Interview with Cory Doctorow, Part 2: Ebooks, DRM and Universal Formats

Cory DoctorowThanks to one of the many Meet the Media Guru events organized in Milan, Cory Doctorow was in Milan and I was lucky to get an interview one-on-one with him. Here’s part 2 of my interview with Cory Doctorow, where he talks about ebooks, DRM and universal formats. Here’s Part 1: Copyfight and Creative Commons. Part 3: The Future of Art in the Information Age. I’ll be posting the entire interview transcript and the audio file in a later post. You are welcome to re-post, share, remix this content with a link back to this article under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License. You may also be interested in the When I Have Time article series A Guide to Ebooks.

SARA: I know that you said that ‘ebooks are poor substitutes for print, which makes them great enticement for print (copies) – if you like the e version, go buy the book’ but what about someone like me, for example, I don’t go buy print books anymore, I only buy ebooks. What can someone like me do? Do you see a world where print no longer exists, where’s the new revenue model?

CORY DOCTOROW: Well, I don’t really see a world where print can no longer exist. I mean, there is a minority of people who do this (buy all electronic) but I don’t see it growing very quickly. The Kindle sold no one knows how many units, but at $350 a pop, and I don’t see them getting cheaper either because there’s just not a lot of mass appeal. Book reading is not a mass activity. No one’s going to expect them to sell as many Kindles as they sold Nintendo DS, for example.

I’m not that really worried about it. But if it emerges, we’ll have to think of something different. There’s this risk of waiting for the future, waiting for this crisis to occur before you act, doing nothing because you think this crisis might occur later, and then everything passes you by.

If print dies, we’re going to need a business model no matter what. And it’s not going to be based on preventing people from copying your work if they want to, because it’s not technically possible to really be able to do that. So I’m not exactly worried about it. It’s like ‘What are we going to do when the meteor hits?’ There’s a non-zero chance that the meteor’s going to hit and it would be pretty disastrous if it did.

SARA: I don’t really think it’s a crisis actually, I think it’s an opportunity because, for example, me living in another country I have access to so many more types of genres that I wouldn’t have access to if they weren’t electronic. So I think your point is make it electronic, make it available to someone who’s in Australia, or someone in Iceland…

CORY DOCTOROW: But expatriates are different, and expatriates are a very small market. The total expatriate book market commercially is very small, but getting you free electronic copies of my books probably sells more copies even if you read it electronically because you go out and tell 15 friends about it who aren’t necessarily expatriates because we have these digital networks now. So they can walk down to their local bookshop in New York or Stanford or wherever and pick up a copy. I mean again I think it’s a net positive for now. You know the world in which like print completely bleeds over to the Kindle, I don’t know…we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

SARA: Well you saw that this week has had some big improvements / changes on the ebook industry: The Kindle 2 was released and also they then released an app for the iPhone, and then yesterday Fictionwise was bought by Barnes & Noble. But we’re still in this format war. The difference between the mp3 war is that there was an mp3, a universal format.

What can individuals do or what can you do as an author to push toward some sort of universal format that can make it more appealing?

CORY DOCTOROW: Actually I think that the important thing isn’t a universal format, but the important thing is open formats, because books are open, right? I mean, you walk into a big, well-supplied bookstore and pick out from the smallest, most cheaply made book to the largest, most expensively made you will find an enormous diversity of printed material. Digitally representing that material faithfully is going to require more than one format. So, you open a web page in your browser, you probably open 25 different file formats and you don’t care if they are bitmaps, or pngs, bmps, jpgs, gifs or j32s or whatever because they are all open, right? And provided they are open, it’s not challenging for people to make devices or display technology to implement. These things if they are standardized, there’s been a records code that the standards body produced and you literally just paste it into your code base and away you go, you’ve got support.

And if you go to China, you actually see what this is going to look like because in China nobody cares if the formats are proprietary and if it’s technically against the law for them to include it. So people have video playback devices in China and it plays everything. If you buy an ebook reader in China, it plays everything. If you buy an mp3 player in China, it plays everything. And in fact most video players play all the ebooks and all the audio because, why not? It’s an extra 16 lines of code in a device that has gigabytes of memory.

So, how do we get to open standards is probably a better question and I think we need to focus on bringing these companies to account. So, I don’t think it’s good news that Kindle books are available on the iPhone, I think that’s pathological news. Why should we need a business arrangement so that you can play books that you bought and paid for on another device?

SARA: And it’s extremely US-centric.

CORY DOCTOROW: Right, I mean saying we can now read Kindle books on the iPhone should be as weird as saying that we can read Bantam books in easy chairs. Bantam shouldn’t have any say on what kind of chair you’re sitting on when you’re reading the book. Amazon shouldn’t have any say over which device you’re using when you’re reading the book. You’re buying the book, it should be yours.

SARA: Yes, it’s hard for those of us that want to [buy books]….there’s a lot of temptation because I have three different formats that I want to read and at any time and I think that it’s a big problem with the formatting.

CORY DOCTOROW: Right, and you point out something important which is that people who don’t want to pay, people who are pirates, don’t get bothered by the DRM, they go out and buy the cracked books or download the cracked books for free. It’s only people who are foolish enough to pay for them that get locked into these platforms.

SARA: Right and if you’re an avid reader it’s hard to resist that.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of the interview tomorrow…

Photo by meetthemediaguru

Categories: Ebooks, Tech Talk & Reviews

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