DBW Roundup: 4/14/11

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DBW Weekly RoundupDigital Book World presents a weekly roundup of some of the most interesting news, commentary and tweets related to publishing that you may have missed, from all over the digital book world.

Need to get caught up on early reports from the London Book Fair? Check out our London Book Fair Special Supplement this week, for coverage of some of the major talks and themes that happened this week.

What’s the Truth About Ebook Piracy?

The issue of ebook piracy was reignited at the London Book Fair, largely in response to remarks by Little, Brown publisher David Shelley and Farrar CEO Stephen Faber. As reported at TheBookseller.com:

Shelley told delegates: “Money spent on print and paper will be spent on specialists to fight piracy. The costs of this are only getting more expensive, and could spiral way out of control. There are also legal costs, when sites refuse to take down content.” Shelley claimed the “unknown costs”, as well as other new digital costs, would replace the cost savings made on digital.

Stephen Page, chief executive of Faber, said: “There is no doubt that there is a cost coming in the management of piracy, but we haven’t begun to even understand yet what it may be.”

FutureBook blogger Phillip Jones responded:

But the main point, I think, is that it is a very clear message. There are few more emotive issues than author pay, but piracy is one of them. It can sometimes be difficult for publishers to explain why their cost base is not reducing because of digital (VAT, managing meta-data, copy-checking) but none of these reasons are half as memorable as the piracy defence. Not only is there an implied cost in fighting it, but it also shifts the onus of blame away from the publisher towards the robber pirate.

But it could easily back-fire. As one agent said if publishers are going to use the piracy defence then they need to be able to prove that their actions are working and that piracy is a real threat: “I would love to know what publishers are actually doing to fight piracy. I can’t imagine any publisher is together enough to combat it.”

Where Are We Going with Digital Rights Management?

While we’re on the subject of piracy, discussion about DRM and ebooks continues to move into more mainstream audiences, as reinforced by this recent op-ed piece from The Washington Post where blogger Rob Pegoraro urged publishers to ditch digital rights management, pointing to analogies to the music industry.

Chris Meadows at Teleread summed up in response:

Pegoraro points to the example of O’Reilly as being a publisher that has done well by e-books without DRM. (Baen would be another such example, though he doesn’t mention them.) He also notes that, though e-book stores are starting to allow publishers to opt out of DRM, most publishers are not taking advantage of that even if their authors want them to—and the e-book stores usually don’t bother to make it clear when a book is DRM-free.

It’s unclear just how likely this is to happen, though. The music industry at least had the advantage only having one major digital outlet for music, unlike the e-book market where DRM is part of each e-book store’s competitive strategy for locking readers exclusively into one platform. And it’s a lot more time-consuming to scan paper books into e-books than it was to rip CDs, which means publishers don’t have the same pressure from another format that music did.

Is the Form of the Book Relevant Anymore?

An interesting discussion over what the future holds for the book is playing out between Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners and President and Chief Writing Officer of Gluejar Eric Hellman. On one side, O’Leary argued back in his October article “Context First” that

Book, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit.

Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context.

In response, Hellman argued this in a recent blogpost:

The implication of O’Leary’s “Unified Field Theory of Publishing,” is that in order to compete, print publishing needs to break away from the limiting forms of the print medium and become something new, in jazzy harmony with our contextually dynamic digital world, filled with links and metadata and APIs.

Bear in mind, O’Leary’s [a consultant who's worked in both the magazine and book industries, is] dead right about magazines. But I’ve decided his implication is dead wrong about books. We need to understand what it is about the book that makes it a container of media that will persist into the digital world. It’s NOT context. The wonderful thing about the book as container is the same thing that lifts Radiolab as podcast above Radiolab as radio. It’s the timelessness.

Where Should We Look for Business Models?

This issue of form, and the underlying debate over whether the book industry needs to embrace context or timelessness, resonates well with a general discussion, started by Hellman late last week, about looking to public radio broadcasting for business models.

But, even as debate continues about business models, at the London Book Fair, Spanish-based company Bestsharer talked about its “freemium” social reading subscription service 24 Symbols, experimenting with what is being called a Netflix-style business model. Meanwhile, Michael Wolf at GigaOM was skeptical about the startup and urged publishers to look to Hulu for business model inspiration:

What does Hulu for e-books mean? Book publishers themselves should get together like NBCU, Fox and Disney did and begin to offer their content — or at least some of their content — in both ad-supported and subscription offerings.

OK, you ask, why should they do that and not just let, say, Google or Amazon do it instead? Unless I’m wrong, publishers are the only ones with big enough rights libraries of both new and catalog titles to package up in a variety of ways to make this idea interesting. And in an agency-model world, booksellers like Amazon can’t adjust pricing as they see fit, only the publisher can (which is why I have my doubts about startups like 24Symbols).

Tweet of the Week

Tweet of the Week

That’s just a taste of what you may have missed this week. To stay on top of the most interesting news, commentary and tweets related to publishing, keep in touch via our RSS feed, follow us on Twitter, join your publishing colleagues in our LinkedIn group, and connect with the broader DBW Network.

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