The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Benjamin Solah

Benjamin Solah describes himself as a ‘Marxist horror writer’ and writes fiction as well as performs spoken word poetry around Melbourne. He is also an avid blogger on things to do with writing, literature, publishing, politics, and culture. When he’s not writing, he’s usually out on the streets campaigning around various social justice issues such as refugees.

Benjamin is an outspoken, finger-on-the-pulse guy, which is why I invited him to the discusssion. Here’s his view:

“DRM must be overcome”

The way we read in a few years time, I think, is going to be totally different from how we’ve read in the past. Greater than the shift from records to cassettes to CDs to MP3s, books and literature is entering the digital age with much angst, debate, and uncertainty, but finally, I think we’re beginning to actually accept the changes and try to shape the new era in our own way.

Hence publishers and booksellers have been having panels and seminars and discussions on eBooks, writers festivals frequently feature panels and sessions on digital publishing as part of their program and blogs, often an accessible field for discussion amongst the literati, are beginning to discuss it at length. It started in Australia with the Meanland project and now it’s branched out to the speculative fiction fields, which is why we’re all here with Shane.

As a writer, I have some thoughts about how I’d like things to go, but writers are also readers (or they should better be), and so some of my thoughts are shaped as an early adopter of eBooks and eReaders in particular. It helps because if the new ways of reading don’t make it easier for readers, what’s the point?

And the first barrier we come to is DRM (digital rights management) – or various methods of security and encryption on eBooks. There are a lot of different parties vying to keep control of their sections of the market. We’ve got publishers, booksellers, writers, and competing bookstores at that. Each bookstore so far wants to make sure you keep buying books from them, and so most of the time, if you buy a device, it’s linked to a respective store. If the book you want is not available at that store, and at another in a different format, most of the time you can’t read that book on your device. This is how booksellers are making it harder for people to adopt eBooks.

To use an analogy from Cory Doctorow, it is like having a bookshelf that you can only stock books from a particular bookstore with only one format: say a shelf of only mass-market paperbacks. Where as in the world of print, if you have a bookshelf, you can stock it with books from any damn store you want. You can read that book anywhere you want, take it with you anywhere, and lend it to anyone.

DRM, the current models of eBooks, and digital bookstores ignore the fact that people read in different ways. With eBooks, there is no one way that has emerged as dominant. People read eBooks on their desktop computers, their laptops, their iPhones or other smart phones, or their iPads or other tablet computers. There are also dedicated eBook Reading devices, some using a special eInk technology that isn’t backlit and so reads almost like a page. They include Kindles and the Sony Reader, and some devices like the Kindle use special formats whereas others use an open format, EPUB, though most bookstores sell a version of that format restricted with DRM, hence destroying the benefit of the open format anyway.

If you make your book(s) available in only one or a few of those formats, you cut off access to all of the readers that use another method. For readers, this is especially frustrating. It’s hard to decide what device to buy, in particular, when you’re looking at a dedicated device. It would make the process and transition to this new technology a whole lot easier if bookstores and publishers made their titles available in a wide variety of formats in order to cater to everybody, at least, until a particular technology becomes dominant.

Ideally, this would also include DRM-free files so it is easier to move your files between devices, and if need be, convert files to other formats. The problem publishers see with this is piracy, but with the high probability that people will find ways around encryption methods and file sharing sites making a heap of titles available in unencrypted methods, there is little benefit in return for frustrating and restricting honest consumers that want to pay money for your titles.

Smashwords is an ideal model, though at present, it mostly publishes titles from small press publishers and self-published authors. The DRM-free, multi-format model, which I think is ideal, is so far being shunned by the major publishers, which the majority of readers get their books from.

For most writers, the possibility of living off royalties from your work is a pipe dream. The main concern, really, is to have your work read, and so it is in the interest of writers to have their work available in as many places and methods as possible. The problem at the moment is not only the debate around formats and DRM, but whether titles go digital at all. Most books are only available in print. Further hindering people’s willingness to even try digital reading. Writers need to start asserting that, in the least, their titles are made available in some form as an eBook because it just cuts them off from more and more readers turning to digital as their primary form of reading.

One of Benjamin Solah’s most recent short stories, “Somewhere to Pray”, is available in the anthology, Chinese Whisperings: The Yang Book, as an ebook in multiple DRM-free formats.

You can read Benjamin’s thoughts on publishing and activism at his blog, Blood and Barricades.

The Grand Conversation on ebooks will run here at until February 28. If you’d like to contribute a guest blog post, email me at


1 Comment

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