The London Book Fair

My trip last week to the London Book Fair at Earls Court was a great chance to talk to the publishing industry, and in particular the individuals working on the self-publishing side of things.

Established publishers are bracing for a shock from what they know the new technology is about to deliver. The self publishing guys think they’re onto sure fire winner, recognising that the low costs of digital publishing and distribution make for a more level playing field.

But both sides, I think, are under a serious misapprehension. They talk about the “technology revolution” as if it were some kind of magical black box. They don’t understand it. They don’t want to. Because they don’t think they need to.

Amazon’s the exception here. Their dominance seems to be a function of real cluefulness. They probably understand that Digital Rights Management is destined to follow the floppy disk dongle of the ’80s into the dustbin of history. And I bet they have a Plan B ready.

Others don’t. Among those I talked to at the London Book Fair, the general sentiment seemed to be that Digital Rights Management was rock solid, and could only “get better” in the future. One eBook “expert” pronounced Apple and Amazon’s DRM to be uncrackable, when in fact widely available software makes it grandma simple.

So DRM allows these publishers and distributors to fool themselves into thinking that digital books and physical books are pretty much the same commodity. The many companies with business models based on the sale or rental of what they take to be inherently uncopyable material think they’re building on rock, but are in fact, I believe, playing with sand castles. On a beach where the tide is coming in very fast.

“We know DRM is a temporary measure while we and our customers get to grips with this new way of distributing and reading books. We’re hoping we’ll soon build a bridge of reputation and trust between us that will produce a new way of ensuring a fair income stream for us and our writers.” That’s a direct quote from – well, absolutely nobody I met at the Book Fair.

I did run into one savvy veteran from the digital side of a large publisher who was prepared to admit, off the record, that “DRM is dead”, but I got the impression this wasn’t a sentiment he felt ready yet to share with his colleagues.

Wilful ignorance aside, it surely can’t be long before everyone, pushers and punters alike, wake up to the realisation that once digitised a book is no longer a natural scarce resource. Artificial DRM wrappers and an Orwellian vocabulary that calls sharing a non-depleting resource “stealing” can’t sustain the illusion much longer.

This week the news has come through that Tor Books, the leading publisher of Science Fiction, is abandoning DRM. (http://boingboing.net/2012/04/24/tor-books-goes-completely-drm.html) If that sounds to you like some minor ripple in a niche market, you need to know that Tor is a subsidiary of Macmillan, and the decision to make this move apparently came directly from Macmillan CEO John Sargent.

That ripple will surely spread. Already the dropping of DRM is being thoroughly thought through on a business basis, according to blogger Charlie Stross. (http://bit.ly/IqG0i4) Amazon’s own Plan B, I’d guess, may hinge on the use of its central servers to synchronise bookmarks across multiple user devices, a service the punter will find ever more useful as these devices proliferate, and which would only be available for legitimately bought books. Other publishers/distributors may develop similar plans.

So what happens next? Frankly, I don’t know. But it’s clear to me that there’s a lot of thinking to be done about this. And that the metaphysics of DRM and the mumbo-jumbo of legal models based on bygone days aren’t going to help that thinking one little bit.

Let’s simplify. It’s perfectly legitimate science to approach a complex problem by paring down the parameters to the bare minimum. Applying the starting-point logic of “assume the object is a massless point travelling through frictionless space” let’s imagine an intelligent readership discerning enough to spend the least amount on the maximum number of the best books it can lay its collective hands on.

So in my fictional thought lab, a reader is confronted with an uncountable number of choices, in each case weighing up book x, which costs y, and is of excellence z. But one general case typifies them all: for every in-copyright book of excellence z, costing y, there is bound to be an alternative of equal excellence z, but where cost y equals zero, because its copyright has expired.

Living authors find themselves competing with the dead, and the dead win on price.

I warned that we’re simplifying, and fully appreciate that in the real world many readers would rather soak in a warm bath of Jeffrey Archer at £12.99 than exercise their minds with a copy of Tristram Shandy, however free. I’m aware too that the distribution system, although apparently close to frictionless, is not without its costs in server juice and maintenance. I think these are details we can set aside as we attempt to grasp the big picture.

This is the point where DRM advocates leap in to remind me that I’ve forgotten the author. Far from it. This is all about the author. I’ve pared down the other parameters precisely so we can focus on the author.

Tricking out an abundant resource with phoney locks in order to pass it off to the public as a scarce resource is a scam that will not pass muster for much longer. When DRM is gone, the base price of all publications, new and old, will tend to zero. I say “base price” because there may well be other services – synchronising bookmarks, for example – that can legitimately and usefully be poured into the mix.

And this raises the fundamental question: how do you maintain the scarce resource in this equation? How do you feed the author?

Performers in the music industry have had to face much the same question in recent years. In years gone by you gave a concert in order to sell CDs. Today it’s the other way round: tracks freely changing hands build the street cred which sells concert tickets.

Could it be like this with writers? It’s certainly a proven business model: during the latter past of his life Charles Dickens toured extensively giving lectures and readings that made him a vast amount of money.

I’m not suggesting that this is the only way for us writers to feed ourselves in the new digital era. I mention Dickens – an imaginative and inventive writer in many more senses than one – only to stimulate ways of thinking ourselves outside the box in which dead tree publishers have cooped us up for so long.

ChB 04-27-2012, 12:21 pm

2 Responses to “The London Book Fair”

  1. petertheta Says:

    I feel that a consistent percentage of the populace will always aspire to follow any given art form into a business arrangement, for ambition, survival and/or prosperity.

    There is indeed a lot of unhappiness expressed as aspiring artists decide whether or not they want to continue pursuing their art in a business context with the old systems fading away. Some of them will invent or adopt alternative art lifestyles. Others will indeed abandon their artistic efforts. This may seem harsh but I also feel that exploiting publishing edifices that on the whole don’t care what we express is just as bad as them exploiting us for our expression. Best that we paddle toward a healthier culture.

  2. Peter Fagan Says:

    Sorry to pop back so soon – just stumbled on this discussion with Red Dwarf’s Robert Llewellyn who seems excited about the response he’s getting for his book under Unbound’s alternative publishing model: http://www.screenjabber.com/podcast/podcastgen1.3/index.php?p=episode&name=2012-04-28_robertllewellyn.mp3

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