Beating the drum for DRM?

I finished marking some PUB310 semester tests. In one of the questions, I ask students to suggest criteria that would influence their choice of ebook vendor. A criterion that is often used is the use of digital rights management (DRM) – or at least, the option of providing DRM for titles. According to the memorandum, this statement is part of an acceptable answer.

Given my personal feelings about DRM in general (feelings that are often compounded by Steam), this criterion worries me – especially when presented as a quick solution for  protecting intellectual property. Frankly, I want them to realise that selecting DRM as a default option without considering the effects of that choice is a very bad thing.

In Beating the drum for DRM?, Appazoogle’s Leah Thompson summarises discussions for and against the use of DRM. Leah shows how the Triangle of Fraud – a model used to investigate accounting fraud – can be used to consider the relationship between DRM and piracy. One of the components of this triangle is rationalization: ‘I already own the book version.’ ‘It’s not worth as much as they’re trying to charge.” The other two, pressure (high prices) and opportunity (cheap bandwidth), might imply that lowering prices can play as great a role as reducing opportunities to pirate (such as litigation or access restrictions).



I’m a geek, but love books first and foremost (# 3) – Storieman and kids book apps

This is the third in a series of posts [1][2][3] that explain just how much I love reading, especially books.

Technology doesn’t discourage kids from reading. As a child, one of my favourite book series was enhanced with tape cassettes that read out the text and guided the reader through the pages. I knew the book series in Afrikaans as Storieman, published by Rubicon-Press in 1982, but discovered today that the original UK version is The Story Teller by Marshall Cavendish.

Storieman cover page

I was reminded of Storieman while reading the ebook version of The Schatzkin Files – a collection of posts about changes in the book industry – especially his thoughts on enhanced ebooks and juvenile fiction.

Storieman was a collection of children’s stories that came with a set of eight-track tapes. You (or a parent) would open the book, play the cassette, and read along with the narrators that spoke in the voices of the characters. Every now and then, a “priiiiing” would sound, prompting you to turn the page.

We -loved- Storieman. I recall getting excited when our mother called us to read and the disappointment I’d feel when the tape player would abruptly interrupt the story by asking us to turn it around to side B. Gobblino, the Witch’s Cat was by far one of our favourites.

Gobbolino, the Witch's Cat

In his post, Mike predicts that juvenile fiction will migrate to enhanced digital products much faster than narrative text. Also, these kids’ titles will be produced by new companies rather than book publishers. He mentions examples of publishers partnering digital media studios – the kinds of companies that film and TV studios have also been to create interactive experiences around their content – to create reading experiences for kids in the form of apps.

PopOut! PeterMonster at the End of this Book, a Sesame Street bookMonster at the End of this Book, a Sesame Street book

What if Storieman were available as an app?

I’ve noticed a significant growth in children’s ebook apps on both the iTunes and Android stores.  There are books that read out text, books that let you interact with illustrations (some rather useless; making each object in the scene wiggle and bleep is a distraction at the least), books with puzzles and books that emulate other “enhanced” children’s books such as virtual “pull-out” books.

I also showed some of these apps to my niece, a precocious and loquacious 7 old. Both she and her mom were delighted by these books and it took a bit of encouragement for my niece to part with the tablet.

The Reluctant Catterpillar, a Meegenius kids' book application.Four seasons kids' book applicationFour seasons kids' book application

Storieman was an enhanced book, and reading about Mike’s predictions about childrens’ literature and ebook apps, I wondered what Storieman could have been like today. Then I discovered that Human & Rosseau is planning to release the series again – this time on CD. So far, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to do anything else with the content viz. Pottermore, but I wonder what they could do…

In order to pass this course, you should publish an ebook.

I want to try out a different way of evaluating an ebook project, but there seems to be some resistance to the idea – the idea being that they should actually publish a ebook – get it “out there” – as part of their qualification.

In this post, I try to explain my reasoning behind this idea.

About the course

I teach publishing students about publishing in the digital environment. While the course covers various aspects of e-publishing, our focus lies in ebooks. As one of their assignments, students prepare content into an EPUB document, theoretically meant for publication in the ebook marketplace. They also investigate various ebook vendors in a theoretical assignment where they act as a publisher intending to distribute its titles.

The theoretical nature of these assignments bothers me. The publishing industry is inherently a production industry. If we expect students to play a role in preparing and distributing content in the real world, they should have some experience in it.

Academic vs. vocational training

This proposal underlies the nature of evaluation methods in higher education. Universities are playing an increasing role in vocational training: that is, preparing students for the workplace. The need to offer both vocational and academic training is a balancing act between research-focused and practice-focused assignments.

Employers in South Africa need skilled workers:

“In 2009, Higher Education South Africa (HESA) released a study titled “Graduate Attributes”, which was a study on South African graduates from the perspective of employers. It highlighted a disparity between the expectations of employers and the readiness of graduates, and while expectations outstripped readiness, there was some good news as some colleges were driven towards producing graduates fully prepared for the workplace.”

One way to give my students workplace experience is to encourage them to publish an ebook. This won’t shift the outcomes of the assignments and it will encourage the kinds of teaching methods I believe are useful in both vocational and academic training: learning done through actively engaging with the subject matter.

Also, various degrees require of students a certain amount of workplace experience. What better way to have students experience the ebook industry than having them publish?

Why I’m an ebook evangelist, especially in Africa

E-publications can solve our woes:  why I’m an ebook evangelist

This article is meant for a South African audience, but my feelings about the value of e-publications are meant for everyone. 

A decade ago you listened to music and watched video much differently – the same transformation is happening to books. Ebooks represent 15 – 20% of major US trade publisher sales [1] – a fraction of the global ebook market – and the South African market is growing. Readers buy ebooks from [2], subscribe to You via iPads [3] , send documents from Blackberry to Blackberry. Soon, we will buy books directly from copy shops [4] and lend ebooks from libraries [5].I firstly discuss the practical aspects, then finish with my motivation for advocating ebooks.

Practical: where to get an ebook

Search your favourite author, book or title – look for an option entitled :”get a copy”. If the publisher offers the option, you can to buy the ebook from many stores – or get it for free.

Google books searches inside existing books. I found 856,000 publications referring to Nelson Mandela and can read many of them directly from my browser.
Google ebooks takes this a step further, giving you access to the ebook – if available.

Main ebook formats

Any text document is theoretically an ebook. The main file formats for what most understand as ebooks are:

1) Portable Document Format [6]

PDF thrives in a fixed-layout environment. It’s easy to generate and to share. However, mobile devices cannot reflow the content of a PDF, making it difficult to read.

2) Electronic Publication [7]

Epub is based on HTML – the language of the web. No-one owns this format. It’s becoming the standard way to deliver e-publications and is reflowable – perfect for mobile displays.

3) Kindle [8]

Kindle is also based on HTML, but Amazon owns the format. Amazon is the global market leader in sales of its Kindle devices, so I expect you’ve heard of “Kindle books” already.

Ereaders / media tablets / smart phones (EMTS)

The difference between these devices is their displays – both in terms of dimensions and operation.

E-ink versus LCD

Ereaders use a display called e-ink [9]. Unlike other displays (e.g. LCD), e-ink looks better in sunlight. E-ink also uses less power; a device can last for two months without recharge. LCD displays consume a lot of power, so media tablets such as the iPad have a limited battery life (around 8-10 hours).


If you want to try out one these ‘reading devices’, but aren’t sure which to try, consider:

Ereaders Media tablets / smart phones
Cheaper (R1200+) Expensive (R3000+)
Long battery life (in weeks) Short battery life (in hours)
Read better in sunlight Read worse in sunlight

Both offer internet access, though, which is important.

Think in terms of the platform, not in terms of specific devices

You don’t need an EMTS to read ebooks. Amazon realized this and released their Kindle software on multiple platforms (Mac, PC, iPhone, Blackberry, Android…) [10].

Motivation: why I’m excited about e-reading

A publishing student asked me why we learn about ebooks in South Africa, where people can’t afford ereaders, never mind books. I didn’t have a straight answer for her back in 2006, when digital media consumption hadn’t yet reached the book sector – but as anyone in the publishing profession can attest, things have changed.

South Africa is a connected society, and increasingly so

Now my answer is: a majority of us can afford mobile devices [11]. Our reading is moving towards the mobile internet [12]. To emphasize my point about SA and mobile media consumption, consider Blackberry. There are more Blackberries in use in SA than any other phone – yet, globally, Research In Motion (RIM) has a 13.4% share. [13]. RIM is the only company to offer free mobile internet access via its Blackberry devices –  access to ebooks.

Investing in the digital marketplace, we can save money

Media tablets are currently only for the privileged. Ereaders prices are dropping steeply (R3200 to R1200 in three years [14]). Also, Amazon offers free 3G browsing on its Kindle ereader. Initiatives such as Worldreader and Paperight (a-must-read for publishers) [4] are underway to place books in every African’s hands – and ebooks play a significant role in this.This is why I’m excited about ebooks in South Africa – as you should be.

This will also appear in the OSALL newsletter. 

Other presentations

Digital publishing: ebooks and mobile devices
Making sense of ebooks