E-Books, Royalties and DRM.

Yesterday, Peter Nowak (a prominent Canadian tech journalist and fellow author) posted a link to twitter. The link was to a guardian article entitled "Ebook deals 'not remotely fair' on authors" -- and I took exception to some of the content. Specifically that authors (like Peter Nowak and I) should get a 50% royalty on ebook sales, or in the alternative, 25% and have our copyright returned after two years. To me, the phrase that comes to mind is: good luck with that one lady.

I get what I consider a pretty solid royalty on E-Books from Apress -- more than double my standard royalty for print and the book grosses more when sold as an ebook for my publisher. But, e-book royalties don't matter right now. For every 100 print copies, I sell about 5 ebooks. The amount I make from E-book sales in a quarter wouldn't cover a meal at a nice restaurant. This is despite really solid demand for digital copies of my book -- mininova [before the cleansing] resulted in the pirating of thousands more copies than I've sold in either print or ebook.

Before our discussion was over the conversation inevitably turned to DRM as it usually does in a Canada with MP's like James Moore and bad bills like C-32. DRM, you see, will soon get the full force of law if certain factions get their way. Buy an ebook and want to turn it into braile for a disabled student -- not if its got a digital lock. What about text-to-speech for those who can't read, but can hear just fine? At least some of the ebook formats allow publishers to TURN OFF this accessibility option, simply because it p/o'd some members of the audiobook industry. DRM has some really evil qualities for some segments of our population -- but for the rest of us, its just plain annoying.

Want to excerpt, annotate, exercise your fair dealing rights? Not if its a DRM format and those actions aren't blessed by the device/format maker. If DRM affected 80% of users, it wouldn't be effective and people wouldn't buy -- but what of the 20% use case. Those who depend on resale of their textbooks at the end of a semester, or even those who share culture through donating books to aid organizations. What of history, and how we preserve a first edition ebook for posterity -- when its format requires an authentication server to open?

But alas, I'm a victim of piracy, and as is my publisher. Can I say for sure I've lost sales to piracy? No. I can't assume that anyone who downloaded my book would have pony'd up the $30+ required. But then, I should love the DRM, proprietary readers, and formats that make it hard for people to download my book for free. That would solve all the issues of the digital age. Right? Well, no, and I don't. In Peter's column this morning he claims 'DRM concerns on ebooks are overblown', but are they?

There are thousands of publishers out there today -- and finding one is hard. Really hard. Most people write a book and shop as many publishers as they can, getting rejection after rejection. But, still, many find a publisher willing to take them on and put the required financial backing and editorial resources behind them. But then, what happens when there are only a handful of publication companies, or any one company commands such a market share to make ignoring them a ridiculous proposition. What happens when, as in the Apple App Store, the distribution channel decides to exert editorial control?

Peter Nowak seems to think competition will solve many of the DRM issues. Digital Audio after all is trending to a DRM-Free model under market forces, why wouldn't ebooks? But one must be careful what they wish for, for these are early days. While there may be many companies vying for position in the ebook market, they're also very likely to shut down once a clear winner has been decided. We've seen this before. Sirius/XM. HD-DVD/Blu-Ray, etc.. When the dust settles on epub vs kindle, what will the end result be? Will all books have a proprietary format wrapping them, as do videos -- be it a DVD with CSS or a Blu-Ray disc with AACS. We've seen the monopolization of formats before and we will see it again in this lifetime.

There's always been one big exception to bad DRM. It doesn't work. It can't work. If your eyes can perceive it, someone, somewhere can make a tool that will bypass the restrictions. Unfortunately, now, bill C-32 wants to make it illegal to distribute these tools. The tools your local disability support services will require if they are to make transformative use of DRM content. The tools that practically every linux computer needs to play a DVD.

So how does this change the ecosystem? Will Steve Jobs be the new big brother -- deciding what books he's willing to publish? Will culture have to pass a morality test designed by Jeff Bezos? E-books offer the ability to correct errata in already sold content, some even the ability to revoke a book entirely. Will this lead to orwellian unspeak, new forms of censorship, and other evils that we thought died long ago? Its a strong possibility -- I'd probably go as far as to say it's probable.

So with all this in mind, authors need to take note and do as I do. Reject DRM and proprietary formats. Fight with your publishers and demand that they publish your book in an open format. Put your money where your mouth is and protect the ecosystem that got your book published. Because if we all do as Peter Nowak recommends, and pretend DRM concerns are overblown, well, I'm certain we wont like the publishing system we've created in 10 years.