One of the issues in trying to have discussions about the emerging retail e-book market is that many people have difficulty understanding what the word emerging actually means. We are so used to viewing technology as rapid that when versions of tech and products impinge on our consciousness, many people expect everything to be fully in place, fully available, fully operational, etc., as if all it took is the wave of a magic wand as soon as we realize we want something. In reality, technology percolates for years, being refined in research labs, academia and through governments into a more and more workable product for the general public while infrastructure and personnel begin to be built slowly and sporadically. Start-ups explore possible options of a market for the tech. Tech people and wealthy, tech savvy early adopters buy crude and expensive versions of proposed products. Then a major retailer undertakes to break the market out in a large way in general retail and enlists major suppliers to help. If it’s successful, then the rest scramble to catch up, with infrastructure being thrown up like a hastily erected fort, new companies coming into being, frantic contract and international trade negotiations, and new applications hastily devised.
E-books went through this exact same process. E-books (electronic text,) and various concepts of portable devices for reading them have been around for thirty years, used widely by academia and the education market, the subject of countless experiments and small operations. Then Amazon, the major retailer, decided that it would open up the market and try to dominate it for as long as possible by creating the Kindle, a workable e-reader that would have Amazon’s full infrastructure and tech support behind it. Book publishers, having been burned for millions in the first go-round of e-books back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, were faced with a problem — they didn’t have the tech personnel, infrastructure, ability to digitize and knowledge of the consumer electronics market to throw themselves into the market willy nilly. So they went with what Amazon wanted, which was a DRM which locked customers into the Kindle platform, and which would be different for each major vendor, out of fears of piracy, lack of technical control with vendors and many other factors.
All the way back to 2008, I was pointing out that DRM was temporary, an unwieldy stop gap measure done out of caution and immediate demand that would be removed once the emerging market was on its feet and had enough vendors come out to play. It soon became clear that ePub, the open source electronic format that was heir to past platforms, was going to be the likely most workable general and transferable format selected and become the standard, which would certainly be easier for publishers as they dealt with a growing pool of customers with different sorts of devices and a much needed increase in the number of retail vendors. Once Apple, Barnes & Noble and Indigo came in enough to puncture Amazon’s monopoly, and it became clear that the main market for e-books would soon become not e-readers but all sorts of computers, including smartphones, publishers would have enough leverage and enough of a retail market to go forward without DRM. This didn’t set well with many people, however, who screamed that if DRM wasn’t removed right this minute from every e-book format, the publishers would find that they had no customers. Point out that the e-book market was growing at 200% with DRM, so that was sort of a worthless threat, and you’d get a fusilage of unrealistic views on e-book production, contract negotiations, and how e-book piracy meant nothing and would kill us all at the same time.
Back in 2009-2010, I said give it five years and the e-book market will be fully established and by that time I expected DRM to be largely gone. And so it seems to be coming to pass — Macmillan, who has been in the forefront of the large publishers dealing with the emerging market, is now putting out large chunks of their list without DRM, including the Tor/Forge list, and the other publishers are quickly following suit or likely to be. What’s also remarkable is that they’ve gotten Amazon willing to go along with this idea, but this is presumably because Amazon has seen the writing on the wall and knows that being able to sell e-books and print content to people with other devices than a Kindle and multi-device needs has become the far bigger market than the Kindle that launched it all. Now that e-books is a big emerging global market, the training wheels are coming off, though I’m sure retailers like Amazon will still find uses for DRM in some areas.
Does this mean that you can have a sane conversation about the e-book market now? Probably not for a few more years yet. But it does mean that the emerging market is transitioning towards established market pretty much right on schedule. SF author Charles Stross has done several blog posts on this and related topics recently that are cogent and informative, including the issues of Internet revenue, Amazon’s spiderweb strategy with e-books, and feedback that he gave when requested to Macmillan about their DRM removal plans. Worth checking out, especially this one. (Yes, I’ve fixed my linking problem.) You can find Macmillan/Tor’s announcement here at Tor.com.