How Not to Make eBooks “Take Off”

I’ve heard more than a few sad stories about problems with eBook DRM, but PDF DRM, Why Ebooks Haven’t “Taken Off” and How I Wasted $150 in Time on a $9 Ebook takes the cake. The sad thing is, while justifiably critical of the current end to end experience, writer J Wynia also validates the great potential of eBooks: “I paid a dollar amount that most ebook publishers would be thrilled with: $9 for a digital copy of a book. I was OK with it. I barely even hesitated. I wanted the immediate delivery”. I am convinced that if we can fix these (and a few more) shameful problems, that the time has come for eBooks to become successful.
Not to sound defensive, but despite Adobe PDF bearing the brunt of J’s ire most of the obstacles that writer described are really industry-wide issues, and some have nothing to do with Adobe or PDF. I summarize his primary issues as:
– poorly integrated online purchasing experience (J had to re-enter his credit card info on Amazon to buy an eBook)
– unduly complex rights bundle with purchase (“print once” in particular)
– lack of “truth in advertising” (it apparently wasn’t clear to J that he was only buying “print once” rights)
– overly obtrusive and clumsy DRM (such as using LDAP ports to validate)
– other client issues (required SW update before working, slow to launch after “buy”)
The DRM and client issues seem clearly to be Adobe’s: atlhough they might arguably exist with alternative eReading systems, that’s immaterial to this poor guy’s particular experience. But the first three issues are really more with Amazon and its suppliers’ etailing infrastructure and DRM rights-offering choices. In fact therein lies a dilemma for infrastructure vendors like Adobe. Apple’s vertically-integrated iTunes Store in many ways provides a better end to end experience to users. For example Apple FairPlay [sic] DRM rights are consistent and reasonably simple to understand. Yet, Apple’s ecosystem is completely closed and proprietary, and gives users and publishers no choices. In order to create a compelling eBook user experience, must we abandon an open ecosystem, where publishers and users have choices of different kinds of rights and different channels for acquiring content?
I tend to believe that there is some middle ground between iTunes Store monoculture (which I don’t believe is sustainable in the long run), and a bazaar of options that creates consumer confusion. In part this middle ground will be forged by publishers and authors like J that make the decision to release content under the rule of law, not the rule of DRM. Unprotected content is the truly simple proposition for users, and I tend to believe that it will have a significant role to play in the future of publishing, and that its existence (like the existence of the ripped MP3 alternative for music) will help keep us focused on providing better DRM solutions for end users. A great consumer DRM solution should strive to be like the best underwear: it should be almost like wearing nothing at all.

15 Responses to How Not to Make eBooks “Take Off”

  1. Jim Harris says:

    Nice rhetoric, Bill, but notably absent is any hint that anyone else in Adobe is actually working on fixing those parts of the problem that Adobe _does_ have control over (e.g. support that actually helps).
    Or are they all still unaware of how horrible is this entire situation?

  2. Bill McCoy says:

    Jim, I recently assumed responsibility for Adobe’s ePublishing business, so it’s basically become my job to fix the problems.
    I didn’t mean to be vague in the post but we are working on a number of initiatives that are predicated on the expansion of our platform as we complete our pending acquisition of Macromedia, or that involve confidential activities on the part of partners. We will be publicly communicate more specifics in the near future.

  3. Jørgen Elgaard Larsen says:

    Thank you for your article. However, I think you are missing the crucial point: Consumers really do not want DRM!
    While you mention the need for “thruth in advertising”, I feel that the problem lies in what would have been advertised: It seems unlikely that J would ever have bought the eBook, had he known the limitations. I certainly would not have.
    The whole problem arises from looking at DRM from the publishers’ view only. You need to look at it from the consumers’ view too. And consumers simply want products that behaves the way such products always has behaved on every other media: When you buy a (paper) book, you can read and (photo) copy it where and when you like. When you buy a LP or CD, you can play it and (tape) copy it where and when you like.
    Consumers expect that dealing with digitally distributed works should be easier than dealing with physical media, not harder. Why would anyone buy a product that places more restrictions on you?
    I know that publishers fear piracy. But the thing is: It is not that hard to crack the DRMs (by concept, not only by design). The pirates will always be able to spread content illegally. The DRMs only bothers the legitimate users. That is why consumers hate them.
    A great DRM system should not be almost like wearing nothing at all – it should be exactly like wearing nothing at all!
    – Jørgen

  4. Bill McCoy says:

    Jorgen, as a consumer I don’t want DRM either!
    Nevertheless content rights-holders are demanding some level of DRM as a precondition for making digital content available online.
    For example you can’t buy unprotected digital music from major labels online. And most commercial software requires a serial number.
    I personally would love it if content providers (including eBook publishers) all converged on the “rule of law” and let out their content with no protections, but that isn’t the reality today in music, software, or even ringtones. IMO it is somewhat unrealistic to expect it to be the case for eBooks.
    Adobe will continue to make sure that DRM-free open-access content works on our platform(unlike certain other eBook readers that only work with encrypted content). So to the extent that publishers get the “rule of law” religion or consumers decide to only buy un-DRMed content, our platform will support this.
    But at present every single major publisher is mandating DRM for eBooks. It’s our job to make their DRM options as robust and unobtrusive as possible, but if we didn’t provide DRM at all, someone else would, or worse yet publishers would withhold their content.

  5. AK says:

    At the end of your post you state:
    “will help keep us focused on providing better DRM solutions for end users.”
    The fundamental disconnect here is that your end-users in this context are publishing companies. It’s one of those subtle twists, like in TV – the customer is the advertiser, the product is the audience. However, it is quite clear you are referring to end-users in that statement in the sense of consumers of media. Honestly, a consumer of media needs no Digital Rights Management, or frankly any rights management. If I purchase some form a media – I should have the right to play/read/listen/watch it however/whenever I want – limited only by current technology (still don’t have a waterproof PSP)
    You also stated “worse yet publishers would withhold their content.” That’s not going to happen- and is a strawman put out by companies who are unwilling or unable to update their business strategy to current reality. Publishers who do that will be out of business. It’s called a free market. How can a company survive by refusing to provide the products customers want.
    It makes me think of early networking days (thinking 50’s-60’s) when it was still thought it was possible to create a near perfect transmission scheme. Was it worth investing in creating more perfect transmissions, or worth investing in data integrity checking and retransmission. Well we found out a truly accurate signal was not just a practical impossability, but a theoretical one as well. DRM is still at that stage – and the major players are pointlessly investing in a dead end – to the detriment of themselves and consumers alike.
    It would be nice to see technology companies take the lead in showing publishers the true futility in any DRM and start looking for new methods. One obvious change would be to stop trying to control behavior at the end-user level, but to try and enable better forensics and allow “rule-of-law” to be a more marketable story to publishers.

  6. Terry says:

    SERIAL NUMBERS are only useful if they get registered somewhere besides inside the program.
    Remember the big bruhaha over the unique Wintel CPU-ID serial numbers that were supposed to be used to keep people from pirating copies of Microschlock Software?? The installer would fone home to check the software`s serial number in a database. If it found it, the CPU-ID # had to match or it wouldn’t install.
    Intel had to modify the BIOS to allow users to turn the Serial # OFF after it became publicized what they had done.

  7. Frank Earl says:

    You see, while the Rights Holders are clamoring for something that provides DRM, the consumers want nothing to do with it- it’s based on the presumption that I’m going to infringe on their publishing rights.
    I really only buy Baen’s e-books, there’s others over at Fictionwise, but what I’ve bought from them is bought under the same reasoning. WHY? Because he’s not locking them down with DRM. In fact, Jim Baen’s so bold as to hand out the entire collection (with the author’s permission) for certain authors on a CD that is included with the most recent hardbound novel from that author- and here’s the kicker, you can personally make copies of that CD and hand them about with Jim Baen’s permission. Yes, you read that right. If you’d like one of these CD’s, I’ll be more than happy to show you an instance of a publisher, the rights holder, that is NOT clamoring for DRM, and is making money hand over fist directly and indirectly through e-book sales. (Contact me via e-mail to give me a snail-mail address so I can mail it out to you.)
    Why is Jim Baen making money? Because the rights holder in question is NOT presuming that I’m going to rip him or the authors that he represents off. DRM, by definition, does this. Worse, in YOUR case, your DRM makes it more difficult for me to read your e-books. Is it readable on a Palm-Pilot? No? Can it be made to be? No? No sale. Is it readable on Linux? No? No sale. It’s as simple as that for me. Keep me from doing what is legally my rights past the rights of First Sale and you can just simply forget it, I’ll do without.
    DRM is a wrong-headed solution to a problem that really shouldn’t be a problem. And worse, all it takes is one clever individual to undo your efforts and it’s off to the races for those who plain flat don’t give a damn- the very ones you claim to try to prevent doing their thing do it anyway and you punish the people who want to do right by the rights holders.

  8. Jonathan Walker says:

    Not to dig up an old flame, but this topic has a bit of interest to me.
    When I think of DRM, digital media, and where things are heading, I see a complete need to rethink how we look at what we are actually paying for.
    In the past, when you’d go to the store and pick up a book, movie, or album, you’d buy a physical item. Back then, we really didn’t care what we were actually buying, because no one could come and take what we had bought away.
    What we, as consumers, find it hard to deal with is that even back then, the only things purchased are rights and a copy of the media. We didn’t own the media. We owned a copy of it, and a few rights telling us what we can and can’t do with it.
    This hasn’t changed. The major change here is that the Internet has made the definition and enforcement of those rights a hot priority. If you’re in the USA, consider your rights as an American. How many famous cases have there been where one person’s rights were violated, and the law protected them?
    In recent years, we’ve become more aware of another thing: The middle men. The publishing companies out there that sign creators, promote their work, and make a killing off of the sale of rights to that work.
    The Internet and technology in general is making a creator-published market more possible. Think about it: What if there were no middle-men? What if our favorite authors typed up their work, paid an editor to review and suggest changes, and then they upload that work for consumers to buy directly from them?
    Of course, publishers would go out of business in a hurry, but so what? Why should people get rich off of ideas they didn’t even come up with?
    Ah well, I’ve ranted enough.

  9. bowerbird says:

    > if we didn’t provide DRM at all,
    > someone else would, or worse yet
    > publishers would withhold their content.
    let those publishers withold “their” content!
    they will shrivel up and die, while the market
    turns to a more-enlighted breed of publisher.
    that is a great scenario, not the “worst” one.

  10. Peter Wilson says:

    For a lot of people DRM won’t catch on – it’s a big turn off. I have a lot of concerns about the environment and electronic distribution of content is a wonderful opportunity to reduce the waste of resource (raw material/ transport costs the lot).
    Right now I’m not interested in e-books. I might be when IBM finally get their e-ink thingy working commercially. Where I could be a customer is for music, where the same issues apply.
    ALL of my music is on my hard-disk. It took me a hell of a time to rip the CDs and store them. I don’t share them with anyone – I’m more than happy to pay the artist for the hard work they put in and their creative genius just as I expect my own customers to pay me.
    I put the music on my computer for convenience – I can find music easily – have the title available, create compilations. It’s great. Every time I buy a new computer the whole MP3 archive is copied to that new machine. It’s always on at least two machines in case the hard disk goes wrong. There is also a complete copy on my Sony MP3 player – I’m listenning right now.
    If I stupidly accidently wipe all my hard disks – I have all the CDs safely stored away and I can restore them – it’s just a matter of time.
    I did accidently buy a ‘protected’ CD that wouldn’t work on my computer – and at the time that was the only CD player I owned. It took me about an hour to find the appropriate tool to copy the content onto my hard disk.
    To add insult to injury – the cost of downloading a ‘crippled’ music track from an online provided is pretty much the same as buying the physical CD equivalent. They have none of the distribution or manufacturing costs, and I have less ability to utilise the product – just how crazy is that?
    The publishing industry needs to stop trying to hold back the sea – it can’t. It needs to trust the vast majority of it’s customers – not treat them all as crooks, that’s no way to treat your customers if you’d like them to come back and buy again.

  11. Christine says:

    As an author who has realised that the majority of people who get hold of one of my ebooks do so illegally, and continue to pass it on illegally, I could care less about the sensitivities of people who think I should just ditch DRM. That’s like saying banks should leave the doors to the safe open because having them locked up is accusing everyone of theft. Get real. In fact, in the case of a bank, I think the bank would have a better chance of people behaving honestly than I would with my ebooks. Depending upon the honesty of consumers has cost me untold thousands. If people don’t care about my rights to earn a return on my books, I sure don’t want them as my customers.
    I’ve got an ebook ready to roll at the moment. It’s taken me over 3 years to research and develop, and I’m really proud of it. Do I put it out with DRM and make a few lousy dollars because people don’t like DRM, or do I put it out in unemcumbered PDF and make a few lousy dollars because everyone steals it? Right now I don’t feel like putting it out at all.

  12. Jack says:

    And, Christine, you will not have me for a reader in either case. I love reading, and I read voraciously, and I still have a large library of p-books at home. However, I do most of my reading on the move now, and my reading choices are limited to what I can easily put on my handheld. Without going into great detail, as others already have, the PDF format does not translate well to small screen, so I don’t bother with books published in PDF, protected or otherwise.
    When I do buy ebooks, and it is rare, I use eReader and their format. None of the major formats are well suited for or supported on the handhelds I usually use or am looking at buying (Linux- and Symbian-based), so I use my old Palm for the occasional eReader book. On the other hand, I recently discovered Fictionwise which offers a variety of books in a variety of formats, specifically for portability. I shall have to try them out next time. I also rarely buy p-books, lately only the Uncle John series, and only for their intended use.
    So what am I reading then? Well, Project Gutenberg is a wonderful font of material, all in the public domain. I am currently re-reading Conan-Doyle’s stories. I also download a lot of webfiction, that is, stories by amateur authors, copyrighted but with permission granted for personal copies. Most could use a good editor, but some of it is quite good.
    So, good luck with your book. I look forward to the day when a good format is standardized, and I can choose my books based on what I want to read, not what is available for my ebook software, but in the mean time, I think I hear Gutenberg calling my name.

  13. Arlanda says:

    Christine, I do understand your frustration. You have the option to publish your work in either eBook or in traditional hardcopy format. If piracy is such a big issue for you, the so-called DRM solution is not the right approach to do it. Rather, you can try the traditional method and see if it increase your sale. You, as an author, have this choice so it can’t be all that difficult to understand.
    Of course there’s pros/cons to each approach. Only then you can decide what’s best one to take.

  14. Arlanda says:

    Christine, I do understand your frustration. You have the option to publish your work in either eBook or in traditional hardcopy format. If piracy is such a big issue for you, the so-called DRM solution is not the right approach to do it. Rather, you can try the traditional method and see if it increase your sale. You, as an author, have this choice so it can’t be all that difficult to understand.
    Of course there’s pros/cons to each approach. Only then you can decide what’s best one to take.

  15. ladyplf says:

    I came across this debate while researching publishing options for a friend. I am a die hard e-book reader. I only read e-books now, and I only buy from which has books in several formats. I NEVER buy books that are locked with DRM in any way. So I only buy HTM, PRC, and PDB which I can read on either my palm or my pocket pc. Consumers still have some power. We can choose not to buy e-books that we don’t like. So don’t buy books with DRM. Hopefully publishers will get the message where it really counts, the cash register. Authors complain that they lose money when people illegally share their e-books. But I say that most of those people who read shared e-books wouldn’t have bought them anyway. I know I have read a few books that although I enjoyed I would not have bothered with if I had to pay for it. Christine seems to think that she will make a boat load of money if everyone would just pay for a legal copy of her book. But truth is people are cheap and would rather get a book from the library than pay for it sometimes. People are just more likely to read something if it’s free. That’s human nature. People who want something bad enough will pay for it. I pay for the e-books I want. If I happen to come across an e-book for free and like it, I may go back to the author and see if they have anymore for sale. If I don’t like it then they didn’t lose a customer because I wouldn’t have bought from them anyway.
    In Christine’s case I think that she should go the normal publishing route and leave e-books alone. It obviously does not work for her and that’s fine. Traditional publishing is still alive and well so most people should go that way. I think perhaps e-books are for the next generation. The future of digital media is probally beyond our comprehension. I can’t see a future where people pay for mp3’s or e-books or whatever. There just has to be a new distribution system for the new digital age.