I've been looking into the whole publishing industry, specifically the print-on-demand (POD) portion. Places like Lulu.com and iUniverse let you plop a couple of hundred bucks on the table, upload your PDF and a cover image and your book goes into Amazon for sale.
The thing that had been nagging at the back of my mind when considering these tools is that the books "cost" the author something like $11-14 for a trade paperback (the 6"x9" paperbacks that so many business books are printed as). The setup fee I actually understood more than this. It does cost time and money to make sure the file is formatted correctly and won't fubar the POD printer, etc. However, I figured that they were aiming to make their money mostly on the first 20 or so copies of the book along with the setup fees. This is much like how portrait and wedding photographers work. They charge very little over their costs (or below in many cases) for the actual service and mark up a $3-5 8x10 to $30-50. When you buy a few, the total amount evens out their costs and they're OK with it. When I saw setup fees of $100 and per book costs of $11, I figured this was going on here as well.
Turns out it is. A single POD printer actually prints almost ALL of the POD books on the market: Lightning Source. They're a division of Ingram books, which in turn distributes the vast majority of books to brick and morter as well as online bookstores. Basically, Ingram has a great vertical market and did a great job of setting it up. Lulu and iUniverse are just 2 of a long list of "publishers" who are little more than middle-men taking manuscripts and passing them on to Lightning Source (LS hereafter). The list of places that LS recommends you go if you're an author and not a publisher yourself is a long one. If you've heard of any of these, they all use LS to do the printing: AuthorHouse, Aventine Press, Black Forest Press, Booklocker.com, Inc, BookPublisher.com, Cold Tree Press, Cork Hill Press, First Books, Infinity Publishing, iUniverse, Llumina Press, LuLu, Morgan James Publishing, LLC, Outskirts Press, PageFree Publishing, Inc., Publish America, Tabby House, Universal Publishers, Unlimited Publishing, WinePress Publishing, Xlibris, Xulon Press.
I did a little more digging and found a great blog full of information on how to become your own publisher and get access to the *real* cost of actually getting the book printed and distributed. The information there confirmed my suspicions. The setup costs are, indeed in the $100-$300 range depending on what you actually do and how long the book is, but the actual printing costs are much lower. For a 128 page book he uses as an example a lot, LS will print and deliver the book for about $3. The only barrier is being a publisher with an ISBN prefix. (see footnote for my current activities in this direction if you're intrigued).
The author of that site is really selling his book (though most of the information you really need to start a publishing company is there on the site) and it looked interesting. When I went over to Amazon to buy it, I noticed that it had an ebook version. Knowing that I start writing my novel on Tuesday, I wanted to have the information in my hands as soon as I could. That, combined with the lower price had me ordering the Adobe PDF ebook version of the book . . . my last Adobe PDF book . . . ever.
Before I continue, I want to say that the content itself has been useful and worth every penny. But, like a perfectly grilled steak served up on a dirty garbage can lid, it's not entirely the content that matters here.
I bought the book during my morning blogging/breakfast/reading/browsing time. First, Amazon required that I re-enter my credit card information. Since I actually use a designated card for Amazon purchases and don't carry that card with me (and, being in my bath robe, I didn't have any of the others either), so I had to go upstairs and dig for credit cards. Amazon has stored my credit card information for so long, this was a major irritation. They say it was because it was my "first digital" purchase. Too bad it will be my last unless they change formats.
OK. So, I had the credit card in hand and typed it in. The purchase went through and there was a download link in Amazon, so I downloaded the the file to my download location and opened it. Well, it's not actually a PDF at that point, just the digital rights management (DRM) authorization. It starts up Acrobat reader and pitches a fit because I turned the auto-update feature off a while back. So, I turn it back on and go to open the file again. It's gone. Apparently it deletes the file if it can't open things up properly.
Given my experience trying to download another copy of an audiobook that got corrupted from iTunes, I figured I was just out $9. iTunes only let me download it again "as a 1 time exception". Fortunately, Amazon has better customer service and my digital locker would let me download it again, though I was starting to wonder when it might cut me off.
I triple verified that Acrobat was able to update and opened the file again. This time it connected and did a LOT of stuff before bringing up a 181 page PDF. This wasn't the first protected PDF I'd used or anything, but the first that did this whole long dance. I'd subscribed to several PDF magazines that were encrypted with my email address but they didn't do anything this elaborate.
So, I read for about 15-20 minutes until it was time to get dressed and go to work. I figured I'd print out a chunk of it 4 pages to a sheet and read it walking in from the parking lot and at lunch, etc. because I was enjoying the content. I did the math and figured if I did 6 per sheet instead, I'd just get a whole copy and be done with it. So, I hit print and headed to my office to see the printout. Turned out too small for even me to be comfortable with, so I hit cancel to avoid wasting toner and paper. I went back to print it at 4 per instead and discovered one of the wonderful "features" of the DRM that the author decided to use. Apparently, he chose to "allow" printing of the book once per year. You read right. And, the 12 pages that made it out of my printer counted as my once. On every machine I ever want to use the file on.
After all of that, I figured I'd just download another copy to my workstation on the client site for reading during lunch and work with what I had. I worked the morning away and made it to lunch, when I logged into Amazon to do the whole download dance again. As I hadn't modified my Acrobat installation on that machine, I just launched it. It started up and started trying to verify the rights and then promptly died. It couldn't see the servers. Apparently, this "consumer friendly" DRM uses the LDAP ports to verify rather than the web port 80. Given the literally thousands of corporate firewalls that only allow ports 80 and 443 as outbound traffic, this pretty much meant that the file was useless there too.
I tried a couple of different ways to see if I could easily route the traffic, etc. to no avail and wasted my entire lunch hour. When I got home, I looked for a way to break it open (never even crossed my mind until it slapped me over and over), but generally don't like downloading cracking tools and abandoned that quickly. I tried printing to postscript, etc. as well as a last ditch resort. Thought I might save a copy of the PDF itself and transfer that, but the DRM kicks in again. I quit once I'd put about $150 worth of my billable time into it and figured I'd just read what I had and vow never to buy another one of these things again.
The net result is that I paid a dollar amount that most ebook publishers would be thrilled with: $9 for a digital copy of a book. I was OK with it. I barely even hesitated. I wanted the immediate delivery. I then tried to do EXACTLY what I do with every single print book I buy: read it while walking in from the parking lot, at lunch, etc. I never tried to give it to anyone else. I never "shared" it or distributed it in any way. Yet, the DRM so got in my way that I've moved from being the ideal ebook customer to never going anywhere near any ebook that uses anything similar ever again. Frankly, I'm completely amazed that they've sold as many of these things to people as they have.
And, beyond that, all of the people over the next couple of days who will read this now also know about it and many of them will avoid them as well. This is particularly ironic given the strong urging the author gives for the use of an author website and internet marketing to promote your book. That particular effect can cut both ways. The internet spreads word of mouth and doesn't care whether it's good or bad.
I'm now even more convinced that I made the right decision with Inheritance to make it completely open source and to plan to make all of the final digital versions available in the most open and transparent formats available.
*Footnote: Incidentally, for OpenFiction's purposes, my own novel and some non-fiction book ideas I've had, I've already started this process. Contact me if you're interested in publishing open source books under Creative Commons licenses with printed copies via this model. I'm really only interested in working with folks who are hip to the idea of freely available open source digital versions of those same books.