On eBooks and DRM

The buzz stories from the last month are all about the state of the publishing world. Kristen Lamb did a series of really well-researched and written articles:

If you’re serious about becoming or continuing to be a published writer, do yourself a favor and read both of them. Trust me.

But for today, I want to focus on another article:

Ebooks Purchased From Microsoft Will Be Deleted This Month Because You Don’t Really Own Anything Anymore

First of all (and shame on me), I had no idea Microsoft started dipping its toes into the eBook business. But from the looks of it, that’s all they ever did, and they quickly regretted the choice. My guess is, they had no idea what they were getting into and weren’t in the least prepared for it. And now a lot of their customers are going to be very, very upset.

So here is where I put in my two cents’ worth.

Something many people don’t know about eBooks is that when you buy one from a Big Name store (Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble), you don’t actually purchase the book, you purchase the license to read the book. That has always been the case, and it means the article is very much correct: You do not actually own the content you purchased. You basically just own the right to access and read it whenever you want for as long as the store that sold it to you is in business. You are placing your faith and buying power behind the idea that your chosen store will remain in business indefinitely (or at least as long as you live).

These days, with the publishing landscape constantly shifting the way it is, there is a certain level of risk involved in doing that. But it’s the price we pay for convenience. You want your content delivered instantly to your device? That means giving the store access to your device and all its content. You want your content accessible anywhere from the Cloud? That means entrusting your content to someone else’s servers.

This is very much a faith-based business and sometimes, as in the case of Microsoft, that faith ends up being misplaced.

I know, it seems really unfair, but there is actually a good reason for things being set up the way they are.

Digital files work differently than physical copies. It’s time-consuming and expensive to make even ten copies of a printed book. Not really worth the effort when it comes to redistribution. But with an eBook, you can redistribute the file to an infinite number of people with just one click. That’s an infinite number of pirate copies of someone’s hard work just floating around the Internet for anyone to download without paying for it. It’s potentially several fortunes’ worth of royalties the author has just lost with the simple click of a button. Years and decades of hard work flushed right down the toilet, and back to square one.

This is where Digital Rights Management (DRM) comes in. It’s a piece of code that effectively locks your eBook so you can’t share it illegally. It’s there to protect authors as well as bookstores against illegal file sharing (piracy). It’s restrictive, but well-intentioned, and well within the store’s rights to protect its bottom line. After all, they’re not in the business of giving stuff out for free.

But with every lock, there will come a day when someone makes a counterfeit key. So it is with DRM. People everywhere are now sharing tips and tools for removing this piece of code, as if it’s a matter of course. They usually have valid reasons, like protecting their content from being taken away, or converting it to a different format so they can read it on a third party device. Mostly it’s due to a lack of understanding (you didn’t buy the book, but a license to it) or misguided entitlement (“I bought the book, so I should be able to do whatever I want with it!”)

But regardless of their reasons, removing DRM from an eBook is still against the eBook store’s TOS and (I believe) illegal, to boot.

Side Note: This is why I am staunchly against proprietary software, file formats, and monopolies in general. Big Name stores forcefully create loyal customers by making it convenient for readers to buy their content and highly inconvenient to “cheat” on them with other platforms and content. Think how impossible it is to transfer the songs you bought on iTunes to a different brand MP3 player. Same concept. Once you start using one proprietary platform, you sort of lock yourself into it. They don’t play well with others.

So what can you do to make sure your investment is protected?

As an author:

#1 Publish as wide as possible to give your readers options for buying your books. This not only makes the buying experience more pleasant for your readers, it protects your book from being uploaded to a store by someone else.

FYI: This happens a lot, especially to authors exclusive to Amazon. Someone will take a book, strip the DRM and upload to another store under their own account to illegally rack up sales for themselves. If/when Amazon find out, they can flag your account for having published elsewhere against their TOS. So not only do you get robbed of sales by a pirate, you also lose your legitimate royalties.

#2 Direct readers to all the places where they can buy your books, not just the ones you prefer. You never know where your readers like to shop. Giving them a link directly to a variety of stores makes it easier for readers to find and buy your book.

#3 If at all financially feasible, set up your book in print as well. If you can’t afford IngramSpark, go for LuLu. If you are a die hard Amazon fan, you can also use their KDP platform to create your paperback but I hear it’s gone down hill quite a bit since the days of CreateSpace.

As a reader:

#1 Take the time to understand what you’re paying for when you shop at a particular store. Microsoft is not the only store using DRM. They are not the only ones that can go under at a moment’s notice. Having a Big Name does not guarantee a store’s future success.

#2 Shop at stores that give you several options for file formats and don’t use DRM (Smashwords.com is an excellent example). Any time a store doesn’t have a dedicated reader device or app, they are more likely to give you options so you can use whatever reader or app you prefer.

#3 Purchase hard copies instead of eBooks. Yes, they are more costly but, if you’re like me and re-read your favorite books every year, it’s more than worth it. Plus, a bookshelf full of books is a beautiful addition to any home. 😉

Practicing what I preach: 

If you’re still with me, know that this is not one of those, “Do as I say, not as I do” things. I make my own books available worldwide, as eBooks and paperbacks (with only a couple exceptions), and I am slowly putting them into audiobook production, too.

You can purchase them at the Big Name stores (Amazon, B&N, Apple Books, Kobo) but if you want to have the freedom of eBook format choice, I recommend buying them from Smashwords.

For paperbacks, it’s always appreciated when you support your local independent bookstore and request a copy through them. It helps create some healthy competition in the marketplace and supports your neighborhood small business owners. 🙂 But if that’s not your thing, there’s always Books-A-Million as an online alternative.

If cost is an issue, I recommend checking with your local library. They may already have the eBook or even paperback version available and, if not, you can always request them. It saves you money, helps support the library system, and still gets authors paid. Win-win-win.

For those unfamiliar with my work, I write cross-genre, mostly science fiction or fantasy with varying degrees of romance. Each series is very different from the others, so buyer beware–you may love one and end up hating another. Here is a chart to help you navigate the different series:

You can always find more information and additional buying options on my author website: aliannedonnelly.com

Thanks for reading!

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Opinion: Drink Less Water

So there I was, chatting with a friend of mine, and telling her my publishing woes, and she asked me what I thought the issue was behind them. So I started telling her about all the factors affecting authors and publishers today, that the book market is oversaturated, that more books than ever are being sold, but per-author earnings keep going down, and that the industry “advice” was to publish more books faster.

And it literally just hit me how stupid that advice was, and how stupid I was for not having realized this sooner. Literally, all this advice does is make a bad problem worse. It’s telling a drowning man to drink more water.

Too many books on the market? Sell more books!

Books not valued for the work that goes into them? Do more, faster so it looks even more effortless!

Books can’t find a spotlight among so many options? Create more options!

How in the world does that make any sense? 

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t—for authors, anyway. It sure makes a great deal of sense for stores and distributors, though. More product means more sales. They get to replenish their inventory faster with fresh content and turn easy profits off the authors’ labor. They can drive down prices to attract more customers, because they’re not undercutting their own profits but the authors’. And that, ladies and gents, is how we all got into this mess. Some of us more willingly than others.

But let’s get real…

Ok, the conspiracy theory portion of this post is now safely over. Let’s talk options. As an author myself, I can’t help being dismayed and worried about what the future might bring to this industry. Some people have warned that we might be heading down the path of the music industry, where online content is free, and artists/authors only make money off live events. But I can’t imagine how that would work with books… Signings, conventions, and readings, I suppose. Open mic nights to gain some attention, then paid events where authors talk about their books and do live readings. Book club appearances?  For me, reading itself is such a solitary activity, it’s difficult for me to imagine such an arrangement. But then, I’ve always been a bit of a loner.

There are some other options I see as a little more feasible. One of them is Publica, which I’ve introduced here before. I like their secondary market system, which allows readers to resell eBooks and authors to earn royalties off those resales. It makes sense, from an author’s standpoint. If it was adopted industry-wide, I think we would all be better off. But that might not happen for a long, long time—if ever.

Another option is something I hadn’t considered before (but then, I can be a bit slow on the uptake sometimes). Patreon. You may have heard of it, or seen it in action with other artists, etc. Basically, it’s a sort of personalized VIP membership service. An author makes an account and opens it up to patrons for monthly contributions. Patrons choose from among different levels of membership, each of which offers different perks like exclusive content, sneak peeks, etc. on a regular basis. The reader gets closer access to the author and their work, the author gets a steady stream of income while they work.

It hearkens back to the old days when artists would have wealthy patrons supporting their creative endeavors so artists could focus on their art and not, ya know, worrying where their next meal will come from. I haven’t given the system much consideration before, but I think maybe I should. It would definitely go against my hardcore belief that authors get paid after they publish. Call me radical, but it appears that system may be changing and, if we want to survive on our terms (or as close as we can get to them), we must learn to change with the times.

What I like about this is that it takes out the middlemen. It brings artists and authors directly to their readers, and breaks the stranglehold of royalties, publishing costs, etc.

An elegant, old solution to a new problem. There’s poetry in that, I think. In terms of our original metaphor…

Don’t drink more water. Inflate your flotation device.

I’d now like to open this up to comments and questions:

  1. What do you think about authors utilizing Patreon?
  2. Would you be willing to support your favorite authors with a small monthly contribution?
  3. What kind of content and perks would you like to see in return?

Let me know in the comments below! 🙂

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2019 Industry Predictions

I have shared one of Mark Coker’s prediction posts for 2018 in last January’s post, and I am sharing the 2019 post here. I am sharing it, because most of what he talks about in this post is something I’ve already seen, felt, and experienced myself as an author.

I think a few of my recent posts might already have illustrated how the stagnating market has been pressing on me personally. They have been downers, to say the least, and I suppose I should apologize for that. This blog was meant to be a place for education, not emotional ranting. But in a sense, it also illustrates what many, many, many other authors are feeling. Yes, times are tough. Yes, sales are down across the board. Yes, our market is oversaturated, and we’re all scrambling to pedal our feet a little harder, churn that cream a little faster so the resulting butter will allow us to climb out of the hole.

But even with all of this going on, I’m still not ready to give up. I’m changing my strategies, but I’m still moving forward, and fighting hard to look ahead, rather than focus too much on right now. Book publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. And because of that, we all must think long and hard about how we spend our energies.

For those interested in more details, you can read the full post of Mark Coker’s 2019 Book Industry Predictions.

A few things I will share from my own experience to add a personal twist to these predictions:

Audiobooks

Having had my first one produced last year, I can tell you for a fact it is not cheap. It is also not another get-rich-quick scheme. It faces the same marketing challenges as eBooks and print books: if you don’t promote, you don’t sell. But what audiobooks do is bring you to another potential market segment, and that is always a good thing. I had already planned to do more audiobooks, and now I think it’s time to move up my plans just a little. I think the cost will be worth it in the long run. For me, anyway. 🙂

Facebook

If you’ve seen my Twitter profile, you will see I haven’t tweeted anything in ages. Twitter has never been my preferred platform. It’s too fast, and I can’t ever keep up. I think I just gave up on it, to be honest. If you’ve visited my Facebook profile recently, you may have found a notice pinned to the top, saying I am on hiatus from social media until further notice. It’s true. I haven’t logged into Facebook since January 1, except to tack that post on there. It’s done miracles for my state of mind. I’m calmer, I have more time to read and write, I focus better, and think clearer. I hadn’t realized until I left Facebook how great, and how negative an impact it’d had on my life in general. I probably won’t shut it down all together–I can’t afford to, now that I have actual events to attend. I will need to promote the hell out of those in any way I can. But I don’t plan to ever spend as much time on it again. My time is better spent on more productive things. Like writing.

Blockchain

This is one point on which I want to disagree with Mr. Coker. I see huge potential in Blockchain technology, especially when put into proper use. I think it would do wonders for the industry if the secondary market was opened up to authors. If readers can resell the books they don’t want to keep, and authors have a way of earning a portion of that sale, everyone wins. Right now, eBooks are pretty much a “final purchase” situation. As in, once you buy the eBook, unless you return it within the allowable time frame (if the retailer allows it), you will never get that money back. That is not to say that buying an eBook isn’t a worthy investment, by any means. But we’re allowed to sell our used paper books. Why not eBooks? It would eliminate the risk inherent in trying an unknown author’s work to know you can recoup at least some of your cost, wouldn’t it? And if authors can get paid along the way… But of course the retailers would never allow it to happen. It would cut far too much into their profit margins.

Amazon Algorithms

On this point, I agree wholeheartedly. Having experimented with Amazon ads over the last few months, I have seen the pay-to-play scenario first hand. It’s vicious, expensive, and unfair to all authors. (cue me stomping my feet and holding my breath) The fact is, if you have to pay Amazon for visibility, you are paying them back the royalties you ought to be earning. In my case, I was willing to take a loss on an ad to see if it would work. In the long run, it didn’t. I never recouped that investment from eBook sales, not even when I factored in sales of books other than the one I advertised.

Conclusion

All of this will have an impact on my business strategy moving forward. It’s always good to stay on top of what’s going on in the industry and, even though the news is pretty bleak, it’s pretty much what I expected. That at least tells me I’m finally getting the hang of this business. I can put two and two together, and make plans accordingly. Of course, no one has a crystal ball, but I tend to err on the side of caution, which has served me well so far. So, for 2019, my plans will be to keep writing, limit my time on social media, and focus on the long term.

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Let’s Talk About Piracy

This morning, I woke up with a fun, catchy song in my head. I was in a good mood, ready to tackle the day, and then I logged onto Facebook. I write this for both authors and readers, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t address it on this website. It may end up a bit ranty (there may be profanity, too), but I hope you’ll forgive that. Every time this particular topic comes up, it feels like death by a million paper cuts with a bonus lemon juice bath. I hope you’ll read it, anyway.

For the sake of not making this go viral, I won’t post the image that completely ruined my good mood, but I do want to address the subject of book piracy. Everyone loves a freebie, right? There’s no harm in downloading just one book, right? It’s just a drop in the bucket for authors who make money hand over fist, anyway, and after all, it’s just one book.

The way I see it, piracy happens for one of two reasons: ignorance, or entitlement and apathy. The former is fairly easy to dismantle with just a bit of accurate (if painful) information. The latter, not so much. So let’s talk…


“But it’s just one book. I give away my paperbacks all the time. I paid for it, it’s mine. Who the hell are you to tell me what to do with something I paid for?”

You’d think the vehemence was exaggerated. It’s not. But here’s what many people don’t know, or consciously realize:

Print books and eBooks are not the same. A printed book is one copy of the product. Very cumbersome to replicate by copying or scanning, and why bother when you can just buy another one fairly cheap? eBooks are digital files–tiny ones at that, just a few kilobytes, all told. It takes two seconds to upload an eBook to a server and make it public. That eBook will live there forever and can be downloaded countless times by countless people, all of whom will have the ability to send a copy on to countless other people without losing access to the original. Printed books have a shelf life. eBooks don’t. That means there is literally no limit to how many people can get illegal copies them.

Here’s what that means for the author: Hundreds and thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of lost royalties. In many cases, that’s a full-time income the author has just lost. Literally, a livelihood stolen right out from under them. And no, I am not exaggerating. In recent years, I have lost count of the number of authors I have seen hang up their writing hats because they just can’t afford it anymore. Many of them had to go back to seeking full time jobs, which is never easy, especially after you’ve been out of the workforce for a while.

To a reader just looking to pass the time, that one eBook is a few hours of entertainment. To its author, it’s hundreds of hours of work, not just writing it, but promoting it as well. It’s an on-going, full time job. Yes, we do it for the love of writing–for ourselves. But when we share it with the world, it becomes a product. It costs money to put it out there, and it needs to generate revenue, or it’s not worth continuing.


“How is it entitlement if I just want to read and can’t afford the books?? You should be grateful someone reads your books at all.”

I’m going to pause here for a moment to take a deep breath and master my emotions. Okay. First of all, that is the definition of entitlement. You can’t afford it? But authors should be able to afford to give away their livelihoods for free? You can’t afford it, so it’s okay to steal? No. It’s not okay. I’m sorry for your personal circumstances that prevent you from being able to buy a book you really, really want to read, but that does not make it okay for you to steal a copy. There are these things called libraries where they actually make books available for free. They buy them on your behalf, so the author doesn’t have to skip a meal, and then loan them to you for a time so you can enjoy the stories without having to shell out a dime. There are these things called book sales where authors make their books available at a much lower cost, or even free, where you can grab a copy totally guilt-free.

It just so happens, I currently have one of these floating around:

Catch Me is FREE at Smashwords until 7.31.2018, so feel free to check it out. Click the title, or the image to go directly to the Smashwords product page. If you feel adventurous, book 2 of this series is also discounted until the end of July.

 

See how this works? I, the author, make this book available to the reader and invite them to download from a legitimate bookseller. I’m far from the only one. All you have to do is go to Smashwords, set your filter to FREE and you’ll find hundreds, thousands of free titles right there for your enjoyment.

“How’s that any different?” you ask. Here’s how:

When a library purchases a book, it’s a sale for the author. They get paid for that. When they discount their own book, it’s their choice as a marketing strategy. Even free downloads (if they’re legitimate) can help an author’s career. Those downloads are tracked; they affect the book’s ratings and visibility. The higher it is on the ranking list, the higher the chance others will want to buy a copy, and authors get paid for that, too. Pirate sites, on the other hand, do none of that. They’re basically a black hole of nothing for the author.

As for being grateful, please excuse the profanity, but in this case, there is really no other way I know to reply, except to say, “Fuck you.” That is all the answer you deserve for even thinking something like that about an author who puts their heart and soul into a book, much less saying it aloud, to their face. So, at the risk of being redundant, I say again: Fuck. You.


“I just want to check out the author first to see if I like them. I don’t want to shell out money on a no-name and end up hating the book. I’ll buy a legit copy if I like it!”

It may surprise you to hear this, but this is not actually a valid reason for pirating a book. Authors and stores go to great lengths to give you every opportunity to check out a book before you buy. If you don’t look at the sample, that’s on you. That’s you deliberately choosing to turn a blind eye to the legitimate option in favor of piracy. It may also surprise you to hear that those “no-name” authors you are so eager to sample are the ones who are hurt by piracy the most, because they depend on their royalty income the most. They don’t have a solid readership to keep them afloat, or side income from book merch, or movie or TV series rights. They literally depend on every single penny they get from royalties.

It may seem innocent, but this is just another form of entitlement. “I should be able to read it first and then decide if it’s worth paying for.” Well, no. The very fact that you do want to read it first means it’s worth paying for. You don’t go to a restaurant and say, “Serve me first, and if I like it, I’ll pay for my meal.” You don’t go to a store and say, “Let me wear this T-shirt for a few weeks, and then I’ll decide whether it’s worth paying for.” For that matter, no movie theater in the world will let you in to watch a movie without buying a ticket first. eBooks are no different. If you pirate one, no matter how you justify your decision to do so, you are stealing. You are supporting a system that robs authors blind. There is nothing you can say that will ever make that acceptable.


“Holy crap, this is really awful! I hate that my favorite authors have to go through this. How can I help?”

Now that is the right response. 🙂 Thank you. I mean that sincerely. You’d be surprised how good it is to hear that someone out there actually cares, and even wants to help. If you really want to help your favorite authors, buy their books. That’s all. Don’t look for them on pirate sites. If you happen across one, or someone sharing a link to one, report the person and tell the author. It’s not easy, but there are steps authors can take to curb piracy–if they know about it. Tell people about your favorite books and when you do, tell them where they can be bought. Share with your friends when you see an author has a sale or promotion going on. It helps both the author, and the readers who might otherwise balk at paying full price.

Authors are not unsympathetic, believe me. Many of them will go to great lengths to get books into the hands of their struggling readers. But please realize we’re human, too. We have families, and mortgages, and medical bills, and this is not a hobby. It’s our job. We work at it non-stop, without breaks, vacations, and often times without support or encouragement. We do our jobs well, and we shouldn’t have to justify our need to get paid for it.

Thank you for your time.

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Opinion: Addressing the Chaos

There’s been a lot of stuff happening in the book world recently that’s kind of sort of turning things inside out and upside down. It’s big enough that it warrants a post (warning: it’ll be long), so I’m going to address two things I’ve seen floating around: #Cockygate and the recent blunder by Amazon. But first, a disclaimer: Everything in this post is my observation and opinion. I will not be linking external sources because I trust that those who want to know more will find ample sources all on their own, and I don’t want to add to the viral nature of this mess. Basically, I’m chiming in, but urging everyone to do their own homework and not take my word for it.

So here we go…

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Smashwords Partners With Findaway Voices

On March 21st, Smashwords announced it was partnering with Findaway Voices to help their Indie authors with the beginning stages of audiobook production. In the blog post, Mark Coker shared the basics of the partnership and his observations on how audiobooks are a growing market and a new opportunity for a wider audience for Indie authors.

It was all great news. What the blog post didn’t share, however, were some additional details I later found in this Forbes article where Mark Coker contributed an interview.

Here’s the deets:

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Opinion: Pricing eBooks Free

This is something that popped up in my Facebook memories. I was going to reshare, but then realized it might be a good discussion topic for this blog, so here we are.

The Background

Two years ago today, Kristen Lamb posted this article on her blog: A Culture Addicted to FREE—How FREE is Poisoning the Internet & Killing the Creatives. It’s worth a read if you have a few minutes. When it went live, I shared it on Facebook with a long comment which I don’t want to repeat, but which you can read here. The free book I was talking about was The Beast, my very own twist on the classic fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The Here and Now

Well, two years have now passed since Ms. Lamb’s blog post, and not much has changed, except that fewer people are willing to talk about it anymore. Smashwords CEO Mark Coker recently released the 2018 updated edition of his Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, in which his advice to authors still includes a strategy of pricing at least one book as free, and if you have a series, price the first book as free, despite his gloomy 2018 Publishing Predictions blog post, in which he predicted an increased glut of high-quality, low cost eBooks, and the demise of independent publishing by a rising, Amazon-dependent model.

It would seem like the two ideas are counter-intuitive. Why tell authors to play into their own downfall, rather than rally the troops to make a unified stand against it and demand fair treatment and recompense? But really it’s only a progression of cause-to-effect, and Mr. Coker is only doing what he feels will benefit authors most in this new climate.

How did we even get here?

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2018 Industry Predictions

Every year, Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords puts out a long post of predictions for the near future of the Indie book industry. He is usually pretty spot on, so every year, I spend a few minutes reading what he has to say. Today, there are two posts I want to share:

2017 Year in Review and 2018 Preview

2018 Book Industry Predictions

My main take-away from this post is perfectly summed up in this one sentence: “Fair competition at Amazon does not exist.” 

If you’re at all serious about being or becoming an author, whether you are traditionally published or self-published, do yourself a favor and read these two posts.

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2017 Smashwords Survey

Every year, the CEO of Smashwords publishes a survey on the company’s blog. It talks about things like genre popularity, most effective price points, most popular book lengths, etc. Definitely worth checking out if you get the chance. Obviously, it’s not the only source of market statistics out there, and it only includes data from Smashwords titles, but it’s still the most comprehensive I have come across so far. Given the number of titles published through the platform, do you think it’s reasonable to extrapolate this data to the eBook industry as a whole?

If you don’t follow Mark Coker’s blog, do yourself a favor and click that Follow button. You can read the 2017 Smashwords survey here.

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