Do You Own Your Ebooks?

An email from an acquaintance today in light of the Amazon library deletion scandal caused me to write a long rant about digital rights management (DRM) and ebooks and copyright so I thought I’d share some of it below.

It amazes me sometimes that we’re still all talking about DRM and ebooks. I feel like it’s a conversation we’ve been having for a very long time, and made very little progress with. But ultimately that’s the nature of an industry undergoing such huge changes. Protecting the legal rights of authors and readers while also trying to run a business and not violate any licensing agreements can be a nightmare for even the most informed publishing functionary – to an outsider I think it must look like complete and utter nonsense.

There are different issues at work here. One is the legal rights of the reader/consumer and the other is the technology used to restrict those rights.

When it comes to legal rights, most publishers aren’t selling the ebook file itself – they sell a license to use it under certain circumstances. They give the reader the file – but the reader doesn’t ‘own’ this file. This is pretty standard for selling digital content – if you sold the file with with no restrictions then the person who bought it could copy and send it to all of their friends or re-sell it themselves with no legal recourse for the copyright owner (the author, not the publisher). I don’t know of any publisher of any digital content that sells digital files without restrictions – whether they’re using DRM or not.

The second issue is a technological one. Most publishers sell their content with DRM, which on top of the legal restrictions also physically restricts readers from transferring content to other readers or between devices by using encryption software. This software is usually implemented by the retailer (Amazon, Apple or whoever) at the behest of the publisher. Some publishers, like Momentum, have asked retailers not to include DRM on our files. This isn’t because we think users should be able to own the file and use it without restrictions, but because we believe that a reader who buys an ebook should be able to transfer that book between devices without the technological difficulty inherent in using encryption technology. Basically it’s extremely frustrating for a reader who has legitimately purchased a book to transfer that book between multiple devices if it has DRM on it – and that’s why we removed it. We wanted our readers to be able to buy a book from Amazon and read it on their Kobo reader if they wanted to – and now they can.

To be clear – Momentum is still technically selling a license for our books, not the files themselves – we just don’t physically restrict readers from transferring their ebooks between devices. The reason for this is basically down to the nature of digital content – it isn’t some kind of Orwellian urge to control what readers do with their reading material. If we ‘owned’ a digital file in the sense that most of us ‘own’ paper books, by current laws we would be able to do whatever they wanted with it (including selling copies for a profit), which would in most cases violate the contract under which retailers sell ebooks and the rights publishers license from authors. Authors ultimately own the copyright for their content and license it to publishers who can then sub-license it to readers.

In the Amazon case mentioned above, the reader violated Amazon’s terms and conditions in some way that Amazon hasn’t made clear to anyone. As a result, Amazon closed their account, which means they no longer had access to the encrypted files that were stored on their device. If that reader had bought any of Momentum’s ebooks, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as they could have just moved their ebooks to a different device. As far as I know, without DRM Amazon cannot yank a book from someone’s device – but I might be wrong. At any rate, because all of the reader’s books had DRM on them, they lost their entire library (albeit temporarily – Amazon has restored the reader’s account as far as I know).

As much as I think this is a horrible situation for the reader – and this is precisely why we dropped DRM from our books at Momentum – these stories do seem to crop up intermittently and don’t seem to have any real effect on the ebook market. Ultimately the convenience of digital reading outweighs most people’s concerns about it. I’d love it if more readers cared about this stuff as it’s something I care about, and we’ve made Momentum a more reader-friendly place as a result. However, my general impression is that for the most part Amazon’s ecosystem works pretty well and these situations tend to be anomalies or bureaucratic oversights rather than some kind of concerted effort to defraud readers.

Having said that, I’m curious about what you think. Has Momentum’s decision caused you to buy more books from us? Do you seek out DRM-free ebooks consciously? Had you even heard about the story mentioned above? Sound off in the comments and let us know.

Originally posted at The Momentum Blog

Would Your Protagonist Kill a Dog?

An author friend of mine was talking to another author friend of his about the large number of women who read his books. This surprised him. His books are for the most part military thrillers in which the main character (often a man) shoots and explodes his way through his problems, usually scooping up a lady friend along the way for extracurricular fun. This shooting of problems and gratuitous sexy times, said the author’s friend, did not make any of his novels a boy’s book.

“Would your protagonist kill a dog?” asked the friend.

“No, he doesn’t kill a dog,” replied the author.

“Not does he kill a dog. Would he kill a dog. If the dog was in the way.”

The author thought for a moment and allowed that, if they had any other choice, most of his protagonists would probably not kill a dog.

“There you go then. Chick’s book.”

Let me clear here – personally I believe the concept of a boy’s book or a girl’s book is completely socially constructed. Given that fiction is read much more by women than men it seems clear to me that almost any successful fiction title will have a significant female readership. And I’ve spoken to plenty of men who read what is traditionally termed “women’s fiction”. Nonetheless, the idea of gendered fiction is still quite powerful. A lot of guys would avoid Fifty Shades of Grey like the plague – not because they don’t like a bit of light spanking in their fiction, but because it’s perceived as a girl’s book.

Rules of thumb like the above might reinforce the idea that women don’t enjoy violence in fiction and that men are savages who like nothing else, but it doesn’t mean the distinction doesn’t exist. As a publisher, I can’t help but try to think of the potential reader when I read submissions, and sometimes that reader is gendered.

I don’t use a rule as clear-cut as the above, but something figures into it (and it certainly isn’t the gender of the author). It isn’t the gender of the protagonist either – as a reader some of my favourite protagonists are women who would calmly kill a dog if necessary (with a lot less traumatised screaming than most men I know). I don’t know why this is, but I suspect Joss Whedon has a lot to do with it. Either way, the gender of the author and the protagonist don’t come into it – but there is certainly a tipping point that makes me think “probably a boy’s book” (even when I know plenty of women will read it).

So my question for the day – where do you draw your line? Do you like boys’ books or girls’ books? Do you care? And if you’re an author – would your protagonist kill a dog?

[This was originally posted on The Momentum Blog.]

This Book is Certified Edited

[This post originally appeared on The Momentum Blog]

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about editing this week. Tomorrow I’m speaking at the Residential Editorial Program, an intensive editing course run by Varuna for professional career editors. My topic is about the future of editing, and although I find myself talking about this almost every day of my working life, it’s hard to sum up precisely how I feel.

And then Rich Adin from The Digital Reader blog gave me a little push.

I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

Adin is talking about self-published authors here. And it’s an extremely noble idea. Adin identifies most of the (many) problems with the idea himself on the post. These include how to penalise bad editing, who decides on certification, who ensures that authors follow the advice, who will promote the value of such certification and, the biggie, “what fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process?” However, he goes on to say that “few of the problems cannot be overcome”. Here I have to disagree with him, and I think the reasoning comes down to this umbrella term – “editing”.

Editing is more than just good proofreading – making sure the author has used the right “your” and “their” and “its” and ensuring that a character with blue eyes and blonde hair remains blue-eyed and blonde throughout the book. A ‘certified’ edited book, in the sense that Adin means, wouldn’t be worth the electrons it was typed in if the book was well proofread and the continuity worked but was still a giant pile of crap to read. In traditional publishing (still the best in show for professional editorial standards, despite objections and occasional dropped balls), the editorial process starts at commissioning. Extremely badly written books don’t get published in the first place. Books that are commissioned usually go through at least one big picture edit that sorts out many of the structural problems (like the six chapters written before the plot starts, the inauthenticity of the setting or the sheer stupidity of a character). Then there’s at least one line edit (or copyedit, depending on your country of origin) and then multiple rounds of proofreading by both freelancers and in-house editorial staff. A huge percentage of editorial work is sent to the author to get their approval, but there is also a lot of stuff that flies under the radar and is just fixed without the author’s knowledge because it’s obviously, glaringly incorrect. All part of the invisible service.

And you know what? Even with all that (and I very much doubt a ‘certified’ editor working with a self-published author could provide all that) not every book that is edited well is a good book. Editing – to a massive extent – is an invisible gloss on a book. I’m frequently enraged when book critics claim that a given book wasn’t very well edited. The kinds of things that can be changed (but are left as is) and the kinds of mistakes that creep in (and are not fixed) are often not the fault of editors, but of the author, the typesetter, the printer, the conversion house and so on and so on and so on. The editor might take ultimate responsibility, but it is almost impossible to determine how ‘well’ a book was edited by looking at the final product.

The other problem with this idea is the cost. The market for self-published, unedited ebooks has proved that there is a proportion of the reading population who are willing to pay a lot less for work that is not edited at all (or edited poorly by non-professional editors). This market is largely driven by price. I’m not convinced that a ‘certified’ editorial scheme is going to make the quality of these books much better unless a lot of money was spent. To address the problems with a certification program, you need an independent third party with a stake in the book with knowledge of editorial skill and the infrastructure to carry it out. And all of that costs money – money that readers of self-published writing don’t want to pay.

Having said that, there is clearly a market for paying slightly more for a well edited book – and that’s to buy it from a publisher. I’m not saying publishers do it perfectly, but it is extremely high on the priority list for our books to go out with as high a level of quality as possible – and it is usually the biggest cost associated with producing a book. Traditional editorial workflow has been built over generations, is constantly improving and it is run efficiently and with razor-thin margins. How, precisely, can self-publishing improve on that?

I do think we can do a better job of ‘selling’ this idea to the reading public. At Momentum, all of our books have the name of the proofreader and the line editor (if appropriate) on the copyright page of the book. It’s one way that we can prove to a sceptical reader that all of our books are edited by real, professional, vetted editors (who are also human beings).

An extract from the copyright page of The Chimera Vector

We also have an email address so that if you do spot errors in our books you can let us know. So far we’ve received two emails from concerned readers, and in both cases they received responses and the errors were corrected.

But I wonder – what else can we do? What do readers expect? Are you willing to pay more for better edited books – or is price more important? Sound off in the comments – I’m curious to hear what you think.

Out of Print, Out of Sight: Resurrecting the Dead in Digital

Is this the most literal book cover of all time?

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last month or so in London for the Unwin Fellowship. I spent my first two weeks with Pan Macmillan UK helping them out with their brand new imprint, Macmillan Bello, which has partnered with Curtis Brown UK to bring out-of-print titles back from the dead in digital and print-on-demand format.

The imprint joins other publishing ventures such as Bloomsbury Reader and others by agents such as Ereads, founded by prominent New York literary agent Richard Curtis way back in 1999, and Bedford Square Books, by agent Ed Victor.

Bello plans to launch several hundred titles over the next eighteen months, including those by author (and famous gardener, apparently) Vita Sackville-West, conservationist Gerald Durrell, Francis Durbridge and DJ Taylor. If you haven’t heard of any of these authors, I wouldn’t hold it against them (and you can check out a blurb about each of them below). Having now spent a fair bit of time fondling the curling, age-spotted covers of some of these books (knowing they were off to be euthanised), I can assure you that when they emerge blinking into their second lives they will be read fondly by many.

I confess to being a convert to this kind of ‘resurrectionist’ publishing. And it makes good sense for publishers to get on board with. Most big publishers have invested to some extent in digitising their own backlist titles – though some are better at it than others. The best of them can leverage this capability to digitise large numbers of these out-of-print titles. There are a lot of them to get through if we want to digitise it all (and we do). Few will do so many as Bello in such an ambitious time frame, but it’s a worthy goal. Seeing tottering piles of books that would otherwise have only been available to a handful of people who paid for second-hand copies is quite heartening. As much as it pains me to think of them all being shredded into tiny little pieces (not really) it’s nice to think that they will likely now be available for any reader for all time – not just digitally, but back in paper. How much more retro can you get?

There are those who argue that bringing back these titles adds to the flood of unfiltered information already available on ebook vendors’ stores, but it’s worth keeping in mind that all of these titles were vetted by publishers years ago. Many are sought after by current digital readers who can’t otherwise access them. And let’s face it, some of these books are only going to be available second-hand for a limited time before they disappear forever.

Vita Sackville-West: A famous author and gardener. Seriously, a gardener. Check this out. She’s the author of many books, including All Passion Spent (1931) and The Edwardians (1930). Aside from her gardening and writing, Ms Sackville-West is a famous bisexual, who had an affair with Virginia Woolf.

Gerald Durrell: Conservationist who founded the Jersey Zoo and spent his life trying to preserve rare wildlife. He wrote a number of portraits of his work and family, as well as a handful of fiction titles. For some reason his Wikipedia photo reminds me of Brian Cox. Do you see what I mean?

Francis Durbridge: Playwright, author and television writer. Created the character Paul Temple, who solved mysteries and wrote crime novels and spanned every entertainment medium imaginable between the years 1938 (when the character first appeared in a novel) until 1971 in a television series.

DJ Taylor: Critic, novelist and biographer. His latest novel, Derby Day, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and he received the Whitbread Biography Prize for his biography of George Orwell.



Kindle Library Lending – What You Need to Know

Amazon announced this morning that they are rolling out their support for library lending to 11,000 libraries (read: 11,000 libraries in the United States). This has been a long time coming, and the deal and technology has so many moving parts I wasn’t sure if it ever would. But are libraries a part of our digital book future? And should they be?

First of all: the history. Amazon hasn’t made connections with all of those 11,000 libraries all alone. To access the libraries they went through Overdrive. Overdrive is an ebook distributor/wholesaler, who has primarily been concentrating on the library market for the last few years. They’ve done well – almost every library ebook lending service is powered by Overdrive. However, Overdrive’s service has previously only supported ePub and Adobe’s DRM scheme. That means that it only worked with devices that support Adobe’s DRM – for example the Sony eReader, Nook, Kobo, iPad (via Overdrive’s app) and other less successful devices. The partnership with Amazon opens up Amazon’s entire platform to library lending.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a one-way street. Amazon’s major strength as a platform has always been its range of ebooks. The Kindle’s range is by far the biggest of the ebook vendors. This range of ebooks is not suddenly going to be available for lending now that Amazon has joined up with Overdrive for library lending. All it means is that the same ebooks that are currently available to Overdrive’s customers via their local library will now also be available to Kindle owners (or owners of iPads, iPhones or Android devices who use the Kindle app).

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons. First of all, libraries still have to buy access for their patrons to individual titles. And they’re not all buying. Second of all, many publishers have not made their ebooks available to Overdrive for lending to libraries. Why? Because it’s still a model that has bugs.

Dead tree libraries are limited by what they can fit on their shelves, their budgets for purchasing and, in the end, that each book can only be borrowed by one person at a time for a certain amount of time. These are physical limitations that don’t apply to ebooks at all. At the moment, Overdrive imposes physical limitations on library lended ebooks – dependent on what the publisher has agreed to. For the most part it is two week lending, and only one person can borrow one ebook at a time. Some publishers (like HarperCollins) have imposed further limitations, allowing that each ebook a library makes available can only be borrowed 26 times before the library must buy anther copy of the book. As many have said, these limitations seem to be quite artificial in a digital world.

But what is the alternative? Books cost something. Libraries foot the bill for that cost in the dead tree model. It is difficult to evaluate how to make that cost work in a library environment for a book that will never wear out and could be copied by a thousand people at a time with no degradation of the original. All limitations in this model will have to be artificial, or else there will be no limitations. And that will inevitably undermine the business model for publishing books in the first place. I don’t have an answer for how to balance that equation, or indeed if libraries will even work as a repository for digital books in the future at all.

What do you think about digital libraries? Do you borrow ebooks from your local library? What kinds of limitations do they have? Why do you think publishers should support libraries (and how much should they charge?). Sound off in the comments below.

The Critic in a Digital Age

So I saw Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Geordie Williamson at the Opera House earlier this week. It was, as many people who saw it with me agreed, a complete train wreck. But it underlined a really interesting distinction between old and new media that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since.

Williamson is the chief literary critic of The Australian, and is obviously a very intelligent, thoughtful and interesting individual. However, when it came to interviewing someone like Franzen in front of an audience of fans in a venue like the Opera House, his questions went down like a lead balloon. They were heavy, dense and literary – focused on the social themes of the novel in general and not the novel in particular (in particular Freedom, Franzen’s latest tour-de-force). Franzen kept trying to steer Williamson on to gentler currents, but the critic either wouldn’t or couldn’t change tack.

It would be simple to dismiss this as nervousness, or just an unlucky, bad interview (particularly as Williamson managed to accidentally call the author ‘James’ Franzen during his minutes-long opening monologue). And I’m sure it was both of those things. But I also think there’s something else going on.

Literary criticism has been losing ground to the internet for years, along with the rest of the standard newspaper. And by ground I mean audience share. People are more willing to listen to each other through social media than they are to experts. They are more willing to engage with amateur critics through blogs. The tools that the web has made available turns anyone into a critic and gives anyone a voice that can be heard anywhere in the world. Literary criticism alone no longer has the audience share by dint of the standard newspaper’s distribution network.

I’m sure most critics would probably deride this as a loss of literary objectivity with an audible sniff. And to an extent, that’s true. The internet is a shallow place at times, and most armchair critics probably aren’t delving deeply into the social conscience of the novel. However, blogging and other social media gives something back to criticism that has always been lacking from the art form. Bloggers are forced to engage with their audience. The humble comment form is a feedback loop that is capable of creating the most banal stupidity on the internet (see just about any YouTube comment thread), as well as some of the most fascinating, engaged critical thought I’ve come across.

Watching Geordie Williamson dig himself deeper and deeper into a literary hole on Tuesday night, I could almost feel him losing the audience. Audiences raised in a digital age are used to being paid attention to. It was clear Franzen could see it. But Williamson either could see it and didn’t care or couldn’t see it at all. Either way, that’s not a good thing for us or for him.

My question for you all today, if you feel like chiming in, is about the role of the critic in a digital age. Are they entirely irrelevant? Do you trust online reviews? Are you interested in the reviews in mainstream newspapers, or do you seek out the niche online? Sound off below and let us know.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Would the perceived value of the publishing process be enhanced by a standard acknowledgement? Or should the author get to decide who takes credit?

There’s been a lot of talk on the web lately about the value of the publishing process. Digital self-publishing gurus like JA Konrath claim that publishers no longer have a role in the production of books. The popular belief of readers, bloggers and many self-published authors seems to be that agents and publishers are grasping middlemen, gatekeepers who hold back genius from the public to line their pockets with sales from writers they conned into giving away their intellectual property.

If you take the information available to the average reader in any given book you might even agree. It says so on the tin. In great big embossed letters, which get bigger as each new book comes out. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. According to tradition, publishers, editors and agents erase themselves from the creative process of book creation to protect the myth of the author-as-genius. It is up to the author, in the pages of the acknowledgements, to credit those who helped them.

I should point out at this point that published authors are mostly a pretty good bunch. Most authors I know have a deep and abiding respect for their publishers, editors, agents and so on. Most of the time authors even credit the people who helped them in their acknowledgements. But my question for today is – why should they have to? Most published books are not the sole creation of the author. The author may have been by far the biggest contributor, but most books are still a collaborative work that could not have come about without the hard work of many dedicated people, many of whom work in publishing because it is a calling – as much a vocation as being an author, and sometimes just as badly paid.

Sure, books are not as collaborative as film – with a list of hundreds of technicians and skilled workers to credit – but there are plenty of people who go in to making a book what it is. Many of whom do so without even the author’s knowledge. Why aren’t they credited? And if they should be credited, how should it be done? Edward Nawotka over at Publishing Perspectives suggests a mention on the copyright page, much as a magazine lists contributors, editors and subeditors. Most copyright pages already credit typesetters, printers and designers. What do you think? Sound off in the comments below.