Entitlement, oh entitlement

What is it about the past month or six? We’ve had front row seats to the foolishness that is SFWA — more than once. We’re standing in line waiting to buy popcorn before Vox finally schools SFWA on the foolishness of their ways. This week we’ve seen a publisher cancel a contract that had already been signed, sealed and delivered because the author spoke about his “partner” instead of his spouse in the author bio. Yep, you read that right. Contract canceled instead of just editing out the “offending” comment. So maybe I should have been prepared for the idiocy of entitlement that showed up on one of the fora I follow regularly.

As a reader who has gone almost exclusively to e-books for not only the convenience of having most of my library with me at all times but also because I have no more room to store “real” books, I buy my e-books from a variety of different venues and in a variety of different formats. Over the years, I’ve had to deal with DRM, changes in e-book formats, stores coming and going as well as computer crashes and e-book readers dying. Because of all this, I’ve learned to do multiple backups of my e-books on multiple different media. I’ve discovered the joys of Calibre and (casts a quick glance around) have read about what is needed for those few e-books I’ve purchased that are only available with DRM attached.

I’ve also learned that every publisher is different when it comes to how they view e-books. Some apply DRM while others don’t. There are some publishers who limit the number of devices you can have your e-book on at the same time. There are some who also limit the number of times you can download an e-book after you purchase it. I’ve seen single downloads all the way to 10 downloads (which is what NRP allows). Others leave it to the third party retailer (ie Amazon or Barnes & Noble) to determine if there will be unlimited downloads or not.

But the one thing that is just now starting to hit the e-book market is the reversion of rights. In the past, before e-books were a major part of the publishing market, when rights reverted back to an author, it was pretty simple to deal with. The publisher could no longer print and sell the book. Depending on the contract, the publisher could either sell the books already printed — reporting out any remaining royalties — or they could sell the books to the author at a discount price, if the author wanted. But the key was, once the books already in the system were sold, there would be no more until the author found another publisher to put them out. All the average reader knew was that a book by one of the authors they liked to read was no longer easily found for purchase and they’d have to either go to the library or to the second hand bookstore for a copy. Inconvenient, sure, but that’s the way it was and had been.

Then along came e-books and reader expectations changed. After all, an e-book isn’t a “real” book. It isn’t printed on paper and put up on your shelf where folks could see what you’ve been reading. No, it’s merely a bunch of data that can be stored on a server somewhere. Those who were not early adopters of the e-book revolution don’t remember the days of losing books because those books were tied to a specific computer or hard drive and when that computer died, the book was gone and there was no way to re-download it without buying it again.

They’ve even forgotten the concern that was voiced when it was learned Barnes & Noble had purchased Fictionwise, one of the granddaddies of e-bookstores.Β  When the sale was first announced, there were those of us who worried that B&N would eventually do away with Fictionwise. Over the ensuing months, we saw the number of new books, especially by mid-listers, growing smaller and smaller on Fictionwise until, finally, we received word that we needed to do a final download of our books or move them over to a B&N account. I know there were a lot of folks who didn’t get that email or didn’t act soon enough and lost their books. That wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last time an e-book retailer leaves the scene and people will find themselves without their books because they weren’t proactive enough to make backups.

But now there’s a new wrinkle hitting the e-book shelves: reversion of author rights. And that’s where my head went spinning and I did my imitation of the pea soup scene out of The Exorcist the other day. It wasn’t because the rights had reverted back to the author in question. I understand that and applaud the author for not only asking for his rights back but for wanting to update the books in question and then put them out on his own. As a fan of this writer, I’m thrilled to be able to help him further by buying the books a second time, where he will get more money per sale than he did before (and, no, I’m not knocking the publisher for that. It’s the way of the publishing world.)

What brought on the possession imitation was the way someone attacked the author for doing so. You see, the whole problem was this person had gone into the publisher’s site to download a copy of the book and discovered that he couldn’t because the rights had reverted back to the author. Yes, he’d bought the book earlier. In a subsequent message (iirc) he even admitted he had the book backed up elsewhere. But he was upset because he couldn’t download it again from the publisher’s website. It was his book, damn it, and he wanted it now! How dare the author demand that the publisher take it down. Evil author. Bad author. Even though I like your work, because you were mean I may never again buy anything else from you.

But it got better. The reader was upset because he couldn’t figure out how to contact the author. There was just no easy way to do it. (Let’s forget the author had a forum on the board where this rant was posted. Let’s forget this author has multiple blogs as well as a website, most of which all have emails.) So he’d piss and moan in this particular forum about how bad the author was by doing the despicable thing of getting his rights back and not letting the poor peon readers continue to download their copies of his e-books.

Now, this wasn’t the first time authors had had their rights revert back on this particular site and had asked that no more downloads be allowed (again, iirc). There’s even an entry in the site’s FAQs that states that the publisher doesn’t guarantee that ebooks purchased through the site will be available for download, even if previously purchased, if the rights have reverted back to the author. Nor did it matter that no one would expect a publisher to replace your printed copy of a book after rights reverted because you could no longer find it, after it fell apart, whatever.

I was pleased to see the number of people who not only tried to explain the problem with this sort of entitled thinking the original poster displayed but who suggested ways to contact the author. They also suggested the poster contact the publisher to make sure he had his facts right. After all, it could have been a decision by the publisher or one of the publisher’s agents. But it was so much easier to just get onto the forum and rant.

Then came the comment by someone else suggesting that the publisher — not one of the Big Five — should do like Amazon and load all our purchases onto the cloud and thereby let them be available forever. After I quit hitting my head against the wall on that one, all I could think of was the potential problems with that so-called solution. First there would be the simple logistics of setting up that sort of system and the price increase as a result. I’m not an expert by any means on setting up a corporate cloud that isn’t resting on someone else’s server, but I’d guess it would be a bit more detailed and challenging than what the publisher currently has. For the tech geeks out there who work on the hardware side, you’d know this better than me.

But this little hissy fit over being unable to download — again — an e-book only underscored the fact that there are almost as many readers out there, percentage-wise, who don’t think of e-books as a “real” book as there are publishers who do. I’d bet my next royalty check that this particular reader wouldn’t even consider contacting the publisher or condemning the author for not replacing a hard copy of a book years after the book came out and months, much less years, after it had been purchased. But this person had no problem expecting the publisher and author to do so on the e-book because, to paraphrase, there was no cost involved.

Yes, there is cost involved. It’s called storage space and transmission fees.

But even that isn’t what upset me the most about the original post. It was the assumption that the author had been the one to demand that the book no longer be available for download. He posted the rant in a forum where other readers who are fans or potential fans of the author would read and, possibly, be adversely affected by what he said. This rant could cost the writer sales. He didn’t wait a reasonable period to receive a response from the author. No, he wanted to rant and by God, he’d rant.

He was entitled.

Funny thing, when the publisher responded — and kudos to the publisher — it quickly became clear there had been a misunderstanding. The author hadn’t asked that purchased e-books no longer be available for download. Nor had the publisher put that proviso on. It was a mistake, a mistake that could have been cleared up rather quickly by simply taking a few minutes to email the publisher and/or the author. Remember, Google is your friend, as is Bing and Yahoo and any of the other multitude of search engines. Ooooh, so is Facebook (gag).

I understand being upset if you’d purchased a book a day or a week ago and you hadn’t gotten around to downloading it and then logging into your account and finding you can’t get your e-book. But if you’ve had the e-books in your account for years and you haven’t made back-ups, that’s on you. That’s especially true with the FAQs tell you to do just that.

Grow up. Think before you hit enter and be very glad several days have passed since this first came to my attention. This post is mild compared to what I would have written at the time. You can’t rely upon a publisher or a third party retailer to keep your e-books available for you forever. Make your backups. Put them on different forms of media because media changes as hardware changes (remember 5.25″ floppies). Get yourself a copy of Calibre and do your own conversions where needed. But for Pete’s sake, quit expecting folks to make it easy for you. Rights revert. Books get pulled. Contracts change. I guarantee this isn’t the first time an author’s books will be pulled (rightly or wrongly) because rights reverted back and it sure as hell won’t be the last.

35 comments

  1. Amen!

    I was watching that nonsense myself and stayed out of it.

    I’m also one of the people who purchased plenty of ebooks from Fictionwise and mourned as Fictionwise began to be “murdered”.

    However, I didn’t “lose” any ebooks when Fictionwise finally died because the ones that I wanted to keep were safe (& un-DRMed) on my back-up hard-drive.

    The same thing for ebooks that I purchased from BooksOnBoard (who recently killed themselves)

    I learned the hard way that it’s a very good idea to back up any of your data (including ebooks). In my case, it wasn’t hard to recreate the lost information.

    Oh by the way, all of my “data files” exist on an external hard drive and are backed up to another external hard drive.

    1. I say this out of paranoia rather than pride. My entire ebook library exists in encrypted virtual disks on one 64GB flash drive, one portable hard drive, one each hard drive on my home and work machines, and two big “personal cloud” backup drives.

      And daily I give thanks to all kindly gods for calibre and (glances around) you-know-who.

    2. I have mine on an external HD, a couple of different thumb drives and at least one DVD. But then I am paranoid and proud of it. πŸ˜‰

      1. It ain’t paranoid if they *are* out to get you. Or at least, your stuff. *scurries off to cache his stuff*

  2. Back up. And back up your backups. Always.

    I keep my collections on the device(s), my hard drive and external hard drive(s). If it’s something I want to keep, anyway.

    Single locations can be lost, file formats go extinct (or can only be read/converted by an antique system that’s still capable of running the software). Emulators aren’t always created.

    Just as it’s my responsibility to store my physical books somewhere that’s safe from damp, fire, travel sickness (yes, I lost a book to that… long story), cats… it’s my responsibility to back up my ebooks. Even on the Internet nothing is forever.

      1. That’s only if it’s embarrassing. If it matters it will vanish into the memory hole.

        The malice of inanimate objects.

  3. There’s room for a deeper debate here. What does a writer sell? What has a purchaser bought?
    I’m beginning by publishing on a free site, and people can download and save that first version. An edited version goes to a different site, still free; but the final, heavily rewritten version that will cut the original 60k words to perhaps 50k is the one I’ll put on Amazon for sale. When that happens, I’ll pull the free, earlier, versions. Those who downloaded them can keep them. I did it to build readership and get feedback, and maybe when those millions roll in from sales, I will decide to change. But maybe not.
    Some writers write for money; some write to connect with readers; probably the best ones combine those two, the money sure but never forgetting that it’s about the quality the reader buys. They’ll work and work to get it as good as they possibly can.
    Writers sell not to readers but to publishers. I’m happy with OpenOffice, my ePublisher wants me to use Word, so Word is what I’m using. If I were selling directly to readers, things would be different. But then I’d be my own publisher, wouldn’t I?
    So how much do we owe to a publisher when we buy a book? What about the used books that are for sale, for which neither writer nor publisher got paid? Suppose there are pirate copies of books as well as pirate copies of movies and recordings? We may deplore them as evil, but we should also remember the days when a VCR tape of a movie cost something like $100 and ‘video clubs’ sprang up to share what one member had bought. The drive for more profit fueled the copyright-infringement market. Start selling everything from software to music tracks and books at cost plus, say, 30% profit (high by most standards) and piracy would disappear because it’s not profitable. Sort of like selling drugs cheap and with low taxes…you put the illegals out of business.
    Of course, it’s not the American way.
    But what do we produce, and what do we sell, and for how long do we sell it? Who owns it? And where’s the balance between creative rights and purchaser’s rights? What about ‘secondary rights’, say; you buy a Picasso, you can sell it. But you can’t buy a Picasso, copy it, and sell the copies, even if you can make good, cheap, photocopies of the work. Or dollar bills, for the matter of that.
    I don’t know all the answers. The above is my take on your original post.

    1. If I might quibble on one point:

      “What about the used books that are for sale, for which neither writer nor publisher got paid?”

      They got paid when the books were first sold as new books. Unless you’re talking about the illegal practice of selling stripped, coverless books.

      When I sell my car to my neighbor, I don’t have to cut Subaru a check. And when he gives it to his son, neither does he (And if he did have to, how much would it be for?)

      1. My view of it is more paranoid than that. If publishers can’t give their writers an accurate count of new books sold because they insist on using the demon called BookScan, how in the world would they come anywhere close to giving a count on used book sales? Each time I hear agents or authors demanding they get paid for used book sales, I cringe. The way I look at it, the book has, as you said, already paid its royalty share. Now it is a promotional tool for me. Hopefully, someone will pick it up in a used bookstore, like it and go out looking for more of what I write and as new books.

    2. All good questions. But for the purpose of this post it all boils down to two things: what does the reader purchase and what is the responsibility of the publisher/retailer after that sale? If we think of the e-book in the same terms as we do a dead tree book, then what we buy is the book: the words the author has written. While it is nice to be able to continually download an e-book that you’ve already purchased, there is no requirement for publishers to allow you to do so. That is especially true once the rights have reverted back to the author.

      Sure, it is good PR to allow multiple downloads. However you look at it, that still costs the publisher or retailer money to do so. There is also a responsibility the buyer has to make sure they’ve backed up their books. As Kate said above, sites crash, stores go out of business and formats disappear. If you have your backups, you will still have access to your books, especially if you convert them to multiple formats along the way.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that storage space and transmission aren’t free. The majority of users of the Internet don’t seem to understand what a vast investment in terms of resources and upkeep it represents. Since they don’t directly pay the costs or see anything more than pretty pictures on a monitor screen, they figure that it’s some kind of natural resource like a river that just bubbles up out of the ground by itself.

    1. And yet, if the company is still offering the ebook for sale, the storage and the system to distribute it is in place. Instead of going paranoid, the publishers _ought_ to embrace the full potential of ebooks and offer large numbers, or even unlimited downloads as one of the advantages, use it as a draw, a marketing tool. It is not a bug. It is a feature. πŸ˜‰

      1. Some of them do. But the issue comes back to, should they continue to do so after the rights have reverted to the author and should the author continue to allow those unlimited downloads to continue? Frankly, imo, there has to come a time when the buyer has to take the responsibility to make sure they have the e-books on multiple backup media formats. We don’t expect the publishers to keep supplying us with hard copy books when they start to fall apart. Why should they continue to allow downloads ten years after the e-book has been purchased ( or even longer)?

        1. A good point. Yet another new clause in my Dream Contract. Once a company can no longer sell a book, their right/ability/duty to download replacement copies ought to expire within a reasonable time frame.

          In theory, readers, too, will come to understand and expect certain things about eBooks.

          1. Pam, exactly. Part of it is that we, as readers, have to decide if we are buying books or just licenses when we buy an e-book. If we are buying books, then we have to accept responsibility for making sure we are safeguarding our purchases. If we are buying licenses, then we need to understand that a license for an e-book is just like a license for software or anything else. There comes a time when the “developer”, in this case the publisher or the author, no longer supports that piece of information. Once that happens, if something happens to the book, you are SOL. It also means that we must accept the inclusion of DRM because we aren’t “buying” but only “renting” the book.

  5. I haven’t read the rant in question, but from your description, the author sounds like the kind of person whom I used to refer to as ‘petulant pissants’ back in the days when I was running a software development company. They want it their way, and they want it now, irrespective of whether or not the contract calls for (or even permits) that, or the disruption it might cause to other parts of the company, or . . . whatever.

    I used to mentally enjoy thinking of a cure for them, but it only worked in Africa, where we have these useful things called ‘hyenas’.

    πŸ˜‰

  6. Largely, I agree with you, and I think (from the secondhand account) the ranter’s notions and expectations are skewed.

    I suspect the attitude stems from the ongoing and somewhat unresolved question of how to handle digital content (discussed by jlknapp505, above.) What, precisely, does my money purchase and what rights to its use do I receive? Price parity between mediums without rights parity galls some folks. Overbearing DRM irritates and insults some folks. Cross-platform limitations… and on it goes. As a culture we have not settled all of these questions clearly and ‘new’ or ‘extreme’ solutions from some quarters tend to foster knee-jerk reactions.

    None of which excuses brash, damaging behavior on a public forum without taking the time to establish the legitimacy of your gripe. I just enjoy following the larger cultural resonances whose intersection results in these types of controversy.

    1. First off, thanks for the comment. And you’re right. This isn’t a simple question. It pays for companies like Amazon or Kobo that have their own e-book readers and their own proprietary DRM to allow for unlimited downloads. After all, it encourages readers to buy new devices from them and then be able to easily download their books to the new devices. But for publishers or other sites without branded e-readers, it becomes more problematical. Besides, as I stated above, there comes a point when the reader has to take responsibility to back up their purchases.

      1. And I’ll think my gracious hosts in turn. I absolutely agree regarding responsibility to secure your own digital commodities. We’ve got to make the cultural shift to treating those ‘files’ as ‘real’ objects and securing them as appropriate. Or accepting the risk of not doing so.

        Even more significant with respect to the ranter, he needs to take responsibility for his actions, learn a little restraint and check his footing before jumping up and down in a public hissy. Or, you know, be relentlessly mocked. Because stepping on your dongle on the internet will never be a private thing.

        Vis a vis the publisher that did a wit purge at the word ‘partner’ I rather fancy Larry Correira’s prediction. The attention the move draws will hurt the publisher, sure, but best case it garners a great deal of attention for the writers and they enjoy a far greater success on the work than the witless publisher could ever have supplied. Cultural resonances…

        1. Larry is absolutely correct. The blow-up about the contract cancellation has already generated more press for the author than I have a feeling the publisher ever planned on doing for the book. Add in the fact that it also hit a hot button issue and, well, it is a short term loss (maybe) for the author but could very well be a long term win.

  7. I think there’s a business opportunity here.

    Let’s suppose an induhvidual acts as described. In that case, I can come along and offer a free copy of the work, except for a reasonable handling charge plus storage space and transmission fees. (It’ll sum to 20% over what it’ll cost me to buy the work.) I’d do it just for the fun of watching the induhvidual sputter.

  8. Kudos to you both (Kate and Amanda) for beating the responsibility drum. *grin* It’s a triumph of hope against experience to think if we shout it loud enough and long enough, the idea will get through to some people, but that’s another can ‘o worms.

    Entitlement is wanting the freedom without the consequent responsibility, I believe. It’s like saying β€œI want a coin, but only the heads side.” The two concepts are pretty inextricable. That’s why I back up my stuff, like the rest of you smart folks do. I, too, actually enjoy knowing my pittance is going to help the author buy kitty kibble and pay for gas. *grin* It’s the responsible thing to do.

    It also feeds the hoarding gene to know what’s mine, all mine, is still there when I go to look for it…

    1. Dan, that drum beats loudly enough for certain member of TOFKASFWA. Since they can’t keep a beat, we don’t want to add to the noise πŸ˜‰

      I have no problems standing up for what I’ve paid for. I’ll demand my money’s worth with the best of them. But if we want to say that we are buying a “book” when we buy and e-book and not just a “license” then we have to act like we bought the book and take care of it. That means, in my mind, making sure we have our “copy” well protected (ie, backed up). That doesn’t mean relying on the company we bought it from to keep it for us forever.

      I ran into this yesterday. I was looking at the Gold Box deals for Amazon and the deal of the day was a number of kindle books. One of the books was a title I’d purchased several years ago. I’d bought it from a retailer I rarely used. It was a limited number of downloads and then the retailer went out of business. I didn’t have it backed up and the hard drive I had it on failed. So, instead of kicking my feet and crying — except at my own stupidity — I bought the book again yesterday. And now have it on three different media backups. Today, it will be run through calibre to make everything so much “easier”. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

      1. As the wonderful little patter song puts it:
        Whatever you say say nothing when you talk about you-know-what.
        ‘Cuase if You-know-who should hear you, you know what you’ll get.
        They’ll take you off to you-know-where for you-wouldn’t-know how long
        So for You-know-who’s sake don’t let anyone hear you singing this song!

  9. Right. What are you buying when you buy a book?
    (standard disclaimer follows: I am a lawyer. But I am not YOUR lawyer. A surprising amount of the law turns on the facts on the ground, and your facts may be different. Anything I say here is not intended as legal advice, and should not be relied upon as such. This communication does not constitute the practice of law, and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Laws in your jurisdiction may differ greatly. You should contact your own lawyer and consult with them.)

    No one else in the industry thinks this way. But you could say buying a book is essentially the same as buying a license to content contained in a specific physical artifact – the hard copy of the actual book. So long as the book persists, the license also persists. The license lies in the hands of whomever holds the artifact, and the first-sale doctrine applies. That works because the physical artifact is “rivalrous”. That is, there’s one of it. You give the copy to a friend for the weekend, that means that you can’t look up that reference that’s on the tip of your brain until you track the friend down and tackle them, retrieving your copy of the book and enabling access to the content.

    The trouble is that the e-book is potentially “non-rivalrous”. That is, you can copy the thing. Yes, you could photocopy the original text in its entirety, and pass that to your friend, but there’s a time / energy cost there. And it’s a copyright violation. The copying of the e-book by a private citizen who is not the publisher of that book is also almost certainly a copyright violation, but the time / energy cost is vanishingly small. Which is why you have torrents out there that have apparently everything Heinlein ever wrote that can be downloaded in a space of minutes, and you don’t have trucks running around with trailers full of the Complete Works Of Robert A. Heinlein being cast out to anyone who glances up from their paper, notes the passing of the Heinlein Truck and raises a finger with a wink and a nod to the driver. (Wait until the cost of an Espresso book maker or its inevitable improvement comes down sufficiently to allow individuals to print their own hard-copy books. See post above re: entitlement. Now apply the general populace’s understanding of author’s rights, economics, and morality. Stir thoroughly. Then try not to shudder just a little bit).

    Which brings us to the main point of the post above – the sense of entitlement. Which I see every day as I try to navigate the highways of my beautiful, beloved, Austin TX. Everyone has to get where they are going, and screw anyone else in their way, ad nauseum. That thing I want isn’t available in the way I want it, at the place I want it? BEGIN KNEEJERK RANT MODE AND ENGAGE LIBERALLY. (There’s a double meaning in that!) And that is another question. What is to be done regarding the entitlement sense of the poor little dears out there who so despise this thing called Personal Responsibility And Being An Adult? You long for them to receive a dose of reality, and yet if you were the one to administer said dose, you instantly become a “mean” person. A bully. And what do we do with bullies?

  10. I just started a ebook library, mix of epub and kindle on my computer. In looking for a reader, I read some references to ‘Calibri’ in the reviews of some readers; but, not enough info. The website too didn’t say if I could buy a epub reader and convert from kindle to epub. I ended up ordering an android, that way the tablet had epub already, and I could download Kindle for android in order to read both types of books. Other non-android readers didn’t appear to have a way to use both. Could someone explain, calibri a little better? I only have a few books and probably won’t go very large, I like paper. Well, I haven’t tried a reader yet, may change. No matter, I need to keep up.

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