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.

The various types of readers

(This is the sixth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

(Before I start, I’d like to make sure you know this is all speculation and probably wrong.)

My guess is you can break book consumers into broadly five different kind of behaviours. Emphasis here is on consumers so this doesn’t cover corporate, institutional, or similar professional purchases at all.

  1. Heavy reader. People who buy several books a month, read most of them, and still have a mile-high ‘to read’ list. This is relatively small number of people who have an outsized impact on the market and have mostly converted to ebooks.
  2. The literate reader. People who read anything from six to twelve books a year. How big this group is depends on the language and culture. In 2010 in Iceland, for example, an extensive survey pegged this group at over half the adult Icelandic-speaking population (PDF). For most countries that proportion will be lower. This group has partially switched to ebooks but at a much, much lower rate than the heavy readers.
  3. Blockbuster reader. The reader who only reads one book a year and then only a bestseller. These are the people that only buy authors like Dan Brown, J K Rowling, and whoever the dude is that writes those Jack Reacher novels.
  4. Super fans. They like this here one thing and aren’t ashamed of it. E.g. Twilight fanatics who haven’t read anything else in their lives. Harry Potter nutters. They’ve found that one thing they like and feel no need to branch out. More likely to reread and re-buy that one thing than to read something new.
  5. Gift givers. For whatever reason, these types have decided to forgo the universally accepted traditional gift of ‘cash in an envelope’ and foist their cultural selections upon undeserving relatives and acquaintances.

Group 1, heavy readers, is the one that has been driving most of the growth of the ebooks market so far. They’ve probably either completely switched over to ebooks or will have soon.

Group 2, is, in theory, the next major growth area for ebooks and also the one where ebooks are likely to stall. My guess is that most people in group 2 don’t read on the commute (if they did, they’d probably read more than 6–12 books a year) and so aren’t that affected by the bulk of your average book. A lot of the books they read are lent on or borrowed and so don’t cause major storage issues.

These people read a few books a year and share them with their friends. They have a lot to lose from switching to ebooks and little to gain. Ebooks in general are objectively more ugly. They can’t be shared easily with your friends. They require an expensive device that in many cases is shared across the household (i.e. to read on the iPad you have to take it away from your kids who are using it to play games). The specialised ereader devices cost as much as this reader’s entire year’s worth of reading (i.e. as much as six to twelve paperbacks would cost, but without the benefit of lending). Certain segments of Group 2 do benefit immensely from ebooks (those with poor sight who prefer bigger font sizes and those who do read on the commute). They are also the ones who have probably already switched.

Many members of group 3 will only ever buy an ebook by accident. If you do something only once a year you damn sure want a souvenir. I can’t imagine this group switching in big numbers. Nor should they.

Group 4 will probably buy their favourite book as an ebook, and a hardcover, and paperback, and the UK edition, and the Japanese edition off Ebay. They’ll hunt down a copy from the first print run. They’d kill for a copy of the limited first run from that small publisher before the title got picked up by the big publisher. They’ll read and write fan-fiction (so much fan-fiction). They’ll buy the book in Kobo, iBooks, and Kindle and compare the three but they won’t buy any other title because it isn’t what they love.

Group 5 is unlikely to ever give ebooks. Why give an ebook when you can just as easily buy an iTunes/Amazon gift card which you can then pretentiously wrap? Why give a gift card when you can give real cash? Why give cash when you can just confess that you don’t love the recipient enough to give their gift selection some thought, and tell them to just fuck off and not bother you again?

How these five groups divide the industry between themselves is going to vary wildly from market to market, genre to genre, and ebooks aren’t going to shift that composition in any major way.

Moreover, one person can belong to different groups depending on the market. Here’s Hypothetical Karen.


  • Is a huge SFF fan. Reads several titles a month.
  • Is a semi-regular reader of literary fiction. About six titles a year.
  • Only reads other genres when a mega-blockbuster comes along.

If my theory above is true, Hypothetical Karen’s SFF fiction library would be mostly ebooks, her literary fiction novels would mostly be hardbacks, while the blockbusters would all be paperbacks, probably borrowed from a friend, with the exception of the few that she bought cheap as ebooks. Her shelves would be dominated by SFF favourites—some that pre-date ebooks, some that are just too good to just own in digital—and literary fiction.

But most readers won’t belong to more than one group. I think it’s likely that Hypothetical Karen and her ilk have already had an outsized impact on the market as early ebook adopters but are too small a group to influence future developments to any substantial degree. If this is true then ebooks might have to cross a second chasm after crossing the early adopter chasm since the early majority group might well be smaller than expected and the late majority group could well be more recalcitrant than expected.

Of course, like everything else in this post, this is blatant speculation and probably wrong.

My theory is that these are the four basic reader archetypes (plus one buyer archetype) and that the split between these five groups varies dramatically from genre to genre, title to title. Romance novels are probably dominated by group 1 with a smattering of group 2. Since romance readers are a large collection of heavy readers, it’s unsurprising that the genre is an ebook powerhouse.

Genre readers, in general, are likely to be of group 1 or 2 with group 3 coming in occasionally with individual titles. Most mainstream fiction and non-fiction (like celebrity biographies and autobiographies) are dominated by group 2 with only a smattering of groups 1 and 2.

And a title that is almost exclusively bought by gift givers is likely to tank in digital unless the publisher lucks out in some way and it gets adopted by a niche audience of some sort.

Even though some market segments may well have a much lower percentage of ebook buyers than others, sales successes are likely to boost the sales of all of a title’s formats. A blockbuster in an ebook-light genre is going to sell more ebooks than a mid-list title in an ebook-heavy genre. Big sales trump customer mix every time. The problem is that blockbusters are unpredictable and somewhat random while building a solid genre mid-list catalogue is in theory less so. Which suggests that if you have capital, you should focus on blockbusters and lottery stakes, but if you don’t have capital but do have in-house expertise, you should focus on solid genre offerings.

Of course, this is all conjecture and probably wrong. (“This is all make believe!”)

Figuring this out for real

What you really need to do is to figure this out for your readership. Exactly how to do that is tricky.

You need to find out how reading activity is distributed among your readers (i.e. how many are light, moderate, or heavy readers). You need to figure out their past format choices. Don’t ask them their preferences; they don’t know and will make shit up—people lie. Ask them what they’ve actually done in the past, preferably the recent past. You need to find out how much of what they read they buy themselves. You need to know what genres they’ve bought in the past. You need to find out what they want from you, because that might not correlate with their past choices.

If it doesn’t correlate, then take it with a grain of salt. Only trust customer suggestions that they are willing to immediately back with money. You don’t have to take the money, but their willingness to part with it is an important indicator.

How do you find this out? Beats me. Almost every realistic and economically viable way of getting trustworthy information about your readers will be biased towards either heavy readers and super fans or towards digital readers.

If you figure out a way, let me know.

The unevenly distributed ebook future

(This is the fifth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Data serves the status quo.

Anything new or undiscovered by definition does not have a data footprint. Existing data collection and filtering techniques have biases that do not take the unknown or unfamiliar into account.

Unless you have a clear theory and a well-designed experiment to prove or disprove it, the only thing more data will tell you is that your preconceptions and existing biases are correct. With enough noise, your brain will find it easy to ‘discover’ patterns and correlations that support whatever it is you want supported. Data, on its own, serves your worldview.

This is the problem with almost all analytics systems in common use. Unless you are running a tightly controlled experiment, the only thing data will do is paint you a general picture of the status quo; it’ll give you the shape of, say, your web traffic—the ‘sources’ of the nameless mass that fills your comment threads with tripe—but it won’t help you discover any of the ‘whys’. Why are they here? Why did they read it? Why did they comment? Why did they (or didn’t) come back?

Why didn’t they buy my book?

To pretend that an A/B test can tell you why a reader decided not to buy the ebook edition of a footballer’s biography is to accept a worldview that is incompatible with the very act of publishing longform prose in the first place.

For a simple A/B test to be able to tell you why a reader made the decision not to choose a book or a format you have to believe that the human mind is a simplistic machine, driven entirely by pre-programmed responses to external stimuli, to be hacked by an enterprising grifter. A mind like that is never going to comprehend, let alone enjoy, extended piece of text. A humanity like that would never have risen out of the mud to read or write books.

You can A/B test small theories and small issues, but it is not an experimental model that will help you find answers to complex questions or understand complex problems.

Before we do anything else, when we have an issue, we need to come up with a theory—an idea for how things work that you can then explore and try to prove or disprove.

Then you need to figure out an experiment that specifically disproves that theory, which is sometimes next to impossible because, we in publishing don’t have access to the environment where the experiments need to be implemented and run.

If this method seems slow and awkward (the only conclusive result you can have is partial disproval, not confirmation), then that’s because it is. It’s also the only way to know. Anything else is guesswork.

It’s a classic quote that is tailor-made for the modern internet: short, facile, glib, simplistic to the point of being useless.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

—William Gibson

The problem with the line is that it’s using the term future as a shorthand for technology and the changes it engenders—equating it with progress.

It has a simple message: progress remains a two-dimensional timeline (past → present → future), but that places, markets, and cultures are unevenly distributed along that timeline. Crap countries are stuck in the past. Good countries have a head start on the future.

As such it isn’t much of an improvement over the standard progress myth. In fact, it makes it worse by adding a dollop of neo-colonialism into the mix. “They are savages because they just haven’t had their share of our ‘future’ yet—not because a broken global economic system is holding them in debt-slavery”.

The publishing industry has bought into this idea wholesale. Some publishing markets are, according to this worldview, further ahead on the progress timeline than others. It also implies that advancement along the timeline is inevitable, even if it progresses at varying speeds. Romance and other genre fiction tend to dominate ebook sales and so must have more ‘future’. Non-fiction less so and must therefore have less ‘future’ and more of that crippling ballast called ‘past’. Big mainstream titles hit the ebook market in seemingly unpredictable ways. Some garner decent ebook sales while others seem to sell only in print. There, the ‘future’ seems to be randomly distributed, like a stress nosebleed over a term paper.

This, obviously, implies that the ebook will either eventually dominate universally or at least capture the same large percentage uniformly across the market.

I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The various publishing markets differ in fundamental ways that won’t be changed by ebooks. As others have said, ‘ebooks are terrific and haven’t changed a thing’.

Some will switch entirely to ebooks. Some partially. Some almost not at all.

If you’re going to generalise about readers, try not to generalise too much and stick to specific tastes and behaviours. Anybody claiming or even implying that an entire age group or economic class broadly behaves in the same way clearly hasn’t been observing book buyers for a long time. Claiming that those under twenty-four prefer print or that the more affluent prefer ebooks is useless even if it were true (probably isn’t) because those categories are too broad for us to guess what sort of books they are buying. Knowing that buyers of a specific genre prefer one format over another is clearly more useful than finding out that two-thirds of the young people who couldn’t avoid your survey didn’t like ebooks. One is actionable. The other isn’t.

It would be even better if we were able to make an educated guess of how a genre’s readers break down into behaviour groups:

  • Does a single kind of reader dominate? (casual readers, heavy readers, blockbusters only, etc.)
  • Or, is the readership more varied than that?
  • Is the distribution of the kinds of readers reliable across the genre or do sub-genres or individual titles differ substantially?

We are largely working blind here and unless you manage to get a critical mass of readers to buy from you directly and then read the books in an environment you control (good luck with that), it will be impossible to get even vaguely accurate guesses.

Some titles aren’t going to sell well as ebooks and there isn’t anything we can do about it except pray they turn into blockbusters. Because, if the title does turn out to be a blockbuster, you can always pay for a proper ebook version once the money starts rolling in.

The converse also holds true for ebook-heavy genres where the credo “ebook-first, print if popular” might well be printed above the door of every publisher (self- or other-) in the future.

If you have a title that is:

  • Visually rich.
  • Or, poses in some way to be an ebook production challenge.
  • And, is likely to appeal mostly to a print buying audience (this can happen for a variety of reasons).

Then the logical action to take is to quite simply not make an ebook version. Unless a high quality ebook is an almost free byproduct of your production workflow spending money on creating an ebook version of a title like that is likely to be a waste of money.

Conversely, print will not be viable for some markets within the industry, generally those dominated by ebook readers or have been thoroughly disrupted by apps and websites.

Either way, the single biggest concern publishers should have is to figure out ways to either discover or change the composition and shape of their readership. Making decisions on digital production will be next to impossible without that knowledge.

Blogging has trained me to assume you’re stupid

(This is the fourth Stumbling into Publishing post.)

One of my biggest regrets with the Knights & Necromancers series is how generic it sounds.

Not just the title—if it were just the title I could have fixed that by changing it.

No, the problem is that the stories seem impossible to summarise without sounding like generic cookie-cutter sword and sorcery fiction because that was the foundation I built on. I’d like to think I made something more of it but that ‘something’ is a thing too vague to boil down and market.

After trying, again and again to summarise the series, I’m forced to come to the conclusion that the premise probably is, a little bit at the very least, a little bit uninspired.

While I can pick out individual elements that definitely aren’t generic, the whole they compose looks and feels rather generic.

Which makes sense, since I felt rather uninspired writing them. My internal censor was in full force throughout. Whenever my mind got sucked towards something weird, I dialled back towards the more normal. Whenever I got fascinated by something I found interesting but was definitely off-beat for a fantasy story, I either skipped writing it or edited it out after the fact.

Most of what I normally write I write for myself. Both fiction and non-fiction, most of it simply goes into a folder in my Dropbox, only revisited if I need to reconnect with the ideas, emotions, or reasoning I was trying to preserve. A lot of it is perpetually half-finished. Which is okay. A lot of it gets deleted once I begin to find it stupid. Which is also okay.

It’s just that one thing I learned while blogging is that you people hate the non-fiction pieces I enjoyed writing and love the ones I hated. (‘You’ in this context being the generic aggregate bio-matter of the people who visit this site.) So, paradoxically enough, if I really like something I write, chances are I will never blog it.

Seriously, the difference in the traffic the two get is usually just about an order of magnitude. (I.e. over 10x, a real order of magnitude.)

The most popular posts in my blog ‘career’? Either posts that are magnets for email-happy lunatics (i.e. facile posts that nonetheless manage to be ‘controversial’ in some way), boring pieces that outline the blatantly obvious in as simple terms as possible, or lightweight pre-digested fair (like listicles or ‘this versus that’ fight posts).

What blogging has trained me to do for public writing is to remove all subtlety, abandon any structure that requires people to read from start to end (seriously, if you lay out a problem at the start of a post and follow it with suggestions for fixing, people will call you an arsehole because they only read the start and not the suggestions), tone it down (morons will ignore logic if you call an idiot an idiot), explain everything (even the stupid super-obvious stuff that shouldn’t need explanation), and generally assume that the readers are more boring and less imaginative than a senile middle manager three days from retirement in a large bureaucratic organisation that would make the offices from Gilliam’s Brazil look like Brazil’s Semco.

Because if you—my generic aggregate blog reader bio-matter—aren’t a fucking idiot then as a collective you do a bloody fucking good impression of one.

(And a lot of you are nutters too, judging by some of the emails and comments I’ve gotten in the past. Long emails. Long long crazy crazy emails.)

Once you get sucked into the trap of thinking that your writing can be of use, the temptation to adjust the writing to be more ‘effective’ gets pretty strong. The problem is that ‘effective’ blog writing—the writing that blog readers actually read and act upon—tends to be drivel because those same readers ignore most things more substantial.

Without blogging, I would probably be unemployed today. Which is a fact that weighs heavily on my mind whenever I consider giving it up completely to preserve my sanity.

The trouble with fiction is that, in storytelling, the writer’s emotions are at least partially infectious. If I am not fully emotionally invested in the story, that comes across. It might not be something you can pinpoint and it might not even be readily apparent, but that lack—that hollowness—is there no matter how well you write.

But, you, my reader, have trained me well. My experience with blogging has trained me to tone everything down, because the web is full of touchy fucks. It has trained me to simplify everything, because otherwise you’ll misunderstand it. It has trained me to chunk everything, because otherwise you’ll ignore it. It has trained me to make everything facile, because anything with nuance will be grossly misrepresented by you. All of these lessons work well to drive up blog traffic and kill productive discussion in favour of meaningless yay or nay prattle, but they absolutely destroy fiction. All you get is faceless people tackling vague problems in a generic place.

Moreover, blogging has trained me not to publish because I am not a robot and I have to write about what I have to write. I write what I like in the ways I like and then I close the file unpublished. Because publishing it would be pointless at best and a magnet for trouble at worst.

Blog readers are the worst kind of reader in the world. They arrive eager to misunderstand and ready to be angry with you.

Fiction readers arrive generous with their time but expect a world rich and complex enough to inhabit and a cast of characters who seem real and recognisable without being too familiar.

They are two audiences in diametric opposition. Any lesson learned for dealing with one, must be unlearned for the other. Not realising this sooner was, obviously, a major mistake on my part.

(Not saying fiction readers are saints. A lot of them are dumb fucks with an axe to grind. But, compared to your average blog reader, they might as well be old J.C. himself returned to save us all from our sins.)

Afterwards, before I actually published them, I tried to reconnect with the stories, trying to find facets in them that I could emotionally invest in but without ‘weirding’ them up too much. I hoped to make the characters feel as real to you as they do to me. I don’t know if it worked.

What I do know is that if I had just followed my writing interests, followed the lines and threads that captured my attention, I would have enjoyed the writing process much more.

It probably wouldn’t have sold any better but I doubt anybody would have felt that it was generic.