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Some rambling thoughts on region restrictions

I think at this point in the century, everyone reading this blog—with the [possible] exception of certain lurkers who are required by virtue of their position within their company to toe the Party Line and therefore may not be free to say what they really think—is clear on the drawbacks of DRM.

But regional restrictions make me wince, because from an author's point of view the situation is a bit more complicated.

In principle, I oppose region restrictions. As a reader, they make me itch. But in practice, the way book distribution works across international borders is worse than imperfect: it's broken. If I sell world English language rights to one of my books to a publisher, that publisher can't just print and distribute the book everywhere in the English-speaking world. Publishers used to be regional, not global, players. And even in the wake of the wave of takeovers that resulted in the Big Six Five owning about 70% of the business, mergers between publishing houses are incredibly slow and complicated due to contractual encumbrances. As a result, publishers generally don't have the branding, imprint, and corporate connections to sell books in more than one territory. Let me emphasize this: they're regional, not global, operations.[*] So if they find they've got publishing rights to territories where they don't have printing and distribution arrangements they generally sub-license the rights to other, local, publishers who've got the connections to sell books to the local trade channels.

This means that they can't offer me a bigger book advance for world rights than they would for their own regional rights (because they might not succeed in licensing those territorial sub-rights—this has bitten me in the past). If they paid a world-rights-sized advance for what turned out to be regional sales they'd make a huge loss, which in turn would make them very leery about doing repeat business with me. Consequently we end up with different editions published by local publishers at different prices, with regional distribution restrictions.

Also, when publishers sell sub-licenses, the contract side is generally handled by clerical staff who handle the sub-rights for hundreds of books a year, with no particular incentive for prioritizing my work.

Consequently I prefer to get my literary agent to split the various regional rights up and sell them separately, so I get paid for North American rights by my US publisher and UK/Commonwealth (except Canada) rights by my UK publisher. This results in more money for me. It also results in better royalty contracts—my agent takes a 15% commission, so the bigger the deal the more money she gets (and the more money I get).

But from a book-buying reader's point of view ...

This was fine in the old paper book days—books were uneconomical to bulk-ship internationally, and thanks to the first sale doctrine readers who really wanted foreign editions could legally mail-order them and pay for shipping. What the casual buyer doesn't see on the shop shelves they don't feel the lack of: so everybody was happy, more or less.

But in the age of ebooks, borders are increasingly porous. And Brits can see what is in the Kindle store on Amazon.com, and Americans can see what's in the Kindle store on Amazon.co.uk, and British and American publishers can see how each others' titles are doing. Regional publishers are jealous of their regional sales—nobody wants a big rival from another country to kick down the door and eat their lunch—so they enforce contractual terms on the ebook stores that lock in territoriality. The ebook stores for the most part are more than happy to go along with this: it gives them a valuable lever for selling their DRM-enforced walled garden model of ebook publishing to publishers. The walled gardens in turn lock end-customers into the e-book store's platform, be it Kindle or iBooks or Adobe Digital Editions.

So what started out as a natural side-effect of books being heavy and not worth shipping across oceans has turned into a royal pain in the ass for readers—but where the desired solution for the readers (global sales, a flat worldwide market) will cause significant pain to the authors in the medium term (and by "pain" and "medium", I invite you to consider how you'd reply to a proposal that you take a 20-40% pay cut for 3-5 years).

What I'd like is a publisher who could genuinely operate globally—that is, publish a single edition throughout the English-speaking world, offering advances for my books that reflected global sales potential rather than regional, and removing the need for regional restrictions and DRM completely. And indeed—you saw that [*] footnote asterisk up top?—such a global publisher exists within my field. But it's Orbit ... a subsidiary of Hachette, and while there are a lot of good things I can say about Hachette their corporate high-level policy makes DRM mandatory, no exceptions. (Digression: Don't be fooled into thinking that Tor are a global player. While Tor US and Tor UK are both subsidiaries of Macmillan, which operates worldwide, they are entirely separate companies. Turns out, sibling rivalry is a thing: they're as jealous of their regional rights as any other rival companies.) So right now I can have my books published without DRM, in return for putting up with lots of regional messing-around (which is why the new Merchant Princes omnibuses won't be available on paper in North America until the back end of this year, a year after their UK publication). Or I can have a single publisher who operates globally ... but insists on DRM. Shorter Charlie: you can't win.

Hopefully the situation will improve in the medium term—meaning before the end of the decade. But your guess is as good as mine. And this is by way of explaining why you'll see different covers for my books, and different prices and publication dates and ISBNs, in different countries. Globalization: nice theory, shame about the practice.

114 Comments

1:

"This was fine in the old paper book days..."

Fine-ish. My grandmother moved to Scotland; Christmas and birthdays got us hardbacks of books unavailable in the US at the time (to the best of my knowledge). I've got 40-50-year-old English edition hardbacks of the Narnia Series and the Moomin books from back then; someone else got the Thomas the Tank Engine books.

Paperbacks, too -- I've got some E. Nesbit kicking around that I think was not then available in the US.

2:

They seem to have gotten better about simultaneous releasing of a title in both the US and UK. I can remember ordering books from the UK because the US edition wasn't being released for another 6-12 months.

But at least they didn't go as far as the movie industry -- if that was the case ebook readers in Europe would be unable to read books from the US unless you got a region-free reader. :)

3:

this was what drove me into amazons tentacles...

Originally I bought my ebooks from waterstones.co.uk and read them on my Sony Ebook Reader. However, the publishers got Waterstones to stop selling ebooks to continental europe (funnily enough, selling hardcopies still was possible). As the ebook market for english ebooks was horrible where I live the only way for me to continue to buy english ebooks (with a reasonable selection to choose from) was to go to Amazon. Thus I am now the (not so proud) owner of a Kindle and locked into Amazons walled garden...

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Amazon R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

4:

Globalization: If you are not a megacorp, then is not for you.

5:

As someone who winds up on the tail end of a lot of regional restrictions, I think they suck large planetoids through a one micron pipette at the very least. But then, I'm Australian, so I have a fair bit of experience with them.

For example, Australia is in DVD distribution region 4. Along with Brazil and Argentina and the rest of the South American and Central American countries, with whom we share so much - language, culture, history (excuse me while I grab a crowbar to reset my level of sarcasm). Which means, of course, we may get various properties at the same time as their US or UK release dates, a month later, up to six months later, or not at all. Fortunately, our anti-competition watchdog had some teeth back in the mid-1990s, when the DVD distribution regions were being imposed - by law, anything that plays DVDs which is purchased in Australia has to be region unlocked (or set for Region 0 - which has the same practical effect).

We're a completely separate region for book distribution, too. Yes, book sales to Australia are covered under the "UK and Commonwealth (Excluding Canada)" clauses in publishing contracts, but whether we get a book by a particular author on the same release date as the UK does is entirely up to the publisher (I can remember the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, where as a member of alt.fan.pratchett, I was one of the people loudly reminding others about spoiler warnings for the newest books, because we Australians didn't actually see them until about six weeks after the publication date... if we were lucky). These days it tends to be a bit better, because the Australian booksellers started whinging when they discovered people were ordering books from the UK or US in order to get them closer to the release date.

Computer products? Oh, that's a fun one. Our consumer protection agency (Choice) did a price comparison last year between the prices for software purchased in Australia and the same software purchased overseas. Did you know it's actually cheaper for a company to fly someone business class from Sydney to Los Angeles, get them to purchase a copy of the professional editions of things like Photoshop, MS Office, or various other types of COTS software in LA, and then fly back to Sydney, than it is for them to purchase the software locally? On the consumer front, I can remember a discussion on the Tor.com website about the terrible possibility (for US sensibilities) of console games reaching $70 a pop for PS4 and XBox One. I chimed in on that one to comment if I walked into the local EB and discovered all the console games had prices maxing out at $70, I'd start double-checking the *year* - the last time prices were that low over here was back in the early 2000s. If not earlier.

We pay higher prices for electronically delivered stuff as well - music distributed here through iTunes costs about half again as much as it would in the US (or in other words, there's at least a 50% markup); ebooks are more expensive (if we can get them at all; we still have the fun of being told we're not allowed to purchase various bits of digital content we can view in the catalogues of online retailers like Amazon, because we live in the wrong IP range). Apparently shipping the bits over the trans-Pacific cables means we have to pay hella freight charges or something.

We have a nickname for it here. We call it Aussietax.

6:

I don't suppose a Hachette Author petition to the CEO saying "Ditch DRM", with a short explanation why, would do much good?

7:

Ownership implies a certain amount of control over the owned thing. If I own a physical book, I can do things with it, from read it to photograph its pages into my computer to give it away. If I 'own' a book encumbered by DRM, about all I can do with it is read it on a publisher-approved platform.

If I can't convert a book into a DRM free format such as ePub (or plaintext, RTF, or HTML), then the ebook reader I was able to scratch up the cash to buy can't display it. And in five years, when that reader gives up the ghost and I have to buy a new one, if I 'own' any DRM-encumbered books, I won't be able to transfer them to whatever I'll use to read then.

There's a /lot/ of things to read that don't contain /any/ DRM - I just don't see any compelling reason to buy anything that /is/ limited by it.

8:

My country (Israel) is considered neither "UK/Commonwealth" nor "North America"... My only recourse for purchasing ebooks is to circumvent the regional restrictions. (Most people here just use bittorrent/whatever; by insisting on actually paying, I need to work harder.)

9:

This is a non-topical copyedit:

The correct idiom is "toe the line", not "tow the line".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toe_the_line

10:

Latro: Globalization: If you are not a megacorp, then is not for you..

Yup, that's about the size of it.

(See also immigration. Anyone can immigrate and become a naturalized resident or citizen anywhere, as long as they have liquid assets of between $0.5M and $20M -- depends on locale -- on tap to demonstrate they deserve an "investor's visa". See also "free movement of capital and goods and services". Meanwhile, us working proles labour under increasingly tight immigration controls that effectively stop us from moving to where the pay and working conditions are better. All in the interests of maintaining the return on investment of international capital, of course. As a Pole I met put it, "we're paid in Zloty but everything costs in Euros". The practice of keeping wages down by exporting labour and production to low-wage zones and preventing wages from rising by restricting movement of labour is something for which Lenin coined a name that is often wilfully misrepresented in western media: "capitalist imperialism". Oh, and that's also why we have such xenophobic, racist media these days. The news editors know which side their owners' bread is buttered on, and anything which encourages free movement of the non-0.1% is wrong and bad and evil.)

11:

I have visited Australia, and have met the Aussietax, and I'd like to introduce you to its UK equivalent, colloquially known as "Rip-off Britain". Yes, we have 20% VAT (sales tax). Which is why prices for so many imported-from-outside-the-EU goods cost 50% to 100% more than they do in, say, the USA.

12:

Probably not. Even if the 1 author was the size of JK Rowling she shifts a tiny fraction of 1% of the sales of Hachette. (Leaving aside the fact she's not actually one of their authors I think.)

In her prime she might have shift 1% of their fiction sales in a year (but I doubt it - remember there's a lot of other imprints out there, and crime/thrillers, romance etc. shift well year on year) and there's always a huge market in non-fiction with all those students (and even better schools and libraries) to which they sell text books.

A consortium of 100 authors might make them take notice. Might I stress.

But, realistically, it probably takes someone coming along with a bucketload of capital willing to take on both the publishers AND the Big River to write a deal that the authors see as at least as profitable as their current one and that we, the buying public see as basically as convenient as the current one (and although I don't regularly buy via Amazon, I buy via iBooks and it's pretty damn convenient).

From their point of the view the business model still makes money. The customers might bitch and moan a bit but most of them seem fairly happy and get on with it. (We know we might get the book sooner if we go to amazon.com or amazon.co.uk but a lot of people don't know you can do that.) Until it's demonstrated clearly that an alternative will a) work and b) make appreciably more money they're not likely to change. They'll moan and bitch - they have done recently - about Amazon eating into their profits and so on but they're still making money on the existing model.

13:

I suggest going to look at Hachette's corporate ownership. The level where this decision is taken happens at least one, and maybe 2-3 levels, above the CEO of Orbit; they're a multinational with fingers in lots of pies, not just publishing, which makes the situation even worse.

Holtzbrinck, aka Macmillan aka Tor, were able to ditch DRM because they are, fundamentally, nothing but a publishing corporation -- and a privately held one at that. As I understand it they're run by a majority shareholder who could just say "do it", without having to look over his shoulders at shareholder class-action lawsuits.

Other corporations ... shudder. First you've got to prove to the executives that by reversing a decision already made years ago they are not going to lose money. But you've also got to give them a storm shelter to hide behind so the shareholders can't sue them for having lost money in previous years due to the bad decision they're tacitly admitting having made by reversing themselves! The easiest way not to get sued for a bad decision is to not admit you ever made one. So getting them to reverse course is, shall we say, difficult.

14:

Hachette's management are probably well aware what their authors think. They might even agree, but the decision isn't up to them: it comes from their management at Lagardère.

It's not a coincidence that Macmillan is the only big publisher to be experimenting (via Tor) with DRM-free ebooks, and also the only one that's part of a company (Holtzbrink) with no non-publishing interests.

15:

I know that (old Royal Navy idiom): why didn't my fingers? Gaah.

16:

Hachette's management are probably well aware what their authors think. They might even agree, but the decision isn't up to them: it comes from their management at Lagardère.

Absolutely correct. I have discussed DRM with the CEO of Orbit enough times that I think we're both heartily sick of hearing each other's opinions! (If you're reading this, Tim, I promise to avoid the subject at the 40th birthday bash next month.)

17:

Isn't the answer to "Who is a publisher who can operate globaly" yourself?

I know you've talked about the subject in the past. It's a lot of extra work I agree.

18:

Ideally, there would be some kind of "things have changed" argument you could make both to and for the bosses, that they could assert had convinced them and would also act as a shield. I suspect that increasing public knowledge of - and resistance to - DRM might be the best basis for such an argument. (I further suspect that the place to look for evidence of this is in the computer game market, given the high-profile stances of sites like "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" and Youtubers like Totalbiscuit. Although the RIAA's habit of publishing numbers showing that DRM hurts record sales might be useful too...)

You'd need quite a bit of evidence, particularly in the face of soaring ebook sales, though. Personally, I won't buy DRMed ebooks (despite, yes, knowing about Apprentice Alf) at all, but I'm only one (lost) customer.

19:

I see that a lot with my hobby, photography. People in the UK, Australia, Brazil, etc salivate over the prices in the US. Meanwhile, we look jealously at the prices in Japan.

There's actually a thriving market on ebay of people selling grey-market imports of camera gear from China and Japan.

20:

I don't buy ebooks with DRM (heck, I don't buy ebooks at present, end of discussion) mainly because the e-reader I own is a very cheap and nasty one which does not speak wireless. At all. It doesn't even mumble a corrupted dialect of same. If I want to load it up with new content, I have to load the content onto the computer, then copy from computer to e-reader via USB cable.

On the one hand, it means I can't really make much use of the stuff from Big River and most of the other online distributors (I'm not even sure whether I'd be able to get the TOR stuff DRM-free from the local Aussie ebook retailers). On the other hand, the wretched thing works the same whether the internet is accessible in its vicinity or not.

So at present, my e-reader is largely stocked with freebies from Project Gutenberg (and if they'd actually name their epub files rather than numbering them, my life would be So Much Easier) and a lot of downloaded fanfic from AO3. If nothing else, at least it's all affordable given my current discretionary budget ($0 per annum).

21:

Charlie @13, El @12, and ChrisJ @14: Yeah, I had some of those thoughts after I hit Submit. Apply my usual excuse - It was early here. Also I can imagine there are some writers who might actually support DRM, for whatever reason, and some other thoughts I'm not remembering at the moment. I had intended to follow my question with Nah, didn't think so.

22:

"...but where the desired solution for the readers (global sales, a flat worldwide market) will cause significant pain to the authors in the medium term..."

And there you have the nightmare of protectionism (whether government- or contract-enforced): What is in the best interest of the markets as a whole (removal of restraints on trade) is against the best interests of those with a direct, visible stake in the business. Which means as a question of policy, such inefficiencies are very, very hard to ferret out. By your own words you benefit from the status quo of regional restrictions (to the tune of 20-40%), and thus are less inclined to take action to overturn it.

Please don't take this wrong, this is NOT a personal criticism, and I certainly am not trying to say working authors are in any way "the Man." Rather, it's a broader structural observation about why globalism, while in my eye the absolute right answer, is such a hard one to get to politically.

23:

Support for DRM among writers correlates strongly with three characteristics:

Positively with:

* Age
* Income

Negatively with:

* Technological literacy

(Unfortunately most published novelists are in early middle age or older -- you seldom sell a book before you turn 30 -- so the formative experience of being on the receiving end of gaming or ebook or DVD DRM isn't there. We're talking about the cassette tape, paper book, and VHS generation here, at best.)

24:

it's a broader structural observation about why globalism, while in my eye the absolute right answer, is such a hard one to get to politically.

Yep.

Right now, we in the developed world are having a lot of pain -- falling living standards, rising kleptocratic oligarchs, etc. But the world overall is seeing massive gains in the standard of living, falling Gini coefficient, and so on. What's happening is that the developed world is losing its relative advantage as the third world plays catch-up. Eventually their rising standards will meet our falling standard and everything will level out (I hope) with a gradual upward slope in conditions (if we manage to make it past the automation apocalypse without tearing our own guts out). From a 22nd or 23rd century perspective, this is nothing to get worked up about. But the process itself is painful.

25:

Firstly, there's a natural regionalisation that goes on with translated work, and that is unlikely to change - although I expect a global English language market may anhilate the economics for translation.

(And I understand that European translated edition rights are very lucrative for authors, given that markets like Germany still have something like the NBA, thus high book prices).

Secondly - I think there (was) something nice about an arrangement where publishers (or record labels) could price to suit the local market.

Globalisation complicates that picture - how do you set the pricing - you obviously want to maximise the revenue, not just the volume of sales, so you're never going to be able to price low enough to please everyone / stop piracy.

I'm also going to play Devil's Advocate and say that if you were, say, a high-level corporate executive - everyone looks at the music industry as a lesson in what not to do.

At a high-level, you might look at different media platforms - PC games vs consoles, iOS vs Android, Kindle vs ePub - and conclude that DRM works.

It may be the wrong conclusion - what Apple and Amazon have both done exceptionally well is making it trivially easy to buy. But it's difficult to separate those two things.

26:

"I invite you to consider how you'd reply to a proposal that you take a 20-40% pay cut for 3-5 years"

I'd gladly take a 50% pay cut for 5 years if it meant killing DRM in my field.

I buy significantly less stuff due to region locking, and I assume there are others like me in this regard. We may be in the minority but we also (would) buy a lot more than the occaisional $1 iPhone game.

27:

I'd gladly take a 50% pay cut for 5 years if it meant killing DRM in my field.

Congratulations: you're either younger or richer than I am.

28:

The median income for a professional UK author is a shade over £12,000 - less than half the median UK household income. Sure, some authors, such as our gracious host, do rather better and actually make a decent living, and a very few are better off by an order of magnitude or more. But a huge number of professional writers sit in a range from just above the official poverty line to well below it. Taking a huge paycut isn't an option unless someone else is going to pay them to write. Even for those in their twenties and willing/able to houseshare it would be hard, and the average age of first novel publication is about 36 or 37.

29:

What if the 3-5 years' pain with a 20-40% income cut turns out to be a 98% cut in income for the rest of your life, with that 2% constantly under threat from your monopoly distributor - who owns the rights, and can and will set cheap hacks writing the sequels to 'your' stories and 'your' characters at will?

That's what monopolists *do*, when left unchecked.

I think we've forgotten the lessons of the past, and we cannot quite imagine what a real monopolist can and did do in the not-so-distant past.

Ask about work-for-hire under the big comics publishers in the mid-20th century. People still bought the product - some of it good, much of it not - and the monopoly owners of the publishing and distribution chain for it paid the authors and artists enough to live on and kept the remaining 99% for themselves.

This seems generous by the standards of online news services today.

What's new (ish) is that antitrust law is dead in North America, and the lock-ins available in electronic distribution make the combined monopoly and monopsony powers of the original 'trusts' (read: Standard Oil) seem charmingly quaint.

I would remind the readers that it was never a criminal offence to modify your automobile to run on alternative fuels to the petroleum spirit supplied by Standard Oil - they could and did send in the heavies to shut you down if you started selling it commercially but individuals were left alone - but it's a criminal offence for a consumer to bypass DRM and the authorities are happy to enforce it.

Likewise, it was impossible to distribute any fuel that you produced yourself - Standard Oil were a monopsony (one purchaser for any kind of distribution) as well as monopoly - but they rarely called in heavies to close down your dead-tree lumber distribution company in addition to blockading your gasoline tankers.

Such things were quite difficult (but not completely impossible) around the end of the 19th Century; but they are easy in the world of monopolistic electronic commerce.

I cannot offer any 19th-Century analogy to revoking a consumer's license keys; but the 20th Century has plenty of examples of blacklisting that will do quite well as the analogy of a producer being shut out of the monopsonistic market for the purchase of their work for any kind of publication and distribution that would pay them enough money for a living.

These monopoly powers exist, and they are being used increasingly effectively; and there is no political will in North America to rein them in.

It is entirely possible that there will be no 'mid list' authors working outside the EU in another 20 years: and maybe not even there, from what I know of current transatlantic trade negotiations. A handful of superstar bestseller authors *might* exist in 2034, but all other fiction will be written by hobbyists, completing a book every year or so when they can fit it 'round their day jobs.

30:

How hard would it be to unbundle just the eBook rights from the regional deals? Could you make it economical to get slightly smaller no-eBook regional deals and hopefully a larger advance with someone DRM-free for worldwide eBook rights? You might get some confusion, for instance, that eBook doesn't show their regional cover, but other than that, I don't see any additional downside other than trying to negotiate paper and eBook rights separately.

31:


(and by "pain" and "medium", I invite you to consider how you'd reply to a proposal that you take a 20-40% pay cut for 3-5 years).

On the lower end of that range, well, yeah, I have worked at 80 % work time for about two years now, voluntarily. This means six hours per day, five days a week, for me.

I consider myself very lucky in this respect. I get more free time (to mainly for being more with the kids) and I'm not dooming myself (yet) financially. I do get a moderate salary, not high, but my wife earns enough we can make the ends meet. If I was ten years older (as our GOH is), with different needs and finances, or even if my basic salary were lower, I probably couldn't do it.

40% cut from the 7.5 hour a day salary would be more devastating, and it would probably mean moving to a cheaper area and really looking into what to spend money on.

Also, of course this means less time spent working - a 20% pay cut with the same hours would be, if not catastrophic, at least very difficult.

32:

"Consequently I prefer to get my literary agent to split the various regional rights up and sell them separately,"

But that doesn't explain (assuming I understand you correctly) why you sell the ebook rights for a region along with the dead-tree rights.

Why not treat ebooks as a completely different region?

So, you get paid for North American *dead tree* rights by your US publisher, UK/Commonwealth (except Canada) *dead tree* rights by your UK publisher, and worldwide ebook rights[0] by your separate ebook publisher, who you choose independently of the others, based on whatever royalty arrangements, internet advertising, DRM policy, etc... that each is willing to offer?

Is that not possible? Or is it too sensible to be realistic?

[0] Because ebooks are intrinsically global. Although, maybe you'd split it by language, so one ebook publisher might have worldwide English language ebook rights, but another might have worldwide French translation ebook rights?

33:

>>>Meanwhile, us working proles labour under increasingly tight immigration controls that effectively stop us from moving to where the pay and working conditions are better.

Charlie, if you are a working prole, I'm a dung beetle.

How can you even write such BS?

34:

I thought Charlie had covered this elsewhere, but publishers began demanding electronic rights quite a few years ago. It's very difficult to get a contract with a publisher that doesn't include electronic rights, and most authors are simply not in a position to dictate that.

As a result, publishers who buy regional rights are also buying regional electronic rights. And then requiring that any ebook seller enforce those regional rights.

35:

It seems like releasing an ebook 6 months later in the US than the UK would make the US publisher lose a lot of money. Can't I just buy the book from Amazon UK? It's not like I have to pay extra to have the bits shipped to the US..

36:

Being able to buy an amazon.co.uk ebook is difficult, if you are not in the UK.

It's not impossible, but neither is removing the DRM. It's simply difficult enough that most people won't do it. (And I think setting up an amazon account for a country you are not in is harder, so much so that I haven't done it yet, even though there are some ebooks I would otherwise get from Canada or the UK.)

37:

Is that not possible? Or is it too sensible to be realistic?

As others have commented, it's not possible in the sense that the publishing houses insist on rolling the eBook rights in with the dead tree book rights. But yes, it's also too sensible to be realistic.

I was reading, in a very different context, a rant about a boilerplate contract that someone seems to think goes way too far earlier today. It occurred to me, and after circulating an email everyone, including the lawyers agreed, that the simplest way out was to add what the lawyers called a codicil. It basically spelled out that the contract was a boilerplate and all the clauses were understood by all parties to apply to facilitating this particular exchange and activity. Although some parts seem extreme to some parties they are the standard clauses that apply in these situations and all those involved understand they're only applying to this common venture. (It did seem to imply if someone messed up they could lose their house and business for not providing about £500 worth of work if you wanted to read it that way. Which they obviously had.) Lawyers and common sense seem to very rarely go together. While publishers aren't lawyers, not necessarily, and most authors aren't either, there's a lot of lawyers that have got involved over the years.

38:

If I stop working, I run out of money fast. How about you?

39:

I understand your argument that you can't negotiate global contracts with a local distributor. But the money you get on signing is an *advance* on expected sales. The publisher expects to make back that advance---i.e., over time you'll earn more in each region than you're contract offers. Under that assumption, if someone breaks the region rule and buys your books from a different region, it just transfers income from one region to another and doesn't change your overall income.

So it would seem that the region mess may effect *when* you get your earnings (on signing, vs. when the books are sold) and *what size advances* the publishers are willing to give in each region, but that neither should effect your income in the long term.

As spouse of an author I can understand your wanting your money up front, but would the simplicity of abandoning regional agreements make up for having to wait a while for your income?

40:

You've missed marketing and distribution. If Charlie sells global rights to UKPUB PLC and they only provide those services in the commonwealth, sales in North America will be abysmal. If I'm a casual Charlie Stross fan* in the US, then I won't know that his new book is available to order from another region. Unless I'm in SciFiImports Shop New York City I won't ever see it.

Distribution is less problematic for ebooks (find a handful of providers and sign deals) but they're still not going to market it, so unless someone looks specifically, they won't stumble over it.

* As opposed to most of the readers here

41:

You probably already realize this, but I think that most readers are not really going to care about these behind the scenes shenanigans.

Fans of a particular author, who have a personal connection to them (such as, e.g., interacting with them on their personal blog) are always going to want to pay the author for their work. However, if there's a huge delay in ebook release dates (such as happened with Pratchett's Raising Steam, something like 6 months between UK and US releases) they're probably likely to just pirate the book immediately upon first release, and try to remember get around to buying a legal copy some time after the publishers are actually willing to accept their money.

I guess this works out OK in the end...?

42:

Well, crap. That's all fairly depressing, but thanks for a clear explanation.

There's gotta be something about the law of unintended consequences in all this.

43:

Can I just point out that the 'DRM-debate', 'regionisation' and 'Book vs eBook' debates are all very masturbatory relative to the real issue - people aren't reading books as a mass pastime any more. We can probably assume from the various studies that half the population haven't read any fiction book in the past month (past year is probably true as well). More people have checked facebook in any week than that.

There are many more uses of what free time people have today, the time to devote per 'reading session' is much lower, and books, even ebooks, are basically the same as Dickens would recognise.

In short, the product hasn't evolved with the market, not really.

Where is the evolution, let alone revolution? The most that's happened in the past decade is the publishers have taken their typesetting files, pressed a button, and turned them into ebooks. Complete with all their insane contract terms from the print industry a century ago - include the subject of this thread.

The question isn't really dumping DRM and lock-in. It's not even regions and availability. It's partly price - but it's mainly value and that all the opportunities and avenues that technology has bought about have been studiously ignored.

Take it back to it's barest essentials and the product is storytelling - weaving a collection of lies to entertain and enthral an audience. Viewed from there you really need much more involvement and reaction to the audience (as any good storyteller will attest), the ability to get 100% attention for a reasonable period of time, probably voice to deliver the story (higher bandwidth), and the social involvement of seeing how others react. That's the direction things should have been heading in - taking advantage of the opportunities - but instead it's ossified in place.

The DRM, lock-in, regions, etc. discussions shouldn't have been necessary - things should have moved faster and further than such small scale concerns.

44:

The ultimate region restriction would be that I remember reading about some years ago in the biog of somebody reminiscing about being Lillian Hellman's handbag. Hellman's newest contract included a clause saying that the publishers had all rights "in the universe, and beyond." Just for laughs, she wrote that she was OK with the universe but wanted to hold back the rights to beyond. They refused....
Mind you, I bet that's in all the Laundry's legal bumf.

45:

Immigration, racism & labour exploitation.
There's the other side of it, of course.
Exploitation of those immigrants.
Some guvmints & $Big_Business_Employers LURVE lots of immigration.
It keeps labour cheap, disrupts employee-strength & they don't have to pay for education.
That one has been running in the UK since Empire Windrush docked.
Restricting immigration to the political/religious refugees [ Think Huguenots, the "Ugandan Asians", the Europen jews ] and, importantly, to those with decent educational qualifications, & you'd get a very different picture.
But no guvmint has done that, have they?

I've worked with the children of some of those early immigrants, & the grandson of one the second class (politico-religious refugees) is my next-door neighbour & their families have been through pretty tough times.
We all deserve a better deal, but I don't think we're going to get one.

46:

You should have tried the late-1960's!
The price of even a secondhand Leica here was ridiculous - before VAT, we had: "Purchase Tax".
And cameras were a "luxury" - like refrigerators, for Gnu's sake .....
One reason why UK domestic manufacturing in the period 1948-1972 was so shite, actually - because the Treasury had imposed perverse incentives.

47:

Australians also have more limited legal music choices in the new era. With the death of bricks and mortar music stores, it's rare to be able to buy or even order a CD of an artist.

Now musicians release - sometimes exclusively - to iTunes or other compressed music services with such delicious options as 1) lower quality music at a higher price than a CD, 2) the Aussie tax, and 3) more often than not, simple lack of availability in the Australian iTunes store.

While artists push their music heavily around the globe via social media or music review sites (pitchfork, musicOMH etc), there's no joined up thinking about making the product AVAILABLE to buy. Amazon MP3 downloads are geolocked by IP, iTunes stores are geolocked by credit card address.

Labels may make the music available on maybe the US and UK iTunes stores and nowhere else. (Even the continental European stores are all wildly different in what they offer).

Unless you buy direct from a service like Bandcamp, with no geolocking, and one price irrespective of market, you may find that you cannot buy an artist's music. Many of them think their labels are doing them a favour by locking out most of the globe like this! It's amusing that some tour in countries where their albums are not available to buy legally.

48:

I'm in Australia and my Kindle is registered to the Amazon UK store. More recently an ebook-only Amazon.com.au store opened, but I can't see any point in switching to it, if for no other reason than I never see Kindle deals in any but UK and US stores.

49:

A working prole is almost anyone with an income of under a quarter of a million, Sterling, per year.
I know that sounds insane, but it's true.
Remember, we are talking about the 0.1%, or maybe an even smaller volume of "controllers" for want of a better word.
There are plenty of people in The City, on between £50 - 200k p.a. who are hire-&-fire minions, bound to their terms & conditions as severely as any assembly line worker of years gone by ...
It's just that popular conceptions are about 25-40 years behind reality (again).

So, Charlie is entirely correct, I'm afraid.

50:

How hard would it be to unbundle just the eBook rights from the regional deals?

It's totally impossible. Period. You can't sell paper-only rights to a book unless you have (a) already published it electronically and (b) it's enough of a bestseller that the paper-only rights are clearly worth buying. See also Hugh Howey -- who is enough of a rarity that I can name him as an individual.

If you are a regular author doing repeat business with a big five publisher on the basis of rolling multi-book contracts, you sell them e-book rights along with p-book rights as part of a package. Or you walk away. Period.

(For the publishers' perspective, as ebooks account for about 50% of my sales at present, they'd be idiots to unbundle the ebook rights. They'd be cutting away 50% of the current value of the work -- probably more, because ebooks are easier to keep "in print" (available to the distribution chain) and are gradually taking over most of the market so my future sales can expect to be greater than 50% electronic.)

51:

Can I just point out that the 'DRM-debate', 'regionisation' and 'Book vs eBook' debates are all very masturbatory relative to the real issue - people aren't reading books as a mass pastime any more ... Where is the evolution, let alone revolution?

Death of the Novel: film at 11.

Maybe I should do an FAQ on why I write. Shorter version: even if only 1% of the planetary population reads fiction for fun, that's still 70 million people, which is in reality a mind-numbingly huge audience. And while I stick to this small field, I get the creative autonomy of a Spielberg or a Kubrick: I am the creative dictator of my own productions, rather than having to work on a team and provide content to fit someone else's requirements. (It also gets disproportionately more respect in cultural terms than most other similar-scale cottage industries.)

52:

To what extent does the visibility of region differences increase pressure to improve them? I mean, when what was available was represented by what was available from the local brick-and-mortar the casual reading audience didn't know what they were missing, and now they do -- but does this ever translate into sufficient economic pressure for third parties to jump into the fray and compete heavily in the ship-you-foreign-books game (or for first-party publishers to try to negotiate simultaneous releases of big-ticket books with other publishers releasing the same book in a different region, as has been happening with the bigger Bandai productions recently in the domain of film)? Large corporations have a lot of inertia, but you need to be very large to withstand tides of irritated customers.

53:

Lois McMaster Bujold recently had her ebook licensing expire and is now managing all ebook sales herself. However I suspect that was a _VERY_ old deal and not generally an option under most circumstances.

It's also a slightly odd situation in that Baen bundled a CD with the hardcovers of Cryoburn that essentially contained all of that series for free, with the words (paraphrased) "you can copy or share this at will as long as you don't charge" on it. The other CDs they released under those terms are available at http://baencd.thefifthimperium.com/ - LMB requested that hers be removed from that site after she got the rights back, although I'm not sure she'd have been able to insist had that site made an issue of it.

54:


Right now, we in the developed world are having a lot of pain -- falling living standards, rising kleptocratic oligarchs, etc. But the world overall is seeing massive gains in the standard of living, falling Gini coefficient, and so on. What's happening is that the developed world is losing its relative advantage as the third world plays catch-up. Eventually their rising standards will meet our falling standard and everything will level out (I hope) with a gradual upward slope in conditions (if we manage to make it past the automation apocalypse without tearing our own guts out). From a 22nd or 23rd century perspective, this is nothing to get worked up about. But the process itself is painful.

I expect a worse outcome. For a number of reasons, not least that the world has often reached the point of 18th going on 19th century western Europe without taking the further steps that then happened there, I believe that there are actually two (or more) possible stable growth trajectories/grand cycles, and that current processes won't lead the rest of the world onto the higher trajectory of the developed world's recent past but will instead pull the developed world onto the lower trajectory of other times and places. That's because the higher trajectory is like a fire in its underlying logic, needing special circumstances to get above a tipping point where it becomes self-reinforcing enough to take off (circumstances like enough outside ignition for long enough, and/or a slug of protectionism when things are almost able to light anyway so that the protectionism's cost doesn't overwhelm the offsetting positive network externality gains before net gains kick in); spreading the hot coals around to fresh fuel in the wrong pattern and timing doesn't light the new fuel, it dilutes existing combustion to the point of going out (whereas the spread of industrialisation in the long nineteenth century worked by each country just lighting the next, which lit the next, and so on). Globalisation implies trying to light everything at once, but there's just too much to light all at once - so it will go out instead (the "Asian Tigers" aren't counter-examples, they grew with some of those special circumstances before globalisation and could gutter out if those circumstances fail before full ignition).

55:

While I think you are right about catching up in the developing world, I fear we are going all to level up at some awful sub-basement far below "actually really decent for almost everybody" and stagnate there. Sure, is going to be a great jump for the people in India and China and the rest, no doubt, but with a glass ceiling that is way below what we should be expecting.

But well, I'm a Spaniard, so maybe I'm just extrapolating from our return to our mediocrity.

56:

Can't tell if you want novels to be movies or video games; please disambiguate.

57:

I have a possibly wrong feeling about self-publishing.

Assuming that the total sales are similar, which needs some unspecified magic around publicity, the cash flow is going to be very different.

Lets say our Author sells a book idea to a publisher. The contract agrees an advance, which the publisher tries to set to reflect the likely earnings. This is paid in several large lumps, starting when the contract is signed. Another lump comes when the manuscript is delivered, and a third at some point when the book can be said to be complete, edited and proofed and in final form. It's not crazy wrong to say this takes two years.

Little of this time is spent in the actual printing and delivery process. And most of the sales will come in a quite short time.

If the author has a good record, they can have two or three books at different stages of this cycle, and be getting advance payments from all of them. And there might be a small final payment if the book sells more than expected. But there is a predictable two year income.

Self publishing, ebook or physical, gives two years of bugger all, maybe a bit more because it takes time for sales to happen and the money to reach the author's pocket. Again, multiple books are possible, but there is other work the author has to do, on the publishing side, which gets in the way of writing multiple books.

So it's a choice between a small income now, and a large lump some in around two and a half years. which takes more of your time. Do you have enough money to pay your bills for that time? How do you make the transition?

58:

Something I saw today, and there are various reasons why I am dubious about one young author's view on the publishing business, but a few hours later I had something of an Aha! moment.

One reason I was doubtful about his view of the business is that none of his books had appeared in paperback. On the usual timescale, I would have expected to see them listed by now, especially with a new sequel to an earlier well-reviewed novel.

Oh, I thought, he's an X, the sort of guy whose books get quoted in Pseuds' Corner.

There is another explanation which only hit me later. Are ebooks replacing paperbacks?

59:

There's a legal fix to this, if our politicians would get their act together, which of course they won't. All it takes is a minor tweak to copyright law to say that the only regional rights that can be sold are ones based on the location of the vendor, not on the location of the purchaser, the same as for paper books. Then you can still sell your regional rights in different regions, but your readers can buy their ebooks from wherever suits them best.

60:

Of course that's nothing compared to the collapse in journalism. Back when I started writing full time an article in the business section of a major newspaper paid two or three hundred pounds. It's now sixty or so - if that.

I wouldn't do this now if I hadn't started working in non-UK and commercial markets.

61:

That would be good, but I suspect it may be governed by one of the WTO treaties these days -- might take multilateral legislation to get it accepted, in the face of heavy industry lobbying (because preserving the status quo is always the default option).

62:

Sounds like I got out just in time ...!

(It was either ditch the journalism and go 100% full time as a novelist, or ditch the journalism, keep writing novels 50% of the time, and do work for hire for Marvel Comics -- but I didn't like Tony Stark one little bit, which is why I turned down the opportunity to write Iron Man in 2005 and went full time at the novels.)

63:

Today I read an article in the China Daily about chinese authors publishing their work online on platforms like Hongxiu.com and make a living from it. After reading your ramblings I wonder what do you think about this, Charlie? Does this trend seem a total chinese publishing quirk to you or do you see a posibilty that this can be a workable model in the western world too?

I got the impression from this article that though the authors make the most money not from their online sales but from their deals with publishers afterwards. This chinese model caters to the world of both the tech savvy young people reading their books a thousand words a day on their cell phones and the older people buying the printed books in the shop.

So would it be possible in the regional diversified western publishing world for a platform to emerge where authors can write their books online and sell say a thousand words a day of the raw and unedited version for a few cents or a subscription model online and get a following by doing that and than sell the ebook and paper rights to a real publisher afterwards? I think especially for midlist authors this seems a good model to broaden the readership, have your books availlable worldwide at the same time and still can sell regional rights to the publishers.

64:

I am the creative dictator of my own productions, rather than having to work on a team and provide content to fit someone else's requirements. (It also gets disproportionately more respect in cultural terms than most other similar-scale cottage industries.)

Never said you shouldn't be. Indeed, if you cast your mind back, I'm all for authors having more control, a bigger slice of the profits, and the whole thing being more a 'collective of cottage industries' than you were.

Nope, my point is from a top-down perspective - books as a domain really haven't moved forward. And in part I attribute that to the ossified mindsets of those big publishers you were talking about. They are shovelling the same old stuff out the door with the same old conveyor belt.

Let's take a simple example.

You use this site for two interesting but simple things; finding typos and snafus in text for new versions and reissues, and allowing people to comment on their experiences reading those new releases.

Imagine an eBook reader where those two functions were built in, where every book could have that minimal level of engagement integrated right into the book, as you were reading.

I think you would see that, given the HTML basis of the eBook formats, that's hardly complex or difficult to achieve in a distributed/no gatekeeper fashion. Yet, they aren't there. Neither are all the other things that could be trivially integrated to deliver a better overall experience. And that's before we get to the other concepts (periodicals, author subs, etc.) that could be there.

The best eReaders out there are the ones that don't have DRM - because they aren't cookie cutter/minimum functionality attempts built around captive markets. We could do with fostering more innovation via that type of route, I'd suggest - but it would have to be author and reader led.

65:

I wanted to buy The Girl With All The Gifts the other day. I'm in Australia, but my Kindle is registered to the USA. The price on Amazon USA was around US$13; the price on Amazon UK was was a shade under £4. Half the price. But to buy the UK version, I would need have needed to open a new account with Amazon UK - they wouldn't sell me one, because my Kindle was registered in the USA.

The sort of people who read this blog probably know that there are other ways to acquire books that don't require that sort of faffing about. It's not something I advocate, but on this occasion the temptation was very, very strong.

66:

I think the answer to your question is "it depends."

As a confirmed bibliophile, at the last count I have well over 2,000 dead tree books lining the walls in almost all the rooms here (bathroom and to a lesser extent kitchen apart although there are recipe books in the kitchen), my purchasing habits have changed and while there are books I still buy in dead tree format it's becoming increasingly rare for me.

I used to buy books to finish series that I'd started on paper in dead tree for that completist urge but not so much any more. I'm more likely to find or buy the books in eBook format and get the series that way, and buy the new books as they come out in eBook format. The Rhesus Chart is a fine case in point. The early Laundry books are in paperback somewhere, The Rhesus Chart was downloaded just after midnight on the day it became available in the UK.

But, of course, I'm a sample size of 1. I imagine it depends a lot on your target audience and so on. But if they're likely to have tablets and/or read on their smart phones then it's certainly possible to not bother with a dead tree format.

There are also a number of imprints where they'll push a book in eBook format first and if it sells well enough they'll consider a physical print run. There are extra overheads - sure a lot of the costs of proofreading etc. have already been undertaken (although as the spoiler thready ethereally adjacent to this shows it's not perfect and can be altered) but getting actual paper, ink, vans and the like have costs too.

A friend of mine who is an author changed publishers a few years ago after the one she originally signed with went under. Although the new publishers accepted her track record of sales, their new author deal was basically "we print you as eBook only first and if your sales crack this level, we'll look at a physical print run." By her third or fourth book, when all of the earlier books easily exceeded their targets they were publishing in paperback and eBook format straight away and did an illustrated special too at some crazy price. I haven't checked recently but the last time we chatted about it, her eBook sales were running about 2:1 higher than her physical book sales and several of the authors she talks to (some of whom outsell her significantly) have even more heavily biased sales figures. Some of them, some who are quite big names in the field, the publishers don't publish physical books with the author's agreement because the numbers are too low to make it financially viable - although they shift eBooks like (relatively speaking) hot cakes.

67:

I don't think it takes too much effort to switch Amazon stores for your Kindle default.

I've used at least six different Amazon stores without having addresses in most of their countries - their only geolocking seems to be IP-based for MP3 downloads.

68:

Well, I, for one, am distinctly pleased by your decision. There are several people in this World who can write Iron Man, but only one who can write Charles Stross novels.

69:

Yes, such a system is possible. The problem is, how do you reach the readers? Remember, most folks read either on the web, or in walled garden apps such as the Kindle (increasingly on their phone, formerly on a dedicated e-reader).

As it happens Amazon already supports a serial model and some authors I know have published novels that way. The two big questions in my mind are (a) accessibility to the largest audience and (b) how not to get shackled to amazon's juggernaut. Because (c) the web was designed at a time when microbilling was impossible over TCP/IP dialup, and we still haven't truly solved that problem in a portable manner.

70:

I think you overestimate the "trivially" in "trivially achievable". Building features into rich web applications such as epub (which supports CSS3 and javascript, believe it or not) is still a development job and actual paid software development is IMO probably 1-2 orders of magnitude more expensive than writing prose in terms of what you get for your money.

Example: programming tutorial books. It's obvious that a Python tutorial would be enhanced if, instead of static source code listings in its examples, the examples were editable and could be executed by hitting a "run" button in the editor window, right? And there is a virtualised python VM built on javascript, and an editable terminal in javascript, and so on, so this is in principle achievable within epub 3 format files right now.

But nobody's done it because programming books are even more badly paid than midlist novels and the additional cost of the software integration work exceeds the total cost of producing a new book, while the risk exists that the book won't sell (and, as the said VM and terminal packages are open source, rivals will subsequently use the same material for free and all you've succeeded in doing is raising the readers' expectations while making a commercial loss).

It may happen eventually if the open source documentation folks want to make it work, but they're mostly doing it as an afterthought to developing software in the first place.

And so on.

71:

Unless you buy direct from a service like Bandcamp, with no geolocking, and one price irrespective of market

Which insures that billions of people will never buy from them. How does the typical person in the bottom 1/2 (under the median line) of the income distribution in India, Africa, and other parts of the world every hope to buy something priced for the middle class of the US and EU?

Now you can argue that we should raise up the income of these folks but that's several generations away at best.

I suspect Charlie would rather make money from 100,000 of something that pays him $.05 each rather than 1000 that pays $5.00 each. The larger market will make him more likely to sell more on the next iteration.

72:

There are many more uses of what free time people have today, the time to devote per 'reading session' is much lower, and books, even ebooks, are basically the same as Dickens would recognise.

In short, the product hasn't evolved with the market, not really.

Actually they way I look at it the product has evolved. The product is entertainment. 150 years ago the choices for entertainment were mainly reading, attending a theater production, or music (public or private). Today we have movies, TV, and all kinds of stuff that you can go to, view in your home, or take with you.

I just did an 8 hour drive with a backlog of Charlie Rose interviews to keep me awake. I was playing them via my TiVo app on my iPad through the Bluetooth/AuxJack enabled "radio" on my rental. I normally record CR but don't have time to "watch" them during much of normal life.

And to be honest I suspect that even back in the day with stage coaches and trains, reading was problematic due to the vibration of the ride.

73:

So it's a choice between a small income now, and a large lump some in around two and a half years. which takes more of your time. Do you have enough money to pay your bills for that time? How do you make the transition?

It's worse. You have costs to get from the beginning to when the books/ebooks first show up for sale. Marketing anyone? Printing costs?

Self publishing requires cash up front over and above living costs.

74:

Today I read an article in the China Daily about chinese authors publishing their work online on platforms like Hongxiu.com and make a living from it. After reading your ramblings I wonder what do you think about this, Charlie?

How many authors and what percentage of the total author population.

I have a friend who is a real estate broker. Makes decent money. But something like 80% to 90% of the people in the field in the US don't make enough to make it their primary source of income. It's supplemental with a hope to make a killer deal at some point.

75:

I suspect Charlie would rather make money from 100,000 of something that pays him $.05 each rather than 1000 that pays $5.00 each. The larger market will make him more likely to sell more on the next iteration.

Yes.

I have two priorities, which are orthogonal at best and sometimes in conflict:

* Maximize my income

* Maximize my readership

"Same money plus larger audience" wins every time. The edge case would be "more money plus smaller audience". At which point I have a dilemma ...

76:

Bandcamp's prices are set by the artist, and "pay what you want" is an option. So the price isn't set per market by someone who knows what the market can bear, but is set by the people who in theory know the customers best.

77:

It's possible, in that it's already happened. Meet Inkshares and Patreon (the latter appears short of prose writers, but that doesn't seem to be because the platform prohibits them).

78:

Can I just point out that what you are describing isn't a book, its a form of media more closely related to oral histories or campsite story telling, and therefore not really relevant to the point at hand. Presumably it would have different distribution mechanisms not necessarily related to the publication of books.

I may (or may not) be a luddite in a small minority but I dont equate a multi-media experience with that of reading. To the point I rarely go near YouTube and actively avoid video "stories" on a website (I'm looking at you BBC).

79:

Because (c) the web was designed at a time when microbilling was impossible over TCP/IP dialup, and we still haven't truly solved that problem in a portable manner.

DING! DING! DING! We have a winner. This is the big problem in web services. Solve that, and all the kludgy, baroque workarounds to generate a revenue stream go away. Most people are not adverse to paying for stuff (even stuff 'on the web'.) People don't tend to be like corporations that way; when was the last time a corporation was accused of having a sense of fairness?

80:

... And we damn well knew about this problem and understood it back in 1995. It was the subject of panel discussions at the W3C conferences back then. I was there. Harrumph! You youngsters, get off my lawn! :-)

81:

We don't have a portable micropayment solution, but Apple iTunes is racking up billions of dollars in sales each year from selling individual songs and game tokens. (Do payments just under $1 count as micro, or is that maybe a minipayment?)

So maybe it's a solved problem if you're willing to accept Apple levels of restriction...

82:

Never mind the dollar mini-payment. How about a one cent payment for webcomic artists? Or a 1/20 cent micropayment? There's nothing to support that, and I don't see anything coming soon.

It's not that it wouldn't be useful, either. Imagine that sending email cost 1/20th of a cent, paid to the recipient. You and other humans would email other humans just as you do now and not worry about it, since it's trivial and your interpersonal notes mostly balance out anyway. Not so for any company in the business of sending out millions of emails a day...

83:

I disagree with the idea that reading is going out of fashion. When I was in my early teens I read an essay by - I think - Asimov pointing out that reading for pleasure has always been a minority sport.

Looking at my children, now similarly aged, I think the are about as many readers for pleasure (10-15%) in their classes as there were in mine. If you get the habit then you keep it.

Someone is buying and reading those teen vampire books. And they'll probably be buying and reading books for another 60+ years.

Most educated and literate people never (or very rarely indeed) read a novel. It's always been that way and always will be.

84:

Indeed, this argument is supported by the oft-quoted (even if inaccurate) statistic that the average houshold only owns 6 books. (I live on an estate of ~200 houses, and if that statistic was accurate, would own somewhere between half and all of the books on the estate.)

Of course, it also ignores people like my maternal grandparents who owned ~no books, but visited their local library at least once a fortnight, borrowing 4 books each on every visit.

86:

Apple's model is interesting; if you buy a track or an app, you don't get your credit card dinged immediately -- they leave it open for 12-36 hours before you get billed. Most folks don't just buy one item for 99 cents -- they buy several, over a day. Apple seem to track the velocity of activity on your iTunes Store, and only hit your card when you stop poking around at new content or your existing purchases rise above some threshold/floor limit.

I also note that Apple sell gift cards through retailers. Lots of gift cards. I'd speculate that gift cards are the main way that many under-18s make purchases from the iTunes store (at least if their parents are sensible).

Both gift cards and deferred credit card billing are smart strategies for reducing the number and increasing the size of credit card transactions, which are relatively expensive (typically costing 35-50 cents, retail, although Apple undoubtedly have some kind of sweetheart deal with Visa and Mastercard simply because of their immense size and leverage).

87:

I've posted about regional restrictions before and as a believer in globalism and international free trade, I loathe them with a passion that is hard to describe. While they exist I will continue to be a pirate and a smuggler and do everything I can to undermine them.

88:

Well, I wouldn't give a U18 a credit card that I was guarantor or billee on, but I'd have no similar reservations about them having a pure debit card atached to an account of their own.

89:

One essay which comes to mind is Orwell's “Books vs. Cigarettes” http://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar Not counting novels (or web serials or blogs or ...) as "real reading" has a long history too.

90:

I haven't seen them on this side of the pond, but in the US most convenience stores, supermarkets and drugstores have racks of gift cards you can buy -- Amazon, Apple, whatever -- and in addition, they sell pre-paid credit cards. You can buy a $100 card for $100 in cash (plus possibly a notional $1 for the card); it then works like a debit card in the UK until it's out of money. (I believe you can top them up as well, but am unsure.) If wanting to carry a credit card in a dodgy area, or give one to an under-18, this would be the way to ringfence your risk.

91:

Charlie said : Brits can see what is in the Kindle store on Amazon.com

Not quite so since what the server shows you and at what price depends on where it thinks you are.

Amazon Kindle store is the home store for the US and for everyone who hasn't a local Kindle store and for those who have a local Kindle store but want an English language site or want to buy in US dollars.

So it has to accommodate all of these.

When I see a good offer on Amazon UK I have no reliable means of checking whether it's for sale in the US still less whether the offer/ freebie applies.

Mike D
Little Egret in Walton-on-Thames

92:

Charlie, you can get cash reloadable debit cards in the UK, I have on for use on the internet when I do not trust the seller. There is a standing monthly charge but peace of mind has a cost. W.H Smith's sell Apple gift cards i believe.

93:

My local (small) Sainsbury's sell Apple gift cards too, although I've not seen Kindle cards (not looked specifically mind) nor cash loadable debit cards although I do know my bank has offered me one and I did consider it.

In one of those friend of a friend stories, actually the daughter of the boss of a friend was travelling before going to university (yes, they're still rich enough to afford that). They didn't tell her exactly how much was on it but gave her a card loaded this way with enough credit that she could buy a plane ticket home from wherever she was, or get a day or two's hospital care if there was a problem with her insurance or similar. But I've never seen one for sale on the high street so to speak, are they out there in the UK?

94:

I suggest any one interested in Cash reloadable debit cards google "Titanium cashplus" or just "reloadable visa cards"

95:

I have bought Google Play gift cards in my local Tesco, and they have many more types. Here's the on-line Tesco gift-card page. They don't seem to stock Amazon.

In the "Branded" section they have pre-paid Visa cards, but they can only be bought in-store. So you might have to buy one of those, and use that on Amazon. Since you get a physical card which you can use like any other debit card this might be preferable, but they do charge a fee when you buy it.

Google doesn't give any references to current sources for Amazon gift-cards other than Amazon, who will sell you physical or virtual cards. They seemed to be getting them out in late 2012, but did that last? According to Amazon Help, you can buy them in a limited range of shops. I know where I shop that does stock them.

Another option is the One4All card from the Post Office but check who it can be spent with.

The big advantage with all these is that you limit your risk. Your bank account doesn't get a direct link to some unfamiliar web site. I have noticed a different, possibly less-secure, "cardholder not present" procedure on US websites. That pre-paid debit card might be just the thing. And it is a more definite barrier than using Paypal.

And there is a scenario where a physical gift-card you can buy over the counter is good. I bought my Kindle from Tesco, had an accumulation of vouchers. The bigger stores have had them on the shelf, and, even if you don't have a computer, you can buy them as a gift for somebody and add a gift-card.

But none of this really adds anything to the days of Book Tokens and Green Shield Stamps.

96:

You need to specify your country, or Google floods you with links to the USA.

From the UK, I noticed a comparison site which gave an interesting list, including one which was very obviously from a Payday Loan company known for past shady deals. But what did catch my eye was a pre-paid card in either Euro or US dollars, from a more reputable source. You'd need to check the exchange rate but almost anything is a better option than Traveller's Cheques.

(Long ago, call it 25 years, I heard a few horror stories about the fragmented banking system within the USA, and how it forced a business contact, buying agricultural machinery over there at auctions, to travel with huge quantities of cash. There are TV shows now following people around auctions in the USA; if I had to use cash I wouldn't want to have my face on a TV show of that sort.)

97:

Lo these many moons ago, there was a company from the Isle Of Man who - after much paperwork - gave you access to a web app which would generate a new virtual credit card every time you ran it. Its balance was equal to whatever you had on deposit with them. Being able to use a different credit card for every transaction, with only the requisite amount of money loaded (it was topped up by bank transfer, so you just had to wait a day before making your purchase) meant I had no compunction shopping from some sites that looked like no sane person would let a credit card near.

And then the bastards wound it up and moved wholesale into the online gambling support business. I still make the occasional desultory search for an equivalent.

98:

Some US card issuers offer "one-time card numbers" or similar services, precisely for when you want to make a dodgy transaction.

My old Chase VISA required that I call the customer service number, tell a human how much or what limit I wanted, and she'd read off the digits for the one-time number. There was no charge for the service.

They didn't mention the service in any of the paperwork they sent me; someone else had commented about using it with their card, and I called and found out I could do it too.

99:

I searched for a UK based list of reloadable credit cards and came up with, almost inevitably, a comparison site, called what-prepaid-card.co.uk. There were a few cards on there that offered a new number per transaction I noticed, although if I were a parent offering it to a child I wouldn't go down that route as they tended to be pricier than the other services.

A few of them were, apart from an upfront cost of less than £10, basically as cheap to run as a normal credit card which rather surprised me. Although if you were burning around between them on a regular basis, repeated up-front costs might be off-putting.

100:

A T T
"Travellers Cheques" (Or checks in the USA - why you would want to write money on your shirt leads to very involved puns...)
Now there's another dying remnant - in the process of being wiped out by the digital age.
I went into the local branch of my bank last week & they had a notice up, saying (effectively) ...
"From $_DATE we weill no longer be accepting Travllers Cheques."
This is HSBC, one of the largest banks on the planet.
Um.

101:

Checks (and, to a lesser extent, carbon paper based credit card systems) seem extremely strange to me -- having been born in the late 1980s and thus gained enough income to need a bank account during an era when debit cards are accepted everywhere. Checks have no implicit security to speak of, and are held together entirely by anti-fraud legislation. Is it strange that we now generally distrust law and expect it to be backed up with math and code?

102:

(Long ago, call it 25 years, I heard a few horror stories about the fragmented banking system within the USA, and how it forced a business contact, buying agricultural machinery over there at auctions, to travel with huge quantities of cash. There are TV shows now following people around auctions in the USA; if I had to use cash I wouldn't want to have my face on a TV show of that sort.)

Very few people deal with $1000s in cash anymore. Makes you a target as the most likely reason for most people to do cash transactions that large is illegal drug deals. And we have some laws (which I disagree with) which says that it's up to the civilian to prove otherwise in many cases.

As to the 25 years, maybe back in the 70s. But once computers started to tie things together in the early 80s much of the reasons to buy things in cash went away. Now buying a $100,000 combine on a Saturday with a VISA is problematic today as in the US most banks are closed on Saturday. But even if you could run the transaction many would not want to do it as the processing fees to the seller would add 1%, 2% or more to the costs. But most folks who go to such things show up with a letter of credit from their bank to show they have funds then everyone settles on Monday. Deals during the week are no big deal and have not been for over 25 years.

And if we still had the "fractured" banking system maybe the mess from a few years ago would not have been so big. Might have even not happened, at least not the way it went down.

103:


Checks have no implicit security to speak of, and are held together entirely by anti-fraud legislation.

It may have changed since I knew it, but France backed cheques more strongly. Cheques were legal tender, i.e. refusing to accept one meant that you had waived payment, but bouncing a cheque was forgery that would get you a criminal penalty matching that, just like counterfeiting.

104:

Does/did the US banking system not have something like Bankers' Drafts?

Looks like a che(ck|que), smells like a che(ck|que), settles like one. But instead of being drawn on your personal account, it's drawn on the bank's own suspense account. You go into the bank and tell them "I want a draft for $5000 payable to Foo Bar Esq.", and they transfer $5000 (plus a fee) from your account to the bank's own account, then issue a che(ck|que) against that.

It's sufficiently rock-solid (in terms of not bouncing, not in terms of forgery) that if Messrs. Foo and Bar experience problems settling the draft, they'll be reading about the reason in the Wall Street Journal. These days I'd usually use a direct BACS bank transfer instead, but back in the day if you wanted to buy a car or a house or a business this was the way to do it.

105:

Lo these many moons ago, there was a company from the Isle Of Man who - after much paperwork - gave you access to a web app which would generate a new virtual credit card every time you ran it. Its balance was equal to whatever you had on deposit with them. Being able to use a different credit card for every transaction, with only the requisite amount of money loaded (it was topped up by bank transfer, so you just had to wait a day before making your purchase) meant I had no compunction shopping from some sites that looked like no sane person would let a credit card near.

Sorry for the extended quote, but it's been a few days since it was posted and it's about a subject I feel strongly about: the path not taken in the 90's (according to Charlie, 1995 at the very latest): micropayments. Yes, there's a lot of kvetching about path dependencies that bake in suboptimal practices and standards for essentially forever and therefore like it or not we're stuck with the advertisement model as a means of generating revenue for the foreseeable future. But maybe the virtual credit card trick is a way to fork back to the other -- and IMHO, much better -- option.

Totally pulling this out of my ass (I know nothing about the details of intertubes transactions), but maybe this virtual credit card generator could be distributed as freeware. My thought is the virtual credit card app could be sold to the public as a way to keep your accounts absolutely secure for all debit-type internet because (I don't think I'm atypical in this regard) their credit card is essentially a debit card for most of their online transactions: who has to pay off a book bought from the Big River in monthly installments? And who isn't worried about credit-card theft?

Once people are comfortable with this, vendors could offer the micropayment option for people who didn't wish to be continually assaulted by advertisements. To name one example, how about charging a penny per post on a much better organized, feature-sensible version of Facebook that doesn't continually try to worm personal data out of you and doesn't bombard you with spurious advertisements or 'friends' of a dubious nature? Judging from the number of complaints I've heard, I'm guessing a lot of people would switch to the micropayment version. And why not? At penny a post, this is probably on the order of a dollar a month for most people, a bargain price for making the annoyance go away (not to mention the far superior interface) . . . and those pennies add up if your Mark Zuckerman. Anyway, just a thought -- sorry for being so long-winded about it.

106:

Charlie - A big thank you for this explanation of something that gets royally up my expatriate nose. As with the pieces you've done on ebook pricing etc, this is a really valuable insight.

I look forward to a future where publishing catches up with the age... but in the interim, your essays in this area have pushed me away from the consumption of pirated books and into an unwilling acceptance of walled gardens and other horrors.

107:

Does/did the US banking system not have something like Bankers' Drafts?

If you mean this?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banker%27s_draft

Yes. Bank check or official check or similar over here. But they have fallen into disrepute over the last 10 years or so. Lots of fraud. So banks started holding them till the issuing bank cleared them so their utility goes down to that of a personal check. (Having only a few banks nationwide would solve this but brings other issues.)

If you really want to move large amounts of money around it's not that hard if you can visit "your" bank when they are open to set things up. Or even another bank if you don't mind paying a few extra $$$ in fees. The real issues come up when you want to do things when banks are not open.

I'm on an email list for large auctions. Closed plants and such. If you want to take "it" away on the spot you need to provide a letter of credit or similar before you show up so the seller can verify the funds are available. A bank letter of credit is similar to your Banker's Draft except it's a guarantee that the funds are available, but not depositable.

I may have a few details wrong, it's been a decade or more since I move around $10K or more. But it wasn't all that hard if you planned it up front.

As the article on Banker's Drafts notes, paper instruments for transferring money are going away.

108:

As the article on Banker's Drafts notes, paper instruments for transferring money are going away.

As will surprise nobody who's read Neptune's Brood, that's coming hand-in-hand with the assumption that everyone will have nigh instantaneous communication over all distances at all times. Need to buy a tractor on a Saturday in Nebraska? No problem. Need to get money out of your London bank when you're in Thailand? No problem. Of course, that communication needs to be not only nigh instantaneous and ubiquitous but also secure - if your credit card is being copied to Russia or the bank on the other end is actually a teenager in Nigeria the whole scheme is likely to fall apart quickly.

It's working pretty well so far, aside from rather a lot of misplaced credit card numbers; how it will have played out in a hundred years is open to enough game changing variables that I won't speculate yet.

109:

From an auction site that deals in plant liquidations and such. I'm surprised they take cashier's checks. These are another name for Charlie's "Banker's Drafts".

Anyway, yes you can do cash. But you can also set this up electronically.

An important part of this is that some (many?,most?) of the people (in the US) who talk about needing cash for everything also talk about black helicopters and 5 year supplies of food and ammo.

3. Deposits. A Security Deposit of $1,000.00 will be requested from all Auction bidders wishing to register and participate in the Auction sale. PIS, in its sole discretion, for non-US Residents or companies, may also require a deposit of not less than twenty five percent (25%) of the Buyer’s TOTAL EXPECTED PURCHASE PRICE as an additional Security Deposit prior to registration approval. For all other bidders, PIS requires a deposit of not less than twenty five percent (25%) of the Buyer's TOTAL PURCHASE PRICE by the end of sale day - with the balance due by the end of the next business day. This can be in the form of cash, a cashier’s check, or business check with a bank letter of guarantee for Onsite auctions. For Electronic bidders, at its discretion, PIS may contact bidders via email or telephone before or during the sale to provide a bank letter of guarantee or wire transfer as a deposit. If PIS does not receive a response from its attempts to contact Buyer or if the Buyer does not provide a deposit, PIS reserves the right to refuse or cancel Buyer's bids and re-sell Goods.

4. Invoices & Payment Instructions. For Onsite and Webcast auctions, winning bidders can request a printed paper invoice from the Accounting Manager at the sale location during or after the sale. Electronic bidders will be sent an electronic invoice to the email address provided during registration. Invoices can be faxed upon request. Detailed payment instructions for each sale are available in the printed lot catalog at the sale location on the day of the sale. Electronic bidders will be sent detailed payment instructions via email along with their invoice.

5. Payments. PIS must receive the balance of the total purchase price no later than the close of business on the day following the auction (the "Final Payment Date"). All payments must be by cashier's or certified check, federal wire transfer of immediately available funds or a corporate check accompanied with a bank letter of guarantee, and all of the foregoing must be in form, scope and substance acceptable to PIS. Credit cards are only accepted for Electronic bidding registration and for Liquidated Damages in the event of a default. If paying by credit card, the exchange rate for sales conducted in foreign currencies will be posted the day of the sale and will be based upon the current currency conversion rates. Without limiting PIS discretion, no corporate checks without a bank guarantee and no personal checks will be accepted. No title shall pass to Buyer until the total purchase price and all Taxes have been paid to PIS in collected funds.


110:
maybe this virtual credit card generator could be distributed as freeware.
It would need to be picked up by the banks, not the customers; the people deploying it would need access to Visa (or whoever)'s credit card creation API. It's kinda double-entry transactions, where you alert your "store of value" that an amount is to be paid and receive a transaction ID, then give the payee that transaction ID to allow them to redeem the money from your store of value. Building it on credit cards takes advantage of existing infrastructure.


Part of the problem with credit cards for micropayments is that credit card micropayments need to be aggregated to prevent credit card processing fees swallowing up the whole payment - and more. This is handleable, but tends to require a central payment processor (see: Amazon Payments, Paypal, Flattr, Google Checkout, etc.).

111:

Ian S, voice is 'higher bandwidth' than text to you? How slowly do you read?

112:

Long time lurker, first time poster, etc. etc.

Chiming in to note relevant just-released study: http://authorearnings.com/july-2014-author-earnings-report/

Perhaps there is, or will be, more of a market for really good freelance editors who are not tied to a publisher.

That way you could still engage the professional services of an editor, without having to deal with the publisher. I'm sure there are all sorts of details that would need thrashing out - such as, the editor will still expect to get paid; how to do that without recreating most of the evils of a publishing contract? - but it might start to free up authors such as our esteemed host a little more. Worst case, it loosens the grip of the Big Five.

113:

Simon, the problems with a novelist becoming a one-man press is that most authors are better being authors than managers, and that now the author has to spend money in advance in hopes of making it back later (the first law of commercial publishing is "money flows towards the author"). Some people find that the best choice but it has serious consequences, and Our Generous Host has an essay on the problems under Common Misperceptions About Publishing.

114:

Oh yes, I understand that it's not nearly as simple as 'write awesome book, publish on Kindle, profit', and I don't expect publishers to go away any more than record companies have even though for the price of a teenager's first car you can buy a full suite of digital recording equipment that would have put a professional studio to shame 10 years ago. I've read the essay, too. :-)

But I thought it was very interesting to see that indie publishers now outsell the Big Five, at least on Kindle, which is a pretty good proxy for 'all ebooks,' for reasons OGH has also explained elsewhere.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on July 7, 2014 11:21 AM.

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