Friday, 27 July 2018

Copyright, Authors' Income, Author Representation

The parliamentary All Party Writers Group and the difficulty in representing the interests of all writers

The parliamentary All Party Writers Group (APWG) has three aims. The first of them is "To represent the interests of all writers". That is probably impossible, because it assumes the interests of all writers are aligned. You only have to take an issue such as DRM to find that authors differ wildly in their opinions. Some panic and call for more DRM due to a worry about piracy; others (including many famous authors) take the opposite approach because they realise DRM doesn't prevent piracy, it just causes problems for their fans.

Dealing with a plurality of views is difficult. That is why organisations such as the APWG lend more of an ear to lobbying organisations who also claim to represent authors' interests, such as the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and Society of Authors (SoA).

Who influences the APWG, and who do they listen to most? Easy to see. The first page of the APWG's Resources & Briefings has nine entries: four are via the ALCS, four via the SoA, all featured on the APWG page. It's possibly a bit like a Governmental body connected to farming mostly including material from the animal agriculture industry, and sidelining material from organic vegetable growers.

On top of which, the APWG's "What is the All Party Writers Group?" page ends in a feature quote connected to the ALCS, and the contact email address for the APWG ends in ... @alcs.co.uk too. It gives the impression that the APWG is just a mouthpiece for that organisation.

But of course, the SoA and ALCS don't represent all authors' views either. In fact, authors that disagree with them on their stances on some topics inevitably won't be members, and their voices won't be represented by the SoA and ALCS. Masses of authors also aren't members because of a myriad of other reasons, such as not seeing the organisations as relevant (particularly as their models and histories evolved out of the old paradigm of trade publishing), or not being eligible, or through not having heard of the organisations. So the SoA and ALCS can only say with truth that they represent a percentage of authors - their members - and even then, some of the members may disagree with their official stance on some subjects.

All professions are made up of individuals who will have differing views on the major topics of relevance. My previous career in librarianship was exactly the same, where organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) would claim to represent all librarians, when a majority of staff working in libraries were actually not members of CILIP, and often disagreed with CILIP's stance on certain topics. Although I worked with CILIP and its staff on many occasions, I achieved my professional accreditations from other sources.

I don't mean this as an attack on the SoA and so on - they definitely do good work too - just on the stance that it is possible for anyone or any organisation to properly represent the views of a profession. The loudest voices are often just the ones with the most resources, but it doesn't mean they represent everyone.

So what does this author think?

I am a full-time author and fiction editor. All my income is from those two related roles. I've had Amazon Bestseller status; have chaired judging panels for international writing competitions; and am heavily involved in my profession via my networks with other authors, and some of the professional organisations I am an author member of. But I am not a member of the SoA or ALCS because they don't represent my views on issues such as copyright, DRM, licensing etc.

Here are some of my thoughts summarised from previous posts.

Licensing And Collecting Societies - I don't agree with these societies in general, which includes the ALCS, and state some of my reasons in that post. They don't represent authors such as myself. In particular, I find the ALCS business model to be dubious. I would rather the law made more exceptions to copyright so people can do more with a work, doing away with all that admin and sampling and licensing and staff time.

Copyright Restrictions On Books - some more about the ALCS/CLA, including why I could not actually join ALCS without compromising on my authorial principles. It also illustrates how clunky and misleading the CLA licenses and partial exclusions are.

E-book lending and libraries - an example where the SoA's views were completely at odds with mine and many other authors, particularly in their apparent desire to implement or increase DRM in e-books. It's kind of funny because I am in a number of networks with fellow authors. A common complaint (and vast number of queries) are to do with the restrictions they are under - problems with quoting lyrics, worries about quoting titles, or using trademarked terms, or real places and businesses. Restrictions impact on creative arts. And yet those same restrictions rarely benefit the authors in turn, because only rich and big companies have the money to be able to enforce a lot of that stuff without a massive and costly battle (or even understand some of the complexities of it as international law). It's part of the reason I think we should make things more open, not campaign the other way like big music and film media conglomerates do. Openness benefits creative people and industries too. I have a Classics background. I studied great works of art, drama, poetry and so on, where the ancient creators built on and retold myths and stories in a way that couldn't take place nowadays because of the restrictions in place. We have corporations like Disney who are rich enough to get laws changed in their favour; then they take stories from the public domain, then trademark and copyright them to the hilt, and finally clamp down on anyone telling the story of Sleeping Beauty or Aladdin in any way that resembles the Disney interpretations (which most retellings would, because they are based on the same source material) - so most creatives self-censor, and back away as part of their risk management. We end up with corporations owning chunks of story and names that used to be part of the public domain. Likewise in novels set in the real world, authors back away from some of the contemporary names and references, they can't risk offending rich companies, and if the brands are mentioned then the author can never do it in a negative light, even if the scene is based on news stories and evidence. So again, they self-censor. Creatives should campaign for more openness and fewer restrictions, not the other way round. As the outrage over authors attempting to use trademarks shows (new cases over the last few days, but going back to Cockygate), authors are generally against anything that might limit their creations.

World Intellectual Property Day - some general thoughts and reiterations of the above.

There's bound to be other topics connected to creative industries where I don't agree with the stances or approaches of organisations such as the ALCS and SoA.

Author earnings

This post was prompted by an All Party Writers Group call for evidence that came about because "ALCS has just released some research that suggests that the median earnings of writers has decreased since 2005" (the median is just one way of calculating an average - the mean may be a more accurate calculation). Basically, some authors' incomes have gone up, some down. None of which surprises me. In fact, it makes sense, because the whole landscape of publishing has changed, particularly in the last eight years. And it doesn't require much research to understand the reasons and the effects.

A table from Our World In Data. Note the massive and accelerating growth in the number of books published in the UK. And in many ways it is a vast understatement of the reality, because: it only goes up to 2010, but the growth rate has continued and accelerated since then; it doesn't include independently-published books, which may match or outnumber trade-published in volume; and it is only focussed on a few countries, but since we see the same pattern in the US and elsewhere, and those books are available globally (at least electronically), the number published per year needs increasing massively to capture the scale of global publishing.

Even back in 2009 publishers knew that the number of books published was tripling every few years, while sales were going down. So we have more writers now than ever before, and more books being published, all targeting the same market (which grows, but not by as much). It may be even more noticeable here, since "the UK publishes more books per capita than any other country" (and that specifically excluded independent authors, where the largest growth lay).

As that Guardian article showed, those in the publishing industry had wildly different opinions (and note how it reaffirms what I pointed out earlier - in any industry there is no single viewpoint, and anyone who claims to represent all people [in that industry] is being disingenuous at best). In that article one publisher said “I think we publish too many books, and I think this impacts negatively on how well we publish books as an industry. It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully. Less is so often much much more.” Too many books. Then a literary agent said the figure is “either a sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide ... Of course, it is utter madness to publish so many books when the average person reads between one and five books a year." That article hit the nail on the head in identifying a potential problem. Too many authors and too many books; sales drop as a result.

We saw a concrete example of that recently when the poor sales of titles chosen for Wales Book Of The Year were revealed. Publishers in Wales have been up in arms about the revelations, but hiding the truth is actually making things worse, and misleading people. If a nation's "best books of the year" are often ones that sold fewer than a 100 copies (see also this piece) then either the books aren't that good in the ultimate judge's eyes (the reading public), or there are so many books that only the best books sell many copies. But maybe this is a good thing. Maybe nowadays publishers can't rely on scarcity to sell books, or awards based on what a number of insiders think, but only on quality and demand. Personally I have issues with how much of the Welsh book industry is propped up by subsidies to make up for poor sales. If certain books can't survive without subsidies and awards then perhaps they shouldn't be printed, because there just isn't the demand for them. I always find the trade publishing perspectives on things to be so much more protectionist and subsidy-seeking than the rise of independent publishing, which is focussed much more on making books sink or swim on their own merits (partly because the authors are specifically excluded from such subsidies, and often even from prizes). It created a more independent mindset, and maybe that's what is needed more widely.

Though, of course, the other issue affecting authors that go down the trade publishing route is poor royalties. They may receive 7-10% royalties on print books, up to 25% on e-books (whereas independent publishers can receive up to 70% royalties) - if author incomes go down for trade-published authors then a significant portion of the blame could be placed on that 60% royalty difference. That's a hit on the author, not the publisher - which is why the publishers are often happy with more books being out there, because they get their cut no matter what.

A message from a (very successful) fellow author, 2018-07-25

Back to "Too many authors and too many books". So the average income from writing is going to fall. You can still make a huge amount of money if you are successful; though if you're not a celebrity, it takes more books, and generally can't be your sole income. The averages are skewed by books that don't sell, and poor books. If you get into a field with so much competition then it is just common sense that there is less money to go round. And that doesn't require action, it's just the way it is. Unless authors publish fewer books (unlikely to happen) it is inevitable.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. Authors who write good books that a lot of people want to buy will still do well. I see it every single day among my author networks. Here are just two earning reports I saw this week from some of my colleagues. (Note - even some UK writers get paid in US$, or their earnings are converted into GBP from USD.)



So some authors earn less, but when a market is as saturated with products as the book market, average incomes will decline. The end result if that continues is that some authors will drop out, and some new authors will be put off writing for profit, and it will begin to balance out again. Authors are no different from other industries that deal with supply and demand in that respect, and I can't see that tweaking the periphery of this problem would do anything other than actually contribute to that root problem.

Back to the APWG call for evidence

I've answered many of their concerns regarding the call for evidence above. I don't think we need to "improve the position of authors through legislation and regulation". As the situation in Wales has shown, it just leads to money funding the publication (and eventual pulping) of unsuccessful books. The main problems that lead to lowering of authors' incomes are too many books (market is saturated), and often poor royalties on each sale (mainly affects trade-published authors - independent authors recoup greater royalties, though have more up-front expenses in hiring publication teams). It could be a possibility to look at the royalties issue, though there would be such huge resistance from the publishing industry that it wouldn't get anywhere. However, if the APWG really wanted to help authors, there may be another way, which I'll get to soon.

Brexit and authors

The APWG also want to know about "The Impact of Brexit on writers and copyright, how past and developing EU law and regulations have affected authors’ earnings and how this might change."

This is easy to check. Since the flawed Brexit vote we have seen a massive drop in the spending power of £GBP.

Here is a chart I generated last month showing the GBP to Euro conversion rate. Where it began to fall in 2015 is the point when Brexit discussions about having a referendum began.

Here is a chart for GBP to USD.
 

Conversion rates started falling in the run up and discussion of the Brexit vote, and plummeted at the point when the flawed UK Brexit vote was taken. There has been a slight increase since, but nowhere near the highs prior to all this.

If Brexit continues then things will get worse:

Summary:
No deal Brexit: 2,800,000 fewer jobs, £158bn loss per year
Trade agreement Brexit (outside the single market): 1,750,000 fewer jobs, £99bn loss per year
Soft Brexit (EEA & single market): 700,000 fewer jobs, £39bn loss per year
Remain in EU: No impact on jobs, No £ loss per year
[Via James Melville]

(Though even if we remained in the EU there has already been a lot of damage caused by Brexit - loss of goodwill, companies planning to set up new businesses or relocate elsewhere in Europe to avoid damaging tariffs etc, but it would still be better than any of the shambolic Brexit options.)

So we will see the fortunes of most people in the UK, including authors, suffer if Brexit goes ahead, exacerbated by the increased costs for items (so a relative drop in spending power).

Funnily enough, independent authors may fare best - those that are paid in USD would then be paid in a currency that has gone from a poor second cousin to Sterling, to becoming equal, and soon to surpass it.

So if the APWG really want to help authors, they would do all they could to stop Brexit occurring. There are increasing calls to stop it from all sides of the political spectrum.

Public Lending Right

I'm not a fan of Public Lending Right (PLR). For most authors it leads to no significant increase in income (or any at all), yet it adds to their admin burden and requires money being set aside from public funds, and staff to administrate it, systems set up, national sampling and so on. Those who sell most books, so already have a good income, tend to get the largest payouts; those who sell the fewest books, and have the smallest income, tend to gain little or nothing from PLR. If we set aside funds and set up piecemeal systems and organisations for every industry where people struggle (which is probably just about every industry anyway) then you just end up with a big wasteful mess of bureaucracy. It's neither efficient, elegant, not practical - these kind of systems can only exist at all by limiting it to a few industries, which then excludes lots of other people.

And things have changed. There is no shortage of authors - the number grows every day. But there is a shortage of libraries as they close or get cut back due to lack of funding, and Councils see them as low priority, soft targets for budget cuts. If this continues then PLR will be for nothing, because there won't be libraries left to loan books. Along with the cuts to libraries we are seeing increased calls from the private sector to do away with them and to replace them with bookshops that benefit ... the private sector.

It's similar to the position in Wales. Bodies like the Welsh Books Council and Literature Wales have many more staff trying to sell and promote (often unwanted) books than there are dedicated specialist library advisors in the Welsh Government (even though the latter are responsible for vital public library provision). No wonder libraries are struggling.

In the Guardian article I quoted from earlier, Jenn Ashworth (winner of a Betty Trask award) said: “It is a shame we have fewer and fewer librarians to help readers navigate their way through all this glorious literary chaos and find hidden gems.”

Personally, I'd do away with PLR and assign the money (and more) as a ringfenced sum to keep public libraries going instead, so that everyone can benefit. We all love libraries. Libraries make a huge contribution to the economy and education. You'll find more facts here. Yet Government expenditure on libraries is dropping, and libraries everywhere are closing (see this partial list of UK groups set up to try and save some of their libraries). I do provide an alternative to PLR below.

Universal Basic Income

In many ways it is silly to support individual industries at the expense of others. But our current system is that every profession campaigns separately for more money for their members. Some win, some lose. Those that lose fall behind comparatively too. So you end up with all this effort across every sector, each one campaigning for more money. These issues to do with author incomes are no different. And setting up piecemeal interventions for each industry is costly, complicated, and unfair.

This is probably why there has been an increased awareness of the possibilities of Universal Basic Income in recent years. It would provide a solution to this and many other issues. It would provide a guaranteed income to authors so they could afford to write, but also a guaranteed income to everyone, freeing up time to volunteer, to become carers for friends or family, to contribute to the community, to pursue any creative endeavours, to study.

With Universal Basic Income there would be no need for benefits, PLR, child support - all of those could be replaced. Disparities in income would be lessened. With UBI authors would be even better off than they would have been with PLR, but so would everyone else in the UK. And this system treats everyone equally, in every industry, every creative profession. With political will from all the parties this is achievable.

Rather than expand on this myself, here are links to further information.

Summary

Too many books are published, so income reduces. If most people knitted items for sale then the price for knitted items would go down, and income for knitters would drop too. Paying money to knitters would only make things worse, by encouraging more people to carry on knitting, so the price drops even more. Trying to interfere will just make it worse, and be fiddling with one profession out of hundreds - why should knitters get more help than sewers, weavers, carpenters, musicians and so on? We can't approach it piecemeal. This means a slightly lower average income for some authors is not a problem, it is just an inevitable result.

Cease Brexit. This will stop things getting worse for everyone in the UK.

Consider a Universal Basic Income via cross-party support. Then there's no need for benefits, PLR etc - all are replaced, and everyone is better off. Author incomes would increase enough that the previous drops for some authors become irrelevant, since all authors would get a higher income.

I submitted a truncated version of this post to the APWG on 2018-07-27.

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Wednesday, 18 July 2018

An Unexpected Message

This is a slightly bizarre one, but it only just happened this evening so I am still thinking about it.

I try to reduce-reuse-recycle. If I don't need something any more I try to find someone who can use it, since I hate throwing anything away. My friends know what a hippy vegan I am. Over the last year I have been going through old college and university folders of mine, scanning in essays and making notes of anything I could use in future books - such as some of my notes from my university astronomy course for sci-fi works, or psychology for thrillers, or sociology for books that touch on wider issues. At the end of it I had a pile of folders and dividers and plastic sleeves I didn't need, so I put them on my local swap shop groups, in case they were useful for anyone. I got a message pretty quickly, this one below, from a kid at a local secondary school. Though things went in an unexpected direction shortly after.


The image below is what followed. It left me kind of shocked, since it is the last thing I expected!


What's weird is that my audience is not schoolkids but adults, especially for the literary and horror stuff. But maybe some of my books cut across reader groups well, and perhaps Lost Solace has YA elements too (though I am pretty sure there will be a swear word in there somewhere!) Anyway, it made my day, discovering someone who had read one of my books via something totally unrelated! And that's in addition to other nice messages from readers recently.


Oh, and luckily I had two print copies left that hadn't been sent to book bloggers yet, so I gave him a signed print copy. The boy's dad was a taxi driver and was parked opposite my door while the kid got out and knocked - and when I handed the boy a copy of my book his dad leaned forward and gave me a big thumbs up and grin, out of the kid's line of sight.

How it all began.
I love how some stories have such innocuous or innocent beginnings.
Then characters surprise us and take it in new directions.

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Saturday, 7 July 2018

Lovely Messages From Readers

The original photo licensed for the cover of Cold Fusion 2000

Writers face many hardships, but we also benefit from many pleasures. One of them is hearing from readers that have enjoyed or been touched by our creations. I woke up to this lovely email about Cold Fusion 2000 today. (Warning: the email does hint at a possible spoiler some people miss, so do not read on if you intend to read this book!)


Greetings. I have visited your website, and that progression meter for book two of Lost Solace is stuck.

Having given up the wait, I scanned for other Karl Drinkwater books that didn't involve horror (my least favorite genre). I had previously considered Cold Fusion 2000 as a possible candidate, and so decided to take a chance that this author wouldn't scare the shit out of me as the reviews seemed to be very positive, albeit somewhat confusing.

So I read it and wow, this is indeed a great book on so many levels.

I wrote a positive review on GoodReads (under KHB), but as always, it's eaten up, consumed, and spit out by Goodread's algorithm to reside in their basement until you have "likes" or positive comments that float it to the top, so you may have to search for it by newest.

I really felt I knew what was going on in this book until I read the date of Lucy Jane's obituary and realized the reason for all the concern for dates earlier in the book such that it became apparent she died before Alex even met her in that chance encounter in the pub. A light bulb went off in my head, and a lot more made sense that was confusing me.

OMG, I knew it, that darn Drinkwater can't write a book without including a ghost in it! Either way, you pulled it off without scaring me and I very much enjoyed the ride.

So speaking for all the readers of the world that are kinda freaked out by horror, consider writing more books like Cold Fusion. It's a gem.

I loved this. As a quirky literary book, Cold Fusion 2000 doesn’t reach as big an audience as my fast-paced genre works. Of those who do read it, some of them miss the date details and think it is all literal and Alex did meet Jane in the real world, rather than the liminal experience that could be spiritual, or quantum physical, or just in his daydream. And, strangely, it works for them too! But I prefer it when readers do dig deeper and read it on a second level, and ponder the puzzle pieces.

So, lovely people - please click "like" on KHB's review, or comment on it, and give KHB a nice surprise!

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Monday, 2 July 2018

Should Authors Have Different Pen Names For Different Genres?


Q: Should an author have different pen names when writing in different genres?

I was asked this a while ago. My thoughts: you can use a single name, but it needs to be very clear to the reader what genre each book is. You want to avoid fans of one genre being disappointed if your other books are very different and they buy one by mistake. An obvious example would be cosy romance fans picking up a BDSM erotica ... bad reviews might follow.

I write in multiple genres using the same name - literary, horror, contemporary, scifi, suspense. It requires making sure each book's genre signalling is spot on - cover, title, tagline, blurb, metadata. For example, my horrors have dark backgrounds and creepy covers, whereas my revamped literary novels will have bright backgrounds and pleasant faces. Though, despite the different genres, there are some overlapping elements (some humour, some darkness, some humanity) that mean my fingerprint is on each book - so perhaps readers of one genre will still enjoy my books in another genre.

If there might be confusion, then yes, use different names. JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith, Stephen King/Richard Bachman etc.

What do you think, either from a reader's perspective, or from an author's?

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Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Writer’s Mog – Karl Drinkwater

The blog Devoted To Thrills has been running a fun feature - Writer's Mog! Meeting the cats that inspire, help with, or hinder the work of wordsmiths. Recently my cat, Dolly, got to stand proud in the spotlight. You can read about her at on that site, or a backup of the article here.




low-sun Dolly (2)
Tortie Goddess Dolly

Tell us a tiny bit about yourself and a whole lot about the mog(ies) that share your current and/or past life.

My cat is called Dolly. I’m a full-time fiction author and editor, which means I mostly work from home – a fact Dolly loves. She used to hate it when I had to go out to do an employed day job and she had no company for most of the day!


Dolly through skylight
Peepshow!!!

Have you always had cats or are you a late convert to the Church of Mog? How did your cat procure you?

I am more of a dog person and grew up with them. Even when I didn’t have a dog I would dog-sit for other people, who would leave their dogs with me for a doggy holiday while the humans were somewhere else. But then Dolly turned up on my doorstep in 2010 when she was still a kitten. She’d left home, because the people who’d bought her weren’t very responsible owners. I found out where she’d come from and the owners didn’t particularly care about getting their cat back, and weren’t interested that I’d paid vet’s bills when Dolly cut her paw somehow, so after that Dolly moved in with me permanently. Here we are, eight years on, and she is curled up behind me on my chair as I type this (which means I am perched on the edge in a rather uncomfortable position – as usual). I miss the dog-sitting, but Dolly provides good company. Oh, she came with that name, I didn’t pick it.


on window ledge (2)
That mouse doesn’t know what’s coming…

What features do you like most about your current cat(s) or cat(s) that accompanied you through your life?

Dolly is very vocal (she’s a half-siamese tortie), and I like it when she tells me long stories about the rain or the cat next door. She often pauses, waits for me to say something, then carries on. She also has a great sense of humour and timing when she occasionally comments on something that humans are discussing. As a storyteller myself, I appreciate her communication abilities. She’s one of my best friends.
Oh, she makes me get up too – stops me sitting for too long by telling me it is time to go for a walk in the garden, or to check that there are biscuits in her bowl, or to do some stretches.


look-up cat (2)
Those treats better be the right ones…or else!

Do you have a special divert and distract method to keep your feline from bothering you while you’re writing? Or does your cat leave you alone while you are typing away?

She does what she wants. If she sits in front of my screen then she wants to watch cat TV for a bit and swat at animations of mice and birds until she gets bored. She often hogs the writing chair, especially if I make the mistake of standing up or leaving the room. She might seem like she is asleep in her radiator bed, but I’ll come back a moment later and find she is curled up in the chair space I’d just vacated. It signals another sore-bum writing session for me, sat on the edge.

Have you ever featured one of your cats or a cat in general as a protagonist in one of your stories?

No. A dog featured in my first novel, Turner, and a few readers contacted me to say how happy they were that the dog escaped the island. Actually, scrap that – I just remembered that I made a book for her once. You can download the PDF from http://www.karldrinkwater.uk/2016/01/words-for-cats.html


shameless self promo
Yeah, he made me do it, rather treat-bribed me, I mean

What’s the biggest catastrophe a mog has ever caused in your household?

I hate it when she’s been attacked by another cat – she has had serious abscesses from cat bites that needed treatment. She is recovering from one at the moment, in fact. As a squeamish person, I find that hard to deal with. But, other than that, she is an incredibly healthy and happy cat. Her main diet has been dry biscuits for eight years (a vet-approved vegan formulation we buy with all the minerals and vitamins cats need, taurine etc.), and the vet said she’s a shining example of good health. Occasionally she supplements her diet with things she begs from neighbours when she’s on the scav alongside a disabled cat from up the road. Oh, she loves a teeny bit of yeast extract or cheese sometimes, on one of her biscuits. The only other catastrophe is that she likes climbing, and didn’t understand that cat claw scratches on antique furniture as she scrabbled to get to the highest point is not something I approve of. But then I thought, “What the hell, it’s only furniture.” My cat and her friendship is more important to me than any possession.

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Wednesday, 13 June 2018

DRM, Criminals, Computer Games, GOG, Steam, Windows

An issue that concerns me relating to all media (computer games, films, music, software etc) is the issue of DRM. DRM is additional systems added to games and films etc that try to restrict what you can do; that can lead to false positives and errors rendering the thing you've bought unusable. I've written about this in the past. It's not just an issue for consumers, it affects libraries too. Pirates strip DRM out (and savour the challenge of doing that), so DRM is only ever a hassle for legitimate customers

I make a living from selling my creativity, yet I put my money where my mouth is and always adopt the most liberal policy. My e-books are DRM-free and loanable whenever it is possible. I'm not a fan of restrictions. I trust people to be honest. Those that aren't will do what they want anyway, so there's no point worrying about them.

Two things got me thinking about it again this week.

 My GOG games - read on to find out why I love them

If you dislike DRM in computer games, are you a criminal?

I read a comment online (computer game forum) that the only people who dislike DRM are criminals who want to pirate games and not pay for them.

I realise the commenter probably didn't intend it seriously, but it does become a refrain, which can be mildly hurtful when people like me have spent so much money on games over the last thirty years, often just to support the developers. GOG says I have 410 games. Steam says I have 359. I also owned games on itch.io, Gamersgate etc. I have no pirated games. I just avoid games with DRM due to all the problems with it - it's a system designed to limit things, and not to add anything beneficial. I've had problems with games, music, films (I once had to return a projector because of the Macrovision DRM in some films). Yet I have never had a lack of DRM be a problem. I bought Inside and Doom (2016) and many other games as soon as they removed Denuvo (I monitor this page), even though I didn't think I'd enjoy some of them. I'd do the same if Resident Evil 7, Dishonoured 2 or Prey removed it. Until then I'm quite happy with the many games I own but have never played, or would play again.

I should add that I still play games from over 30 years ago. Many of today's DRM systems would prevent that being possible 30 years from now. Just think of how much trouble people still have getting relatively recent GFWL games to work (where publishers never bothered to strip it out).

Does the DRM protect profits? It is certainly lost sales to people who avoid DRM. I can sort of understand some publishers panicking about release weeks, but even then they should remove the DRM after a few months. I don't think CDProjekt worried about the Witcher 3 being released with no DRM - and because they focus on the long tail, not just the nonsense of opening week, they still sell a lot of copies today (as GOG charts often show - in fact, I am not a Witcher fan, but bought all three games just to support them). The Wikipedia article shows that most Denuvo games have pirated copies available anyway, so it is just an additional expense that serves no end.

So from a publisher point of view, adding DRM like Denuvo doesn't necessarily protect a game or increase sales. It can lose sales. From a customer point of view it adds nothing at best, but can cause problems at worst - at the very least by making you use the software and your PC in particular ways, such as being online (I only tried one Denuvo thing, and that was a headache).

If people have never had issues with DRM (or that were traced back to DRM) then good for them. If you like DRM, fine. But just don't assume that everyone who is against it is dishonest or a thief. There is a lot more going on.

One more example. I stopped buying music (even CDs) when there were lots of formats with DRM and it got confusing - I think one of Microsoft's DRM issues left people unable to play music. Anyway, the good news is that the industry saw sense and accepted MP3 as the (DRM-free) default. In the ten years since then I have bought more music than at any other point in my life. Restrictions make people wary of spending, or spending as much; openness encourages support. I'm far from wealthy but still spend quite a bit on buying DRM-free works from other creative people - musicians, developers, artists, authors and so on.

One person said that it isn't worth worrying about, and publishers all remove Denuvo after a while because of ongoing costs. Sadly, that is not true. It may be easy for the devs to remove, but we can't rely on that. There are lots of games that have been cracked, yet nearly four years on still haven't had Denuvo removed (suggesting they maybe never will).

At least one of the most amazing-looking future games, Cyberpunk 2077, is going to be DRM-free on GOG. :-)

Wordcruncher Turbo - see below for why I love this laptop

Steam will remove the ability to play the games you bought on older operating systems

I read about this on Rock Paper Shotgun.

And it ties in to DRM and your ability to play purchased games.

Steam is an online games store, and also a software client they force you to use in order to play the games you buy. The software client is a form of DRM, and a means of delivering the game to your PC. The main problem is that the games and the DRM/delivery mechanisms are different things. Because Steam ties the games to a DRM/delivery mechanism, shifts in what Steam supports will remove access to games that would have run fine on an old operating system (OS). So we get the weird situation that some of the old games may well run better on older operating systems, because those are the OSs that the games were written for, yet they will now not be installable on those OSs. I think that's a poor service to customers.

I don't use Windows XP as my main OS (that is Windows 7 ** - I tried Windows 10 three times on different PCs, and really dislike it as a day-to-day tool), but that doesn't mean I wouldn't use XP in specialist scenarios. For example, I have lots of old hardware and existing OS licences. I hate waste, so always try and re-use things before I recycle them. So I recently dug out an old laptop. It is too old to run any OS after XP, but it runs XP fine - in fact, because I'm not using it as a day-to-day laptop, and it only has one or two pieces of software installed, it's surprisingly zippy. I wanted a laptop for writing first drafts of novels on. My main PC has too many distractions; also my main PC is a desktop and I already spend too many hours a day sat down. With the laptop (named "Wordcruncher Turbo") I can work in different places, or even standing up (which is my preference). I didn't install MSOffice on it, just a distraction-free plain text writing program with clicky typewriter sounds. I love it, and my productivity has gone up. Note that although the laptop has Wi-Fi I don't use it - I didn't install a browser or email clients, just installed stuff from USB. So there is no need for a more modern OS for this purpose, and it would just cost me money and waste the things I already had that were perfectly suited to the task.

How does that tie in with games and Steam? Recently I took Wordcruncher Turbo on a cat-sitting writing retreat to get a chunk of first draft written on my next novel. The place I was staying at had no Wi-Fi. After writing all day I wanted to unwind. I generally watched TV or read. Playing a game is also something I like to do, and my GOG and Steam libraries include hundreds of games that run fine on low-spec systems and older OSs, from HoMM2 to FTL. In theory I could install some with Steam, go into offline mode, and play them whenever I want. However, once Steam stops supporting XP that won't be possible. I'll own games that would run fine on my laptop, but Steam's DRM/delivery system will specifically prevent me from installing or playing them on it. Some years from now that probably will happen to later OSs too, until the point comes that I can't play Steam games on any of my Win7 systems (even though it may be the best OS for the games themselves).

This is why GOG is so good for me, with its offline installers. Those offline installer files are all I ever use - I don't bother with their GOG Galaxy client because I want to get away from all that updating software separate from the games. I can download a game's installable files. I can keep them on my PC and (in theory) even if GOG disappeared, I still have all my games. I can install any I want on my laptop.

Steam has the most games available for sale. It's also pretty heavily DRM-infested (I have to check carefully to make sure I don't buy games with Denuvo, GFWL, uPlay, Origin, or any of the other systems that are still parts of many Steam games). Steam isn't ever going to change their system - Steam don't even want to include a DRM-free filter, because it might upset publishers and draw attention to these issues. So, really, Steam is going to stay the same and always be a case of knowing that your access to the games is not indefinite and unrestricted. It's why I only buy Steam games when they are heavily discounted. Whereas I will often pay full price on GOG because I am getting a lot more for my money - games I can download and backup myself, that don't have all these DRM restrictions and tied delivery mechanisms. At present I have hundreds of games on GOG and hundreds on Steam, but I am already noticing a change in that I am clearing my GOG wishlists much quicker, because these issues are getting more important to me as time goes on. And, truth be told, even though lots of games I like the look of are currently Steam-only, I have no shortage of games. The opposite. Around 50 I haven't played; hundreds I have played a bit and mean to come back to; and loads that I have completed a number of times and regularly reinstall to play again (the VampireTMBs, HoMMs, the System Shocks, the Deus Exs and Thiefs, the Amnesias and Penumbras, the FTLs, the Mirror's Edges etc). I am never going to be stuck for games, even if I only used GOG. And over time, some of those Steam-only games will probably appear on GOG anyway, and probably be a lot cheaper a couple of years down the line. So rather than get stressed about the situation, I just intend to shift my purchasing to better future-proof my games collection. I still regularly play games that are over 30 years old, so I care about access to what I've paid for.

Wordcruncher Turbo in action!

** [Unfortunately, even Windows 7 has online activation DRM, and has caused problems. Last time I did a fresh install of Windows 7 from my DVD it refused to activate automatically. I tried the phone options but they didn't work. I then had to read a load of online articles about these problems, and eventually got a workaround that gave me a working number. I spent about 30 minutes on the phone, either waiting, or answering questions. Eventually the Microsoft staff member said that it was not a legitimate licence, and he did not think it was possible to install the OS from DVD the way I had ... then they hung up. I was livid and couldn't face ringing back, risking the same amount of wasted time. I should add that I was reinstalling the OS on the PC that had it originally - I'd bought an SSD and was shifting the OS from the old HDD onto the faster new drive. A fresh install was the only way to fix some weirdness with drive letters. It is a legit Win7 DVD that I bought some years ago. It shows that all DRM systems can fail, and cause problems for the customer.]

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Thursday, 7 June 2018

Monday, 21 May 2018

Volume Problem With Amazon Kindle Fires

This isn't writing-related (though I suppose it touches on written communication, and how some Customer Service departments don't seem to be able to interpret or trouble-shoot basic problems). However, I couldn't find any information about this problem online, so thought I'd put it here in case it helps other people. This problem applies to Amazon Kindle Fires directly, but is likely to appear in other devices which can play back media.

I had two Kindle Fires so gave someone else the newest one (I actually prefer the older Kindle Fires - the new ones require closing down loads of open apps every time you use it, whereas the old ones closed apps automatically as soon as you opened another). She registered it in her name so that she could put her own stuff on, though our accounts are connected via Amazon's household scheme.

As someone who has used Kindle Fires for a long time, I was obviously on hand to answer questions. Last night we were testing out the main things she wanted to use the Kindle for. One of them was listening to music or podcasts. We have external powered speakers in some rooms, so we can plug in an mp3 player, phone or media device to play music with better quality sound than the tinny internal speakers most devices have. This has been fine for many years, and worked without problems.

However, this Kindle Fire was behaving strangely - when I plugged it into external speakers the volume dropped to 50%, and there was no way to increase it. I looked in the settings but whatever I set there still got halved when I plugged the speakers in. So the result was that plugging in high-quality external powered speakers actually made the volume lower, when it should be the opposite.

The speakers were Logitech S-220. I tried another set of speakers with the same result: Sony SRS A202. So two totally different brands – plugging them in suddenly stopped the volume going past around halfway (or a bit under). I tried my Sennheiser MX365 earphones – the Kindle again limited the volume. Same with some Apple iPad earbuds. I should add that both speaker sets and both headphone sets work perfectly on every other device (two laptops, a different Kindle, a smartphone, an iPad, a HDD jukebox music player etc).

I suspected this was a bug in Kindle software, rather than a fault in the individual device - the behaviour was too uniform. I said I'd look into it. You know, being nice and helpful.

So I contacted Amazon via Twitter. They knew nothing about it and had no answers, and pushed me towards using Amazon chat instead. I was reticent to do that because I've had bad experiences with Amazon's Customer Services people in the past, but decided to have a go. It didn't work out:


Just to clarify a few things. There are no security issues with finding out how to use a Kindle in general. We shouldn't have to go to support to find out how it works and how to get round Kindle problems; but if we do then we should be given clear answers, not be fobbed off. They could forget the individual device and just imagine it is a generic question about Kindle Fire 7s. It's not difficult. Especially when it looks like it is part of how all those versions of Kindles are set up. (Further - the "connected account" thing is a problem with how Amazon sees things. In reality two people own adn share the device, but Amazon refuse to accept that this is possible, and force it to only be connected to a single person. The real world, and Amazon's policies, don't match up.) Anyway, Amazon Help refused to look into it.

I went back to Twitter and explained that, but a raft of different support staff ("FJ", "RB", "KI", "NV", "RS", "BZ", "TP", "ES", "CN" etc.) kept telling me to go back to Amazon chat or phone help, even though I'd get the same response. Not one of the Amazon staff suspected that Amazon may have set the devices up like this on purpose.

That's my suspicion, anyway (since they won't confirm it). I think Kindle Fires have been programmed to limit the volume to 50% when things are plugged into the headphone/speaker jack. It's mentioned in obscure places on forums, where people run into the problem (such as here), yet Amazon Support don't seem to be aware of the problem.

I further suspect that it is an update implemented as a knee-jerk reaction to something like this EU mandate on "new safety standards for personal music players". Though that mandate also says "the safe exposure level will be the default setting on personal music players but users will be able to override the default setting if they expressly choose to do so. The key is that they make and informed choice, fully aware of any potential health risks." Whereas I can't find any override on the Kindle Fire, so Amazon have either not put one in, or have made it unintuitive to find. I'm guessing Amazon implemented this limit, but just didn't consider the repercussion that plugging quality powered speakers in makes the device quieter than it's tinny internal speaker, when speakers shouldn't be limited. That makes it a buggy implementation of a safety feature.

At the first contact with Amazon they should have spotted what it was about, and been able to start a discussion of it - why the Kindle was behaving like that, how to over-ride it, or how to report it as a bug if they didn't implement an over-ride. The fundamental issue should be "Is this expected behaviour?" If they didn't design it that way, then the device is faulty. If they designed it that way, then they made an error in how it is implemented, and it needs to be fixed via software update. Simple.

In conclusion, there are two issues

1. Amazon seem to have implemented a "safety feature" that limits the volume of Kindle Fires when output is sent to the 3.5mm output jack. Amazon presumably meant to apply it only to headphones, so there should be an over-ride for when using it with speakers. Except there is no obvious over-ride for speakers, so connecting quality powered speakers actually makes the Kindle quieter. It's an example of not thinking through the implications of knee-jerk updates.

2. I dealt with a large number of Amazon Customer Services people and not one of them knew anything about it, they just sent me in circles for a whole morning, telling me to use contact methods that I'd already used and where staff had refused to help - going through the same process again would lead to the same outcome. What should have been simple has instead wasted half a day and is still not resolved or acknowledged. This isn't new. I've had problems with Amazon's terrible communication in the past - see this post and the ones it links to at the start if you want to know more.

Here's a video I made of the problem with the audio output jack on the Kindle Fire:


Update: 23rd May 2018
After all the communications with Amazon a few days ago I was told they would sort it out. On 21st May one email said the "Kindle technical specialists" would ring me "within the next 4 hours".

48 hours later I've still not received a call, a reply, or any answers.

Update: 9th June 2018
Still no joy, even though I have been in touch with yet more Amazon staff via multiple emails and phone calls with Abdhul, and Gokul S, and Kamala R, and ones who don't give their name, and others that I have lost track of. Usually they would ask me a question; I would reply; then a different member of staff would reply with this same copy-pasted text:
I am sorry for any inconvenience caused in this regard.
I have checked our records and I can confirm that mentioned Kindle Fire is not registered under your account.
For security reasons, we can take action or send order information to the e-mail address that is associated with the Kindle registered Amazon.co.uk account. We're sorry for any inconvenience this causes.
Even though this had been explained and got past many times ... the next Amazon person would fall back on this again. Argh. Amazon are incredibly inflexible and unhelpful with their customers, the opposite of being "customer-centric". Support consists mostly of copy and pasting the same messages and repeating things that are either irrelevant, or were resolved further back in the communication chain. And then another staff member takes over and it starts again.

Some Amazon staff seem to think the new Kindle Fires don't work with speakers connected via 3.5mm jack (well, not beyond 50% volume); others say they do; others have no idea. Half the time I'd not even get a response to my message. It's bizarre that Amazon doesn't seem to know how its own devices work.

Someone at Amazon actually rang me on 8th June 2018. They were one of those who thought it should work with speakers at 100% volume. They wanted to look at logs on the device but it involved me ringing back another day, getting the person to whom it was registered to authorise Amazon to speak to me, then passing the phone over. I followed their instructions and after some confusion it seemed that I'd been given incorrect information and they didn't need logs but wanted to factory reset it (which loses a lot of content and requires setting everything up again - email, 3rd party apps etc). I gave them the case ID #0150893141 but it seems that most of the emails and communications weren't part of the details - Amazon staff hadn't been making a note of my answers to their questions. They hadn't even recorded the URL for this blog post with all the background information and video in; and when I asked them to add it, they said they didn't know if they could, so they didn't ask for the URL to record. It's why it is so frustrating to speak to a different Amazon person each time, none of which know the background so you are always starting back at square one. They suggested replacing the Kindle but since that involves setting everything up again I didn't want to do it unless it would fix the problem - if it is how the new Kindles are designed, as some Amazon staff claim, then replacing it wouldn't fix the problem: it would just be a further waste of time and resources. After some communication problems the phone eventually went dead. I waited a couple of hours for them to ring me back but they never did.

Here's another strange thing. You'd always assume new devices had more and better connectivity. It turns out that my 2012 2nd Generation Kindle Fire HD has better connections than all Amazon's Kindle Fire models since 2012. My old Kindle Fire HD has mini-HDMi so I can plug it into an external display like my monitor or projector, and it outputs the sounds and video so I can watch films, look at pictures, or even just browse the web and email on a big screen. After 2012 Amazon stopped including any way to connect Kindles to an external device such as my projector. For the new ones you can only use the Kindle's teeny screen. That makes them far less useful and attractive. I have no idea why the designers keep removing useful (and cheap to implement) features. I would never buy any of Amazon's modern Kindle Fires, HD or not, because they don't do as much as the old 2012 models. Strangely, when I read reviews of many modern tablets - Amazon, Android etc - even in the specs section reviewers don't bother mentioning what wired outputs the devices have any more, only the wireless ones. It's not easy to find the information even on manufacturers' sites.

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