eBooks, File Formats and DRM

The intention of this is not to be a rant, but rather a discussion. I still feel like it may rant at times… so apologies.

Right now, in the grand scheme of things there are two major outlets for eBooks: Amazon and Barnes and Noble. (but what about iBooks!? two examples are enough for this fable…)

Amazon uses a proprietary formate .azm, and the Kindle can also read .mobi files.

Barnes and Noble uses a DRMed epub format and the Nook can read epub files.

Now, even if Amazon sold epub or BN sold mobi files chances are that the Kindle would still not read BN books and vica versa. This is an issue not with the format (well, maybe for azm; epub is a standard) but rather the DRM. Incompatible DRM prevents compatibility.

What the hell does that mean?

If I buy an MP3 from iTunes I can put it on my Android phone. I can play it on my computer or in my car. I can play it on my Nook or my DS. It is an MP3. It is a standard, it is DRM free, and there are lots of things out there than can play MP3’s.

Now there are a ton of file formats for text out there: word documents, RTF, PDF, epub, just plain ol’ text files (and many more). Any one of these could be used for ebooks, but for now, no single one of them is. eBooks doesn’t have its MP3.

Add on top of that DRM, region locking and other publisher non-sense and what do you have? Frustrated users.

Think of it this way: you write a book and publish it on paper… anyone who can read that language can read your book. Do the same in eBook? well, they have to have the right reader, or reader software, live in the right place, even sometimes read it in the appropriate amount of time. Why would you do that? Why would you make it harder for people to pay for your book?

If I want to give you money, why won’t you let me?

In the end it is more about DRM and control than anything else. Amazon and Barnes and Noble want you to buy their ebook reader. The publishing companies want DRM because they believe with out it we would all be horrible pirates… and then they can sell us our books/movies/music all over again when the next new gadget comes out.

That DRM is making it so I cannot buy a book through Amazon for my Nook. I am not buying a Kindle; one $150 device is enough. So who does that hurt? Me, kinda, because I am missing out on a book. But really it hurts the author. That DRM is preventing me from giving them money.

The optimal solution would be for writers to sell DRM free files directly, thus allowing me to: a. give the author money directly and b. put and read my ebook on anything I want to, just like an MP3. Now I am fully aware of the technical and logistical problems with setting up a store on a website and would not advocate it to everyone. But it would be nice. Instead, as a community of readers and writers ,we should push back against this trend and say “Hey! let me buy from where I want and read where I want!”

I just want to read your book.

Amazon and MacMillan, A Readers Point of View

(Yes I realize this is a few months late, but but it seems I hit “Save” and not “Publish” )

You are overcharging for eBooks!”

“You are hurting authors!”

Amazon and MacMillan publishing has started an elevated, sometimes angry, discussion on the internet about the price and value of ebooks. First I am going to throw out this idea of value immediately. An ebook has value if people want to buy it. It has no value of they don’t. So in this case, we’ll talk about the ones that have value.
Here is a diagram showing how books get from the writer to the reader.

So the reader is saying the $ is too high and the writer is saying that lowering it is hurting his bottom line. Fight!!

But here is the thing, they are both right. Prices of ebooks ARE too high (and $15 is absurd) and lowering prices of the ebooks WILL hurt the royalties for writers. The problem is that writers don’t get $ for the book. They get some smaller percentage, usually 5% – 15% of $.

Here is your problem, that black mass in the diagram. That black mass is consuming 80% of the money coming in. So why isn’t that the point of discussion? Easy: the black mass has convinced us, both writers and readers that we are fighting each other.

When readers say “$ is too much for an ebook!!” and writers say “lowering prices will hurt writers!” we are both screaming at the black mass. But the black mass is making it look like we are screaming at each other.

The black mass exists only to feed the black mass. Writers, your publisher doesn’t care about you or your readers. When MacMillan published its open letter explaining what was going on they said: “Amazon has been a valuable customer for a long time, and it is my great hope that they will continue to be in the very near future.”

Amazon is a valuable customer. Amazon. What am I? a grotesque necessity?

I am the reader. I am the elephant in the room and you will listen to me. Don’t think I’ll just go somewhere else? There are hundreds of thousands of free words on the internet from blogs to news to stories and public domain works. I can read for the rest of my life and never pay for a book again.

The thing is I don’t want to. Readers want to buy books from writers. But just like writers are worried about $, so are readers. If readers won’t pay $ for the book, that will hurt the writer’s bottom line too.

I am making a call to the writers: don’t just sign whatever the publishing house puts in front of you. Those are your rights. That book deal is how the money gets from the reader through that black mass to you.
Your rights are yours until you sign that contract. Keep them, hold onto them, this is YOUR work that MacMillan and Amazon are fighting over. Your work, and I want to pay for it. I want to give writers money. And I am not the only one.

Ebooks are not going away. They are the future. Writers need to make their stand against the black mass NOW, while ebooks are a small part of their sales. Because once they become a significant portion, it will be too late.

This fight isn’t between writers and readers. This fight is about the black mass trying to keep us apart. The black mass is trying to prove it is still needed. And while parts of it are needed, they are not needed to the tune of 80% of revenue.