eBooks – product or service?

Apparently the EU has decided eBooks should be taxed as services (link) instead of goods (like physical books).

I don’t think it’s that simple. 

When Digital Products Are Services

eBook “retailers” like Amazon are essentially offering you a licence to access a digital product, not ownership of a copy of the product. 

Of course, their casual wording might lead you to believe otherwise:



But you’ve purchased a licence, not a book. 

Compare it to NetFlix. You pay a monthly fee to access a library of digital content. It happens to be the same library everyone else gets too, not a customized library. We are more comfortable with the idea of subscription because we aren’t picking specific movies, and we even expect that some titles will disappear. 

These are services – the companies sell access, not goods. 

When Digital Products Are Goods

When I buy a book from Humble Bundle or Baen though, I’m buying a book (aren’t I?). I’m allowed to use it in certain ways (e.g. on multiple devices), and they’re not able to revoke my licence (I don’t think). There is no DRM to lock me into a platform or a service, and the expectation is that I will manage my purchases honestly and appropriately. 

And I’m glad they provide the ability to download my books at any time, but I don’t expect them to maintain my library for me. I keep my local copies, just in case. 

I’m certainly thinking of an eBook as a thing I’m buying, not a licence I’m buying. I want permanent access.

Can’t the Retailer and/or Publisher Choose?

I think there is room for both types of access, but it’s currently not clear to the consumer what they’re paying for. 

It would be nice for the publisher, or possibly the publisher and retailer together, to decide whether they’re licensing or selling (or both), and then price differentially and accordingly. 

Don’t forget

I have no legal training. I’m just making lay observations, so don’t interpret any of this as legal advice, silly.

Advertisements

My thoughts on DRM: Digital Rights Management

DRM has been around for a long time. There are a lot of arguments for and against DRM from the perspective of the creator and the consumer, the publisher and the distributor.

I see these arguments being talked about along with the Amazon-Hachette battle. People are concerned about being locked into a platform.

I understand that. I like it when products are offered DRM-free, because I’m more confident that I will be able to access the product in several years, and because I have choice in how I consume the product.

I also understand how publishers are afraid of piracy; if it’s too easy to copy digital media, people may steal instead of paying.

But I think both groups are missing something (at least, some people in both groups).

DRM isn’t such a huge problem sometimes

At least, it’s not a huge problem when the management platform provider is good about ensuring the media is available forever on all popular devices. Amazon, for example, lets you read your Kindle books on pretty much everything. They don’t lock you into the Kindle device [anymore]. I have a Kindle, an iPhone, an iPad, and a laptop; all of them are perfectly happy with my books.

It’s also not a problem if DRM is a choice. If I can choose to purchase a book with DRM or without DRM, even at a premium, I’m a happy consumer.

What’s more, Amazon isn’t the only place to get books. I’ll admit, I prefer to buy books there (because then I have everything in the same account), but publishers have lots of other options (including other prominent booksellers like B&N, or distributing the books themselves). Amazon has provided a robust distribution platform, but anyone can publish and distribute an ebook. I’ve done it myself (for free, of course), several times.

Tor Books recently started a new imprint for ebooks. They’re going to be DRM-free because it doesn’t hurt sales and it’s best for the consumer. I’m happy about that.

DRM is a huge problem sometimes

Sometimes DRM is terrible. You have to have 17 different apps, which all function a little differently, to read graphic novels from 17 different DRMing publishers. That’s really irritating (“terrible” is overstating the case, I suppose). I don’t buy graphic novels for Kindle unless they’re exceptionally cheap because I don’t like how the iPad app handles them.

And if the publisher goes belly-up, stops supporting the app, or even stops supporting the app on your specific device, you’re out of luck. Enjoy your eternal subscription to the media you can’t view.

And it doesn’t work

If you want to keep people from copying digital works, you have to prevent them from viewing digital works.

For books, screen captures are inconvenient but effective, and only one person needs to do it. Retyping is slow, but people do that too.

You want to prevent people from copying music? You can’t let them play music, then, or they’ll find a way to copy it.

It’s not a solvable problem, since our playback and recording devices are the same things.

Interestingly, DRM actually encourages piracy in some ways. If you require your graphic novel to be viewed in your own app and a consumer already has a different preferred app, they might seek out a pirated copy so that they don’t have to use your platform. See?

I’m not worried

For now I’ll just make my choices, and hope that publishers start removing DRM from their products (they’re allowed to, after all, even/especially on Amazon). I want to be able to archive my own stuff, just in case Amazon deletes my account or Dark Horse stops supporting iOS apps.

To the publishers reading this, though: I sometimes decided to not purchase a work because it was DRMed and not available in the ecosystem I live in. I didn’t want to download another app or create another account, so you didn’t get my dollars, neither did your author, and I enjoyed someone else’s book. If you hadn’t DRMed it, I would have bought it. Sorry.

What if ebooks had come first?

I like to read books. I always have, and I expect that will continue for the rest of my life.

But I’ve changed in my reading habits a lot over the last few years. Now I read far more ebooks than print books, and I listen to audiobooks as well. Most recently I’ve started exploring graphic novels, mostly digitally on my iPad.

When I talk to people about reading ebooks (usually novels), they either hop excitedly foot to foot inquiring about the Kindle titles I love or they scrunch their faces as though tasting bitterness in their old-schoolery while proclaiming they prefer print books.

Why the polarity? Why do people love one or the other?

Why ebooks are better

They’re sometimes cheaper (not always).

They’re easy to get on release day, or any other day. They’re always available and never out of stock.

You can bring (and read) hundreds of them anywhere without lugging anything you wouldn’t already have (phone, tablet, etc.).

They’re not heavy (ever try to read a Brandon Sanderson hardcover?).

They’re not lost in a basement flood, they can be archived, and they can’t be stolen by literate, opportunistic ruffians in the coffee shop.

You can share your notes (even voice notes!) with a social network.

They can synchronize across devices, and with audiobook narrations.

You can adjust the type and screen to account for your failing eyes, the brightness of the room, your font snobbery, and the colour you want the “paper” to be.

From a publisher’s/distributor’s point of view, they require no storage and no shipping; that is, no per-unit cost. They can therefore maintain a back catalogue into perpetuity at no additional cost. Books can even be updated to correct typos, improve covers, and so on.

Why print books are better

You can share them easily.

There is no question that you own it, and you’ll always be able to read it.

You can write in them with a pencil.

They work when you’re out of power.

You can leaf through them quickly, which is helpful for some times of reading.

You can’t change the type, colour, or where stuff is on the page (that’s a good thing).

They don’t depend on screen resolution to look good.

But what if we had had ebooks first?

But of all the reasons people list for preferring print books, the one I hear most often isn’t such a “logical” reason: it’s just that people “are used” to them. It’s almost an argument from nostalgia.

I think if we’d had ebooks before print books the market would be different.

People buying print books would be incredulous at the delays (“You mean I can’t just click the button and start reading?!”), and at the limitations of the format (“I can’t embiggen the font!”). They would feel cheated at only being able to have a small number in their bag at once.

But print books would still have their place, because they truly are better at some things. They’re better when you need to look at a series of charts. They’re awesome for marking up. They are locally very shareable.

Sometimes digital text is later produced in print formats. For example, a series of blog posts might be sold as a paperback book (even while remaining free on the web). Or an ebook is successful and then has a print run. This is often to hit both markets, I’m sure, but sometimes it’s because a text is better represented in print. The authors whose books are published with gorgeous covers, creamy paper and stitched signatures revel in the work of art they were a part of. They may love the pagination, or how they were able to choose the font to evoke emotion instead of relying on Caecilia.

I love that there is a market for both, and I’m sad that many books will never make it into my digital library because of a publisher’s retention of rights without the will to digitize. I hope that authors and publishers will make both forms available to us, and I’m happy that print-on-demand will make it reasonable to do so without many of the costs of warehousing and shipping.

If ebooks had come first we would still have both forms, but more people would think more kindly of them.

Whispersync is cheaper, it seems

I recently bought “Ashes of Victory” by David Weber on Amazon for $6.76. The audiobook on Audible is $24.95, although clicking through to Audible from Amazon drops the price (inexplicably) to $21.95.

But there is no Whispersync for this title. I’m not sure if they haven’t gotten around to it, or if it’s not on the list to be synced.

This poses a serious problem for me. The book is 672 pages (according to Amazon; it is an e-book, after all), and the audiobook is 25.75 hours. I can read the book in about 11 hours, but I need my eyes to do it. I can listen to the audiobook without my eyes, but it takes more than twice as long. If I split my time 50/50 between formats, it’ll be 5.5+12.875=17.375 hours to complete it.

Maybe the math was unnecessary.

It would cost me an extra $21.95 to get the professional narration for this book. If it were a Whispersync title, I would get a deeper discount on the audiobook. Check out this example:

“The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson is $11.48 for the Kindle edition. It’s $63.93 for the Audible narration ($47.95 through the Amazon link to Audible). If I buy the Kindle edition first, the Whispersync Audible narration is only $7.99 (an extra $40 off or so).

If I were exclusively buying audiobooks, I’d be buying a lot of extra Kindle editions to make the audiobooks cheaper, and I’d be primarily buying Whispersync-ready titles.

Admittedly, I’m not an Audible Member (i.e. I don’t have a membership plan for monthly credits), so I’m not saving the 30% they would normally give on all purchases (for “The Way of Kings” the price would only be $44.75), but that’s still waaay more than buying the Kindle edition first.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the discount applied even if the book wasn’t Whispersync-ready?

Some free Kindle fantasy books today (2013 02 19)

I “bought” a couple of free books for my Kindle today. I don’t really need more to read, but I can’t resist them all. I did resist a couple of relatively long books; these ones are shorter. Nice cover art. Maybe someday I’ll even read them…

WICK (Wick Series) by Michael Bunker – “…A Mind-Bending Thriller…” – Listed under “Science Fiction – Adventure” and “Fantasy – Alternative History”. 197 pages.

Edgewood (Edgewood Series) by Karen McQuestion – “…a brand new, spellbinding novel…” – Listed under “Fantasy – Paranormal” and “Science Fiction – Adventure”. 325 pages.

Perhaps I’ll write a review, if I ever read them.

e-Book/Audiobook deal; a brief review of Scalzi’s “The B-Team: The Human Division, Episode 1”

Since I’m trying to find short books that will build worlds for me without having to commit to ten thousand pages, I bought and listened to John Scalzi‘s “The B-Team: The Human Division, Episode 1” narrated by William Dufris on Audible.com. This is a book set in the same distant future as his “Old Man’s War” novels, but it’s being released as a weekly serial for $0.99 an episode. The e-Book is also available for $0.99  ($1.16 for me, because I live in Canada, the publisher sets a higher price, and I am paying taxes on the purchase), and I bought it as well.

Why did I buy both?

Well, for starters, $1.16 is pretty inexpensive for a well-written novella of about 90 pages. Or almost any length, really. I also wanted to try out the Kindle/Audible WhisperSync system (haven’t tried it yet, sorry – I’ll get back to you on that one). Lastly, I wanted to read the names of the planets, species, and characters, so I’ll go through the book again. For example, there is a character in the book with the last name “Bair”, but I was imagining it spelled “Behr”. If I’m going to transition later into Scalzi’s longer books, I might need to know how things are spelled. Plus, I find characters more memorable if I can “see” their name in my head.

I like this model of delivery: a weekly release of short books all set in the same world. Books on the Nightstand says it’s the year of the short story; I certainly think it is for me.

Brief review; no spoilers

Overall, it was a good, fast read. The characters are complex enough for a novella, and there are several small plot arcs in the context of a larger plot. There isn’t a lot of time for characters to grow in two hours of narration, so there wasn’t much there.

The narration was good but not excellent. The characters’ voices were usually distinguishable from each other, but there were a few times that I wasn’t sure which male character was which. Also, the voice of the narrator (um…. not sure how to say this… the book’s narrator, not the performance’s narrator…) sometimes sounded too much like the characters’ voices.

He said, she said

But I always knew who was talking because of the number of “saids” in the story. In an exchange in the first few pages, the dialogue looks (structurally) like this:

"Sentence," character 1 asked.
"Sentence," character 2 said.
"Sentence," character 1 said.
"Sentence," character 2 said.
"Sentence," character 1 joked.
"Sentence," character 2 said.

When you flesh out the sentences, it’s not really so bad, but it’s still noticeable. When the narrator has to say all of those saids aloud, it’s a bit jarring and it takes me out of the story a little. I hope I’m not overstating this; it’s a minor problem.

The only other criticism I have is that a few times the characters say things that I don’t know would be said by far-future humans (like references to high school and paper bags). Little things, to be sure.

Still worth it

Overall, great book. 4.5 stars. You should read it if you like space opera. I’ve already bought “The Human Division 2: Walk The Plank” (Audible and Amazon).

e-Books should cost no more than physical books (and maybe less)

I own a lot of e-Books. I don’t read paper books anymore if I can help it (with the exception of graphic novels and other texts which have strict layout requirements). I’ve purchased most from Amazon (I have a Kindle Keyboard, which I love reading on), and a few from other retailers.

I didn’t expect to be able to transfer ownership of these e-Books; I knew that going in. I just tell friends about the great books I’ve read and they can buy the book themselves or borrow it from the library. Authors tend to make more money this way, I think, which is good.

But it sounds like I don’t own the e-Books anyway; it sounds like I’ve purchased a licence to read them on digital devices. (Aside: A greater concern for readers, but maybe not publishers, might be the legal terms like “Amazon reserves the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders in its sole discretion” which might instantly cancel your licence to read. DRM makes this possible. A little scary, and good reason to purchase from non-DRM e-Books retailers like Baen, which also has DRM-free books on Amazon.)

But there is still the matter of my ability to resell a hardcover book (and recoup some of my costs) but not a digital book. Is that the essential difference? e-Books are non-transferable but physical books are?

Here’s an example of some book pricing on Amazon. Note that the publisher set the Kindle Edition price at $16.10, which is why it’s not listed in the “Amazon Price” column:

Sample book pricing on Amazon.

Sample book pricing on Amazon.

Right now, many e-Books I consider buying licensing cost as much as or more than their physical counterparts. I can’t resell it, and there are no significant per-unit production and shipping costs, so I think it should cost less than the cheapest available print book (less than $11.55 in my example). I’m not buying a copy; I’m buying a non-transferable licence. I can even choose to revoke my own licence if I want to (I recently deleted a short story that was not very good because I don’t want it cluttering up my library). On the other hand, I like the convenience of e-Books, so that’s worth something too, but enough to justify charging more than for a hardcover? I don’t think so.

I’m fine with not being able to share, sell, and transfer the e-Books I pay for, but pretending that there is no residual value in a physical book or that it’s free to produce and ship that physical book is ridiculous. Make it easy to buy e-Books at a reasonable price and I will buy them (and keep them). I read about twice as many books now as I did pre-Kindle, even with the price discrepancies. I’m interested in reading great books and supporting great authors (and their publishers!) so they can create more great books.