Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Emily White, Music Piracy, and Bookstores: Some Thoughts

Two nights ago, I spent the evening at the Scarborough Town Centre with my fiancé. As we walked back from the movie theatre after buying our tickets for Brave, I noticed for the first time that the HMV store had closed. Dark shutters were drawn over the windows and the door was locked. I was sad at first, but when we walked further into the mall we noticed that the HMV sign was visible on a new storefront.

As we got closer and closer to the new store, I grew worried. The HMV had taken over the location of Cole’s, the mall’s sole dedicated bookstore. As we walked inside, the smell of fresh paint was inescapable. The carpets were spotless. The place was brand sparkling new – so new, in fact, that there were still people on ladders in the middle of the store dealing with wiring in the ceiling. When I asked an employee when the new location opened, their answer was startling: only a few hours ago.

The old HMV store had a huge entrance with large display windows, and was nestled between the food court, the Old Navy store, and the theatre. In other words, it was large, visible, and in a prime retail location on the main floor. Now, the new location is on the lower floor far away from the main entrance. A store with a smaller square footage in a less visible location means lower rent. With this in mind, isn’t it telling that one chain store having to come to grips with the digitization of entertainment was ousted by another chain store dealing with the same issues – and the store that lost out wasn’t the one that sells music, but books?

Standing in the HMV and realizing the comment it made about the viability of being a bookseller placed some other things in a weird context. At once, I thought of the rumours about the closure of the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto (the store’s parent company, Indigo, also owns Cole’s). However, I also thought of the online discussion that erupted in the wake of NPR intern Emily White’s admission that she’s engaged in extensive music piracy, particularly David Lowery’s measured response.

The concerns about how piracy affects the music industry are similar to those from the publishing industry. Should readers and listeners just expect free online access to something that cost money to produce? I admit that I’ve downloaded my fair share of pirated music, but for at least a year, I’ve bought almost all my music through venues like iTunes or Zunior. I’m also proud to say that every single eBook I have was obtained through legitimate means, whether that meant a purchase from an online eBook distributor like Kobo or Smashwords, or a purchase directly from a publisher, or a visit to Project Gutenberg.

Emily White’s admission of how little she’s paid for her music collection should paint a troubling picture for the publishing industry. How many eBook readers could make the same claim as hers, that their libraries consist almost solely of pirated material? And how many of them would be willing to pay the authors who worked so hard to get their books made in the first case? I bet the number of people in the former situation will vastly outnumber those in the latter.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the closure of the Cole’s store was that I didn’t even notice until after it was gone. The customer service desk at the mall said that the store closed down on April 7th – over 2 1/2 months ago – and that it was unknown if a new branch of Cole’s would be built. For 2 1/2 months, I didn’t notice. And if even dedicated book buyers like me don’t notice the disintegration of Canada’s largest bookstore chain, will our crows eventually come home to roost? Will we be just like the village described in David Lowery’s article, where we’ve been sold on the idea of “free content” without realizing how thoroughly the costs of the system we’re using have been externalized, and how our actions benefit those who control technology, instead of those who create art?

Attending the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Ottawa

It appears that when I watch a movie three times in the theatre, it causes me to drop off the face of the earth for nearly a month. But don’t worry – I have been productive during my absence.

A week ago I attended the annual conference for the Editors’ Association of Canada. The last time I went was two years ago in 2010, when it was hosted in Montreal. This year, it was in Ottawa.

My reaction to it this year was similar to when I was in Montreal: the conference was exciting and informative, but also overwhelming. There were so many sessions to attend, people to talk to, and things to write down that I’m surprised my hand didn’t cramp up from all the note-taking and live-tweeting I did. These were the sessions I attended this year, in order:

Day 1 – June 2nd, 2012

Adult Literacy: Why it Should Mattter to You (presented by Mary Wiggin)
This seminar focused on what we mean when we talk about literacy, and the challenges that adults with literacy problems face. Much of the advice in the final portion of the seminar about editing text to address literacy problems – using short sentences, removing jargon, using the active voice, and so forth – was already familiar to me. More interesting was the discussion of the various types of literacy that exist, the various definitions of literacy, and the statistics regarding functional literacy in Canada.

Editing eBooks (presented by Greg Ioannou)
This seminar focused on the basics of eBooks – their history, the different types of formats they come in, and so forth – and how a publisher produces an eBook. I hoped it would guide us step-by-step through the process of creating an eBook. Instead, there were some general tips about how to properly format things like punctuation (open em-dashes!) and columns (don’t even try!). This was still useful, but I was really looking forward to a hands-on demonstration.

Creating a Professional Development Revenue Stream (presented by Emily Dockrill Jones)
This seminar attracted a very large audience. However, the title didn’t match up completely with the subject matter. I thought that it would talk about how to build a business through providing professional development services to others. Instead, it focused on how to be a good, engaging presenter when running a PD program. Despite the mismatch between title and content, the information within was useful and applicable to many fields.

Day 2 – June 3rd, 2012

The Great Text-Talk Debate (with Ian Capstick and James Harbeck)
Ian Capstick argued in favour of text-talk, and James Harbeck argued against it. Unsurprisingly, most of the audience took the “anti-text” side at the start of the debate, but Ian’s points were so persuasive that by the end, the room had almost completely flipped its stance on the topic.

What convinced me was Ian’s argument that text-talk is just the latest solution to limitations built into our methods of communication. For example, when printed books were introduced in Europe, the binding technology was so poor that most books had spines so thin that the only way to accommodate the text was to use an extremely small font. This made me think of all the time I spent in WoW raiding Kara with my guild, speed-running noobs through Zul-Farrak, and rezzing priests with my Goblin Jumper Cables.

In other words, I remembered the years I spent playing a game with slang (text-talk) designed to convey a lot of information (communication) quickly (limitation). Ian Capstick won me over because 3.5 years later, I still can’t stop thinking about World of Warcrack.

Technical Writing and Editing for Usability (presented by Kerry Surman)
“Usability” is a topic I’ve researched at my day job. Much of the information in this seminar was already familiar to me, like the importance of using white space, bullet lists, and bolding to make text easy to skim. However, the discussion of how perception affects usability was interesting. Also, this seminar introduced me to the term “Web 3.0” – I remember “Web 2.0” being bandied around a lot a few years ago and thought that the term had become outdated. It’s interesting to know that instead it’s evolved to mean web customization and personalization. A really good example of the applications – and pitfalls – of trying to personalize the Web and commerce can be found here.

How SEO and Editing Can Wreck Each Other (presented by Greg Ioannou)
SEO is something that I’ve been learning about a lot both inside and outside of work. Imagine my chagrin when Greg went into the “do’s” and “don’ts” of editing web copy to improve web traffic, and I found that I had been guilty of committing some SEO sins on this website! Once I returned from the conference I followed his advice and edited my landing pages to reduce the number of times certain keywords were repeated. In the seminar, Greg used humour to great effect in the case studies he showed the audience.

Freelance Editing: The Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known (presented by Elizabeth D’Anjou)
Elizabeth D’Anjou runs a very popular workshop about “taking the plunge” and becoming a freelance editor. This seminar was on a similar topic. I won’t go into all 10 lessons here, but I did find Number 9 – “A good read is not the same as a good editing project” – surprising. I’ve been trying to reposition my own editing services and work with fiction writers because they’re the kind of writers I find myself coming into contact with the most often; it was weird to see her advice so directly conflict with my own choices.

DRM, eBooks, and the ethics of eBook sharing

A few months back, I wrote a blog post talking about whether eBooks should have Digital Rights Management software, and stated that given the option, I’d prefer to buy DRM-free eBooks.

It turns out that Tor Books is of the same mindset – yesterday they announced that come July 2012, all Tor eBooks will thereafter be sold without DRM. This also applies to other imprints published by Tor’s parent, Tom Doherty Associates.

So what does this mean?

It means that publishers are starting to get the message that readers don’t want DRM on their files. I’d like to think that this would strengthen the viability of the ePub format against the Amazon onslaught, but I don’t know enough to make that prediction with certainty. It also means that publishers are starting to realize the futility of DRM – when a free program like Calibre is at your fingertips, it’s hard to argue that DRM offers a fool-proof anti-piracy method.

One big question remains: Will other publishers follow suit? I hope so, and soon. However, it makes sense that Tor, of all places, would be the torchbearer here. It’s an imprint that specializes in science-fiction – a genre that questions and comments upon how we use technology. Isn’t it fitting that a sci-fi imprint is the first one to recognize when a poor technology isn’t working and change courses in favour of a more rational alternative?

This is also the best time I can think of to introduce some new research I’m doing: I’m looking for authors, publishers, and eBook distributors to interview regarding the ethics of sharing eBooks.

I want to understand how various stakeholders in the ePublishing industry think about the prospect of sharing eBooks in the same way that people currently share print books. Is sharing considered a loss in current revenue (because that’s one less person who will pay for your book), or a herald of future revenue (because now your writing is on the radar of yet another reader).

The people I’ve spoken to so far are somewhat divided on the issue, but I want to hear more opinions. Are you interested? Have your own books been pirated? Email me or let me know in the comments  – the more viewpoints, the better.

Addendum: Here is an excellent, insightful article on why it makes sense for publishers to drop DRM.

Should eBooks have DRM?

I bought myself a Kobo Touch last year for Boxing Day, as I figured that reading eBooks would give me a better understanding of changes within the publishing industry. I chose the Kobo over other eReaders for a number of reasons, but I liked the fact that it supported ePub, the (current) industry format, and that you could expand your library by inserting a MicroSD card into the device. A homegrown alternative to Amazon could do all that and get excellent reviews from Wired in the process? Sign me up!

Once I started using the Kobo, though, Digital Rights Management (DRM) software reared its ugly head, and things weren’t so simple. Books bought through the Kobo store can’t be transferred onto a Micro SD card – instead, they are automatically stored on the Kobo eReader itself. The innate storage capacity of the Kobo Touch is 1 GB, which is good, but not great, hence the allure of being able to expand your library through the Micro SD.

However, books from the Kobo store are normally formatted with Adobe’s DRM, and the Micro SD can store eBooks only if the stored files contain no DRM at all. This means that I can’t save space on my Kobo by transferring Kobo’s ebooks to the card. Sure, I can delete the Kobo books once I’m done and then download them again for free if I wish, but that’s an unpleasant solution at best.

Isn’t having a huge number of books at your fingertips one of the biggest reasons why people buy eReaders? Maintaining a large collection is rather hard to do without the extra storage capacity the Micro SD provides, and the Micro SD card is incompatible with Kobo’s own store. This is critical to understand.

So, here we come to today. The next series of Canada Reads debates starts in a few days, and I haven’t read any of the books in the lineup. I want to read at least a few of them, so I researched what eBook options were available. Here are the results:

  • All 5 books are available at the Kobo store
  • One of those books, Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce, was available only from the Kobo store
  • Two of those books, Ken Dryden’s The Game and Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran, were available for purchase from the publishers’ websites
    • Wiley, publisher of The Game, explicitly stated on the purchase page that the eBook had Adobe DRM enabled
    • Penguin, the publisher of Prisoner of Tehran, didn’t state whether the eBook had DRM, but a subsequent search of the site revealed that Penguin books do have DRM enabled
  • The two remaining books, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road and John Vaillant’s The Tiger, were available for download from the Sony eReader store at much higher prices

The result? I didn’t buy any of the five books promoted by Canada Reads, and placed eBook holds through the Toronto Public Library instead.

This evening I encountered something completely different. Quite by accident (thank you, Strange Horizons book reviews!) I stumbled upon The Bone Spindle published by Aqueduct Press. I hadn’t heard of either the book or the publisher, but the review was so intriguing that I bought the book once I found out that Aqueduct Press specialized in publishing feminist science fiction.

It turns out that Aqueduct Press sells ePub books without any sort of DRM. Finally, a publisher whose wares I could buy without using up my Kobo’s limited storage!

Poking around on Aqueduct’s blog led me to Fantasy Magazine (now merged with Lightspeed Magazine). And Lightspeed led me to Weightless Books. Let’s take a look at Weightless’ About page, shall we?

We sell DRM-free ebooks because we believe those who buy ebooks here should be able to move them around between their devices at will.

What we’re hoping to do here is to make this the first site to go to for interesting ebooks from independent presses.

Let’s go over that a bit more slowly:

  1. None of the books or magazine subscriptions that Weightless Books sells contain any DRM.
  2. They sell books from independent presses, meaning that the books have gone through some sort of editorial process before publication.

Weightless Books is okay with selling quality books without subjecting me to the anti-piracy hassle that traditional publishers would typically force down my throat? You mean to say that because of this policy, I can buy as many books as I want and store them without any fuss on my capacious Micro SD card? How amazing! It’s difficult to explain how much peril my credit card is in now.

Because of the lack of DRM on both sites, I bought both The Bone Spindle and a year-long subscription to Lightspeed Magazine. Those purchases cost just over $30 total. And it was precisely because of the existence of DRM software (and what DRM meant in terms of my eReader’s storage capacity) that I decided against buying bestselling books offered by the traditional publishing establishment.

This leads me to wonder: How many others are there like me with the same concerns about DRM, and how much do we represent in lost sales? More importantly, will publishers ever regard DRM software as a limiting factor in the way that I do?