Publishers, E-Books, and DRM

2012-02-18: Updated the post with translations from the original letter.

I’m an Addison-Wesley author and just received a letter from Pearson, the owner of Addison-Wesley, informing me about their thoughts and steps towards e-books and the digital age. The letter is written as an open letter with no apparent secrets, so I’m making it available here for anyone interested to read and to comment on it.

In general, I have sympathies with companies trying to sustain their revenue streams. I do expect them, however, to understand that change is inevitable and to flexibly react to and to lead that change for their customers’ sake and not just their shareholders’ sake. As an author, I’m naturally in a similar or at least related situation.

The PDF is marked up with numbers. The following list relates to what the (German) letter says on the respective issues:

  1. Letter: “The e-book is entering mainstream […]” – I’m glad to see Pearson realized that e-books are inevitable. While some may argue that’s hardly news I’m well aware of many publishers still fighting this development.
  2. Letter: “It is important to maintain price control […]” – I can also understand that distribution partners are trying to take their share of the revenue and that this is a major struggle for publishers who missed out on creating their own effective channels.
  3. Letter: “We believe in the value of content you entrust to us […]” – Naturally, as an author, I believe in the value of my books. I also hope that this value can be enhanced through e-books and ancillary services! I don’t agree that this naturally leads to DRM (Digital Rights Management) as a primary control mechanism. There may be reasons for and uses of DRM, but not as a general approach to e-books. Here is my thinking:
    • DRM is a nuissance and typically locks me into a platform. As a buyer, I don’t get the full freedom of use that I’m used from trad. books. Personally, I hate this. It is the primary reason why I never bought anything on iTunes and will keep a safe distance to all things Apple and proprietary lock-in.
    • DRM may be an intermediary solution until publishers figure out a better business model. As such, DRM is fighting progress, trying to keep us locked into “old ways of doing things”, thus reducing the potential for innovation and making us all worse off.
  4. Letter: “[…] we use DRM to protect your content […]” – I don’t like suggestive sentences like “it is important for authors to have their content protected” – who said that? Nobody says you should naively dump all works onto the net; the smart publisher uses the net for experimentation with new business models rather than trying to maintain the status quo.
  5. Letter: “[…] Rough Cuts gives readers a pre-release version of a book […]” – I’m reassuring publishers that innovation will happen, like this example given by Pearson here. So, publishers need to improve their ability to innovate, more rapidly. How to feature-differentiate? How to enhance value? How to provide complementary services? That’s Business 101.
  6. Letter: “[…] how to consume books will be an important issue […]” – So it is obvious to me that the publishing products of the future will be much more than just “books” as still suggested by much of this letter.

The good news? Innovation can open up new revenue streams. I actually believe that well-done e-books should cost more than the paper copy. If DRM didn’t get in the way, that is. I certainly would be willing to pay more for the added flexibility and benefits, and the main reason why I’m not doing it today is that I can’t stand the restrictions of being locked into some random platform trying to dictate my usage patterns.

As an author, shouldn’t I simply be behind Pearson supporting them in any way I can? After all, I’ll be getting more royalty payments if Pearson is making more money? The answer is obviously no, not just out of principle, but also because not pushing ahead with innovation is robbing me of additional revenues.

4 thoughts on “Publishers, E-Books, and DRM”

  1. When they say, “It is important for authors to have their content protected,” I think they mean, “It is important for _us_ to have authors’ content protected”.

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