20 September 2005


There's an interesting article in the October 2000 Premiere that bears on e-book distribution. The article describes Mark Cuban's scheme to reinvent film distribution with simultaneous theatrical, pay-TV, and DVD releases. The article makes three key points, all of which apply (in some way) to publishing, both of e-books and in the broader sense.

Even Cuban admits that not all films are appropriate for his model. Conversely, the publishing industry—and, for that matter, Amazon/Google—have been dismissing any solution to the e-book/e-text/rights issue deemed less than universally good. The only "universally good" solution that I can see is acknowledging author control and getting on with it; but that would require publishers (and retailers) to acknowledge that authors are their partners, not their slaves, and that's not going to happen.

Assuming that audiences now will be driven by the same motivations and needs as when current executives first broke into the industry is, to say the least, silly. On the film side: I don't go to theaters unless I have to. Not only is it silly to pay out the nose for sodas (when theaters in this area have been known to purposely put scaling compounds into their water coolers), but the seats in most theaters were designed by the same people who designed airline seats--people who had no relatives with back problems. On the publishing side: I refuse to pay the exorbitant premium for what passes for casebound books these days. About 70% of trade "hardcovers" are perfect-bound books with cardboard ends slapped on--and they want a $12-$16 premium for that? Further, there is simply far less of a physical-quality difference now between a decent trade paper edition and a casebound edition; the trade-paper editions are now as durable as casebounds for anything except constant reference.

One unstated point in the article is that Cuban recognizes something that proponents of digital rights management do not: That people will not, absent extraordinary circumstances, pay again for something they feel they own. This, in the end, is the real problem with DRM; it only works to piss off honest customers who don't have quite the same equipment setup as the geeks who develop the particular DRM system or product to which it is applied. (For those of us who follow antitrust law, think about garage-door openers and the possibility of a company making "generic" controllers; but that could go on for 4,000 words or so.) Any DRM system can be broken, and it's usually trivial to do so. Why make yourself into a target for teenagers with too much time on their hands?