eBooks: The rights & wrongs

The Sony Reader may have brought eBooks to the British public’s attention for the first time, but the UK digital chief at one of the world’s biggest commercial book publishers sounds fed up to the back teeth. Digital rights management? “I don’t want to talk about that.” Why not? “Off the record? Frankly, because this eBook launch with Waterstone’s has been chaotic. It’s a whole new country that’s coming online: there are new overheads for digital conversion, editing and marketing, new staffing, new warehousing, a new device, a format that hasn’t been available before… the thing isn’t exactly, as they say, ready for prime-time.

“And when you ask about rights, whether the thing will run on six machines, whether that’s exactly the number, I don’t want … I can’t …”

His voice trails away in a heavy sigh. The tension running through the book trade this season is sending migraines around boardrooms and blogs alike. On the publishing clock, the eBook blew into the UK a matter of minutes ago causing enormous disruption to what is essentially an analogue trade. And now the book industry is being dragged into the unseemly morass of copy protection and digital pricing that has inflicted so many wounds on the music trade.

While the UK awaits the arrival of Amazon’s Kindle, major British chains – Waterstone’s then WHSmith and Borders – made pre-emptive strikes, with startled publishers caught in the storm. Borders opted for the iRex iLiad (because “we couldn’t get our hands on the Sony”, according to its press office), which supported the Mobipocket format. When Waterstone’s struck an exclusive deal to sell the Sony Reader, which offers dedicated Adobe software, publishers began a whole new round of DRM negotiations.

Publishers faced the prospect of being squeezed in a classic battle of proprietary formats, while hardware manufacturers tried to recoup the costs of their snazzy new devices. In a trade reliant on serial rights, territorial rights, film rights and reprints, its Cassandras conjured bleak forecasts of escalating costs, a Hollywood-style strike by authors and agents – even a future without publishers at all.

Rather than submit to proprietary warfare, 98% of UK publishers decided to stage a display of solidarity. They jointly agreed to adopt EPUB, the reflowable open-source format (delivered behind a general Adobe DRM) to protect their interests and ensure global interoperability.

Problem solved? Not really. The purchase of an eBook is still a rerun of a familiar nightmare, with its depressing bombardment of rights regulations that have enraged music fans for a decade. “This walled garden approach runs totally counter to growing a vibrant digital market,” as one blogger noted.

Remember how music fans turned in disgust to piracy and free P2P networks? Only after they rained fury upon music moguls to demand the unchaining of downloaded tunes and punitive pricing did the dead hand of DRM ease up. Steve Jobs, EMI and Warners began to denounce the iniquities of DRM. Yet in the same month that UK entrepreneur Ben Drury stripped DRM from all four million tracks selling at his 7digital music store, the dinosaurs of the book trade ended up imposing the very terms (“up to six devices” and so on) templated by the music download stores.

Have no lessons been learned? Will the UK’s £2.5 billion consumer book trade follow its music brethren off the edge of the cliff?

“It won’t,” says Philip Lloyd at bookseller.com, “because publishers get told almost every day they’re sleepwalking into the same scenario as music. They’re not that daft.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Disclaimer: Some pages on this site may include an affiliate link. This does not effect our editorial in any way.