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A new form of DRM? Oh please.

Posted June 18, 2013 by Anne

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A recent article in the The Guardian discusses a new form of DRM being proposed:

“The new ebook digital rights management (DRM) system would, reported PaidContent, change certain words in the text of a pirated ebook – “invisible” could become “not visible”, for example, and “unhealthy” become “not healthy” – so that an individualised copy could be traced” 

All of our books at Momentum are DRM-free, and we made this choice because as ebook readers ourselves we want our books to be as accessible as possible, meaning that legitimate users should be able to read the books they have paid for on whatever device they choose to read on. DRM restricts valid use of property, and we respect the reading community too much to put in place obstructions to an enjoyable book experience.

Tor dropped DRM around the same time we did last year, and Tor UK’s Editorial Director Julie Crisp recently announced their findings one year in, saying that not only did they not see an increase in piracy, but also that it helped to establish Tor as a publisher that listens and understands their readers, and that “we’ve gained an amazing amount of support and loyalty from the community”.

Proposing a new form of DRM for books, particularly one that directly interferes with the words of a text, is utterly redundant and out of date. As John Birmingham says, “Every book I’ve ever published in electronic format has been pirated. Every single one. And they all had DRM. It didn’t protect me from piracy and it won’t protect publishing in general. The best protection is to make your work as easily accessible as possible, everywhere, all at once, at the same, reasonable price. Is it possible? Nobody really knows, but we’re gonna give it a hell of a shake to find out.”

Other authors echoed Birmingham’s sentiments in the Guardian article:

Lloyd Shepherd ”believes the only ways to tackle book piracy are cultural and economic. “You address it culturally by banging away, year after year, on how creators are people earning a living who should be compensated fairly – authors have a big part to play in that, by being present in social media and book forums, by being very obviously human beings capable of being damaged and not faceless entertainment ‘brands’,” Shepherd said. “You address it economically by taking a long, hard look at issues like ebook availability in international markets – the old geographic rights model has been fatally undermined by international data networks, and the licensing regime has to react to that.”

The award-winning Nick Harkaway, author of Angelmaker, was less concerned about textual changes, suggesting that it would be “pretty simple” to find words which could be switched, “unless you’re talking about a work of staggering poetic precision”. His problem would be “much more visceral”.

“I hate with a fiery passion the idea of making the text spy on the reader,” he said.

Harkaway called the new system “a clever technical fix and “a very silly idea”.

“The whole concept is forlorn because filesharing – piracy is a crime of violence and horror, filesharing is more like fly tipping – may not actually do any harm, and some evidence suggests it helps sales,” he said.

“The criminalisation of the reader is probably not the best model for the publishing industry generally, and it creates an adversarial relationship which increases the likelihood of copyright infringements; what one program can do, another can inevitably undo, and this particular version of the system raises the possibility of a ‘scrambler’ filesharing program which randomly alters additional words so that any subsequent court case must acknowledge the possibility, however faint, that the text did not, in fact, come from a given person but merely looks that way because of the scrambler – producing ever more garbled versions of the text.”

Momentum author Nathan M. Farrugia agrees, “if pirates are better at distributing your ebooks than you are, then you’re doing it wrong. The best way for publishers to fight piracy is with convenience.”

The only way to limit book piracy is to make your books as accessible as possible; globally available at a reasonable price. DRM is not the answer.

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And thank you to Craig Hildebrand-Burke for bringing the Guardian piece to my attention.

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Who Wants to Read this Stuff? The Business of Storytelling in a Digital World

Posted November 21, 2012 by Joel

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It’s often said that writers write for themselves. This might be true, but as a publisher it’s my task to be the reader’s advocate. The first question I try to ask when considering a new project is to consider the audience: “who wants to read this stuff?” 

In the digital realm, particularly at the experimental, pointy end of digital, this question of audience is, I think, rarely considered as a first step. The excitement of shiny gadgets and new software overwhelms our puny publishing minds. So instead, the first question is often – “what can it do?” and the second question is “what else can it do?”

The answer to that question is – “pretty much anything”. There are bog standard ebooks, of course, but it goes much further than that. There are transmedia stories, geo-located stories, multimedia enhanced stories and fully interactive pseudo-gaming experiences. We can serialise books, we can release short stories and we can make apps and games.

In other words “What can it do?” is an exciting question and it’s full of potential rather than limitations. But it’s my contention that when it comes to the business of storytelling – whether you’re trying to entertain, educate or inform people – it’s not a very good question. To put it indelicately, there’s a very short distance between asking the question “what can it do?” and disappearing up your own arse.

My argument is basically this: the colourful and exciting part of digital publishing innovation is – for the most part – not something that readers actually want. Pushing the boundaries of what a book is – whether it’s by blurring the lines between different kinds of media or questioning the linear nature of traditional narrative – is not something that people are looking to book publishers to provide. Too much of what we call innovation is basically turning our content into a showroom for device manufacturers – and we do it to the detriment of more important and more useful innovation at the back end of the publishing business.

This is not to say that every example of a book app or interactive book-like experience is bad. Consider The Waste Land or The Sonnets that have been released by Faber & Faber. Both of these apps successfully meld critical annotations, video, audio and multiple text versions into a unified whole without distracting from the fundamental purpose of the text. It’s interesting that poetry, perhaps because it’s so dense, seems to lend itself quite naturally to this kind of enhancement. There’s a lot to unpack in poetry. Poetry itself isn’t necessarily linear and it’s often intended to be performed rather than read so it seems the marriage of technology and literature is a happy one in this instance.

However you might not want the pace of your Lee Child novel interrupted by a quick video of the author reading a couple of paragraphs or Tom Cruise running about in the trailer for the new movie. That would probably somewhat lift you out of the story.  And yet publishers return – again and again – to cheap gimmicks and unnecessary tricks to try to enhance what doesn’t need to be enhanced.

The real experiments that will actually help publishers make books that people actually want to read – for a price they want to read them for – are distinctly lacking in sex appeal. They aren’t books – they’re improvements to things like workflow, content management systems, metadata optimization, distribution efficiency and rights management.

For example, a digital-only, format independent workflow drastically improves the speed and quality of ebooks and other digital content production.

Metadata – the information about a book like price, category, the book blurb and author information – is essential to making a book discoverable in an online retail environment. There is now solid evidence that improving the accuracy of metadata increases sales for books.

Distributing our content in a global market is a new challenge that needs some creative thinking and a lot of resources to get right. We need to get better at working with our overseas colleagues to make sure our content is available simultaneously or as quickly as possible. 

I won’t go on about rights management too much as it’s a bit of a bug bear for me, to the point that Momentum has now removed these controls from our books. Suffice it to say that digital rights management is bad for readers in the same way that awkward user interface design in book apps are bad for readers. It interferes with the purchasing and reading experience in a non-intuitive way.

These are the kinds of invisible improvements to a modern publishing business that have helped Amazon to become the biggest single bookstore in the world – and allowed them to single-handedly take on publishers at their own game.

More than a few publishers are steadfastly refusing to make some of these changes. Among those that are making deep systematic changes – and there are plenty – many are moving so slowly that they are risking losing the race.

Meanwhile, many modern publishers are distracting themselves with experiments that do nothing but provide a nice press release and show-off the latest capability that Amazon, Apple or Google have built in to their newest device. And it’s not just publishers. I’ve been on a number of panels with industry pundits who love to talk about the death of the book and how technology is going to radically alter our sense of what narrative is and how we are going to consume stories in a completely different, non-linear and interactive way.

What an utterly exhausting proposition.

Nothing I’ve seen in the past year of running an experimental digital imprint has led me to believe there is a voracious horde of early adopters out there who want this type of content and that publishers are failing to deliver it. I’m not saying it won’t ever happen, but it hasn’t happened yet and I see no indications of it coming other than the fact that it’s technological feasible.

The next decade is inevitably going to provide some creative re-imagining of the boundaries of what a book is. And that is a good thing. Technology can and already does help us deliver content around the world for a fraction of the cost that it did only a few years ago. The self-publishing revolution means that there are now very few roadblocks for authors to get their content read by audiences. There is now an audience for serialised content and short stories that seems to have sprung out of nowhere. This is the actual revolution at the foundation of the publishing business. The boundaries of what publishers can and should do have already shifted while we weren’t paying attention – there’s no need for us reinvent the wheel when it comes to storytelling and narrative. We must remember what it is we’re good at – looking at that manuscript, whether it’s delivered by horse and cart or email – and asking the question “who wants to read this stuff?”

This post was adapted from a speech delivered at The Future of Writing symposium at Macquarie University on 14 November.

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Podmentum: the one where we discover “bathetic” is a word

Posted November 9, 2012 by Anne

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Second podcast! We’re totally on a roll. In this episode we discuss the epic Genre versus Literature battle to the death in the wake of the inaugural GenreCon Australia, then we make fun of Joel for being such a gadget nerd. Also Mark outnerds himself in the recommendations. Enjoy.    

Topic  1 - What we read: Genre v Lit

Arthur Krystal’s Easy Writers: Guilty pleasures without guilt in May in The New Yorker laid down the theory that the divide between genre and literary fiction is becoming less clear, and some genre fiction is now being afforded “literary” status.

Lev Grossman in Time April 2012 responded with an article entitles Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle: Genre fiction is disruptive technology, challenging the idea that literary fiction should be regarded as “superior” to genre fiction. He basically lays down the theory that literary fiction is itself a genre with certain tried and true tropes that every book identified as such follows.

Krystal then responded to Lev Grossman with It’s genre, not that there’s anything wrong with that! in October, which had Joel absolutely apoplectic with rage, and convinced us that it was worth discussing.

Interesting look at horror in The Guardian recently with Horror: a genre literally doomed to hell? 

*note – The Ian McEwan novel that was released the year before he won the Booker for Amsterdam was Enduring Love, not On Chesil Beach (which was actually released a decade later). To my enduring shame, I completely forgot about Enduring Love, which is actually one of my favourite McEwan books. Golf clap.

Topic 2 - Devices: how we read

Joel got his new Paperwhite last week and now that he’s had enough time to fall completely and utterly in love with it, it is probably time to talk about reading technology.

Amazon Paperwhite

 iPad Mini 

Recommendations

Joel’s Recommendation The Silent History – Eli Horowitz The Victory Lab – Sasha Issenberg

Anne’s Recommendations January First – Michael Schofield Life in Publishing Tumblr

Mark’s Recommendation Star Wars Expanded Universe

This episode of Podmentum was brought to you by Stalin’s Hammer: Rome by  John Birmingham, and Drive Me To Distraction by Caitlyn Nicholas 

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Release day. Stalin’s Hammer. Sort of.

Posted November 1, 2012 by John Birmingham

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So, today is the day that Stalin’s Hammer: Rome drops into the e-book shops. Or at least it does everywhere but America. I found out about two weeks ago that my US publisher wants to hold on to the title until January or February next year. Originally they were even looking at holding it back until midyear, but my sad face changed their mind.

It’s still not ideal. When we sat down to plan how we’d approach the e-book market, the guys at Momentum and I agreed that there were a couple of minimum conditions we needed to meet. A price so low there was no barrier to purchase. At $2.99 I think we’ve done that. No DRM so that readers could store and carry their copy of the book however they damn well pleased. Tick. And simultaneous global release, so that somebody sitting on their couch in, say, Kansas City, Missouri, would have no reason to be pissed because they can see the book is available, but not for them. This is one of the main drivers of piracy.

“Well, I wanted to give those assholes my money, but they refused, so…”

This was originally posted on John Birmingham‘s Cheeseburger Gothic. To read the rest of it, head on over there.

To buy Stalin’s Hammer: Rome, click through for your choice of retailers via the book page.

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Ebooks and Ownership: Do You Own Your Ebooks?

Posted October 30, 2012 by Joel

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An email from an acquaintance today in light of the Amazon library deletion scandal caused me to write a long rant about digital rights management (DRM) and ebooks and copyright so I thought I’d share some of it below.

It amazes me sometimes that we’re still all talking about DRM and ebooks. I feel like it’s a conversation we’ve been having for a very long time, and made very little progress with. But ultimately that’s the nature of an industry undergoing such huge changes. Protecting the legal rights of authors and readers while also trying to run a business and not violate any licensing agreements can be a nightmare for even the most informed publishing functionary – to an outsider I think it must look like complete and utter nonsense.

There are different issues at work here. One is the legal rights of the reader/consumer and the other is the technology used to restrict those rights.

When it comes to legal rights, most publishers aren’t selling the ebook file itself – they sell a license to use it under certain circumstances. They give the reader the file – but the reader doesn’t ‘own’ this file. This is pretty standard for selling digital content – if you sold the file with with no restrictions then the person who bought it could potentially copy and send it to thousands of people with no legal recourse for the copyright owner (the author, not the publisher). I don’t know of any publisher of any digital content that sells digital files without restrictions – whether they’re using DRM or not.

The second issue is a technological one. Most publishers sell their content with DRM, which on top of the legal restrictions also physically restricts readers from transferring content to other readers or between devices by using encryption software. This software is usually implemented by the retailer (Amazon, Apple or whoever) at the behest of the publisher. Some publishers, like Momentum, have asked retailers not to include DRM on our files. This isn’t because we think users should be able to own the file and use it without restrictions, but because we believe that a reader who buys an ebook should be able to transfer that book between devices without the technological difficulty inherent in using encryption technology. Basically it’s extremely frustrating for a reader who has legitimately purchased a book to transfer that book between multiple devices if it has DRM on it – and that’s why we removed it. We wanted our readers to be able to buy a book from Amazon and read it on their Kobo reader if they wanted to – and now they can.

To be clear – Momentum is still technically selling a license for our books, not the files themselves – we just don’t physically restrict readers from transferring their ebooks between devices. The reason for this is basically down to the nature of digital content – it isn’t some kind of Orwellian urge to control what readers do with their reading material. If we ‘owned’ a digital file in the sense that most of us ‘own’ paper books, by current laws we would be able to do whatever they wanted with it (including selling copies for a profit), which would in most cases violate the contract under which retailers sell ebooks and the rights publishers license from authors. Authors ultimately own the copyright for their content and license it to publishers who can then sub-license it to readers.

In the Amazon case mentioned above, the reader violated Amazon’s terms and conditions in some way that Amazon hasn’t made clear to anyone. As a result, Amazon closed their account, which means they no longer had access to the encrypted files that were stored on their device. If that reader had bought any of Momentum’s ebooks, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as they could have just moved their ebooks to a different device. As far as I know, without DRM Amazon cannot yank a book from someone’s device – but I might be wrong. At any rate, because all of the reader’s books had DRM on them, they lost their entire library (albeit temporarily – Amazon has restored the reader’s account as far as I know).

As much as I think this is a horrible situation for the reader – and this is precisely why we dropped DRM from our books at Momentum – these stories do seem to crop up intermittently and don’t seem to have any real effect on the ebook market. Ultimately the convenience of digital reading outweighs most people’s concerns about it. I’d love it if more readers cared about this stuff as it’s something I care about, and we’ve made Momentum a more reader-friendly place as a result. However, my general impression is that for the most part Amazon’s ecosystem works pretty well and these situations tend to be anomalies or bureaucratic oversights rather than some kind of concerted effort to defraud readers.

Having said that, I’m curious about what you think. Has Momentum’s decision caused you to buy more books from us? Do you seek out DRM-free ebooks consciously? Had you even heard about the story mentioned above? Sound off in the comments and let us know.

 

Please Note: A previous version of this post claimed that selling digital files gave the purchaser the right to on-sell the ebook. As commenter Iain points out below, copyright law should already adequately cover this situation. See my response below for clarification on this issue.

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100 Ways to Write Badly Well by Joel Stickley is a hilarious guide to the art of awful writing. Remember – if a thing’s worth doing badly, it’s worth doing badly well. Available DRM-free for $2.99.

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So We Dropped DRM – What Does That Actually Mean?

Posted May 30, 2012 by Joel

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As some of you might already know, we announced yesterday that we’re dropping DRM (digital rights management) from all of our books. The chatter on social media last night and this morning leads me to believe there’s still a bit of confusion about what DRM is, what it’s for, why we chose to drop it and what it actually means for you – assuming you are someone who might buy or want to buy our books.

What is DRM?

First of all – what is digital rights management? Basically, it’s a type of software that limits what you can and can’t do with a legitimately purchased piece of digital content. It’s used on everything from computer games to music, movies, books and television episodes. It’s the reason why when you rent a movie from iTunes you only have 48 hours to watch it, and it’s the reason why when you buy a book from Amazon you can’t copy it to your Sony or Kobo e-reader. 

However, DRM is not the same thing as territorial rights. Territorial rights are to blame when you try to buy an ebook from a store and you get the dreaded ‘This book is not available from your location’ notice. It’s also what stops Australian users from using US services like Hulu, Pandora and, until recently, Spotify. Typically, content publishers buy a licence from the copyright holder that gives them the right to make that content available in particular ways within a particular geographical territory. Digital retailers of all kinds can usually work out where you’re buying or viewing content from and block you if they don’t have the right to make it available to you.

Does territorial copyright make sense on the internet? Not particularly. But ultimately it’s not just up to publishers to solve the territorial rights problem – if authors and agents want their books to be available to the world they need to make those rights available to content publishers and many still don’t.

Happily at Momentum we’ve worked extra hard to make almost all of our books available globally. In other words, our authors have licensed their books to us to sell them worldwide. This has been the case since we launched in February.

What is DRM For?

This might seem like a fairly obvious question with an obvious answer, but it’s actually kind of complicated. DRM ostensibly exists to protect a creator’s copyright – it stops readers from tampering with a file, copying it, converting it into other formats and even stops illegitimate users from opening or viewing a file. This is why publishers use it and it’s also why many authors still want it applied to their books – they are afraid that without DRM their books will be copied without limitation by anyone who gets their hands on it.

In practice, however, DRM is relatively easy to remove from a book. This is why piracy of books and other digital content is so rampant – it only takes one person with a working knowledge of how to remove DRM from a book to make it available to the entire world for free. In other words – DRM is extremely bad at doing its main job.

Given that this is so, what else is DRM for? DRM stops readers who buy their ebooks from one retailer transferring their purchase to an unapproved reading device. For example, you can’t read an ebook with DRM on it from Apple on your Kindle, and you can’t read a Kindle ebook on your Kobo Touch. So the answer to that question – what is DRM for? – becomes clear. The purpose of DRM is to encourage readers to buy their ebooks from a single source.

So Why Are We Dropping DRM?

At Momentum we have a commitment to accessibility. As I mentioned earlier, we’re working hard to make our books available globally. All of our books released so far are available for under $10, and most of them for $5 or less. Ensuring that you can buy your books from wherever you want and read them on whatever device you want is part of that commitment.

Dropping DRM is not about encouraging piracy. Piracy is a reality of the digital era, and this situation is extremely unlikely to change. Some people are always going to pirate content and spread it around without permission. Let me be clear, here – this isn’t something we support. Authors deserve to be paid for their work. But we believe that the best way to fight piracy is to remove the barriers to purchase – make books cheaper, make them available everywhere and to any reader from any platform.

What Does Dropping DRM Mean For You?

The simple answer is: not all that much. You can still buy our books from all the same places for the same prices. Come August, however, if you want to read your Kindle book on your Kobo or your iBookstore book on your Kindle – you can. We’re still working with our retail partners (and in talks with others) to make our books available in as many places as possible – but that’s a separate issue to our decision to drop DRM.

So if you are thinking of buying our books, I urge you to encourage your friends to buy books from us. Most of them are the cost of a cup of coffee (or two), and they can buy and download them while waiting for the bus. Ultimately dropping DRM is an experiment – if it proves to be successful, then we’ll keep doing it.

And we really want to keep doing it.

If you have any questions about this change, please sound off in the comments and I’ll answer them as best I can.

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Momentum Drops DRM!

Posted May 29, 2012 by admin

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MEDIA RELEASE:

MOMENTUM BOOKS, Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital-only imprint, today announced that by early August all its titles would be released without DRM. DRM – digital rights management – is the software used on digital content to prevent casual copying by users.

‘The problem,’ said Joel Naoum, Momentum’s publisher, ‘is that DRM restricts users from legitimate copying – such as between different e-reading devices. We feel strongly that Momentum’s goal is to make books as accessible as possible. Dropping these restrictions is in line with that goal.’

The move by Momentum follows recent announcements by sister company Tor in the United States and the United Kingdom. Momentum is the first imprint of a major Australian publisher to drop DRM.

Momentum’s director, Tom Gilliatt, comments, ‘Momentum was set up to innovate and experiment. The decision to drop DRM is absolutely in keeping with this role, and shows once again Macmillan’s global commitment to be at the forefront of digital change and development.’

John Birmingham, who will be publishing a series of novellas with Momentum in late 2012 said, ‘Every book I’ve ever published in electronic format has been pirated. Every single one. And they all had DRM. It didn’t protect me from piracy and it won’t protect publishing in general. The best protection is to make your work as easily accessible as possible, everywhere, all at once, at the same, reasonable price. Is it possible? Nobody really knows, but we’re gonna give it a hell of a shake to find out.’

Nathan Farrugia, whose bestselling novel The Chimera Vector was released by Momentum in May, said, ‘One of the main reasons I signed with Momentum was their willingness to ditch DRM – something that very few other publishers would do. But I think if pirates are better at distributing your ebooks than you are, then you’re doing it wrong. The best way for publishers to fight piracy is with convenience. I’m excited to see Momentum HULK SMASH DRM.’

About Momentum

Launched in February, Momentum is the digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia. Momentum have now published over forty titles, including Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read’s series of memoirs, Greig Beck’s fantasy horror Valkeryn and Lindy Chamberlain’s autobiography, The Dingo’s Got My Baby. All published titles are available globally and at highly accessible prices.

If you have any further questions about this change, please contact Joel Naoum on 02 8021 0705 or on info@momentumbooks.com.au.

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FutureBook: How digital stalking can get you published

Posted May 15, 2012 by Joel

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Nathan M Farrugia’s recently released debut novel The Chimera Vector has dropped into a sea of digital content at the centre of a global conversation around the future of reading.

Ebooks are slowly cannibalising print sales. The traditional gatekeepers of book publishing are embroiled in a dispute with the US department of justice. Amazon is dominating digital publishing both with its closed Kindle platform and huge self-publishing push, and the threat of a monopoly (or monopsony) looms. Fear mongering around the death of the paper book, bookstores and book culture is rampant.

Enter Nathan Farrugia, the first debut author to work with Pan Macmillan Australia’s new digital imprint Momentum. Initially planning to self-publish, the ex-Australian Army infantryman describes ‘stalking’ me through the ‘long grasses of Twitter’, recognising the need for professional editing for his content. He happened to catch my attention at a time when I was just about to undertake the Unwin Fellowship in the UK and was helping set up Momentum in Australia. In other words, I was busy.

Although I initially agreed to take on the editing job, it became clear that the book would be perfect for Momentum, even though the imprint hadn’t been announced at that point. The story was exceptionally fast-paced and action-packed and blended genres in a fresh and fun way. What followed was an awkward few weeks in which I had to convince Nathan I was working on his edit when what I was really doing was trying to sign up his book.

Thankfully, when the offer came, Nathan was convinced that an experimental digital-only publishing imprint fit with his ideas about the future of storytelling and digital consumption. From the get-go Nathan wanted to work with a publisher who was willing to experiment with price, territoriality and copyright restrictions. He was adamant that he wanted to sell his book at a low price with no DRM. ‘DRM actually encourages piracy instead of protecting against it,’ he says. Far from being concerned about piracy, we shared the belief that if you sell content that people want at a price they’re willing to pay then piracy becomes a non-issue. It’s refreshing (and rare) to come across authors who are as informed, engaged and enthusiastic as Nathan – but Momentum has attracted its fair share of them so far, and I’m looking forward to finding more.

Although Momentum was only able to sign up the straight-text book of The Chimera Vector, Nathan had far more ambitious plans. They involved launching the ebook along with an app, audio book and graphic novel to encourage accessibility across different types of media.

‘There are enhanced ebooks, there are transmedia products, there are a few book apps with bells and whistles. But nothing cohesive, nothing integrated, nothing truly groundbreaking. Is that really the best we can do?’

Nathan and his agent, Xavier Waterkeyn, started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the planned book app, but despite raising over $US40,000 it fell short of the ambitious $140K goal. Nathan and Xavier are now slowly funding the bells and whistles themselves, working on audio, graphics and wireframing in their spare time.

The ebook of The Chimera Vector has led the way as Momentum’s first debut author, shooting straight into the top ten on Apple’s iBookstore at launch last week and attracting promotion and sales around the world. The ability to launch a debut author with a digital-only book and still stand out from the crowd proves that publishers will still have a role in connecting authors with audiences, in and out of print, for many years to come.

You can buy Nathan M Farrugia’s The Chimera Vector DRM-free from the ebook retailer of your choice here, and it will also be available soon in print-on-demand.

This post was originally published on FutureBook. You can read it again here.

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Harry Potter and the Digital Rights Management

Posted March 28, 2012 by Joel

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So JK Rowling finally made her ebooks available for sale last night. It’s about time. It’s been described as the ‘Beatles moment’ for ebooks. The Beatles moment they’re referring to is when the Beatles finally acquiesced to selling their albums digitally on the iTunes store.

The Potter ebooks are a bigger deal in book publishing circles than the Beatles going on iTunes for a number of reasons. Imagine that instead of making their music available on iTunes, the Beatles had set up their own website and payment system and forced all the retailers to link through their site in order to purchase their content. Imagine, too, that all music being sold at that point by major retailers was sold with restrictive DRM (digital rights management) and the Beatles were the first major brand to sell without it.

JK Rowling and the Pottermore project (led by ex-HarperCollins head of digital Charlie Redmayne) have done something with ebooks that has never been done before. They’ve effectively forced Amazon to list the books without actually selling them directly. That means JK Rowling and co. get all the sales (and I mean all of them – there’s no commission being skimmed off by paying via PayPal or anyone else). They also get all the customer information that Amazon would ordinarily collect. And they’ve done it by making their books available without DRM.

The screenshot above is the only DRM that Pottermore is including on the books sold through the site. It sits on the copyright page, and identifies the user of the ebook. If you were to post up the unaltered version of a Pottermore ebook on a file sharing site (or email it to a friend, who then shared it), you could be identified with this code, and presumably you could be sued or blacklisted from Pottermore if Ms Rowling was so inclined.

This kind of watermarking, also known as ‘social DRM’, doesn’t restrict the user from doing what they want with the file, but it does make the user think twice about sharing (particularly with someone they don’t trust). As far as I can find by opening up the EPUB file this code doesn’t exist anywhere else in the book except for on the copyright page, so it would be relatively easy to remove it (but not much easier, it should be pointed out, than removing normal DRM from an ebook).

The power of this kind of DRM, though, is that it can be applied by anyone, not just a book retailer, and it costs (virtually) nothing to implement. Importantly, it also means that ebook readers of any platform can buy your book and put it on their device without syncing, linking, three different logins or any other issues. It allows sharing among friends and family that you trust, and it passes the Grandma test (my grandma would understand how it works).

Amazon has been forced to list the books to avert serious leakage from their platform. If Amazon had decided not to link and list the Potter ebooks via their site, then Pottermore would have sold them to Kindle customers anyway. And those Kindle customers, who may have never bought an ebook from outside Amazon before would all of a sudden know that it was possible and how to do it. And Amazon doesn’t want that.

This opens up a massive opportunity for publishers to use a brand like JK Rowling to get some more leverage with Amazon. The Pottermore purchasing system may not be the smoothest around, but it works and it’s certainly not beyond publishers or their intermediaries to set up something similar. Publishers have tried to do this before – but they haven’t done it with a brand like Harry Potter.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and Pottermore has demonstrated one way that publishers haven’t tried yet. Amazon’s chokehold on the distribution of digital books is not as watertight as it seemed just yesterday morning.

For its part, Momentum is making our very first debut author’s book available without DRM. The Chimera Vector is available for pre-order right now from your retailer of choice for the early bird price of $AU2.99. Go on, you know you want to.

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