What is a Book?

According to Jeffrey Matthews (vp for corporate strategy for Scholastic), “That’s the $64 million question.”

It is also a question the publishing industry — publishers and authors alike — can’t seem to agree upon.  Ten years ago, it was easy to answer that question.  A book was, well, a book.  It was something you could walk into a bookstore or your public library and hold, take home and read.  You bought a book you liked and read it, sometimes many times.  You loaned it to your friends and family — often with threats of violence if they didn’t return it.  You could sell it to used bookstores for a bit of pocket cash (of course, if you did and then someone else bought the book, the author didn’t get any more money from it).

Now it’s not quite so simple to answer that question.  A number of publishers feel a book is still a book — that physical incarnation of an author’s words into print.  Print being the operative word.  E-books have thrown a wrench into the works and the industry simply hasn’t figured out how to respond.  This includes publishers, agents and writers.

That’s one of the reasons we find so many publishers applying DRM to their e-books.  Not understanding that doing so is like telling a recalcitrant child “no”, publishers say they have to apply DRM to their e-books to protect them from piracy.  They don’t stop to think that that merely waves a red flag saying, “I bet you can’t find a way to break our code.”  Guess what, that’s a challenge and what happens when you issue a challenge?  It’s usually taken up.  Don’t believe me, simply google “how to break DRM” and see how many hits you get and how many verified codes using Python and other programs there are.

DRM does something else.  It adds to the cost of e-books.  And, honestly, there will always be people out there who will post digital versions of books online for free.  Their reasons vary.  Some do it because, in their countries, the books may not be available in digital — and sometimes even in print — formats.  Some do it because, as noted above, it’s a challenge and they hate being told they can’t do something.  But digital piracy isn’t limited to books released in digital formats.  If I remember correctly, the last Harry Potter book — none of which have been legitimately released as e-books — was online as a PDF e-book before the book hit the shelves.  So, how did applying DRM to a digital file help prevent piracy?

And this brings me to the question posed in the title of this post.  What is a book?

This is a question those of us involved with Naked Reader Press asked ourselves long before we opened our digital doors.  We’d seen interviews with publishers who hold that a book is only the physical incarnation of an author’s work.  Under this definition, those of us who buy e-books aren’t buying the book.  Instead, we are buying only a license to read the author’s work in a certain digital format.  DRM is their way of enforcing this by preventing us from doing with digital books what we can with physical ones — loan them, sell them, donate them.  Even so, these same publishers who are so adamant about limiting our access to these e-books — and if you don’t believe me, buy an e-book using Adobe Digital Editions and try to read it on a machine that isn’t tied to that specific Adobe account — are more than willing to charge us as much or more for the digital version than we’d pay for the paperback copy of the book.

Still, not all publishers feel this way.  There are some like Baen Books who believe that, once you buy an e-book, it’s yours.  They don’t apply DRM and don’t limit the number of e-readers or computers you can view the e-book on.  This is the camp those folks behind NRP fall into.  To them, and to me, a book is made up of the words an author writes.  A book can take many forms — physical paper versions, electronic, audio, enhanced, etc.  A book is something meant to be enjoyed by readers in whatever form they are most comfortable with.

This divide in thinking may be narrowing.  The Nook, and now the Kindle, allow lending of e-books (with publisher approval).  Mind you, it’s limited to only being able to lend a book one time, for a period of two weeks.  During that two week period, the original purchaser of the e-book cannot access it.  There is the option being offered through these sellers for authors and small publishers to bring out their books DRM-free.  Guess what, most of them — just like NRP — choose no DRM.  Why?  Because they are selling BOOKS, not licenses.

So, what is a book?  Here at NRP, a book is the collection of words, written by an author for readers to read on whatever computer or smart phone or e-reader they want.  After all, why should it make a difference if the book is printed on paper or on your computer screen?  A book is a book is a book and it’s time the industry’s definition caught up with technology.


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8 responses to “What is a Book?

  1. Pingback: What is a Book? « The Naked Truth » Free Online Books to Read

  2. Pingback: What is a Book? Re-posting something worth reading. « Daniel O Casey's Blog

  3. Alright, I just have to jump on the band wagon here. Yes, books is books, regardless of format, and DRM is well, less than useless. As you have noted, it’s a challenge, and is about as effective as DVD encryption…

    Books start at a title, and usually end sometime after the climax, of the last ten I’ve read, one was hardcover, four were paperback, two were on this very screen and three were on my mobile phone…

    BTW, “A Tale of Two Cities” classic though it may have been, is really boring to read on a mobile phone, the prose is way to flowery and convoluted to just pick up and read quick.

    Anyhow, I’ll finish this up over at my blog, but I think I hit the main points I was hoping to include in the comments. Thanks for posting this today. It is great.

    Dan Casey

  4. Pingback: What is a Book? « The Naked Truth | How to Make Money with google

  5. Stephen J. Simmons

    Sorry, but I gots ta take exception — halfway. Back the cart up a century or six, and ask the question again. Then back up a millennium or three more, and ask yet again.

    I don’t write “books”. I write (and beg people to buy) *stories*, regardless of what length they end up being. The first thing I sold was under 600 words; the Volume One that’s currently languishing in an agent’s inbox is 140K. They’re both still *stories*, as is everything else that crawls out of the diseased space between my ears. “The play is the thing”, as some wise guy (as opposed to wiseguy) once said …

    When someone tossed a coin (or half a sausage) in a story-teller’s hat, he bought both the story and the performance. The performance obviously wasn’t something he could carry with him (give or take his skill at mimicry), but he could — and almost certainly did, entertainments being what they were in those days — repeat that story to his mates over a beer later. Without any “theft”, because he had *paid* for the story. What he couldn’t do, without flagrant dishonesty, was proceed to the next streetcorner, invert his cap, and hawk that self-same story to folk there under the pretense that it was his own.

    When I buy a PDQ Bach album, whether it be on cassette, vinyl, CD, or 8-track, it’s mine to enjoy and torture my friends with forever, but it is NOT mine to copy and sell for profit. The same is true of anyone who is kind enough to buy one of my stories. Letting friends read their copy is no different, really, than that medieval peasant recounting the bard’s tale to his mates over a pint of an evening. Mass-producing *clones* of my story to distribute, on the other hand …

    I hope at least a few words of that made something vaguely resembling sense …

  6. Stephen – a book traps the story-teller’s performance in words, so that other people could relive the story. It’s a different form than standing up and telling the story.

    You can’t have a good (fiction) book without a story, and you can’t pass on a story-teller’s performance, not least because the story-teller himself never told it the same way twice. Different media, different experience. They’re related, but they certainly aren’t the same.

    Besides, Naked Reader isn’t letting people copy indiscriminately. My reading (and no, I’m not a lawyer) of the legal stuff on their books is that essentially the good folks at Naked Reader (they’re publishing my stories, of course they’re good folks!) are saying “It’s yours, please don’t go making copies or reselling it.” and trusting their customers to do the right thing.

    Maybe that’s a weird idea these days, but I kind of hope it takes off.

  7. Stephen J. Simmons

    Oh, don’t misunderstand, Kate. I’m agreeing with that sentiment. The idea of NRP, as I perceive it (though I’ve been known to be wrong before …) is to minimize the number of layers between the reader and the *writer*. Because the vast majority of readers, in my experience, genuinely care about the writers who tell the stories they enjoy, the folks who create the characters and places they love. It’s hard for me to feel much of anything for the Houghton-Mifflin Publishing Company (the publisher-of-record for the leather-bound LotR set one of my closest friends gave me twenty years ago), but Tolkein? The man who created Samwise Gamgee and Turin Turambar? How could I NOT love that guy? How could I FAIL to want to make sure he (or his heirs) gets a fair piece of the cover price for the copies on my shelf … or the copies on whatever electronic-reading device I choose to load his work onto in the future?

    I *want* Sir PTerry and David Weber and John Ringo to be able to support themselves entirely from their writing, so I can get more DiscWorld and more Honor Harrington and more Aldenata books. I want to give those writers money for PURELY self-serving and selfish reasons. Anyone who wants to steal their work, forcing them to get day jobs and write less, is an idiot.

  8. Stephen, yes that did make sense, well kinda anyhow. I didn’t think to split the difference between stories and their physical incarnation, then again I’ve been multi-platform for so long that as long as there are words being transmitted to my alleged brain, I never really notice what format they came in… (heh, even audio-books aren’t safe anymore, a forty minute drive is a LOT of dead brain time… to AND from work, each day…)

    Kate, I think you’ve pretty much hit the concept in one for what Naked Reader is doing.

    Personally, I am in this to entertain both those around me and to give people things to think about. If somebody likes what crawls out from between my ears enough to buy it (without coercion), then we all win, if not, then well, I’m out some time and a story, which sucks but such is life. There will always be pirates, there will always be those who feel that they’re entitled to “free” stuff (regardless of how hard it is for us to produce it) but I think it was Amanda from NR here that said it a while back, the only way to deal with those individuals is to open up so they’re not stealing it. Something like that. I apologize if I got it wrong, but such is my memory.. *sigh* enough rambling, have to get back to work.


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