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.

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16 thoughts on “Some thoughts about restricting e-readership

  1. Maxine – This is a superb post!! You outline brilliantly the reasons why restricting access by geography is so pointless. Thank you for this cogent, well-reasoned yet passionate post.

  2. Excellent post, Maxine. The only thing I would say about ebooks and libraries is, as an author I am currently very wary as the government seems to have gone back on its intention to extend PLR (the means authors get payment for library use) to ebooks. I think until PLR is available on ebooks I would prefer ebooks not to be available at all from libraries.

  3. We are told globalization is good when it favours international companies, but when something makes things easier for the consumer we face geographical restrictions.

  4. I agree, Brian, that the author ePLR equivalent should be part of the whole process – what I intended by my remarks about the pay-per-dowload solution – the paying definitely going to the authors! (Among others.)

  5. So well put!
    I am happy that our Discount Noir ebook is available everywhere and in several formats, but with the recent development (Waterstones e.g.) I have made up my mind it is definitely not the right time for a Danish lover of English fiction to buy that e-reader.

  6. Thanks, Dorte. “DRM neutral” is the way I am sure (Digital Rights Management). We just need to persuade everyone to agree!

  7. Brilliant thoughts as always.
    There are so many models that could easily be applied as you say. We use a bunch of different ones at work to access all sorts of materials. International Standards for example which are big, clunky things often updated and vital in the area of medical practice – these have been accessible to anyone in any country electronically for about 10 years and there are many ways to pay – the site licenses you mention, a la carte purchasing, time-limited access, student passes…the list is comprehensive and it works and I happen to know that both the International Standards Organisation and the various national standards bodies that feed into it do very well financially.
    Interestingly it’s not just eBooks that UK stores won’t sell to outsiders. Both WH Smith and Waterstones no longer sell physical books to us either. So far Book Depository (so popular because it does not charge shipping) is still selling to us but we are all wondering for how long.

  8. The point about the libraries not allowing anyone to access ebooks if they’re not actually in the library is absurd: what about people who work, go to school, are parents to young children, or disabled or elderly people who can’t get there? Folks should do something strong to oppose this, really. That is terrible.
    The rest of it is ridiculous. One would think companies would want their ebooks to be sold everything. Competition and legal agreements to divide up sales’ territories is bad. If this were rational, one would think that sales of ebooks could go everywhere.

  9. Well put, everyone. Bernadette – good points – scientific journal publishers/libraries (mainly institutional but also public) have a range of solutions for access. Piracy is common in our industry too, of course, at various levels. But I doubt that piracy would be any worse if we suddenly decided that only people in the USA could read a paper we published, and nobody else. People would find ways round this.

  10. There is something similar with DVDs – regional codes; we’ve had to buy multi-region players in my library so we can use our international video collection. It seems quite absurd though for agents/authors/publishers to cling to the old notion of rights sold by region when it gets between books and readers. Readers were being chided as if they were pirates when they ordered Steig Larsson’s novels from the UK and bookstores were unable to import books without being charged with … something. This helps the book industry how?
    There is a second issue – not really related to “we’ve always sold by region, so we have to make sure that’s built into ebooks” but to the possible downside of permeable cultural borders, and that’s the effort to forcibly level the playing field for local publishers when they feel overwhelmed by foreign competition. I don’t really understand the Australian situation, but there seems to be some kind of protectionism (?) built in to support Australian publishers, but as it seems to make all book prices astronomically high I can’t imagine it’s actually helping create a strong market for Australian books. And what’s up with Adrian Hyland’s second book being released in the US first?

  11. Australia doesn’t allow parallel imports, which means (nearly) all books sold are published locally, and the costs are indeed ridiculous. I was home from Europe for a visit recently, and when second-hand paperbacks are selling for the same prices that something would get me something new here, even with the exchange rate…I can understand supporting the publishing industry, but surely it’s self-defeating if it actually turns people off buying books altogether?
    I would really like an e-reader, since I read stupidly fast and cannot deal with the mountains of books I need around me. But if I can’t get English books easily (I live in Germany), can’t get German books easily (the industry hasn’t taken off for non-English books), then it doesn’t look good.

  12. Bravo! Wonderful article! Since I got my Kindle, I have been increasingly frustrated at not being able to order much of my favorite international fiction. I’m willing to pay; I just don’t have access–so frustrating!

  13. Thanks everyone for the great additional comments. Lauren and Kathy, I’ve read so many times that people have been put off buying e-readers for these reasons, which must be self-defeating for the publishing industry at some level.

  14. I think this kind of regional restriction is just increasing the e-book piracy. When a potential reader has no option to buy the book, the “alternative” sources are kind of justified.

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