Content Cafe


Creators take control of distribution as publishers adapt to new technologies

by John Birmingham

Pay walls and geofences are frustrating. To some people they are even a provocation, a challenge to be overcome or undermined. They are also among the methods by which most surviving newspapers realise the value of their investments. Sometimes that investment can be worth billions of dollars and can trace its history back through centuries. Fairfax, my occasional employer, is one such business.

Like many media companies they rushed to stake a claim in the digital realm, correctly foreseeing that most people would one day consume most of their news on a screen, rather than paper.

I have no inside knowledge of where the company is headed, but it seems safe to assume that one day soon the printing presses will stop rolling and the entirety of the company’s fate will rest on its digital strategy.

It will be interesting at that time to see how many articles they run explaining how to get past other companies’ digital defences. To be honest, they’ll probably run them all the time. They’ll need the clicks. But there’ll be a measure of grim, ironic amusement to be had reading an article in the Herald explaining how to sneak into US Netflix or Amazon Prime, when Fairfax’s survival is based on closely controlling access to its own intellectual property.

Geographic restrictions, even more than paywalls, are a vexed issue. Unlike outright piracy, where the IP is stolen with no intention of payment ever being made, tunnelling through a geofence seems like a victimless crime.

“Just take my money damn it,” is the cri de guerre.

There are few issues more likely to cast intellectual property holders in the role of rent seekers and price gougers. But as frustrating and even senseless as it can seem to the punter who just wants to pay a fair price for a movie, or book or TV show, control over the means of distribution is just as important to artists and creators as is control over the content itself.

This doesn’t always mean dividing the world into a bento box of separate markets and charging the maximum price you can get in each little segment. It can simply mean preferring one retailer over another for entirely legitimate reasons.

For instance while I publish with the venerable old firm of Penguin Random House, I also independently publish digital and print-on-demand titles via my own company, Gigantic Weapons Corporation. I do so because its good business, and technological change has empowered me not just to write but to publish.

When Random bring out one of my books, as they will sometime next year, they tend to follow the doctrine which served them so well as they grew into a global behemoth. Control everything. Content, price, channels, the lot.

When I publish myself, I play faster and looser. I do not, for instance, put DRM on my ebooks. I know they’ll be pirated and my work will effectively be stolen by those pirates, but I also know that was going to happen whether I used DRM or not. Most of my readers I trust to pay me a fair price and not to make infinite copies for free distribution. Most, if not all of them, are happy to do so. Some even insist on paying more than I ask, waiting out discount periods to give me the full retail price.


Partly because I’ve invested in a personal relationship with them over the years. And partly because I don’t jerk them around with DRM. If they’ve bought the book, it’s theirs. They can do what they want with it.

That’s not an approach I expect my trade publishers to embrace, however. For them, it would be unsustainable.

If I want to keep getting royalty cheques from them, this is a reality I have to accept, no matter how frustrating it can occasionally be.

And believe me, I find it even more frustrating than a reader who just wants to pay for the book, but who can’t because, for instance, it’s been released in Australia, but not the US or UK.

I found myself in that position two years ago, when my local publishers released the first book in a new series four months ahead of my American and British publishers. Within a few days, digital copies of the book were scattered across the pirate sites and vital pre-orders and early sales were lost.

This was an instance of piracy, not geo-dodging, but the end result was the same, a loss of value. A large part of the value of that work, rested in my control of where it was sold, at what time; control I ceded to Random House in the US and Titan Books in the UK when I signed publishing contracts with them.

There will come a day when creators can square the circle of geographic rights. You can see it in the way Netflix releases its own content globally and simultaneously. The future is already here in indie publishing – often erroneously labelled self-publishing – where no author would lightly publish a title restricted to or from any particular individual market.

But our current reality is also a legacy. The systems we built over previous centuries – to publish books and music and audiovisual works – are not always suited to the era of instant and infinite replication and distribution. But if they are not given the chance to evolve into something better suited to current realities, we will lose all that they have gifted us over the years.

As frustrating as it can be to genuinely want to pay for content, but find yourself denied the chance, there are more often than not genuinely good reasons why you weren’t offered that chance.

Just relax. Chill out and wait a little while.

We’ll take your money soon enough.

John Birmingham wrote features for magazines for a decade before publishing He Died With A Falafel In His Hand and working for Rolling Stone, Playboy and The Independent amongst others. He won the National Award For Non-Fiction with Leviathan: an unauthorised biography of Sydney. His latest book is A Girl in Time.