Thursday, March 05, 2009

Book publishers risk repeating the music industry’s mistakes

At the risk of slipping into “grumpy old man” mode, life used to be so much simpler.

You bought a book, and it was yours to do with as you pleased. You could read it silently to yourself. You could read it aloud to someone else. You could dog-ear the corners, underline passages and make notes in the margin. And when you were finished, you could sell the book or give it away.

If someone wanted to borrow it, your only problem was getting it back in good condition. I’m still upset about the book I lent out that ended up covered in vegan mayonnaise.

Nowadays, you can purchase and download digital books, which seems like a great idea — until you learn that publishers want to control how you use them.

You young people and your Kindles! You don’t know what it used to be like. When I was your age, books had pages! Now get off my lawn!

Sorry. That was Old Man Grumpy talking.

Actually, I really do think electronic books are a great idea. Who wouldn’t like to keep hundreds of books stored on one convenient, easy-to-read digital device? For me, that is the main attraction of electronic readers like’s Kindle. You start to worry when you have so many books that they threaten to bury you beneath an avalanche.

Unfortunately, owning a book downloaded from Amazon isn’t the same as owning a book. You can’t resell it, and you can’t let someone borrow it without also letting them borrow your Kindle. And I wouldn’t take the chance of a friend accidentally dropping my $360 reader into a jar of Vegenaise(cq).

Making matters worse, some publishers seem bent on limiting Kindle’s features.

Amazon’s new Kindle 2 includes a text-to-speech feature that allows it to read aloud any book loaded onto it. That feature, however, scared publishers and the Authors Guild, which claimed text-to-speech would threaten sales of audio books.

Not everyone was concerned. Bestselling author and recent Newberry Medal recipient Neil Gaiman blogged that when you buy a book, “you’re also buying the right to read it aloud, have it read to you by anyone, read it to your children on long car trips, record yourself reading it and send that to your girlfriend etc.”

Kindle’s text-to-speech isn’t a threat to audio books, he concluded, because audio books are, in effect, performance art. A Kindle reading a book to you in a robotic voice isn’t the same as the vocal performance you get with a true audio book.

But rather than fight a protracted copyright battle, Amazon gave in, offering rights holders the option of disabling text-to-speech on selected books.

The publishing industry is repeating the music industry’s mistakes. Music companies lost money while they tried to fight and then restrict music downloads. Only in the past year have the major recording labels learned their lesson: When customers buy digital media, they don’t want restrictions.

Ironically, Amazon helped pioneer music downloads free of the Digital Rights Management software that limits what you can do with a song after you’ve purchased it. After Amazon started selling DRM-free songs, industry leader iTunes followed. Now downloads are the music industry’s one area of sales growth.

By caving to the demands of publishers and the guild, Amazon may be hurting itself. Kindle books already come with use restrictions you don’t find with other electronic books. The Internet is full of DRM-free books you can download — many in the public domain and free of charge. Author and blogger Cory Doctorow gives away entire novels online, which he says helps drive sales of his physical books.

Doctorow’s sales benefit, no doubt, from the fact that a lot of people still like to own real books. But as devices like the Kindle improve, and reading an electronic book becomes more like reading a real one, that may not remain the case.

Book publishers should concentrate on finding business models that don’t risk alienating their customers. Otherwise, they could end up playing catch-up just like the music industry.

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