The curious case of Canadian publishers and the fear of e-books

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I recently attended the BookNet Canada Technology Summit. BookNet is a non-profit organization that helps Canada's book publishers think through and use emerging technology. Many of them could use the help. Book publishing in Canada has always been a bit of a mug's game of small margins, big bets, scrawny long tails and bullying big box bookstores. Like the music business, it depends on often tawdry bestsellers to prop up the little gems agents and the employees of small presses fall in love with. It is a risky game of compromise, hope -- and fear.

Fear that U.S. publishers will ship directly into Canada and erode Canadian publisher' purpose or revenue stream. Fear that a financially-frightened federal government will choke off the IV drip funding the industry depends on. And fear of e-books.

This will be the year of the e-book, in a variety of forms. E-books are, by the way, electronic books -- devices that display text and make it possible to read on a screen rather than on a pulp page. The most famous right now is the Kindle 2 from Amazon. But Sony and other manufacturers have been making them for years, and selling them to nerdish early adopters who put up with dull screens, horrid interfaces and kludgy ways to stuff the silicon and plastic slabs full of creative writing.

E-readers these days are more elegant devices with quite lovely screens, easy book purchasing (via wireless in the case of the U.S.-only Kindle) and a geek-chic cache that is spreading rapidly. And, companies like Indigo, Lexcycle and others have developed software that turn Blackberries, iPhones and other mobile devices into very practical e-books as well.

I read Stanza books on my iPhone often and Indigo's Shortcovers application and webstore brings popular titles to handhelds anywhere, anytime. Shortcovers even allows would-be-published authors to upload their own original content to the site and take a run at becoming a famous Canadian writer.

So, you would think a precarious industry would be all over e-books and their promise. And, the sense I got from the conference was that publishers are excited, but in the way you might be going on a date with a handsome biker, the scent of danger hovering near the ceiling like stale cigar smoke.

Here's the problem. Getting authors' books into e-book form means convincing authors that you should have the electronic rights to those books. Publishers have been sadly slow to do that. And, many authors aren't willing to give them up (or even let the Kindle's tinny computer voice read their work out loud). The American Authors Guild is foolishly fighting that like millworkers with clubs and pitchforks. There are exceptions, the brilliant Canadian author Cory Doctorow, for example is the anti-DRM posterboy and author Terry Fallis podcasts his own novel. They're outliers.

And, the general retrograde resistance means publishers must assure frightened old school authors that it's okay to put their work on the "Internet" -- that dark lair of pirates, scofflaws and bittorrenting fiends.

In order to placate authors, publishers lie to them and tell them that DRM (Digital Rights Management) or software locks, will keep their works safe and secure. Lie to them or, perhaps, just lack the knowledge to inoculate them against nonsense.

The notion that DRM is the Fort Knox of the book world is both patently untrue and beside the point. Anyone who wants to badly enough, can already pirate and bittorrent books even if they haven't been put on the Web. You can ask Stephanie Meyer about that. She had the first 12 chapters of a draft of her book Midnight Sun pirated even though it was not in online form (and threw a bit of a hissy fit about it, btw).

But, the fear of piracy eroding actual sales appears, from early data presented at the conference by Brian O'Leary of Magellan Consulting Partners, to be greatly exaggerated. Most folks, given easy, unencumbered ways of buying content, will do just that. Look at the now non-DRM iTunes Music Store for evidence.

But, once again, like the music publishers, book folks are, out of fear and ignorance, misleading authors and denying readers free and clear access to the goods they've purchased -- for no good reason. DRM might make publishers comfortable with the swirling vortex of book formats and the deep, black sea of the Web, but it's a cold, short-lived comfort.

The endgame? Tech-savvy authors will just end run the publishers and use social media to share their unencumbered work with their own networks of potential buyers. Indigo will go from being the object of love/hate to being a publisher in its own right. Meanwhile, Amazon will expand the reach of the Kindle beyond the borders of the U.S. and sell e-books directly to Canadians. Those will be sales Canadian publishers will get no credit for, or revenue from.

One rights agent I spoke with at the conference blamed the DRM situation on authors agents who demand it. Others blamed the authors themselves. Writers blame publishers. And so on. So, ironically, as e-books finally begin to gain mainstream traction, the industry that could most benefit has become the author, of its own misfortune.

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