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March 30 2012

Publishing News: There's no such thing as degrees of DRM

Here's what caught my eye in publishing news this week.

Social DRM is as bad an idea as traditional DRM

HarryPotter.pngThe most talked-about news this week was the release of the Harry Potter ebooks. The release was interesting on a couple of fronts. First, Amazon and B&N were strong-armed into allowing a portal to a third-party sale on an outside website — and into allowing a third-party download onto their proprietary devices. As a post at The Bookseller notes, "It is believed to be the first time Amazon and Barnes & Noble have allowed an e-book sold on a third-party retail site to be downloaded onto a Kindle or Nook device."

Second, the Potter books are being sold DRM free. Well, that's not entirely accurate — Laura Hazard Owen describes the copyright situation:

"Is there DRM? No, the e-books do not have DRM. Instead, they're watermarked (or, as Pottermore kindly describes it, 'personalized'): 'The Pottermore Shop personalises eBooks with a combination of watermarking techniques that relate to the book, to the purchaser and the purchase time. This allows us to track and respond to possible copyright misuse.'

I reached out to O'Reilly GM and publisher Joe Wikert, who recently called for an end to DRM, to get his thoughts. He says the Harry Potter watermark move is like being "sort of pregnant":

"My first thought is that this form of social DRM provides a similar false sense of security as traditional DRM. Anyone who wants to put this content on the torrent sites is just going to strip the watermarking out, the same as they'd do with the regular DRM. And I find it ironic that so many publishers say they're not concerned about torrents as much as they're trying to prevent customers from sharing the books with friends. Well, watermarking is going to make that much easier (than regular DRM), and I doubt many customers will feel guilty about doing it. They'll probably simply tell their friend, 'it's OK for you to read this too, but please don't pass it along to anyone else since it has my name embedded in it,' for example.

As far as I'm concerned, there aren't degrees of DRM. You either have it or you don't. It's just like being pregnant. You're not 'sort of pregnant.' And social DRM is as bad an idea as traditional DRM. I'd like to think that this Harry Potter situation will cause other publishers to feel they can ease up on their need for DRM, but I'm not sure that will happen."

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has a nice post on some of the major takeaways from Rowling's diversion from the traditional path, which also includes the agreement with libraries: "... the Potter books can be loaned an unlimited number of times, and the lending license lasts for five years."

Survey says ...

PaywallArt.pngGoogle rolled out a new product this week aimed at helping struggling digital publishers with their revenue streams. A post at Adweek says the new Google Customer Surveys "is being billed as an alternative revenue model for publishers weighing whether to erect paywalls on their sites." The post explains how the surveys work:

"When users visit the Web sites of partners like the New York Daily News and the Texas Tribune, they'll find some articles partially blocked. If they want to continuing reading, they'll have to answer a question, or microsurvey, courtesy of Google.

The multiple-choice questions will be on market research, along the lines of 'Which of these types of candies do you usually buy for your household?' The choices for that question include 'None, Hard candies, Jellies, Licorice, Toffees.' Another question: 'Have you had personal experience with filing lawsuits? Please check all that apply.' ... Advertisers pay Google to run the surveys, and Google pays sites 5 cents per response."

In a post at PaidContent,Laura Hazard Owen explains the advertiser side of the survey:

"The customers create surveys and select the audience who will see the questions. Questions seen by a broad audience representing the general U.S. population are $0.10 per response (with a minimum total cost of $100). If companies want to drill down by demographic or select a custom audience with a screening question, the cost is $0.50 per response."

Owen also highlights a potential issue (and the reason both of us couldn't get a survey to pop up at partner site Lima News): The surveys can be blocked by AdBlock and by pop-up blocking options in browsers.

Personally, I'm willing to pay to avoid my content being interrupted, whether that content is news, books, movies, etc., but as Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com, points out in a post at Wired: "Old models may be broken and the industry's initial approach to the web may have misfired, but where there's demand, there's a business. News publishers should have faith that they still perform a valuable service and go out looking for the right model to support it."

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The nature of virtual goods, TBD

Tim Carmody took an in-depth look at the U.S. Department of Justice's investigation into agency pricing this week. He argues that the investigation goes much deeper than issues of price fixing:

"... the DoJ's investigation and a related civil lawsuit touch on issues bigger than rising e-book prices or even collusion between publishers. The cases are also about who has the right to sue e-book publishers, the nature of publishers' bilateral interactions with Apple and other retailers, and whether it's even possible for a true agency model to exist for virtual goods like e-books."

That last point regarding virtual goods is particularly interesting — it looks like the courts will be facing a landmark decision regarding the nature of virtual commodities. Carmody explains:

"There are two legal models that could apply to the publishers' sale of e-books. One is agency; the other is retail price maintenance. In a genuine agency model, the agent doesn't own or bear legal responsibility for the stock; the seller does. Price maintenance simply allows the original seller to set a floor for final customer prices that retailers have to observe as part of their agreement.

According to [Donald Knebel, an IP and antitrust attorney affiliated with the Center for Intellectual Property Research], the usual legal tests for whether a retailer is acting as a publishers' agent hinge on issues of liability that don't apply to virtual goods. There is no physical possession of the stock, there are no storefronts catching fire. Knebel says this issue has never been adequately determined in court, even with software in a virtual app store, let alone e-books in a virtual bookstore.

Carmody's piece is a must-read for this week.

Photo: Beyond the wall by Giuseppe Bognanni, on Flickr

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March 14 2012

The state of ebook pricing

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog ("iBooks Author: Appreciating Apple's Intent"). It's republished with permission.

With all the buzz about the agency model, the Justice Department, allegations of collusion, etc., I figure the time is right for a post about ebook pricing. Here are some quick thoughts as both a consumer and a publisher:

Eliminating waste is always a good thing — Walmart has mastered this for years. They squeeze every bit of waste out of the supply chain and generally end up with the lowest prices. I'm a frequent Walmart customer, and I greatly appreciate this. In fact, the only people who don't like this are (a) other retailers who can't match those prices and (b) ecosystem players who are part of the waste that's being eliminated, including suppliers.

Loss leaders are a great retail model — Selling some products at or below cost is a great way to bring customers in the door, regardless of whether that door is physical or virtual. I'm sure I've bought many cartons of milk at a loss for the retailer who made it up by selling me other items at a nice profit. It's a model that works, but have you ever seen a store that sells most of their products at a loss, every day?

Taking loss leadership to a new level — Remember when Amazon first launched the Kindle and pretty much every ebook was $9.99? It's no secret that Amazon was losing money on the majority of those sales. In fact, they still are. Prior to the agency model, Amazon was free to set whatever customer price they wanted for ebooks, even if it meant they were selling every single one of them at a loss. That brings up the razor/blades model, where it's not unusual for the razor to be sold at a loss, but the profit is made on the sale of the blades. So, if ebooks are the razors, what are the blades? The ereader device? According to iSuppli, the Kindle Fire's manufacturing cost is slightly higher than its retail price. How long can a retailer stay in business when they're losing money on both the razors and the blades? Presumably, they're making some money on other products they're selling (e.g., shoes, electronics, etc.). Perhaps. Then again, if they have deep enough pockets they can continue selling all their products at a loss until the cash dries up. In the meantime, competitors will find it difficult, if not impossible, to compete, so they'll disappear. What happens after that? Do prices remain low as products are still sold at a loss? Not if that company wants to stay in business.

The agency model prevents brand erosion — Think of the premium products you've bought or admired. Oftentimes, their prices are higher than most of the competition's. What would happen if those prices were suddenly significantly reduced? Would those products retain the full value of their premium brand? Highly unlikely. And shouldn't the owner of that brand have a say in what price is associated with it? Again, it's OK for a short-term loss-leader model, but I'm talking about selling something at or below cost for years and years, not just for a day or two. Over time, the value of that brand is affected. That's why I think publishers should definitely have the option to go with the agency model so they can manage retail prices and not let their brand lose value. By the way, consumers will ultimately vote with their wallets. If they feel the publisher's prices are too high, they'll stop buying and that publisher will either need to make adjustments or go out of business.

Fixed prices vs. price-fixing — In the U.S., we're so used to competitive retailer discounts that we're surprised to hear of the fixed price models used in other countries. For example, in Germany the price you pay for a book doesn't change from one retailer to the next. They're all required to sell them at the same price. Obviously, there's a huge difference between Germany's fixed price law and the price fixing the Justice Department is alleging. Germany's model doesn't lend itself to squeezing out waste like the U.S. model, but I'll bet it prevents one deep-pocketed retailer from putting its competitors out of business.

I don't work at a big six publisher, but I believe publishers should have the option to choose between the agency and wholesale models. The key issue though is that the Justice Department has suggested that Apple and a number of publishers colluded to keep prices high. I think this article by Gordon Crovitz in The Wall Street Journal sums it up quite nicely, particularly in the closing two paragraphs. Read that piece and ask yourself if the Justice Department's efforts will actually fix or merely add to an existing problem.

What's your opinion of the pricing questions and allegations currently facing the book publishing industry?

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December 09 2011

Publishing News: Agency pricing, out of the pan and into the fire

Here's a look at the publishing stories that caught my attention this week.

Antitrust investigations focus on Apple and publishers

ibooks2.jpgOn Tuesday, the European Commission opened an antitrust investigation into pricing deals struck between Apple and five international publishers: Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Holtzbrinck (the publishing houses were raided back in March). The Bookseller reports:

The Commission said it would investigate whether publishers and Apple had engaged in illegal agreements or practices that would restrict competition, and would also examine "the character and terms of the agency agreements entered into by the above named five publishers and retailers for the sale of e-books," with "concerns that these practices may breach EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and restrictive business practices."

On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department confirmed it, too, was investigating.

Reuters provided the background for these investigations:

Publishers adopted the agency model last year when Apple launched the iPad, allowing publishers to set the price of the sale of e-books. In turn, they would share revenue with the retailer. In the past, publishers would sell ebooks on a wholesale model for 50% of the retail price ... In the traditional "wholesale model," publishers set a recommended retail price, but the seller is free to offer deep discounts.

Bloomberg reports that "Publishers' deals with retailers are also under scrutiny."

Publishers need to get a grip on their data and take control of their advertising

Google_logoDavid Soloff at Advertising Age took a look this week at declining advertising revenues for newspapers and magazines and placed the blame squarely on the publishers. Soloff writes:

Publishers have not generated much of the almost infinite supply of channel-choking inventory, but they have also done next to nothing to preserve what is good and proprietary and "premium" about their own inventory. In some cases, they have chosen lowest common denominator ad networks, exchanges and supply side platforms to do the hard work of selling.

He says publishers need to regain control of their advertising inventories and that "big data tools can dig them out of the undifferentiated, over-supplied, machine-driven nightmare of the sell side." His take on how to put the "premium" back in premium content is well worth the read.

Publishers may want to get a grip on their data and take control of their advertising sooner rather than later. Google's retail push against Amazon may very well have consequences for online ad revenues, particularly in the retail space. Ken Doctor over at the Nieman Lab took a look at Google's plans to enter the retail/ shipping business and its possible implications. He points out that "[r]etailers don't want to advertise; they want to sell stuff," and he says there's no loyalty in advertising:

Give [retailers] new routes to sell stuff, and deliver it more cheaply than they could before, and they'll migrate their ad/marketing/lead generation dollars. So, if Google can really make it easier to personalize, routinize and make more efficient the selling process, it will place itself between the seller and the buyer. As it does that, it replaces the newspaper as middleman, further reducing much of the revenue that is keeping newsrooms staffed, even if many of them are now half-staffed at best.

Read it Later identifies the most-read authors on the web

Read it Later recently passed 4 million users. Earlier this year, the service used data gathered from its users to look at online reading behavior and how it's affected by the "time shifting" content afforded by mobile technologies. This week, the company released a new study identifying the most-read authors on the web. The study looked at data gathered between May and October 2011, which was based on 47 million-plus saves, according to the report.

Who came out on top? Have a look:

Read It Later's most-read web authors

The study also looked at longevity and loyalty — the authors with the best return rates, or those with stories readers returned to in some way. The report points out that "[t]he most interesting thing isn't just that we found different authors for the top 'return rate,' but also different categories of content and types of publishers."

Author return rate

The full report can be found here.

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