The other side of the coin

In Hidebound books, I spoke about the publishers locked into a business model based on out-moded data containers: books. That they are trying to keep an old model, based on the scarcity of physical books, and not embracing the challenges and opportunities offered by digital distribution.

It strikes me that one of the things I’ve said in the past is hypocritical when viewed against this argument. I’ve said one should be able to lend digital books. In retrospect this is precisely what I’ve criticised: taking an action predicated on a physical manifestation of a book and applying it to a digital one. But it leads us down some interesting paths.

Of course, the instant and infinite ability to copy a digital book is the elephant in the room when it comes to loaning books. I still believe that DRM is ultimately a failed technology: the copying of files will sooner or later become far easier than with our current generation of ebook readers. Then, of course, it won’t be “loaning” but “giving” and the act will become trivial, in the same way sharing mp3 files to many is trivial when compared with CDs. But that hasn’t killed the music-publishing industry, and they have learnt many lessons which will be useful for those in the word-publishing industry.

The decision to buy rather than pirate has, in some way, always been a function of time and an individual’s ethical view, really, whatever lawmakers may wish to think of their power in this area. Frankly, lawmakers should probably start watching the actions of the majority of their citizens rather than remaining in thrall to lobbyists from an industry choosing legislation rather than remaining competitive. Anyway: physical scarcity meant cost of buying could be higher and buying was still preferable; photocopying a book is incredibly time-consuming.

Now acquisition is easy and quick however one does it — legally or not — the premium chargeable on delivery is lower. A music store like iTunes or book store like the Kindle store will always win on time-to-acquire as there’s little search friction: the store is right there, the book is right there — and known-good, unlike pirated copies.

It is instructive that, even given the relative ease of illegally downloading music, music sustains a high cost on iTunes, Amazon and other stores. One therefore expects books will likewise be able to maintain a high cost on Kindle, nook et al. All of which means that fear of piracy is a distraction from improving the distribution story.

And, if publishers can find it within themselves to proof-read their Kindle manuscripts for missed words, sloppy paragraph spacing and paragraphs incorrectly split rather than hand-wringing about the possibility of piracy, we could really be getting somewhere.

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