Some thoughts about restricting e-readership

Those of us (and our numbers are increasing rapidly!) who like to read in e-format often bemoan the way in which publishers sell the "rights" to their books on a regional basis hanging over from the world of print as the only reading medium. Of course, print readers (myself included) also find it frustrating not to be able to read a book after perusing reviews of it, if one does not live in the "right" (righted?) region. But for the e-format (including digital audio), this restriction seems even more pointless.

Bernadette, in an excellent post at Reactions to Reading, put her finger on one reason why this regional  division is a no-win for publishers – piracy, which as everyone from the CEO of the E-reading_women major publishing companies down to the youngest kid on the internet block, admits occurs on a massive scale. (Never by me or anyone in my house, I am of the honest but frustrated quarter of content users.)

I have two "hats" that I wear in the context of this debate. First, as a reader, I want to read a book as soon as it is published, not wait for some artificially imposed geographical business model. In the world of scientific research, this is the norm. When a paper is published, it is published – people argue about subscription vs "author pays" or the size of the unit of publication, but the argument is how readers pay for access, not about whether one can access at all.  Second, my other "hat" is that I work for a publisher – not, thankfully, on the business side, but on the scientific journal/editorial side. So I can see at first hand the large amount of value a publisher adds to the raw material. In the case of scientific publishing, there is an incredibly large investment in the editorial selection process, for example. I am not as closely familiar with book publishing (though my employer is an internationally leading publisher of books). Even so, I can see the resources that are put into both print and e- (digital) books, and am well aware that this is considerable. (There are many other factors in addition to editorial and production costs, of course.) 

The point for the reader is not price, it is access. Based on my long experience of scientific publishing, it is not necessary to restrict access geographically in order to run a viable business. This is why news items such as these lose me completely –

Waterstones has removed from its website the ability for anyone outside the UK to buy e-books, with "no plans" to reinstate them.

WH Smith has removed e-books from people's e-readers. That is, people who have paid to download a book. The information provided to these paid-up customers is minimal.

The UK Publishers' Association last week agreed that it would restrict library borrowing of e-books to those who are physically present in the library. (See, eg, this Guardian piece.)

This last piece of news is appalling: "I can't believe the PA has declared war on libraries in this way" wrote Luton's librarian at the Bookseller website. Yes, indeed, the very point of e-books is that people who do not live near, or cannot get to, a library can now read! How ludicrous.

I understand concerns on the behalf of authors, and I understand that publishers want to stay in business (and booksellers, but that is also a slightly different story). I know that issues often seem more simple to those outside a situation than they are in reality, but what I am questioning is what we learnt years ago in the scientific publishing sphere – base your business model on some form of payment per download, not on deciding who can read the content based on where they live. The payment can be made directly by the customer (book purchaser) or library on behalf of its patrons, Ipadreader
or borrower (lending fee). Public libraries could also use a variant of the site-licence model in place at academic libraries, in which the price paid for the content is proportional to the number of readers of that content; as well as providing books and other content for free according to whatever criteria they choose (including providing out-of-copyright books free). 

The point of this post is simple – there are technological solutions in place in other parts of the industry for what is termed "e-commerce". Why aren't organisations such as book publishers and governments' library authorities exploring these to reward authors and publishers, instead of exploring technical means to restrict access to non-rights-holders and/or people who have not paid? To paraprhase Bernadette, even if not perfect, the former means some income; the latter encourages piracy. The former also gives the customers (readers) the message that the publisher likes, or even is proud of, its content and actively wants people to read it. (This Telegraph article, for example, is about the increase in library membership bought about by the e-format.) Those new readers might then go on to read more, instead of watching TV or playing computer games – that is, the publisher has a great opportunity to increase its customer base with this format. The latter seems to me bad for business, and provides a rather Scrooge-like image which can hardly be good PR for an industry that is under so much pressure in this era of "instant availability" and from Google Books et al.

I do hope that publishers' organisations will soon find a way to remove the geographical element of their rights arrangements – in their own interests as well as in readers'. We are living in a global community,  after all.