char’s having a pretty rough time. Like a lot of folks, she’s feeling the pinch of the recession: she traded in her much beloved, bright red vehicle for one with lower monthly payments; she and her husband are looking for a more affordable place to live because their current house is proving to be too much of a burden right now. She’s got a injury that she has to go to physical therapy for several times a week.

… and she has to deal with John*.  John is old school. John doesn’t use Outlook’s calendar function – he writes down everything on one of those desktop blotter calendars and insists that be the ‘master calendar’ for his department, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of retrograde thinking that floats around inside his head.

(Note: that isn’t actually the master calendar for his department: every few weeks, someone takes his calendar and “manually syncs” it with the Outlook calendar EVERYONE ELSE uses, thus creating a viable electronic version… which he’ll never ever see. Which, come to that, he doesn’t even understand the need for.)

At Christmas time, Charlotte asked for one thing: a Kindle. As far as I could tell, everyone in her life pretty much chipped in and got it for her. Maybe she got some other things as well, but if so, I didn’t hear about them. She loves that thing, and she uses it constantly. Her lunch breaks are Kindle breaks. Her weekends (thanks to her injury) are pretty much “Kindle and heating pad” days. We’ve talked about Amazon’s DRM on the Kindle a few times, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t really affect her and so long as that continues to be the case, she doesn’t really care.

She just wants to read.

And, I think it’s safe to say, because of the Kindle, she’s buying more books than ever. Any writer would be lucky to have Charlotte as a fan.

Well, maybe.

Not if your ebooks cost fifteen bucks.

See, when I got a chance to talk to Charlotte after all this stuff that happened this weekend, the first thing I asked her about was her purchasing habits with her Kindle, because she’s the only person I know who uses their Kindle in the way in which it was intended. Kate uses one, but she uses it exclusively for work, which means reading partial and full manuscript submissions sent to her by authors. My agent also uses one, but pretty much in the exact same way. As far as I know only Charlotte uses it the way a regular reader does.

And Charlotte doesn’t buy fifteen dollar ebooks. Most of the time (are you listening, Amazon?) Charlotte doesn’t buy ten dollar ebooks. Given a choice between a book listed for five bucks and ten bucks (or the promo stuff available for free), and all other things (quality, subject, reader interest) being equal, she’s just not going to buy the ten dollar book. They’re both books, after all, reasonably well-vetted, and as I’ve said, she just wants to read.

“But,” cries the writer, “if I let Amazon list the book for five dollars (or four, or three, or two), I will make half as much per sale.”

Sure. Yes.

You know how much money you’re going to make from selling that ten (or fifteen) dollar book to Charlotte?


Because she didn’t buy it.

Cheap sells more copies — puts more copies of your story in front of more readers.

And maybe, juuuust maybe, authors should be more concerned with getting their stories to the greatest number of readers, instead of worrying about per-sale payoff.

Maybe publishers should be too, instead of clinging to the old publishing model in which their real business is selling paper.

Stuff I Learned this Weekend

In the postscript to this piece, Eirik Newth India, Ink. explains why Big Publishing consistently cites costs to create ebooks that fall miles outside my experience and expectation.

Short version: they’re doing it wrong.

Long version:

Publishers are still producing paper books the “X-Acto–and–wax” way and then outsourcing their e-book production to other companies, which probably automate the conversion process, and then they’re not practicing any kind of QA on what comes back, because nobody gives a shit, because the people who make the decisions don’t read e-books.

No wonder they think making an ebook is an expensive, time-consuming process.

Yes, you read that right. Publishers aren’t producing workable electronic files when they produce a paper book — their product essentially has to be OCR’d by a third party company to get an ebook out of it. They start with a hardcopy difficult-to-translate template file and make someone else turn it into an electronic version for distribution; a version they’ll never read.

They are, in short, my coworker John.

John’s on a ‘planned retirement’ schedule that concludes in a little over a year.

People are counting. the. days.

Draw whatever parallels from that that you like.

Big Problems, Little Solutions: E-book Publishing Ideas Stolen from Gamers

Yesterday’s post generated a lot of interest. And emotion, yes, but mostly interest. If I can be allowed to revisit that post for a second, I’d like to sum the whole thing up like so:

Ignore questions of infrastructure and the costs of ebook file development; those things are tangential to the current issue. What Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins are doing by delaying release of ebooks has nothing to do with those issues. It is about money. Period. It’s either about pushing readers toward the purchase of hardbacks, like the good old days, or it’s about the shoving match going on between Amazon and the Big Six over the price of ebooks. Either way, it’s about money.

However, the tunnel-vision focus from the Big Six on that single issue means that they are missing something critical: by delaying the release of official ebooks, they are creating an environment in which ebook piracy (thus far, a negligible issue) can and will thrive. This will hurt them, and I believe they will transfer that pain – which they caused themselves – to their authors.

This makes me angry.


There. That’s all of yesterday TLDR post, in three paragraphs. You’re welcome.

Now then.

Generally, I try to avoid pointing out a problem without proposing some possible solutions. Doing otherwise is what the kids these days refer to as a “dick move”.


What could the Big Six do, with regard to the release of ebooks, that would be better than the idea they’re currently going with?

As I said yesterday:

Some folks asked me yesterday what I thought of James McQuivey’s idea to delay the ebook-as-a-separate-thing by four months, but also give it away as a free thing with every purchase of a hardback edition. I think it’s a great idea. I thought it was a great idea when I suggested it to my agent about six months ago on Twitter. However, I won’t take credit for it – the indie gaming industry has been doing that for years; as a smaller, more nimble publishing organism, it has already felt and adapted to the changes of the digital age, and could teach the ‘real’ publishing world a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

I told Joanna Penn in an interview last year that the tabletop role-playing gaming industry started out by trying to model the methods of traditional publishing, found out the hard way that that really didn’t work for them (in the long run, it’s not working for big publishers either, but they’re BIG, so they didn’t notice as soon), and had to find new solutions.  They were the first to adopt electronic publishing, shame-free POD printing, electronic-only publishing, podcasting-modules, mixed media releases, and every other experimental method anyone could think of, good or bad. That’s fine: they’re small, and experimenting is something  small groups of people can DO that big groups can’t.

But what that means is that they’ve come up with some things that consistently seem to work, which, to a greater or lesser degree, might translate into solutions for Big Publishing that would please even the greedy bastards longing for the golden profits of yesteryear.  I don’t have much time, so let’s get right to it.

Package the ebook with the hardback as a value-add

This works. More to the point it IS WORKING. Not just in gaming, but on Amazon, with the Kindle. For gaming examples, go to indie press revolution and take a look at the options for games like Penny for My ThoughtsSpirit of the Century, or Mouse Guard.  I’m not going to discuss this further; this is the granddaddy of ‘new’ ideas, and dead-fucking-simple to implement.


Whazza? Subscriptions?

Eleven million WoW players tells me that this is a sales method that can work.

Take a look at Paizo.com. They have a brilliant kind of deal set up for all their games and plain-old books: set up a subscription to one of their channels (like Planet Stories, which is your classic pulp “planetary romance” stuff). It costs you X dollars a year or whatever. Every month, you get an email about the new releases within that “channel”, on ebook. NEW releases. If you decide to buy, you get 30% off the unwashed-masses price. (Edit: Or hey, you get it on day-of-hardback-release. Even better: Both.)

Or, how about the Big Dog of gaming, Wizards of the CoastWotC has done some stupid stuff with regard to PDFs of their products in the past, but DnD Insider is smart. Pay for a monthly subscription to the service, and you a couple magazines every month with articles and useful stuff, written by the names you’re already fans of, some cool apps, and ‘free’ access to every one of their current books, as searchable PDFs.  I’m not a member, but I gather that members also get access to ‘preview’ copies of upcoming books, months before they’re released, which generates stir and interest and maybe a few advance reviews posted on —

Oh, you know what that sounds like in publishing? Advance Reader Copies (ARCs).

Yeah: “Sign up for our monthly subscription, and get digital ARCs of our upcoming titles, and a discount on the REAL digital copy when it’s released.” What book nerd wouldn’t jump at the chance?

The Ransom Model

There are a couple game designers who do stuff like this, notably Greg Stolze and Daniel Solis. There are a couple different ways it gets implemented. With Stolze’s Reign supplements, if Greg collects enough money from contributors (the “threshold pledge”) he releases the ebook as a free download for anyone and everyone.  An easy tweak for this in Big Publishing works like this: “If we get enough preorders for the ebook, we’ll release it the same day as the hardback comes out. If not, you have to wait.” I like this, because it lets consumers tell publishers what they want — a ransom model works pretty well as a market study — the consumer has power, and if they don’t exercise it, the publisher feels justified in delaying release.

I can’t help but note that this is a pretty workable thing for indie authors. (If you don’t want to take preorder money for something you might not end up doing, run it like a publish-athon and just take pledges — it’s still a good a way to gauge interest.)

You can also reward the ransom-preorder people in lots of fun ways. A thank-you list on the website or inside the book, mentioning people who helped make that version of the book happen when it did. A unique cover for the advance-order people. Hell, I dunno – what else would be cool?

That’s stuff off the top of my head, stolen from people who are making it work in gaming (and thanks to Chris Weeda for the suggestion).

The important take-away is this: ideas and implementations vary, but they all have one thing in common: they require embracing e-publishing, not holding it at arm’s length like a used condom you found in the spare sheets for your hotel room.

Embracing it. That’s the first thing publishers need to do. That’s the first step.

Right now? I’m not seeing it.

And that’s not a problem anyone but the publishers themselves can fix.