A Reader’s Bill of Rights (Kassia Krozser)

Kassia Krozser, publisher of Booksquare.com, covers the intersection of technology and publishing. Kassia has worked in web and digital publishing for over ten years, focusing primarily on content development and management. As co-owner of Oxford Media Works, she consults with clients and develops digital publishing initiatives. You can find Kassia on Twitter at: @booksquare.

Every revolution has to start somewhere, and the digital books revolution started with readers. Oh sure, Amazon and Sony helped with their reading devices, but it was the people who created and sustained a demand for ebooks even as publishers considered them too small a market to worry about.

And it is the reader who is bearing the brunt of the rapid, sometimes erratic, sometimes brilliant transition of traditional publishers into publishers of the future. We—the readers—have experienced windowing schemes, formatting disasters, and, of course, Digital Rights Management (DRM) machinations that restrict our access to the books we’ve purchased.

To this day, I still cannot extract certain books I purchased directly from a publisher from the stranglehold of Adobe Digital Editions. In fact, every time I open ADE, it becomes an exercise in absurdity. My rule? If you, the publisher, make me use ADE, then I, the reader, will take my business elsewhere.

Yet I stick with digital books because they give me the best reading option for my lifestyle. I find I will suffer a lot to read books. Which reminds me of an awful summer day, an overly long walk to the library, and, oh yes, a sunburn. But hey, I came home with new books to read!

Publishers write manifestos. Publishers compile bullet-pointed lists detailing their value. Publishers assert their legal rights, their moral rights, their evolving copyright rights.

Maybe it’s time that readers did the same. We are, after all, the ones who shell out our hard-earned money to purchase books. We serve as the greatest unpaid marketing team ever assembled in the history of the world. We play by the rules, and we should demand a voice when someone decides those rules should change.

Yet, too often, when publishers talk about readers, they mean devices, not humans.

A Reader Bill of Rights

Thus, it is time for a Reader Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights seems a uniquely American thing, shorthand for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, but such listings of express rights go back to 1689, when the British laid out rights and liberties after King James the Second did some bad, bad stuff. Then, of course, there was the Magna Carta, which was an early Bill of Rights. Heck, one could argue that the Code of Hammurabi was our first attempt to wrap some legalese around rights.

Demanding—and obtaining—rights is something our species does. Before we get too deep into the ebook rabbit hole, it is essential that readers lay out their demands and associated reasoning. It is also incumbent on publishers to acknowledge and respond to these demands. Thus, a dialogue will be born. On the reader side, we won’t get everything we want. Publishers, if they don’t want us to exercise our Right to Walk Away, will accede certain points. Both sides will come away better understanding each other.

Because—and this is really, really, really, important—readers want to pay money for books. They want to read books. They want to talk about books. They want to force beloved books into the hands of innocent bystanders in the hope that those bystanders will love those books just as much as that first reader did.

Readers are the most important part of the publishing food chain, after, of course, authors. Hmm, let me take that back. Without the formal publishing structure, authors will still find a way to reach readers. Readers will still find a way to discover authors. So, let me declare it so: readers are the most important part of the (traditional) publishing food chain.

So, what rights do readers demand?

The Right to Read

What we want, when we want, how we want.

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Books haven’t really worked this way, of course. For some books, windowing has been part of their lifecycle. First comes the hardcover, then (maybe) the trade paperback, and finally, the little mass market paperback comes trotting along, a long time after that marketing push that creates consumer awareness. Windowing makes a certain sort of sense in the world of print—hardcover books make some good money for publishers.

Windowing makes absolutely no sense in the world of digital books. This is a world where an ebook can appear before the print book is, well, printed (this would normally lead me on a detour involving better internal controls and suggestions that anti-piracy zealots should not cast stones and all that). This is a world where the conversation about the book, or, shall I say, awareness of the book, happens instantaneously. I am sorry to report that same awareness evaporates when the next shiny object appears on the horizon. For so many books, the moment to capture a reader’s attention is fleeting.

It is incumbent upon publishers to make sure the book is available in the format readers want during that moment.

This extends beyond the U.S. market. The world of publishing is no longer insulated. It is no longer segregated by territory. In some ways, it is no longer segregated by language. The way readers, publishers, and everyone else in the food chain communicate is instantaneous and global. What sense can one make of staggering international release dates?

What sense can one make of a world where rights sit on the table while pirates make sure local readers are well-served?

I am sure there was a good time for publishing to practice business as usual when it comes to ebooks—I cannot think of one, but will assume this to be true—but right now, it is essential that the part of the publishing ecosystem that makes sure readers get the books they want, when they want them, how they want them gets its act together right now.

The Right to Read Freely

With print books, readers can do many things. They can purchase them in various formats (hard cover, trade paperback, mass market paperback) from various retailers—there are no differences in the books sold by Barnes & Noble and your local independent bookseller. They borrow that exact same book from the library, though some may have special “library binding” to make them last longer. They can donate the finished book to Goodwill, take it to a used bookstore for cash or trade, toss it in the trash (oh, no, don’t!). They can even press the book into the hands of family or friends, knowing a shared book is a book that will be shared again.

With ebooks, not so much. Through their insistence on DRM, publishers have ensured that readers cannot get the same format from every retailer, much less the local library. We cannot share our ebooks easily with friends, much less family. Donating an ebook so another reader can discover a great author and read? Forget about it! And what happens when we reach the arbitrary “device limit” set by publishers for our books? We must go through contortions to get to the content we pay good money for.

In fact, the only thing we can easily do with our ebooks is trash them.

There is something seriously wrong with the business model of ebooks.

We, the readers, demand the ability to read freely, to be freed of the chains that lock us into a single retailer or device. We demand smarter ways to share—if not the whole book, enough to entice our victim. We demand fewer device restrictions. Let us, at least, have the ability to port our books freely as we buy new devices.

The Right of First Sale

For as long as people have been buying books, they have been purchasing the right to do whatever they want with them. For some, this meant sharing with family and friends. For others, this meant cutting a hidey hole into the page and secreting away valuables. We’ve sold our books for money or traded them for more books. We’ve transformed our books into works of art. If you ask a reader, you will discover he or she has done things with books that can only be mentioned in whispers.

However, we did not technically own our books, what with the authors owning the underlying intellectual property. This prevented us from doing stuff like copying the words and selling them as our own. We were fine with this limitation because we owned the physical object, and short of the aforementioned copyright infringement, we could do whatever we damned well pleased with those books.

And we did.

Then came ebooks and a whole new set of rules. Suddenly, our books were subject to DRM. Ain’t no reader who loves DRM, but I can guarantee there are major retailers out there who give praise to the DRM gods every day. DRM restricts the reader’s former rights under the First Sale Doctrine. The First Sale Doctrine, if I may paraphrase, essentially allows the consumer all those lovely rights mentioned in the first paragraph of this section.

With digital books, the rights we enjoyed—though, I will admit it is unlikely anyone will cut a hidey hole in an ebook—have evaporated. We cannot resell an ebook. We cannot (easily) share an ebook. We cannot donate an ebook to charity. In fact, exercising the very rights book buyers have enjoyed since the beginning of book buying time could lead to charges of copyright infringement.

It could lead to otherwise upright citizens being labeled, oh this is hard to type, pirates.

Yeah, in the digital world, you are a criminal when you try to exercise the same rights you enjoy in the print world.

This is wrong. Don’t misunderstand me. I fully understand how easy it is for someone to steal a work. It’s happened to me. But losing my First Sale rights means I am getting less “book” for the money I pay. And that changes my perspective on the value of what I am purchas…er, licensing.

Oh, yes, we will be getting back to this idea.

The Right to Valued Content

Publishers often talk about this or that new thing “devaluing” books, but I am here to say it is the publishers who are doing their own product the most harm. Every time a publisher allows a print book or ebook to be released with poor editing, poor proofreading, and poor quality, the value of books in general diminishes in the mind of readers.

We deserve better.

If publishers want us to value their content, then publishers need to lead by example by producing content that shows how much they value both their authors and their customers. This means putting and end to things like consistently substituting the character “1” for “I”. No more bizarre line breaks mid-paragraph. No out-of-order content (seriously, how does this stuff get past quality assurance?). No missing content. Remember, when reading a book, traditional quotation marks make far more sense than the HTML code for said quotation marks. And so on.

The sad fact of the matter is these types of errors appear in just about every ebook I read, from publishers great and small.

Listing the common conversion errors I see in ebooks could take hours, and that is just plain wrong. When I start a book, I shouldn’t have to worry about errors, but there is always that niggling doubt in my mind: What if this is a disaster?

Sometimes, the problem is so egregious I return the book. Sometimes, I carry on, only to scream in frustration when a massive error destroys the author’s carefully wrought prose, ripping me out of the story. Really, there is nothing more frustrating than preventable screw-ups ruining a climactic scene. No. Thing.

Consistent, persistent, across-the-catalog errors are the fastest way to devalue content I know, and the fault lies directly with each and every publisher who allows bad books to be sold to readers. I no longer trust publishers to do right by their books, and, by extension, me.

We deserve better.

The Right to the Whole Book (with a Shout-Out to the Right to Good Metadata)

This seems obvious, doesn’t it? I mean, shouldn’t a book be whole from the get-go? So what is a whole book? I, after multiple decades of reading, have a fairly good idea of what this means. In addition to the words that, strung together, comprise the story (or stories) being told, there is stuff like the name of the author, front matter, back matter. Oh, and cover art.

If a publisher is convinced these elements are important enough for the print edition, surely they are important enough for the digital edition? Sure, the cover art may not be as pretty when viewed in the grayscale of e-Ink, but, hey, that cover is part of what I pay for (in all honesty, sometimes those shades of gray really make artwork pop).

Or that front and back matter. Stuff like teasers and descriptions of the book. The author bio. The author photo. These are, according to publishers, important to the book package. Oh sure, not as important as the actual words that comprise the meat of the book package, but important nonetheless.

Funny, I cannot remember ever seeing an author photo in an ebook, but maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough.

Yes, ebooks are different, so, yes, some creative rethinking of traditional elements needs to be employed by publishers to ensure this type of content makes sense to readers. There is nothing, I tell you, nothing more disconcerting to be suddenly dropped into (unmarked) teaser content, only to have the next page filled with entirely different time, place, and characters. This is fixable, and it matters. (See “The Right to Valued Content”.)

When publishers talk about the value of a book—and, more importantly, how certain initiatives devalue the book—they are very righteous on this point. I think offering a less-than-complete version of any book to consumers shows that the publisher doesn’t value that content. It also says the publisher doesn’t value the consumer purchasing the content.

Is that the message publishers want to send in this day and age?

And with ebooks (and, let’s be honest, print books), there needs to special attention to the information about the book. This is known as metadata. The topic has been covered previously in this book, and it doesn’t hurt to say more. Getting the metadata right leads to better discovery. It leads to better cataloguing. It leads to better reading experiences. At no time should a book go out with metadata that indicates the author is the publisher’s marketing director (unless this is, in fact, a true statement).

We, the readers, have a right to get the whole book and nothing but the whole book.

The Right to a Reasonably Priced Book

I know the monetary value of a book is in the eye of a beholder, but ebooks, frankly, cost too much money. This is particularly true given that the quality of the digital book is sometimes orders of magnitude below the quality of the print edition. And, of course, what I get in digital is nowhere near the same as what I get in print.

As I mentioned previously, as an ebook purchaser (or, more accurately, licensor), I am losing a whole host of rights I enjoy (note: present tense) with print books. As mentioned in my Right to the Whole Book, often I am getting less book than my print purchase counterparts. And I noted that my Right to Valued Content is seriously compromised by the ebook production process.

(This final point, I sincerely hope will be rectified immediately, or traditional publishers will surely lose market share to new entities that place a premium on offering quality digital content to their customers.)

I am willing to accept some trade-offs, like, oh, my Right of First Sale, if the price I pay for my books reflects this concession. I am willing to overlook the fact that my ebook isn’t quite as full-figured as its print counterpart, if the price I pay for my books reflects this concession. I am willing to buy lots and lots of books, if the price I pay for my books reflects a serious consideration of what I get, what I lose, and what publishers can sell that book for while making money.

I am not naive about the underlying costs of publishing (this stuff, I do every day). I am not naive about the marginal costs of ebooks (this stuff, I do every day). I know the margins for digital, and, because I want the publishing industry to flourish, am thrilled they are as high as they are. If I were to be very generous to publishers, I’d say they were making 75% margins, after the retailer split. If I were to be more realistic, I’d put those margins in the high 90% bracket. Noting, in both instances, that the costs of editorial, production, marketing, and overhead remain largely the same in digital as they do in print.

And these costs must necessarily be factored into the overall cost of the book.

Knowing this, ebooks are priced too high, mostly because their prices are reflective of a print model. I get that publishers are still trying to work out the kinks of how to price ebooks, but those kinks are more like major bends. While publishers navigate them, they face serious competition from the self-published author, the digital start-up, and pirates, not to mention competition from other media.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it. Books are special. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think so. But books are part of the entertainment media mix—please, don’t get distraught, this is merely a factual statement!—and books have to be competitive with other media.

And, I will say it again, ebooks cost too damn much!

The Right to Excellent Customer Service

With the Big Six shift from the so-called Wholesale Model to the Agency Model for ebooks, publishers are now, essentially, selling books to consumers. The retailers act as service providers for the publishers, generally fulfilling the order, facilitating the financial transaction, and, oh, bearing the brunt of consumer frustration. Ever try to contact a publisher about an issue with an ebook?

I have, and I am here to say the whole process went about as well as you’d expect.

Which is to say, there was no communication back, no easy method to make contact, and, of course, no resolution to my problem. Seriously, when a customer contacts you to say, “Hey, this ebook you published was nearly unreadable because your conversion process was not followed up with a halfway decent proofreading process,” don’t you at least give that consumer the courtesy of a response? A thank you for doing the publisher’s job? A “we are very sorry, and we are going to do everything in our power to make this right for you right now.”

If you are going to sell me books, then you must treat me like a valued customer. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, All Romance ebooks, Kobo, Books on Board…these are conduits between you and the consumer. You, dear publisher, are the seller of the book. Act like it.

The Right to Innovation

Some famous dude once said that people don’t know what they want until someone gives it to them. I’d say this is half true. Consumers are smarter and more technologically savvy than, I worry, publishers realize. We know how the Internet works, and we don’t understand why (certain) books don’t work like the Internet. We don’t understand why bookish content, in this day and age, feels so…print-ish.

Right now, readers are like explorers, seeing the boundaries of books, realizing the potential of content, and wondering what’s on the horizon. We don’t necessarily know what we want. We don’t necessarily know what can be done (though we certainly have opinions). We just know that some books can be more.

This means we are expecting publishers to, well, tell us what we want. Give us lots of options, some of which we will embrace, many of which we will reject because innovation means there will be a lot of stupid stuff. Remember, we don’t necessarily know what we want.

But we want publishers to be innovators, to give us options. In some ways, this may be a thankless task, but, I suspect, in many ways, this will be the path to a wild, crazy, amazing future. Don’t wait for us to ask.

The Right to Privacy and Security

This may not seem like a big issue, but as publishers (hopefully) develop direct contact with consumers and readers, it will become important, particularly as publishers move into direct-to-consumer ventures such as the multi-publisher sales and discovery venture called Bookish. While developing the (presumably) cool features and algorithms, publishers need to be developing strong, effective privacy policies and controls.

Likewise, as publishers enter into joint ventures and partnerships with third parties—app developers, book-related ventures—the privacy and security of customers must remain paramount to publishers. It’s the little things…like protecting names (real and not-so-real), credit card information, and personal information such as addresses.

We have a right to have our privacy and security guarded zealously, as zealously by publishers as this information is guarded by librarians. That is the standard I hold publishers to.

The Right to Walk Away

If a publisher doesn’t give us what we want, we can take our money elsewhere. And we will. Hmm, that sounds awfully threatening.

Here’s the deal. If the quality of ebooks from major publishers remains low while the prices remain high, then other reading options looking increasingly attractive to readers. Here is an example. I purchased a publisher-produced reprint of a favorite book, and it was riddled with conversion errors. There were so many that I wrote the publisher to complain (and, of course, received no response). The price was $7.99.

I purchased an author-produced reprint of a favorite book. It, too, was riddled with errors. However, I only paid $2.99 for the second book, and, to be honest, the overall number of errors was smaller.

So, why would I ever again trust the publisher of the $7.99 book? Why would I risk my money and waste my time? Since there are so many other reading options available to me, I choose to walk away from books produced by this particular publisher. I am not unique.

I find I do a lot of walking away. That is what happens when you break trust with your best customers. They shop elsewhere. And right now, with the competition for reading growing exponentially—every time a funny picture of a cat appears on the Internet, it cuts into someone’s reading time—publishers cannot afford for readers to walk away.

For most of my reading life, I’ve asked very little of publishers. Good books, mostly. I think it is because I was able to take so many of my rights as a reader for granted. I never had to worry about the First Sale Doctrine. Never had to think about getting the whole book. Never really worried about quality control (though I did sometimes wonder what some editors were smoking when they published books that my cat could write with more clarity and development of story).

It is only with the digital transition that I realize what I am losing.

And I demand that my rights be honored.


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