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The Future of Short Stories, Part 2: DRM

August 10, 2007

Part 1 can be found here.

OK, I know that a lot has been said about DRM, by people much better known than me (Lessig and Doctorow to name two), but it has a huge role in the future of short fiction (in fact all digital media). To be clear, the future of fiction (including short fiction) must include a digital component. The reason for this is that its both expensive and wasteful to print books, so economics will eventually drive at least some segment (probably a large one) of the market over to a digital medium, although it may take some time. That is not to say that I don’t love my paper books, because I do, but rather, that with the exception of hardcovers and trade paperbacks, there is no inherent advantage of physical books that goes beyond sentiment. Paper books take up more room, are harder on the eyes, degrade over time, the list goes on.

“But you can’t do everything with a digital book,” I hear you say, “you can’t share it.” That is true, but it is not something that is inherent to the medium. Rather, it is something that was tacked on afterwards, it is DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management.

The argument for DRM is that basically, there is nothing to stop people from copying and giving away your work for free. Therefore, the only way to deal with work in a digital medium is to prevent people from copying it. There is an unspoken assumption here that if people can do something for free, they will, every single one of them (or at least the majority). This makes no sense. How many songs have people bought from iTunes? All of them are available for free (if illegally), but still people buy from iTunes or other online music stores. I do. I won’t go into why, but the fact of the matter is that the assumption must be flawed.

In addition, there is a good argument against DRM, which I first heard from Cory Doctorow. Basically, as an aspiring writer, my biggest problem is not that people are stealing my work, but rather that no one knows who the heck I am. In my current situation, theft would actually be a step forward, as it would imply that I was making money at writing, too.

With books in particular, there is an even better reason to get rid of DRM. Many books are sold based on personal recommendations, but what’s even better than a recommendation is actually lending someone a book. I lend out all my books, and my friends usually end up buying the really good ones after they have already read them. That doesn’t even bring into account people getting hooked on series’. You can’t do this with e-books presently (though there are some exceptions), as they are locked down.

Short story markets have pretty much been on a steady decline since their heydays several decades ago. I have heard several reasons for this, everything from competition with TV to not being placed well in gas stations. It doesn’t have to be this way. Short stories are just about perfect for digital distribution, they’re short, portable entertainment. In order for them to build an audience, however, people need to be able to share them. DRM is a hurdle for this, and the only future in which short stories are a viable way for authors to make a living is a future in which DRM is relegated to it’s proper place as a relic of reactionary thought on behalf of the publishing (and music and movie) industry.

The problem, then, is how do you build a new market? We’ll talk about that next week.

Part 3 is now online.

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