Is a golden age of reading is gradually, suddenly, almost here?

A must-read piece from Cory Doc­torow for those inter­est­ed in the changes in pub­lish­ing, Why the death of DRM would be good news for read­ers, writ­ers and pub­lish­ers.  He’s pre­dict­ing the end of DRM (dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment) and look­ing for­ward to a day when for­mats and read­ers are interchangable:

The cheap-and-cheerful man­u­fac­tur­ers at the low end don’t have a sec­ondary mar­ket they’re try­ing to pro­tect, no app store or cru­cial ven­dor rela­tion­ship with a big dis­trib­u­tor or pub­lish­er. They just want a prod­uct that ticks the box for every pos­si­ble cus­tomer. Since mul­ti­for­mat sup­port is just a mat­ter of get­ting the soft­ware right, what tends to hap­pen is that a stan­dard, com­mod­i­ty firmware emerges for these devices that just works for just about every­thing, and the for­mats van­ish into the background.

Many read­ers and pub­lish­ers have been upset at the recent Depart­ment of Jus­tice accu­sa­tions of price-fixing by major pub­lish­ers. The real bad guy, we’re remind­ed over and over, is Ama­zon. The pub­lish­ers are so scared of Ama­zon that they devel­oped a pric­ing scheme (the “agency mod­el”) that often nets them less mon­ey than they get from Ama­zon. But for all it’s mar­ket share, most of Amazon’s advan­tages come from smart sales­man­ship and a big-picture view that helps it devel­op an ecosys­tem that “locks in” cus­tomers (e.g., I use Ama­zon video on demand to watch TV, which means I get free ship­ping when I pur­chase from them, I get to “bor­row” an elec­tron­ic book a month, etc., which means when I want­ed to buy an e-reader, it was real­ly only a mat­ter of which mod­el of Kin­dle I would choose). As Doc­torow points out, the most ubiqutious e-reader is the cell­phone and most of us get a new one every two years – Amazon’s dom­i­nance could end rel­a­tive­ly quick­ly with the right com­pe­ti­tion. Get­ting rid of DRM con­tent lev­els the play­ing field.

I’m not sure I’m as opti­mistic as Doc­torow that DRM is about to sim­ply dis­ap­pear. But I agree it’s what needs to hap­pen. It would make Ama­zon just anoth­er sell­er. Pub­lish­ers could stop focus­ing on it and start tak­ing tak­ing more respons­bil­i­ty for shap­ing the future of pub­lish­ing. (Where might that be going? Five Rea­sons The Future Will Be Ruled By B.S. is a high­ly enter­tain­ing read and more cor­rect than incor­rect.) But gloom is not the fore­cast. A recent arti­cle in The Atlantic (chart right) per­sua­sive­ly argues that we are in a Gold­en Age of read­er­ship:

Our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of past is astound­ing­ly inac­cu­rate. Not only has the num­ber of peo­ple read­ing not declined pre­cip­i­tous­ly, it’s actu­al­ly gone up since the per­ceived gold­en age of Amer­i­can let­ters. So, then why is there this wide­spread per­cep­tion that we are a fall­en lit­er­ary peo­ple? I think, as Mar­shall Kirk­patrick says, that social media acts as a kind of truth serum. Before, only the lit­er­ary peo­ple had plat­forms. Now, all the peo­ple have platforms.

The oth­er thread that’s been run­ning through my head these past few weeks is a G+ post from Tim O’Reilly that pulls a quote from ter­rif­ic quote from Hem­ing­way (“How did you go bank­rupt?” “Two ways. Grad­u­al­ly, then suddenly.”):

I love lines from lit­er­a­ture that crys­tal­lize a notion, and then become tools in your men­tal tool­box. This is one of those. Keep it handy, because you’re going to see “grad­u­al­ly, then sud­den­ly” process­es hap­pen increas­ing­ly in the next few decades, not just in tech­nol­o­gy and in indus­tries trans­formed by tech­nol­o­gy, but in glob­al issues like cli­mate change, and in politics.

  • I think DRM is the last obsta­cle stop­ping trade paper­backs from being more or less replaced by ebooks. I’ve bought a few hun­dred ebooks over the past cou­ple of years, and I’d feel much hap­pi­er buy­ing more if I knew they were in an ‘open’ for­mat. We should get to a stage where the tech­nol­o­gy involved is invis­i­ble. Ama­zon are doing well at that in some regards: easy wire­less pur­chas­ing, read­ing across mul­ti­ple devices. So DRM should be his­to­ry. The tricky part is find­ing a way to keep mon­ey going to pub­lish­ers, edi­tors and writ­ers. Because good con­tent isn’t free! One idea might be some­thing like the Spo­ti­fy sub­scrip­tion: pay a pre­mi­um rate to have unlim­it­ed ad-free books. Pay less (or noth­ing) and skip some adver­tis­ing now and then. This could also apply to ‘lend­ing’ ebooks: some­one who had paid their sub could get the book you lend for free, while some­one with­out it might have to tol­er­ate some advertising.

    Anoth­er angle to it all is how to socialise e-reading prop­er­ly. By lack­ing dust jack­ets, ebooks have lost some conversation-starting capac­i­ty. But there are some good, if prim­i­tive highlight-sharing plat­forms out there. If these were ful­ly open, and (heav­en for­fend) canon­i­cal in the way they ref­er­enced, we’d be using ebooks in a gen­uine­ly game-changing way.
    PS I also blogged about this a wee while ago: http://​john​fitzger​ald​.me​.uk/​2​0​0​9​/​1​2​/​2​3​/​w​h​y​-​b​a​d​-​d​r​m​-​s​t​a​n​d​s​-​i​n​-​t​h​e​-​w​a​y​-​o​f​-​a​-​g​o​o​d​-​f​u​t​u​r​e​-​f​o​r​-​e​b​o​o​ks/