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My favourite digital myths II

5. "To do anything in the e-market you need to be a techie/under 25/a futurologist/from Mars"

Arcane details of print technology are lost on most publishers, but that doesn't stop us setting print runs. A study by the Centre for Information Behaviour and Evaluation of Research (CIBER)  found differences between the ‘digital native' young and older people in digital skills are small, and that many young people lack information literacy skills.

6. "We're all doomed"

It's not just the clinically depressed who worry about piracy: legal action against offending sites is ongoing. But industry standard software should protect content from all but a tiny proportion of hackers – which cannot be said for books.

Will everything become free online, as Chris Anderson argues in his new book (£18.99)? Business models then should include selling advertising online and promoting the sale of print copies. Anderson argues that ‘price falls to the marginal cost'; but actually the incremental cost of putting titles online is not nothing.

7. "We're all going to be unimaginably rich"

This is the flipside of 6. Manic over-optimism results in alarming symptoms including commitment to over-complicated digital asset management and e-commerce systems that are totally out of proportion to the resources, needs, and commercial opportunities of a small publishing company.

8. "E-books are cannibalising print sales – so we shouldn't do anything"

O'Reilly found no evidence of cannibalisation—yet. See also, for pirates, cannibals, and beautiful princesses. But at least in the US library market there's a danger of commanding the sea to retreat: a strong trend towards digital is strengthened by budget cutbacks—if a library can become more virtual it can open for shorter hours with fewer staff.  It isn't rational to refuse to supply this market, and just leave it to your competitors.

9."People read the same way online – so we needn't change anything"

Research from CIBER has found that academics do not spend hours studying individual articles or chapters but enter a search term and ‘bounce' around looking for interesting content (Information World Review, November 2008). Similarly, consumers will expect to connect easily to associated content (and possibly to people with similar interests), and online content to be updated.
This has fundamental implications for the publisher's job and the way content is organised.

10. "You have to be big"
Because some big publishers have exclusive direct online platforms, aggregators and e-book vendors are all the keener to deal with independents.

The web presents wonderful opportunities for overthrowing the tyranny of big broadcasting muscle by targeting niche markets. It's also a natural environment for alliances and collaborations of all sorts.

Independent publishers digitise – you have nothing to lose but your mythological chains!
 

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Some great points above. The only one I'm not sure about is whether or not the publishing industry is indeed "doomed". I don

"But industry standard software should protect content from all but a tiny proportion of hackers" This is nonsense. Anyone who says DRM can protect ebooks is either a snake-oil salesman or a snake-oil customer. Before ebooks, piracy was just labour-intensive; a book had to be transcribed from a legit copy. Monks were doing that before we even had printing, for heaven's sake. This can still be done with ebooks. Or a book could be scanned and OCR'ed. That can still be done with ebooks - you simply take a screenshot. Or, just like every other form of DRM, you break the encryption. This is always possible because any DRM scheme has to provide the consumer with the means to decrypt the product so that it can be used; the 'key' is always embedded in the software somewhere. Once a cracker has found it and released your data into the wild it doesn't matter how difficult it was to extract in the first place, or how long it took to copy the book out or scan it - the DRM is gone. It's even harder to protect books than, say, music or film - books are transcribable with pencil and paper - and it's much easier to conceal small, sub 1MB pirated ebook files than it is to conceal big 700MB movies. There's no need to rely on big central websites or torrent trackers to manage sharing - you can swap ebooks by email if you're so inclined, or encrypt them steganographically into your holiday snaps and post them on Flickr, and nobody is the wiser unless you have pointed it out. Let me reiterate, though: if you are a publisher, and you've paid someone for DRM software on your ebooks, you've been taken for a ride. It's a bogus solution to an impossible problem.

I thought that one would be controversial. Since I neither buy nor sell snake oil (or DRM), my only point was that it's usually easier to pirate a printed book than an e-book (as Iucounu implies): the P2P pirated copies I've seen have mostly been scanned from the printed book; the tens of thousands of pirated textbooks I know about are produced on photocopiers...

I think that DRM's bad name is a hangover from mp3s and DVDs, which were both very much of their time and part of a process that's still unfolding. Perhaps DRM's future role will be to act like a bicycle lock: it won't prevent theft but it will slow down the thieves just enough that they pick on something else. The idea that all DRM is useless is philosophical true but also wide of the mark in real-world terms. One can "easily" pirate iPhone apps IF you're prepared to load the jailbreak software, but 99% of the population won't load it for fear of breaking their phone. That, at least to me, seems like a real-world instance of DRM doing its job. I can't argue that all DRM is safe, but there seems to be a lot of it around which is safe enough to be worth using.

DRM only represents a speed bump, that's true; iTunes and the App Store are designed to make it more convenient to pay a small charge than to go to the trouble of stealing music or software (or jailbreaking your hardware, absolutely.) In that sense they're there to literally tax your patience. But the App Store does that job better than iTunes: it's the only path available to acquire working apps that doesn't involve voiding your warranty, whereas iTunes can't distinguish between a pirated mp3 and one you ripped from your CD collection. That problem is exacerbated when dealing with ebooks, because there are also multiple ways to acquire and display them - email, pdfs, apps like Stanza, even a series of image files. You also have to consider that a piracy network specialising in ebooks can achieve much higher throughput and much lower visibility, because the files are so small and easy to conceal. For those reasons, I think the effectiveness of DRM - or indeed any enforcement activity - as a deterrent or hindrance to piracy is much reduced when we're talking about books. There is going to have to be a good deal of thought put in to how the industry is going to adapt to that. Still, I don't think we're doomed... I just worry we're not as nimble as we might be.

Some great points above. The only one I'm not sure about is whether or not the publishing industry is indeed "doomed". I don

"But industry standard software should protect content from all but a tiny proportion of hackers" This is nonsense. Anyone who says DRM can protect ebooks is either a snake-oil salesman or a snake-oil customer. Before ebooks, piracy was just labour-intensive; a book had to be transcribed from a legit copy. Monks were doing that before we even had printing, for heaven's sake. This can still be done with ebooks. Or a book could be scanned and OCR'ed. That can still be done with ebooks - you simply take a screenshot. Or, just like every other form of DRM, you break the encryption. This is always possible because any DRM scheme has to provide the consumer with the means to decrypt the product so that it can be used; the 'key' is always embedded in the software somewhere. Once a cracker has found it and released your data into the wild it doesn't matter how difficult it was to extract in the first place, or how long it took to copy the book out or scan it - the DRM is gone. It's even harder to protect books than, say, music or film - books are transcribable with pencil and paper - and it's much easier to conceal small, sub 1MB pirated ebook files than it is to conceal big 700MB movies. There's no need to rely on big central websites or torrent trackers to manage sharing - you can swap ebooks by email if you're so inclined, or encrypt them steganographically into your holiday snaps and post them on Flickr, and nobody is the wiser unless you have pointed it out. Let me reiterate, though: if you are a publisher, and you've paid someone for DRM software on your ebooks, you've been taken for a ride. It's a bogus solution to an impossible problem.

I thought that one would be controversial. Since I neither buy nor sell snake oil (or DRM), my only point was that it's usually easier to pirate a printed book than an e-book (as Iucounu implies): the P2P pirated copies I've seen have mostly been scanned from the printed book; the tens of thousands of pirated textbooks I know about are produced on photocopiers...

I think that DRM's bad name is a hangover from mp3s and DVDs, which were both very much of their time and part of a process that's still unfolding. Perhaps DRM's future role will be to act like a bicycle lock: it won't prevent theft but it will slow down the thieves just enough that they pick on something else. The idea that all DRM is useless is philosophical true but also wide of the mark in real-world terms. One can "easily" pirate iPhone apps IF you're prepared to load the jailbreak software, but 99% of the population won't load it for fear of breaking their phone. That, at least to me, seems like a real-world instance of DRM doing its job. I can't argue that all DRM is safe, but there seems to be a lot of it around which is safe enough to be worth using.

DRM only represents a speed bump, that's true; iTunes and the App Store are designed to make it more convenient to pay a small charge than to go to the trouble of stealing music or software (or jailbreaking your hardware, absolutely.) In that sense they're there to literally tax your patience. But the App Store does that job better than iTunes: it's the only path available to acquire working apps that doesn't involve voiding your warranty, whereas iTunes can't distinguish between a pirated mp3 and one you ripped from your CD collection. That problem is exacerbated when dealing with ebooks, because there are also multiple ways to acquire and display them - email, pdfs, apps like Stanza, even a series of image files. You also have to consider that a piracy network specialising in ebooks can achieve much higher throughput and much lower visibility, because the files are so small and easy to conceal. For those reasons, I think the effectiveness of DRM - or indeed any enforcement activity - as a deterrent or hindrance to piracy is much reduced when we're talking about books. There is going to have to be a good deal of thought put in to how the industry is going to adapt to that. Still, I don't think we're doomed... I just worry we're not as nimble as we might be.