Accentuate the positive

I am one of the first to argue that the existence of DRM is damaging to the relationship between readers and authors, and more particularly between readers and publishers.

I believe that DRM protects large corporates from innocent consumers and that there are better ways to enforce copyright where necessary (for many books I believe that obscurity is a greater enemy than piracy).

But in the last few months I fear that discussions about DRM have become part of a negative cycle of debate that is even more damaging than the very existence of DRM; such debates reached fever pitch in the last week. The oft-cited argument was reiterated in an article by James Bridle in this week’s Guardian, and goes something like this: publishers’ insistence on DRM has created “walled gardens” in which protected files have allowed retailers to retain customers on a long-term basis, and this in turn has led to the dominance of a small number of e-book retailers, which are a threat to the industry. Let’s address the issues with this argument:

* It’s quite possible that consumers have stuck with their favoured retailers because of device quality, price and availability and/or the frictionless purchase experience on offer. Most e-book consumers are unaware of DRM thanks to the way devices are configured, and don’t care either way so long as their current device manufacturer keeps giving them ways to read which work satisfactorily. Anyway, given that the relative market shares of retailers are where they are, it’s almost academic at this stage.

* The argument that major e-book retailers are a threat is very unhelpful. They are another part of the landscape, just like high street chains, supermarkets and wholesalers, and will use the same competitive tactics as any large player in the supply chain.

Additionally, publishing is not the only industry in which there are dominant online intermediaries. As Baldur Bjarnason said in a recent FutureBook post, “[Amazon] wages that price war on all fronts, in all industries, and in every product category. What people are demanding is for Amazon to treat publishing as a special snowflake.”

* Most importantly, the very fact that there is regular vocalising of concern for “the industry” is doing publishers a great disservice. Nobody cares about publishers or the publishing industry per se—readers care about finding consistently high-quality books to read, in whatever format they want them, via whatever retailer they want to visit, at a price which makes sense. This is what we do well day-in, day-out, and it’s what we should be talking about—not what we are as an “industry”, not who is coming to gobble us up, not protecting our books from the naughty pirates. We ought to be talking about what we do well .

We have more opportunities than ever to talk to readers, and it’s essential that we use these to promote the value we add. Defending (or attacking) DRM doesn’t add value, and nor does criticising retailers to whom many readers are loyal. No industry, or company, is owed its existence; it’s a dog-eat-dog world and we need to compete our way to survival and start sharing success stories with the outside world every day.

Rebecca Smart is c.e.o. of the Osprey Group