Report: Is DRM Killing the Publishing Industry?

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Words by Chris Russell, photos by Daniel Solomons.

Byte The Book enjoyed a record attendance for its opening event of 2015, a debate on the controversial topic of Digital Rights Management (DRM). CEO of the Publishers Association Richard Mollett chaired the discussion, which pitted author and co-founder of Unbound John Mitchinson against Stephanie Duncan, Digital Media Director at Bloomsbury.

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Host Justine Solomons thanks January sponsors, WhatCanIDoWithThisContent.

John, who had been asked to propose the motion that digital rights management is “killing the publishing industry”, began boldly by stating that the topic, quite possibly, didn’t actually need debating in the first place. “It’s over,” he said. “DRM is one of those things that everyone goes around blaming everyone else for, but there are far more important things for the industry to focus on”. He summed up DRM’s major issues in three steps: 1) it costs money, 2) it doesn’t increase sales and 3) it has failed to achieve what it was set up for (he then joked that the abbreviation might be better understood as “doomed, redundant, moribund”).

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Debaters: Stephanie Duncan and John Mitchinson, with their chair Richard Mollet in the centre.

Stephanie countered with some of the specific ways in which DRM directly benefits publishing, such as facilitating subscription models (where the concept of content ownership is replaced with a fixed period of access) and the lending of library books. It doesn’t just lock up content, she stressed, but liberates it too. She argued that, while it could and should be better, DRM is nevertheless moving forward as fast as everything else in the industry and does have its part to play in the trafficking of content to consumers. Most readers don’t actually want to break the law – they simply want to share content in a way that is straightforward, legitimate and sustainable.

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Twitter wall were very active.

Some interesting comments floated in from the floor, including an observation from an audience member with a software background that, unlike gatekeepers in other industries, publishers are yet to figure out how to adequately put a price on content and reward writers accordingly. Stephanie conceded that, while this might be true, publishing is inevitably a hit-and-miss, risk-versus-reward business, where you’ll always find yourself staring down the barrel of a 90% miss rate.


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The Club at the Ivy was filled to the brim, with 114 people in total attending

When it was suggested that DRM might actually be the retailers’ fault rather than the publishers’, although there was general agreement from the panel, Imola Unger of eBooks by Sainsbury’s raised an objection from the audience, revealing that Sainsbury’s would love to be able to bypass DRM (having to tell customers that this or that book isn’t available on Kindle is, she explained, deeply frustrating). She argued that the notion of readers being tied into one system was obsolete, especially as Sainsbury’s often outdo Amazon with their special offers.

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Byte the Booker John Pettigrew Founder of Futureproofs asks a question to the panel

In a direct echo of previous events, the focus of the evening proved to be the importance of connecting writers with readers. “The future of publishing,” concluded John, “is in the space between the great writer and the intelligent reader”. Stephanie, meanwhile, was stoically optimistic about the role of publishers in facilitating that connection: “If everything goes to pot like it did in the music industry, we’ll just figure out another way to sell books… because that, at the end of the day, is what we do”.

If you enjoyed this report and want to keep up with the latest happenings in publishing as well as network with publishers and authors alike join us at The Groucho Club on Tuesday 17th February  2015.

Click here for some more official photos of the event.

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