My last word on DRM

Trying to change a major publisher’s mind on DRM is a lost cause. That’s why even though I disagree with IDPF’s DRM efforts, I can only hope that their work will result in the wholesale adoption of a completely ineffective and useless DRM technique and bring us into a de facto DRM-free world.

(You could argue DRM isn’t a problem for existing consumers. That’s true, but only because we just buy from Amazon.)

What I hadn’t expected but has become abundantly obvious over the past year is that the publishing industry has a pathological preoccupation with controlling the reader’s actions. I had originally expected publishers to respond to reason, logic, and ruthless capitalistic ROI calculations (all of which weigh against DRM). But those who favour DRM do not respond to logic. When nailed on one argument they slip over to another:

No no no, piracy isn’t a problem, it’s uncontrolled sharing

Po-tay-to po-tah-to. When it becomes hard to find evidence that piracy affects revenue the response is to rebrand it and claim that it’s still a problem.

I don’t quite know how to deal with an irrational obsession on that scale. Obviously, if piracy is cutting your revenue, that is a bad thing. But so much of the concerns around piracy are indistinct and vague—piracy worriers can’t articulate specific business consequences beyond ‘lost sales’ hand-waving with no data to back it up.

My own views on piracy, as a result of having worked in the software industry for a few years, is that, insofar that it’s an actual revenue drain, fighting it is largely a lost cause. As games developer and publisher Jeff Vogel has been fond of pointing out: if you’re selling a digital product, by definition everybody who decides to give you money is an honest person. The dishonest people will just pirate your product without a care or worry. Heavy-duty, iron-clad DRM can’t force the dishonest to buy and imposing it would have massive detrimental results both for the honest reader, the author, and the publisher (but not the dishonest reader). The dishonest would rather simply go without than pay. And even if you could force them, they’d be the customer from hell, overloading support channels and public forums with Olympic level whining.

So why worry about them? ‘Pirates’, even if you can prove they exist and affect revenue, which most publishers discover is hard, are a non-factor from a business perspective, about as relevant to your sales as Mac users are to a Windows developer. They simply aren’t a part of our market. This fact is also a big part of the reason why measuring piracy and the impact of piracy is so difficult. It’s like trying to measure the GDP impact of a Buddhist chanting. Non-participation isn’t measurable. Estimating the loss from non-participation is little more than science-fiction.

I wouldn’t mind talking about piracy to publishers if they discussed the issue in the same logical, matter-of-fact, manner that most indie software developers discuss it. But they don’t. What publishers mean when they say ‘piracy’ is more of a general worry about change and new technology and so most of them are extremely reluctant to discuss the details of what they believe and fear.

In publishing, the piracy concern is a superstition, magical thinking driven by a hope that the digital space is fundamentally inhospitable and the old times will be proven to be fundamentally superior to the new. The believers resist all attempts to empirically verify whether there is or isn’t a problem. Arguing with them is like arguing with a creationist. They don’t want proof, even if it is in their favour, because what they want is blind faith. What is worse is that many are using the fear of piracy as an excuse for not entering interesting new markets, which is a loss of opportunity, money, and revenue more certain than any threat that stems from piracy.

The real problem publishers have

Tracing the problem right down to its roots, it’s clear that the publishing industry’s behaviour towards readers (not their readers since we’re talking about the author’s readers not the publisher’s) comes from the same source as their behaviour towards authors.

Just as with authors, who they saddle with fundamentally unfair and insulting contracts, publishers simply have a disdain and fear for readers, preferring to let proxies like bookstores take care of all direct contact with them.

I see no other way to explain their behaviour. You just don’t do these things to people you like (readers or authors).

DRM is an extension of that disdain and fear. It is intrinsically hostile to the reader. It’s value isn’t supported by any evidence of substance. Publishers are willing to harm their authors’ readers just on the possibility that they might be doing something they disapprove of. There is no evidence of harm to the author or the publisher.

The question whether sharing or piracy actually takes place or whether it will affect publisher revenue is clearly irrelevant, otherwise they would have abandoned DRM years ago.

DRM will never be harmless even if it’s useless at preventing piracy or sharing



Outside of the fundamental disrespect for the reader it represents, there is one major business reason why DRM is a very bad idea for publishers:

It involves inflicting a recurring technical, infrastructural, and administrative cost on all of their sales in perpetuity to solve a problem they can’t prove exists. By tying their entire catalogue, in perpetuity, to the fate and competence of a single external service provider (whoever provides the DRM solution) publishers are taking a business risk of unfathomable proportions. These are the kinds of risks that sink large companies.

That anybody would make this sort of decision without hard evidence to back it up is utterly mind-boggling.

Proprietary ebook formats versus DRM

Micah made this here statement on Twitter the other day, articulating neatly what a lot of us have been thinking for a while now:

Very true.

It’s something that has bothered me for years and years. I spent years arguing against the use of proprietary formats in interactive media academia (they were unnaturally fond of what was then Macromedia Director). Then proprietary ebook formats became my bugaboo. But tilting at windmills hasn’t gotten me anything but heartache and a reputation for being a bit of a jerk. I’ve now accepted the fact that proprietary formats are always going to be with us. If it doesn’t bother the buyer it doesn’t bother the buyer, simple as that. But I’ve often tried to figure out a good framework for discussing and analysing this dynamic between proprietary and standard formats. What’s the best way to think about this and find a way to combat proprietary formats?

One angle is that standardisation lowers cost for producers and lets them make more interesting products, but that’s not likely to sway Amazon who value the flexibility and power of an owned format and don’t bear the costs of production. And customers generally don’t care since they might not even benefit at all from lower production costs (some producers would just use the opportunity to increase their margins).

The other angle is interoperability and modularity, which increases the flexibility and value of the ecosystem as a whole. But that also changes the power dynamic in the ecosystem in less than predictable ways, something that the big dogs in the system won’t like. When you’re the biggest there’s no such thing as good unpredictable change. Amazon’s system is mostly vertically integrated anyway, leaving little room for interop. And many opportunities for really lucrative interoperability have been throttled in the crib by Apple’s stringent iOS policies. (Why ebook vendors aren’t doing more interesting things on Android where they aren’t held back by the platform owner’s policies is beyond me, but that’s a blog post for a different day.)

Then I stumbled upon the super obvious way to look at the problem. So obvious that it’s embarrassing that I haven’t pursued it as a serious argument before. Yeah, I know, I can be thick sometimes.

I didn’t hit upon it directly, but Micah’s above tweet did remind me of something I’d just read. From The Technique of the Novel – A Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative by Thomas H. Uzzell:

Ask any novelist in trouble with his plot what he intends the effect to be and he will answer something like this: “I intend to show that love between two such people is impossible.” This is material, not effect. Effect would be, say, the pathos or tragedy felt by the reader in a narrative about two people vainly attempting happiness in marriage. Amateurs in any art talk in terms of materials; professionals, in terms of effects.

Effects are subjective experiences; materials are objective experiences. Effect is response; materials are stimulus. Effects are the emotional qualities of things.

It’s features versus benefits all over again. In this context the materials the novelist uses are the features and the effects on the reader are the benefits. A writer should not think in terms of the materials (what you write) but in terms of the effects (how the writing affects the reader).

It’s ties into an adage from marketing, features are meaningless to the buyer, they need to be told how they benefit. But if there’s one thing I learned from my friends in marketing back in my software days it’s that this principle applies everywhere. No marketer can gloss up a Frankenstein monster app pieced together out of departmental hobby horses. Most software is a confusing turd made out of disparate components by a bunch of socially inept developers who can’t think in terms of user benefit. Moreover, they don’t really care about the user. Most developers think in terms of abstract beauty of the code and architecture, conceptual integrity of the components, and of ticking of checkboxes in a feature list. They don’t give a toss about the experience unless you can itemise it as a development checklist.

Bringing this back to ebooks…

Those who are trying to shift the market away from proprietary formats can’t try and market their way out of the problem. A tactic used by some is to harangue critics like me for pointing out important flaws in the EPUB ecosystem, but silencing critics won’t address the flaws. It will not change the fact that as a whole, the EPUB ecosystem offers readers fewer benefits than the Kindle ecosystem.

Offering equal benefits will not be enough to sway consumers. To change the status quo you need to outclass Amazon massively in benefits.

And in case you were wondering, Readium SDK is a feature, not a benefit. It’s what you do with it is what’s going to count.

My suggestion is simple: focus on the benefits Amazon can’t replicate.

If a reading app feature turns out to be a competitive advantage, Amazon is likely to copy it with ease.

Rendering or interactivity features aren’t likely to make a difference because sensible publishers will focus on making their titles cross-platform compatible. Amazon’s rendering and interactivity features are going to dominate as the lowest common denominator.

You can’t beat Amazon on selection or price. The Kindle’s ease of use is going to be hard to top. Their customer service is far above what others offer.

The one thing the EPUB ecosystem can offer that Amazon can’t, is tight interoperability between unrelated ebook vendors, services, and reading apps.

That’s it. That’s your only card to play.

  • A major retailer could implement Readmill’s Oauth integration API. Imagine buying an ebook from B&N, Kobo, or Google and having it automatically load into your Readmill library. Awesome, right? It would be even better if your Kobo library automatically synced your purchases with your Readmill library and vice versa. You wouldn’t even need new standards to do this, just the will to implement.
  • Apple could change its policies to allow in-app ebook browsing and purchase and enable more integration and interoperability in ebook reading apps.
  • We need a high quality web-based ebook reading app integrates with a host of relevant services. Most attempts I’ve seen to date are buggy, unusable, bare-bones, or half-arsed.
  • Apple could implement something like Readmill’s Oauth API, letting retailers securely send ebooks to iBooks. Or, again, better yet if they implement a library syncing API.
  • App developers could standardise rendering, including how overrides behave and how pagination affects existing web standards.

Basically, what I want is for the EPUB side of the ebook market to put their money where their mouth is. So far, they only seem to support EPUB because it isn’t Amazon and don’t take any advantage of the biggest benefits of standardisation. Namely, interoperability and modularity.

As I said, the one major advantage of a standard format is interoperability. The obsession ebook vendors have with silos and their antipathy towards easy interop is crippling their only competitive advantage over Amazon, the one big thing they can use to increase the benefit a reader gets from their ecosystem. Being able to easily mix and match reading apps with retail services and have them integrate tightly is something Amazon can’t replicate.

Copying Amazon’s vertically integrated stack when your only sensible strategy is interoperability is, quite frankly, insane.

With the way B&N, Kobo, Google, and Apple have been behaving, it’s a miracle that Amazon still doesn’t own more than 80% of the market.

Then again, what little headway they have made was largely due to illegal collusion.

B&N, Kobo, Google, and Apple separately can never compete with Amazon on price or range.

If I could hook all of their ebook retail services to Readmill so that all of my purchases are automatically added to my library, then I, as a consumer, can begin to treat them as a single market. Not having to worry about whether any given ebookstore is compatible with my chosen reading app makes me less resistant to try them all. Impulse purchases become more likely.

Together they can offer a competitive price and range. A book that isn’t available in Kobo might be available in B&N, Google Play, or the iBookstore. Proper interoperability will convert more readers away from the Kindle and so increase EPUB sales, to everybody’s benefit.

And, as I’ve been saying, the benefit is what counts.