The Publishers Dilemma

Last night I was at a great birthday dinner downstairs at the “chefs table” at Blue Ribbon.  Lots of cool people there and I got into a chat with a guy who works for an eBooks publisher.

Our conversation started with the Kindle – an eReader that is promoted by Amazon and the first one to make a bit of a splash.  He was a fan of the device but agreed it looked a bit lame.  He loves that it has wifi and allows users to download new content basically anywhere.

We both ended up feeling that it was tough to convince people to carry around another device.  Eventually, something like the iPhone will be all we carry. Screen-size is an issue and maybe the coming of the flexible screen will do something about that. I really think recent advances in circuits on contact lenses will lead to a fulltime “heads-up display” but I am kind of a futuristic optimist.

Where things got a bit contentious was on the subject of DRM (Digital Rights Management) – the piece of code that, in theory, stops those who “purchase” an eBook from copying and disseminating it throughout the universe.  He literally couldn’t imagine how the digital publishing industry could survive without DRM. He admitted that he no longer pays for any music because he can find it for free (illegally) on torrent sites largely thanks to the lack of (or cracked) DRM on music files. He couldn’t imagine why the same wouldn’t happen to the eBook world if DRM was removed from the equation.

I asked if there were circumstances under which he would pay for the music he found online. Turned out there was.  He wanted to be able to be able to sample it first, in its entirety, not 30 second clips, and then decide if he wanted to pay for it. Not unreasonable.  He also felt the price-point was high and wanted to know his money was going to the artists. I agreed.  I asked him if the same might not be true for eBooks.  He thought they might.

So, the real issue turned out not to be that nobody would pay for books if they were free on pirated sites but that the publishers of eBooks were not providing their potential customers with a system that was better.  Imagine a site where DRM-free eBooks were available to be read for free.  After you owned the book for a certain amount of time you would be asked if you’d like to pay the author for their book.  If you decide not to pay maybe the file gets locked, maybe not.  Maybe you decide how much to pay.

By the end of the chat I think I might have at least convinced him that fighting for better DRM was never going to be the way to beat the pirates.

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