Harry Potter and the Digital Rights Management

So JK Rowling finally made her ebooks available for sale last night. It’s about time. It’s been described as the ‘Beatles moment’ for ebooks. The Beatles moment they’re referring to is when the Beatles finally acquiesced to selling their albums digitally on the iTunes store.

The Potter ebooks are a bigger deal in book publishing circles than the Beatles going on iTunes for a number of reasons. Imagine that instead of making their music available on iTunes, the Beatles had set up their own website and payment system and forced all the retailers to link through their site in order to purchase their content. Imagine, too, that all music being sold at that point by major retailers was sold with restrictive DRM (digital rights management) and the Beatles were the first major brand to sell without it.

JK Rowling and the Pottermore project (led by ex-HarperCollins head of digital Charlie Redmayne) have done something with ebooks that has never been done before. They’ve effectively forced Amazon to list the books without actually selling them directly. That means JK Rowling and co. get all the sales (and I mean all of them – there’s no commission being skimmed off by paying via PayPal or anyone else). They also get all the customer information that Amazon would ordinarily collect. And they’ve done it by making their books available without DRM.

The screenshot above is the only DRM that Pottermore is including on the books sold through the site. It sits on the copyright page, and identifies the user of the ebook. If you were to post up the unaltered version of a Pottermore ebook on a file sharing site (or email it to a friend, who then shared it), you could be identified with this code, and presumably you could be sued or blacklisted from Pottermore if Ms Rowling was so inclined.

This kind of watermarking, also known as ‘social DRM’, doesn’t restrict the user from doing what they want with the file, but it does make the user think twice about sharing (particularly with someone they don’t trust). As far as I can find by opening up the EPUB file this code doesn’t exist anywhere else in the book except for on the copyright page, so it would be relatively easy to remove it (but not much easier, it should be pointed out, than removing normal DRM from an ebook).

The power of this kind of DRM, though, is that it can be applied by anyone, not just a book retailer, and it costs (virtually) nothing to implement. Importantly, it also means that ebook readers of any platform can buy your book and put it on their device without syncing, linking, three different logins or any other issues. It allows sharing among friends and family that you trust, and it passes the Grandma test (my grandma would understand how it works).

Amazon has been forced to list the books to avert serious leakage from their platform. If Amazon had decided not to link and list the Potter ebooks via their site, then Pottermore would have sold them to Kindle customers anyway. And those Kindle customers, who may have never bought an ebook from outside Amazon before would all of a sudden know that it was possible and how to do it. And Amazon doesn’t want that.

This opens up a massive opportunity for publishers to use a brand like JK Rowling to get some more leverage with Amazon. The Pottermore purchasing system may not be the smoothest around, but it works and it’s certainly not beyond publishers or their intermediaries to set up something similar. Publishers have tried to do this before – but they haven’t done it with a brand like Harry Potter.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and Pottermore has demonstrated one way that publishers haven’t tried yet. Amazon’s chokehold on the distribution of digital books is not as watertight as it seemed just yesterday morning.

[This post was originally posted on The Momentum Blog]

Experimenting with form and structure in ebooks is a recipe for confusion


[NB: This blog post was originally posted on the Momentum Blog]

I’ve been reading ebooks for a long time. People complain nowadays about quality control in ebooks, but when I started reading them there was no quality assurance whatsoever. Books were all over the place. Most books were pirated or typed out from classic editions of the text by enterprising amateurs. There were random line and page breaks scattered throughout most books, and you can forget about footnotes. The most memorable example of my confusion was when I tried to read a (most probably pirated) version of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace*, which is full of footnotes, and even contains footnotes based on footnotes**. It was baffling to me. The book itself is a little baffling anyway, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on my Kindle and read the rest of the book digitally that I felt like it made more sense.

All of this is leading to a chance conversation with a few people on Twitter the other day, who were talking about the possibility of converting Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves to an ebook. And also to a conversation with my mother. To start from the end, she (my mother) was talking about reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the book by Jonathan Safran Foer that has recently been made into an Oscar-nominated film. She is currently attempting to read the book on her Kindle. Having not read it myself, I couldn’t tell her that the book wasn’t an experimental journey into the nature of books and the structure of stories. I just said, “Maybe there’s something wrong with the ebook.” And she said, “That’s what I thought.”

And that got me to thinking. We (as in literate human beings) have been reading from paper books for hundreds of years. We’re pretty comfortable with the form of a paper book, so when an author decides to mess around with it, for artistic purposes or even for shits and giggles, we get it. In ebooks, however, most readers don’t know the capabilities or the limitations of the form. Every quirk (which is most likely an error) may just be the author playing with our minds.

So this brings me back to my conversation on Twitter. I implore you, Mr Franklin – and anyone else considering it – please don’t ever try to convert House of Leaves to an ebook. You’ll just confuse my mother.


*Appropriately enough, this is a footnote. I would like to point out that the only reason I was using a pirated version of a book is because I knew that my first-gen Kindle was in the post from the US and had already bought an electronic copy for the reader but couldn’t read it anywhere.

**This is another footnote. Just because.