‘A staggeringly high level of quality content’: e-books, DRM and the pitfalls of conventional wisdom
I recently talked with editor and publisher Zoe Dattner, who has worked in the publishing industry for more than 10 years. She began her career in the marketing department at Macmillan before quitting in 2003 to co-found small publishing company Sleepers, one of the initiating presses that established SPUNC (The Small Press Network) back in 2006. Dattner is now the general manager of SPUNC and is passionate about the past, present and future of publishing.
I wanted to ask her about e-books and digital publishing trends. While there has been much industry discussion on e-books, few all-encompassing answers have surfaced so far. It seems we’re instead presented with a series of thoughts and reflections that align, diverge or sometimes contradict each other.
How helpful is the term ‘e-book’ when describing the various styles, formats and technologies that fall under its definition? As a reader, what does and should such a term define?
For me, an e-book is really just an electronic version of a book, and is as distinct from a book as a journal is from a magazine is from an almanac is from a catalogue. Certainly a book can have many things in it, like illustrations and graphs and bibliographies and lists and photographs – but it is contained within a context particular to that book (as opposed to the aforementioned publications). An e-version of [a book] will always be similar, but those extra-textual elements (the illustrations and lists, for example) will have the full spectrum of options, depending on whatever version of HTML we’re up to; this may mean audio and visual stuff, not to mention holographic projections, etc.
If someone were to say they were reading a book, as a reader you might say, ‘What kind of book is it?’ What you mean in that case is, ‘What’s the book about? What’s in it? How can I understand that book as a whole?’
We don’t do that with magazines and websites; we ask about the articles and the individual components to the publication. Having said that, we are now producing ‘e-books’ for print publications such as Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks and Island, so my argument may already be weak … I reserve the right to change my mind on this particular topic.
As general manager of SPUNC, you’ve been part of two initiatives aimed at enabling consumer e-book sales in Australia. The first was the partnership with Booki.sh and Readings. The second is SPUNC’s recent distribution agreement with InfoGrid Pacific. Could you talk a bit about both of those projects, and how they aim to shape the reading/purchasing experience for Australian consumers?
SPUNC was established when a bunch of small publishers got together to address common problems particular to small publishers. The biggest and most common of these was distribution. To cut a medium-sized story short, when digital publishing practices started becoming more broadly adopted, it was evident that the best solution to ineffectual distribution lay in the digital marketing, production and distribution of books.
Partnering with Booki.sh and Readings in 2010 was a no-brainer. It made sense for an organisation representing independent publishers to make its first foray into e-book retailing with Readings, who are frequently the biggest sales force (in terms of value and units) for a number of small publishers. Booki.sh (developed by Inventive Labs) had the technology, and it was an excellent opportunity for all three parties to cut their teeth in the world of e-books. When that first Booki.sh store launched, some readers bought and read their very first e-books, so it provided an excellent entry point for readers, too. There ain’t none of us what don’t have training wheels on at the moment.
Phase two was launching a service that could distribute small publishers’ books to any device anywhere in the world. That’s where we are right now. Up until fairly recently Australian e-book readers had a limited list to choose from in terms of local content (and for reasons known only by larger international e-book vendors, we’ve still got a way to go; many books are still not available). We are now getting somewhere, with most Australian medium-large sized publishers available on most platforms. SPUNC is fighting to ensure that all locally published content will be available to e-book readers in Australia. Small publishers have been producing a staggeringly high level of quality content for many years. Digital distribution will reveal this to more readers than ever before.
Did you face any setbacks or challenges during these two projects? Are these a problem of design or a given when dealing with multiple publishers, distributors and e-book platforms?
I don’t know what you’re talking about. There are no problems with digital publishing. I love metadata, I have dreams about it at night; the way all the little columns sparkle with beautifully entered data; the way xlsx files open on a Mac when they originated from a PC. Oh, and contracts! Don’t get me started. I think contractual agreements between perfectly civilised people truly bring out the very best in them. Nothing says ‘I am a thoroughly decent humanist who loves laughing and wine and stories and poached eggs on toasted sourdough’ better than a clause outlining the seven different ways I’m allowed to sue you if you don’t do exactly as I’ve outlined in clauses 4.3, 4.6 and 5.2.
Will these challenges flow through to consumers, for example in the form of accessibility issues or issues about the proliferation of devices without standard distribution techniques?
Here’s what I think. Outside of the books and publishing industry, consumers, by and large, don’t care about this stuff. They’re in a state of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ (which is the state that we, the industry, were also in until recently). I don’t think many readers are aware of accessibility issues and devices and formats and multiple distribution channels. They are either still buying print books, or they have a Kindle, and believe that that’s what an e-book is (if you know someone who own a Kindle, please inform them that they’re mistaken on this particular point). It is my feeling (however naïve it may be), that we’re all getting better at this at around the same pace as consumers are becoming interested in alternative methods of reading. For as long as readers are going to invoke the smell of books, we should be allowed the concession of not necessarily having it right just yet.
How viable is it for publishers and distributors to disband Digital Rights Management (DRM) and instead provide the best possible user experience at a reasonable cost?
The best possible method of DRM is for publishers to offer their books broadly and at a fair price. I’m not a big publisher (and they’re the ones most concerned about DRM and piracy), so I can’t speak for their viability concerns. Smaller publishers never had the massive sales in the first place, and thus it is far more likely that they will be able to sell more books, not less, if DRM practices (such as they currently exist) become the exception rather than the norm.
As a reader, what would be the key experiential elements you’d require before making a shift to predominantly digital reading experiences? And how can print books capitalise on the difference between print and digital technologies?
I read e-books because I love the immediacy of delivery. I love being able to read about a book, buy it, and then start reading it. That’s what reading should be like, for me. I don’t like buying physical books online; for that pursuit I prefer a bookstore. But I live in a semi-rural town, and that’s not always convenient. How can print books capitalise on the difference? Only insofar as e-book reading will increase both the number of readers in the world and the volume of content we consume – if you publish or sell print books, then there will always be a market in which you can operate.
I was thinking the other day about something curious that occurred in retail in the late 1990s and has continued up until this day – a proliferation of boutique, high-end stationery stores. There are hundreds of them! We can’t get enough of the stuff. Who’d have thought we’d be happy spending $130 on a paper notebook? And that’s on top of the iPad we’ve just ordered …
Australia hosts some of the better forums discussing digitisation and issues relating to e-books in if:book Australia (see, for example, Emily Craven’s exploration of book tie-ins), Meanland: Publishing in an age of change (see Ali Alizadeh’s piece on e-reading desire) and Verity La’s ‘Vox’ series.
Do you read e-books? What have your experiences been?