Unlocking e-books: Tor is leading the way to DRM-free reading

I remember walking to work one morning with my husband a couple years ago, when he commented that the biggest problem with digital publishing was the file format. At the time, academic publishers were launching fantastic online platforms for research journals and articles, e-readers were starting to appear on Christmas wish lists, and it was clear that the e-book faze wasn’t going to blow over. But some e-books were PDFs, and then a separate file type was custom-created for the Kindle, and another one for the iPad and the Nook.

As if things weren’t complicated enough at that point, each e-reader uses its own DRM (Digital Rights Management) scheme to protect the author’s copyright by preventing someone from uploading the file to a website for free distribution to anyone. Of course, it also prevents book lending, and file-type conversion to transfer books between devices. So if that .mobi file format loses favor over time, those books on readers’ virtual shelves just disappear.

Photo from: http://readersbillofrights.info, shared through Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

Macmillan’s Tor/Forge imprint took a step toward solving this stubborn puzzle on July 20, when as promised, they made all of the e-books DRM-free, no matter where readers buy them.

“It’s clear to us that this is what our customers want,” said senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden in a press release. “We see it in the success of SF publishers like Baen and Angry Robot that have preceded us in going DRM-free. To the best of our knowledge we’re the first division of a Big Six publishing conglomerate to go down this road, but we doubt very much that we’ll be the last.”

As Hayden alluded, many small-press and independent publishers, and even some larger houses, have sold e-books without DRM, but Tor is the first imprint of the Big Six publishers (Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster) to do so. Although many publishers use DRM beacause they fear a loss of sales and an increase in piracy, this will not necessarily be the result. Tor gave away 1.2 million DRM-free books in 2008 as a preliminary test. Since then, sales on those titles have continued to sell just as well.

As for piracy, if someone really wanted to put a PDF of a book on the internet, they could do it whether it was protected or not. Just google “How to remove ebook DRM” and you’ll see what I mean. Publishers are responsible for chasing down these pirates with or without DRM.  DRM is most frustrating for the consumer who just wants to sit down a read a book, without consulting an instruction manual.

Publishers and e-reader developers have done all sorts of things to mimic the physical book reading experience — offering non-backlit screens, showing page numbers, adding page-flipping images — but this is perhaps the most important. We have always shared our books. We read aloud to one another, we swap copies with friends who have similar interests, we buy and sell used books. We also keep books for years, only to reread them after they’ve been sitting on a shelf for decades. It may be that e-books will never attain the scent of a dusty, decades-old book, a cracked spine, or dog-eared corners, but especially since e-books don’t wear with age, it would be nice to be able to know that I can pick up one of my e-books ten years down the road.

But isn’t DRM-free just the first part of the solution? Even if publishers and e-readers follow Tor’s example, we’ve still got to wade through different file formats to move our books around to our preferred devices. It’s true that it will be a lot easier to do that without DRM, but only for those of us who are tech-savvy enough to figure out how. Creating a standard file format, however, will not be the publishers’ decision. I doubt they love spending the time and money to create three or more e-book files and ISBN numbers. This challenge goes to Apple, Amazon, B&N and the rest of the e-reader creators. Reflecting back on my husband’s comment from a couple years ago, it seems that although we’re on the right track, we’ve still got a long way to go.

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Albert of Adelaide : A refreshing story of a platypus in Hell

Albert of Adelaide, the debut novel by Howard L. Anderson, surprised me in the same way that Fantastic Mr. Fox surprised me in the theater. It’s adult entertainment in the guise of something created by Beatrix Potter — a bedtime story where animals talk and wear clothes, but where they also concoct schemes, shoot guns and get themselves into dangerous outlaw situations. And honestly, to quote Mrs. Fox, there’s something kind of fantastic about that.

I was perhaps more surprised, however, that the publishing industry took this book under its wing. Editors and agents always say that they’re looking for something unique and different, and they mean it, but usually in a slight-twist-on-something-known sort of way, something they can still market to a particular audience. Albert of Adelaide, however, is one of those cross-genre beauties that everyone tends to love but on which no one wants to risk  financial investment. Is it YA? Or maybe a children’s book that parents can enjoy too! Or straight-up adult summer reading for everyone who loved Charlotte’s Web when they were kids? It really could be any of those things.

Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson

Albert, a zoo platypus clinging to a few strands of childhood memories by the pond, breaks free and sets off across the desert to find the utopian Old Australia, where animals exist as they did at the beginning, before humans got involved. Along the way, he finds himself in complex situations with other animals who blame him because he’s different (not a marsupial) or leave him alone him because they’re in awe of him (protected by snakes). All the while, Albert simply wants to find a place to swim in peace, but with wanted posters at every outpost town and a growing reputation as a danger to society, this seems unlikely.

The story was refreshing. Most top-shelf fiction right now comprises epic fantasy, post-apocalyptic YA, or multi-POV literary novels that ignore chronological narration. So while I can imagine that many publishers may have snuck away like Bertram the wallaby when it came to putting money on Albert’s future, I’m very glad that this unique tale found a home at Twelve Books, a Hachette imprint that publishes only 12 books each year, “by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority. Works that explain our culture; that illuminate, inspire, provoke, and entertain.”

Despite its fairly simple prose and no apparent underlying political statements, Albert of Adelaide lives up to Twelve’s mission. It tackles questions a bit more local: about our prejudices, our habits, and our search to find a place to belong. Albert is infamous for burning down a town when he actually just got drunk and passed out. He’s accused of butchering a group of kangaroos when in fact, they had crossed into dingo country and were eaten, as they should have expected, by the dingoes. When the time comes, Albert must choose to live up to this criminal fiction or pave his own path. Throughout the tale, I wondered along with Albert if there is an Old Australia, or if animals are so affected by society with its guns, alcohol, false propaganda, and even clothing, that the place called Hell where Albert finds himself is all that’s left of the legendary land.

For an interview with the Author, who among other things says that the story originated from a bedtime story he once told a 5-year-old, checkout Booktopia Blog: http://blog.booktopia.com.au/2012/06/25/howard-l-anderson-author-of-albert-of-adelaide-answers-ten-terrifying-questions/

How to buy small-town e-books

The last bookstore in my town closed in March 2010. No more browsing bookshelves for hidden gems or stopping in for a quick pick off the front table of New Fiction. More than half of the books I read now are e-books, because it’s fast and it’s easy. But like most readers, I love bookstores. We grew up around bookstores, so they are nostalgic landmarks. But they are also venues for local authors to read and sell their self-published works. They give high school students a perfect date destination full of conversation topics and overlapping interests. They also provide fulfilling jobs for all those English majors out there who don’t want to teach. A bookstore is an integral part of any community.

Even though I can’t wander around a bookstore down the street, I can buy e-books from the local bookstore in my hometown of Louisville, Ky., Carmichael’s Bookstore. Amazon may have cornered the Kindle e-book market, but anyone with a computer, a smart phone or an iPad can read e-books from independent bookstores across the nation through Google and IndieBound.org.

IndieBound connects readers like us to indie bookstores. You don’t actually buy the book on IndieBound, but the site will help you find a bookstore near you or connect you to indie bookstores that sell something you’re looking for. Then you buy the e-book directly from the little corner book shop. For example, I go to Carmichael’s website and search for True Believers* within their “Google eBook” tab. When I check out, it asks me to log into Google (if you have a Gmail account, that’s your username and password) and then I buy the ePub. The book shows up on my IndieBound app on my iPhone or iPad. It’s also available when I log into Google and go to Google Books, where I can download it and read it on my computer screen.

Unfortunately, I don’t get to hang out in Carmichael’s and chat with the bookseller about their new books or upcoming events. But I do give them some business so that someone in town can keep hanging out there and authors have a place to read their memoirs.

 

*Check out my process in picking this book: https://lamplightandink.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/finding-and-finishing-thought-provoking-books/

Finding and finishing thought-provoking books

This week I kept coming across lists of discarded books; books that many people either claim to have read but haven’t, or books that readers simply give up on. See Goodreads’ “Most Read But Unfinished” list and i09 posted this week “10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend to Have Read”.

When someone starts a book but doesn’t finish it, the book is usually too daunting or requires too much effort. i09’s science fiction list focuses on a lot of titles in this category. People want to read something, but they’ve heard everyone talk about it so much they can fake it. Or they just go see the movie. The user-generated Goodreads’ list is an interesting bag of titles, but it includes such classics as Anna KareninaPride and Prejudice, and Moby Dick. It also includes several on my own unfinished list: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Atlas Shrugged, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Does this mean that our reading spectrum is moving toward mediocre? If the classics and other thought-provoking reads require too much effort, are our favorite books somewhere in the Target aisle?

It’s hard to pinpoint where bookworms’ tastes lie, but even my own choices have been of the middle-of-the-road variety lately. Although I started The Brothers Karamazov this year, I have yet to finish it, or even make it halfway. The writing is enjoyable, the story compelling and really, it’s right up my alley. I just need to make the leap over the length and language. Over the last few months, the only classic I can really claim to have finished is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first short story collection centering around that insufferable, arrogant man who happens to be a brilliant detective of the people, Sherlock Holmes.

While it may be easy to blame the publishing industry for pushing books like 50 Shades of Grey underneath our pillows, for better or for worse, they give us more of what we buy. (And we bought more than 20 million copies of 50 SoG). So unless there’s a Will McAvoy of publishing out there willing to put all his energy behind publishing books that are good for us to read whether it sells or not, it’s up to us as consumers to a make an effort.

When I’m looking for something good, I read reviews in the local newspaper and my favorite magazines, or check out Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness for upcoming book releases and reviews. I go to specific publisher sites, and see what’s included in their latest catalogues. For suggestions a little bit outside the NYC publishing center, I read Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin on Poets&Writers. I challenge the bookworms out there to read something a little beyond their normal reach. After my own search, I decided to go with True Believers by Kurt Anderson, which I found on Shelf Awareness.

True Believers

True Believers by Kurt Anderson

A judge turns down a chance at joining the Surpreme Court, knowing that her adventures in the 1960s will come to light in the process. Instead she decides to write a memoir that will reveal the shocking secret about her past. The book jumps back and forth between the 60s and the present, which the Mad Men fan in me can’t help but get excited about, but it also covers a lot of Cold War political history, which is a little outside my comfort zone. Dubbed a mystery and a coming-of-age story, it’s also a cultural and political commentary with a powerful female heroine. I’m hoping for more than entertainment. I’m hoping that it will make me think.

Of course the key to choosing a challenging read is to finish it! Check back for a review on True Believers (and possibly  The Brothers Karamazov) once I’m finished.

Summer Reading: Gone Girl

The 4th of July has come and gone. That patriotic day seemed to chastise me for my lack of history books or traditional American novels on my bedside table. But, as everyone I had small talk with over the few days was sure to mention, it is really HOT outside.

In my apartment, the room with the best cold potential is the bedroom, with its surprisingly quiet and oh-so-efficient window unit. So my husband and I locked ourselves inside with the internet and books. And when I know I’m going to read something nearly all day, history is just not my pick.

Of course, my beside table wasn’t exactly set up for summer reading either. I’ve got a stack of three books already read, some unfinished manuscripts that will require too much thinking, and a non-fiction how-to manual. Not exactly a lose yourself in between pages kind of material.

So I started browsing Goodreads and Amazon for recommendations. It seemed like every category I tried, Recommended just for me!, Fiction, Mysteries, Thrillers all had the same book at the top of the list. What can I say, it was meant to be.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, published at the beginning of June. I was skeptical. I’ve never read anything by Gillian Flynn before, and I was not in the mood for some slasher story where the victims are predictable in their mistakes and everyone dies. Amazon’s review began,

Marriage can be a real killer.
One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.

So I figured it would be really bad or… possibly really good. Turns out it was the latter. This book is completely unpredictable. Just when you think the hubby is such a nice guy he can’t possibly have done it, he starts talking about her perfectly shaped head again and picturing it all bashed in as she crawls across the kitchen floor. Is he just imagining the worst? Because surely that crazy chic is the killer… Or maybe it never happened at all.

On top of all the sudden stops and 25 mph curves when you think you’re cruising down the straight highway of this plot, it’s also a heart-wrenching story of a marriage gone wrong. But not really in a thriller, these people are just crazy sort of way, not at first. It’s just the story of a couple who have hit a few bumps in the road, dealing with layoffs during the recession, ailing parents, and a general lapse in communication. It feels real, like it could happen to anyone.

Then there’s the prose. There was a point in the Kindle sample when I knew I was going to buy the book. It was on the second page:

6-0-0 the clock said — in my face, first thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings; 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.

The characters have such wonderful characterizations, I would know them if they walked into my local bar. And yet, I wouldn’t know them well enough to say whether they were capable of murder. And that’s exactly how Gillian Flynn has left the reader feeling. All of these characters have flaws, the trouble is determining which of these flaws is criminal, and according to whom.

In the end, I felt vindicated in my pick because the scene of the crime is just outside of Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain and the inspiration for Tom Sawyer. It’s a sleepy town where the tourists — who used to come out in droves — are no longer visiting to write their names on the white fence that Tom painted. Turns out I got a little American history in after all.