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COLUMN: eReaders bringing back the classics or ripe for pirating & rip-offs?

So.  Welcome to the first of what I hope will be a long run of columns for Grasping for the Wind.

Today, let’s talk about eReaders.

People seem to be enjoying them.  They’re becoming quite passionate about them too.  You have your Kindle lovers and your Kindle haters; they were pretty much the first one’s out there ‘doing something right’ after all, so there’s a lot of opinions about them floating around.  Then along came the Nook, the Kobo, the Edge and, of course, the iPad, and with each new device came new divisions of lovers and haters and lots more opinions.

Each has their strong points and weak points, their bells and whistles; each offers the user a different kind of reading experience depending on what you need and I’m not going to go into them because there are a ton of product review blogs out there that have already done that for you.

I want to talk about what people have told me directly.  Take, for example, best selling author of science fiction and fantasy novels over at TOR, L.E. Modesitt Jr.  You’ve probably seen his stuff on the bookshelves.  Really nice guy.  He recently told me about his ninety-plus-year-old mother.  An avid reader, she’s had some troubles in recent years because of her eyes, but now has an eReader that she loves because it allows her to increase the text size, opening the world of books back up to her and reigniting her passion for reading.

She’s not the only one who has new worlds opening up for her; younger readers have the opportunity to read out of print books from a prolific science fiction author – one Mike Resnick.  Mike recently told me over on the Functional Nerds podcast that he has embraced the Amazon Kindle.  The Kindle gives him a platform to push books back into the public eye that have been out of print in some cases for decades.  And since he doesn’t have to go through a publisher, he can make a larger profit.

This means that something like Birthright: The Book of Man, written by Resnick, first published in 1982 and only found in a used book store or library just a year ago, is now available again to new readers who might not otherwise have known about it or read it.

Of all the surprises that the eReaders have brought down the pipeline, this is the most pleasant as far as I’m concerned.  There are a lot of authors out there with titles that are out of print who would embrace a model that makes it relatively easy to get those titles back on bookshelves again, even if they are virtual bookshelves.  I remember more than a few times being frustrated that I couldn’t find a book because it was out of print.  Now, for a fraction of the cost, that book can live again on your favorite eReader.

That’s a win-win, right?  We get books that have been out of print back on the (virtual) bookshelves and the author gets to make money on that same title again without having to go the traditional publishing route.  Maybe, maybe not.

One concern that many authors have is piracy.  There’s already been the big Kindle scandal that eclipsed (a bit) the launch of the Kindle 2; unauthorized eBooks showing up in the Amazon marketplace being discovered by the copyright holders followed up by Amazon’s poorly chosen decision to simply reach out and erase those books from the devices without the users knowledge or consent.  And then there’s the more recent tale of the publisher, Night Shade Books, who released eBook versions of titles they had the rights to print – just not to distribute electronically.  They have since apologized and say they’re working on the problem but the SFWA took it so seriously that they went so far as to put Night Shade on probation for one year – not something, I think, they would do lightly.  (And probably not how new SFWA President John Scalzi wanted to inaugurate his administration.)

While those are huge issues and authors are very concerned over them, I think the bigger fear is that the regular old piracy we’ve seen across the torrent sites for movies, television, music and software will increase or explode for books the more they appear electronically across the web.  They’re not necessarily wrong.

I recently had an alarm system installed in my house.  I did this mostly because of a lot of police activity in the neighborhood in general, reports of break-ins, that sort of thing.  The guy who came out to sell me the system told me in no uncertain terms that the system is great, it works well and will protect my house from the majority of bad people looking to steal my official Star Trek Three Dimensional Chess Set.  But he also said that the reality is, if someone wants to break in and steal something, they will.  There’s very little that will deter them.  The same is true for online piracy.

We don’t know how much piracy will happen the more the eBook market explodes – there’s just no way to tell.  What we do know is that the more popular something becomes, the more people start using it, the more likely piracy becomes.  Also, when you try to lock a format down, applying DRM to it, for example – some people find glee in hacking through and pirating it.  We also know that pricing tends to have a lot to do with who pirates what.  If you have no DRM and you price things cheap – does that mean no one will pirate your stuff?  No.  If you price things high but put no DRM, will that change their mind?  Not even a little bit.  Frustrating, I know.  The music, movie and software industries have been working on this for a decade or more so have no illusions that I can solve it in a single blog post!

But it all comes back to the point that the alarm salesman made to me; someone who wants to steal something will not be deterred – they will steal it and nothing you do or say will stop them from doing it.  As for the rest of us law abiding citizens, we like things easy.  Make it easy to buy, easy to manage, reasonably priced and we’ll happily go along our merry way without walking along the darker pirate path.

One drawback of the eReader that I see is word of vision.  Uh…  Let me explain that.  We all know about word of mouth, right?  You read a book that you think is just fantastic so you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on…  Well, there’s also, for lack of a better phrase – word of vision.  You see someone sitting at the local coffee shop reading a book; they seem really engrossed in it too, not even looking up as someone bumps their chair to get by.  You glance at the cover of the book and make a mental note to check it out.  How about this one – you’re invited to a friends for dinner and while they’re shouting at you from the kithen, you’re standing with your head cocked to the side reading book bindings from their bookshelf.  Sound familiar?

That kind of marketing is gone with an eReader because there is no cover to glance at, no bookshelf to browse, no way to tell what it is that person is reading or has read.  How big of a thing is that to lose?  How is it going to impact sales?  Has it already?  I don’t know.  I’m sure the publishers and retailers have done studies and focus groups but they aren’t sharing.  As for me, I’m gonna miss that because either scenario is also a great way to start up a conversation.  “Oh, hey – you’re reading/have read…  I read that.  What did/do you think?”

So, let’s wrap this up.  eReaders are cool – they’re here to stay.  They offer opportunities to authors to push their content (especially out of print stuff) out there and make a reasonable profit from it – publishers too.  There will be people stealing content and then redistributing it.  No one has figured out how to stop it with movies, music and software, so no one is going to be able to stop it with eBooks.  Lack of covers to spy on the fly sucks.

~P
@atfmb


Patrick Hester is an author, blogger, podcaster and functional nerd who hangs out and publishes his stuff at his blog, ‘All things from my brain’ over at www.atfmb.com.  He can be found daily on his his twitter feed at twitter.com/atfmb. Patrick’s goal is to be a published science fiction and fantasy author.  He is also one half of the Functional Nerds, (www.functionalnerds.com), a weekly podcast talking about computers, technology and speculative fiction.