Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Print Books are Like Zombies

Print books are like zombies. They don't die easily.

When I told my wife Lesleyann I was considering titling this post, "Why Print Books Must Die," she flashed me an icy stare that said, "Don't you dare!" In deference to Mrs. Smashwords, I changed the title.

Don't get me wrong. I love print books. Lesleyann and I collect them. Every Friday, we do date night at the book store. Books form narrow hallways in our house. I'd say I'm cursed by print books except it's really more of a blessing, as anyone sharing our affliction will tell you.

I don't want print books to go away. The real purpose of this post is to make a point about DRM. More about that in a second.

From an early age, we're taught to respect books. We know and love them as receptacles of knowledge and entertainment, and as artifacts and souvenirs. They're expressions of personal identity and personal desire. It's quite amazing, really, how books can envelop our lives like, uh, mossy green zombie goo.

There's a dark side to these zombies of the printed page. We never throw them out, so they're difficult to kill. We pass them on to friends who read them, and then they pass them on again. We sell them, or trade them in for credits at a used bookstore, or we donate them to a library and they change hands again and again and again. Each time they pass from the previous owner to the next, the author and publisher who invested so much effort to create the book don't see a cent. I'm not the first person to raise this point, and I won't be the last.

What do book Zombies and DRM have to do with one another? Quite a lot, actually. DRM, or digital rights management, is a scheme designed to prevent ebook customers from illegally copying and sharing ebooks (most ebooks are licensed like software - you're not legally allowed to share them with friends, or resell them). There's a big debate in publishing circles about whether or not books should be protected (afflicted?) with DRM.

I, and many other progressive book people, think DRM is a bad thing. It treats law abiding customers like criminals by limiting their ability to enjoy their book their way. Others, like a concerned author who emailed me the other day, fear that without copy protection, customers will pirate their books and soon, millions of unpaid copies will be in the hands of ungrateful readers.

Lost in this debate about whether publishers can trust their customers to do the right thing is the zombie elephant in the room. Each time a print book passes to a new owner, the author and publisher earn nothing. It's not piracy, but it has the same effect.

While I think piracy is a bad thing, and chronically under-compensated authors and their publishers deserve more money for their work, it bears remembering that book piracy pre-dated ebooks.

Ebooks, even DRM-free ebooks, could help mitigate the book piracy problem.

Here's how:

Assuming publishers continue producing zombie print books, the incremental cost to create an ebook is infinitesimally small. Smashwords, for example, will convert a finished Microsoft Word manuscript into nine ebook formats at no cost. Many free conversion tools to do the same.

Once in ebook form, ebooks cost virtually nothing for the publisher to print (duplicate) and ship. Unlike Zombie books, ebooks have no inventory, no returns and theoretically (if customers for the most part are trustworthy, as I think they are), no sharing or reselling.

Ebooks are cheap to make, so the publisher can offer them to customers at a lower price. By lowering the price, publishers expand the affordability of the book to a wider potential audience, including folks who can now purchase the book as opposed to seeking out a pirated copy. Bigger market, bigger profits, cheaper books, no zombies. It's a win/win/win for author/publisher/customer.

Want more zombies? Click here for Smashwords ebooks about zombies.


Nicholas said...

I suspect this controversy will be a neverending one. The main thing however is to get your books "out there", and if that means people lending and borrowing, so be it. The name of the game is promotion, but whatever means.

Anonymous said...

To DRM or not to DRM?

It's a tough issue. I like to think people are trustworthy and wouldn't email the book to friends. But I think back to the Zombies.

I have many Zombie friends that I read over and over. Often they're parts of a series. I hate to loan one out for fear of not getting it back and then either having a gap or having to sacrifice more cash to the Great Zombie.

If I could loan a friend a Zombie and still have it in my cabinet, I might be tempted. That's my concern with DRM.

I hate to sound crass (even if I sometimes am), but I wonder how DRM affects a reader's decision to buy - or if it does. Perhaps the whole debate only matters to the writers and publishers?

On the other hand, when a reader buys a book, she buys the book. I understand that the concept of getting what you pay for should apply to ebooks as well. I think the concept is the same, but the issues have different boundaries.

I suspect the debate will linger and ultimately the power of the buy button will decide.