Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

the appeal of digital textbooks

. . . to publishers, that is. Consider this a follow-up to last week's post about the Big New Kindle and its possible use for textbooks: Over at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody makes an important and troubling point: "the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever." Probably true — but the publishers may be being shortsighted. If — sorry, when — someone cracks the DRM for any given textbook and converts it to a Kindle-readable format, the traditional used-book market won't benefit, but neither will the publisher.

Consider in this light this NTY story about digital book bootlegging. It's kind of an individual thing right now — as Stephen King says about the book pirates, "most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer" — but if textbooks go digital then such bootlegging will become a full-fledged industry. Somebody will make money off it, but it won't be the textbook publishers.


  • Michael Straight said...

    Oh my goodness yes. On a college campus? Where students have access to the best computer science technology available? Where stuff like Yahoo! and YouTube and Napster were invented? With textbooks costing hundreds of dollars per semester? The chances of students cracking the DRM on digital textbooks? 100%

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    I was thinking more about people who would crack the DRM and sell the discounted textbooks to the students. Students as market more than students as hackers.

  • Michael Straight said...

    You mean like the people who crack the DRM on music and sell discounted CDs to college students?

  • Yes, the DRM will definitely get cracked. Yes, students would pay a solid amount of money to get someone to do this. However, I don't think they'll have to pay for it.

    I don't see this becoming a "market", any more than most other cracked digital media form a market. The reason is that there is no way for the original cracker -- the one who presumably wants to make money off the venture, to compensate for the labor of cracking the DRM -- to control the subsequent distribution of the product.

    After the initial crack, distribution naturally takes the form of a peer-to-peer network. The only points at which a retail-style model can compete against this distribution model is when some inefficiency interferes with free distribution -- say, the campus network begins blocking certain forms of file transfer, or the files themselves become too large or complicated to easily distribute.

    This is why there are markets for bootleg DVDs and computer games: the files are either connected to a medium (for DVDs) or sufficiently complicated (games) for there to be inefficiencies in free digital distribution.

    Cracked DRM books are going to be fairly small files, easy to distribute and hard to distinguish from other forms of network traffic. Unlike DVDs and games, there will be very little structural inefficiency in their free distribution. This will inhibit anyone from making money off of distribution.

    For-profit crackers are also going to have to compete against volunteer, ideologically-motivated crackers -- at least until campus bookstores stop giving dimes for dollars on physical textbook returns.

    I expect that illegally copied digital textbooks will proliferate far beyond the ability of any "market" to reap profits off of their distribution. Some individuals might be able to carve out local niches (especially on campuses with more restrictive network policies), but I can't see a wider market emerging.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Ethan, that makes a lot of sense.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Ethan, I really doubt campus network controls would put any dent in this. The files would be so small, and the group of people who all need the same file would know each other personally, all being in the same class together, so they could easily be passed around by hand with flash drives or whatever.

    And the cracking need not be "ideologically motivated". The guy who can hook you up with free textbooks is going to be one of the most popular guys on campus.

  • Michael Straight said...

    In related news, Amazon recently issued a remote command to all Kindle 2 units to disable text-to-speech in some of the books Random House publishes.

    Presumably because they're worried about someone having the Kindle read their books into a microphone and then distributing the recording.

    People who bought the Kindle for that feature are not amused. The sentiment I see on a lot of discussion boards: "That's what you get for buying DRM-laden e-books content instead of downloading pirated versions."

  • Textbooks are also different from music or films in that they're incredibly cheap to produce at home; professors habitually write out long lecture notes in a word processor or LaTeX and have students get copies at the local copy shop. The fixed costs of producing open-source content in books are lower than for performance media, and there will probably be a lot more such content. Illegal file-sharing might not even be as much of a threat to publishers as high-quality giveaway e-books.

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