The trouble with eBooks: publishers defying the laws of physics

25 July 2011

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it - Upton Sinclair

How do you lend an ebook?  This is the problem that confronted public libraries as eBooks first started to emerge.  A realistic solution still hasn’t surfaced.  What we currently have is a mishmash of ‘solutions’ from publishers, distributors and library management system vendors, all of which seek to emulate the way physical books circulate.

A license to read

The basic problem is that lending ebooks is absurd.  An ebook is simply an electronic file.  It doesn’t need to be loaned - it can simply be copied, perfectly, without damaging the original.  The publishers’ dirty little secret is that they are terrified of ebooks.

For libraries, ebooks are attractive because they don’t wear out, can’t be dropped in the bath or chewed by the dog, don’t require people to physically visit the library building in order to borrow them, don’t have to be checked in and out by hand, don’t need to be stored on a shelf and can be made available to multiple people simultaneously.  Unfortunately, publishers have focussed a great deal of their creativity on working out ways to ensure that most of these advantages are rendered impossible, ensuring that ebook lending defies physics and nature.

Fantasy wear and tear

Earlier this year outrage swept the biblioblogosphere when HarperCollins announced a new policy for the ebooks they make available to libraries via the e-lending platform Overdrive.  The policy?  Each ebook ‘copy’ would now only be able to be loaned 26 times - ever.  Libraries wanting to enable further loans would have to pay full price again for another 26 loans.  Librarians were outraged, but this is only one of multiple absurdities when it comes to ebooks and libraries.

Download from wherever you are - as long as you’re in the library

In October 2010 the UK Publisher’s Association announced an agreed position on ebook lending that forces UK libraries to restrict the downloading of ebooks to devices that are physically located within the library building.  The justification was that one library had allowed people to join up from China and download ‘massive’ amounts of ebooks.  This is like Apple insisting that customers be located in an Apple Store to download songs from iTunes.

Enforcing the laws of physics, even when they don’t apply

In the world of paper books, when A song of ice and fire is turned into a television series libraries have to wait for the reprint, then purchase five new copies of each book in the series to ensure that patrons don’t have to wait absurdly long to read it.  An ebook version should solve this problem by allowing as  many people as want to read it to download a copy whenever they like: all at the same time if necessary.

The problem for libraries is that this sort of sensible, logical arrangement is not available.  Publishers make ebooks available in exactly the same way they make paperback books available - one at a time, for $20-$30 each, and only able to be read on one device at a time.

There is no good reason for this to be the way libraries and their patrons get access to ebooks.  Journals, magazines and newspapers have long been available on a ‘unlimited concurrent users’ subscription model, and in the USA even movies are available on the same model straight to the home via Netflix.  But book publishers, long used to calling the shots and controlling their product via complex ‘territory’ distribution licenses, ’30 day rules’ and import restrictions are hardly going to let a little thing like the laws of physics get between them and an unearned pot of money.

Deja vu all over again

This sort of stupidity has only one logical endpoint - mass piracy.  We know this because the same tactics being tried by publishers have already been tried, and failed, in the music recording industry and the film industry.  The problem for book publishers is even more profound than the example of the record companies, however.  At least recording studios full of expensive equipment are still needed to produce high quality recordings.  When it comes to ebooks, publishers are largely irrelevant.  Why would any author hand over their lifetime copyrights to a  publisher for a dollar a copy when they can make more money by paying an editor a couple of thousand to edit the manuscript and selling it for $3 a copy on Amazon or the iBook store?

While everyone was carrying on about the demise of bookshops and the takeover of Book Depository by Amazon, Pearson quietly bought up REDGroup’s online assets.  Pearson, at least, sees that from now on the money will be made in online sales, and that as a publisher they need to diversify their income streams.

Segment and gouge

What of the actual producers in the book supply chain - the authors? Under the historic publishing model, they get screwed. A book that sells for $30 returns somewhere between $1 and $3 to the author. The rest is chewed up by editing, printing & typesetting, distribution, warehousing, retailing and, if they’re lucky, marketing. If they have an agent, typically the agent takes half of the royalties before they hit the author’s bank account. This is no way to make a living - for every Dan Brown there are thousands of authors struggling to make rent, and tens of thousands struggling to be published at all.

The byzantine rules in publishing regarding who can sell what where and, just as importantly, when, are not restricted to books.  Ever wondered about ‘regions’ for DVDs?  They are an invention of the film industry to enable them to segment the world market, charging high prices where the market will bear them (eg Australia) and low prices where it will not (eg Vietnam).  There is no other reason for them to exist.  The equivalent in the publishing world is ‘territorial publishing rights’, where agents - or more usually publishers - restrict the sale of particular print runs to particular countries.

This may have had its uses in previous decades.  Publishing in the UK in June and in the USA in December has obvious benefits in an analogue world - an author can tour the UK for book signings and talks before travelling to the US to do the same, the jacket for the US edition can include reviews from the UK press and so on.  In the instantly connected online world of 2011, however, the benefits need to be weighed against new disadvantages.  When blogs and websites are suddenly filled with gushing praise about a new book, and you’re told you have to wait six months for it to be released in your country but it is freely available in another, what are you going to do?  Get it airfreighted in?  What if you hear it’s available online as an ebook, but only in particular countries?  The answer is obvious - if you can’t get it legally, you’ll get it illegally.  A casual look at all the Australians raving about HBO’s Game of thrones on Twitter in April exemplifies the point - it has only been available to watch on Australian cable TV this month.  Just as the record industry learned from Napster’s success, if you make it hard for people to pay you for the cultural product you produce, they won’t.  By the time the book is officially launched the caravan has moved on.

Anti-book publishing

I don’t much care whether publishers in their current form go to the wall, but I do care that authors are properly compensated when they produce quality work.  The publishing industry is heading towards a cliff, and authors are currently strapped in with them.  There are other models (which we’ll consider in a future post) for compensating authors other than selling copyright to publishers.  Authors have a future, and whilst the era of large, generalist bookstores is probably over, small specialist and secondhand stores still have a long future ahead of them.  It is publishers that are the weak link.  Despite protestations that they are the only thing holding back a tsunami of badly written and tedious autobiographies and bridge club histories, it is publishers who are guilty of commissioning the mountains of vacuous ‘stockingfillers’, celebrity cookbooks  and other products Sherman Young calls ‘anti books’.

I would like to think that as the Australian Booksellers Association met at their conference today they discussed these issues, but somehow I suspect they spent more time considering how to beat Amazon by holding ‘Bookshop Day’ and other meaningless events, instead of dealing with the emptiness at the heart of the book industry today.