In 2007, consumer groups asked the FTC to come up with a “Do Not Track” list, which would work like the “Do Not Call” list. Naïve Internet researchers then proposed a “Do Not Track” header for the web. The idea was that users would set a preference in their web browser; the browser would then send a “Do Not Track” (DNT) flag each time it fetched a web page. Advertisers would then voluntarily be good and not track the user.

Yeah, right.

In a surprise to approximately nobody, the industry which brought us pop-up ads and button hijackers and blind redirects has been reluctant to implement DNT. And now, companies including Google and Yahoo are recommending to the FTC that they basically be exempted from it.

I’ve always thought that any privacy measure predicated on good behavior by the advertising industry is basically a complete waste of time. I don’t bother with DNT; instead, I use the EFF’s Privacy Badger, which blocks trackers — and ads which attempt to track you. Mozilla is now experimenting with building similar functionality into Firefox.

Meanwhile, the podcast Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything has been running a series of shows called The Dislike Club, focused on everything that’s horrible about today’s Internet. One of those things is the fact that we’ve built a commercial Internet based around the business model of advertising things to people, and then responded to advertiser demands by making user tracking more and more invasive in order to increase the perceived value of the ads. At the same time, we’ve moved more and more of our content into walled silos like Facebook, and become beholden to the same corporate entities who are tracking us.

As you’ve probably noticed, I’m refusing to follow that business model. I own my own site, I pay for it myself, and no advertiser has any say over what I post. And while I post occasional articles to proprietary social networks, I don’t feed everything to the corporate maw. That’s why if you want to subscribe, you need to find yourself a web feed reading service, also known as a feed reader or agregator, and sometimes as a news reader.

Once upon a time sites like Facebook and LiveJournal would let you use their sites to read web feeds, or read their content as a web feed. Even Google had a feed reader. But in the quest to increase the value of their product — the captive user base — and force you to go back to their site so they could show you more ads, Facebook and Google and Twitter all deprecated open standard web feeds for social content, and then deliberately killed them off.

But they still exist elsewhere. There are Feedreader, Feedly, Digg Reader, Newsblur and other web-based services. There are desktop applications like Vienna, RSSOwl, ReadKit and many more. If you’re sick of being tracked and advertised at, pick one of them and start using it. Set up your own site where you can own your own content. Rejoin the open web.

Mark Zuckerberg, painted portrait DDC_8781
Creative Commons License thierry ehrmann via Compfight

Amazon vs Hachette, part 94

Amazon recently published a post about their Kindle pricing, which John Scalzi has some disagreements with.

There’s one particular disagreement that leaped out at me, though:

Amazon’s math of “you will sell 1.74 times as many books at $9.99 than at $14.99″ is also suspect, because it appears to come with the ground assumption that books are interchangable units of entertainment, each equally as salable as the next, and that pricing is the only thing consumers react to. They’re not, and it’s not.

Maybe I’m atypical, but for me books do largely work as fungible units of entertainment. That’s because there are far more books worth reading than I’ll ever have time to read. At any given moment I have at least a dozen books I’m eager to read waiting for my attention. If a miracle happened and I managed to read through my queue of purchased-but-unread books, I have a wishlist with over 100 more on it. Most of my friends are avid readers with big queues of unread books too, so I know I’m far from alone in this situation.

89/365: To do: ...
Kit via Compfight

So it’s not that books are all equally as saleable as each other. It’s just that there is a subset that is full of equally saleable books, and that set is plenty big enough to consume all my reading time. I’m not going to read Anne McCaffrey instead of the new China Miéville novel just to save $5, but some Neil Gaiman would be a more than acceptable substitute.

So yes, 90%+ of the books in my reading queue end up there after I see them at an attractively low price. Or to look at the other side of things, I can think of maybe 3 e-books that I’ve bought because I decided I absolutely needed that specific book, at that moment. I absolutely had to read “The Invincible” by Stanislaw Lem as soon as it finally became available in a direct English translation, for example, and I paid whatever they were asking in order to do so. (And it was worth it.) But that was an exceptional situation.

Let’s put some numbers on this. Checking my wishlist, I see that it has a Neil Gaiman novel at $4.99, another at $6.64, some Vonnegut at $7.99, a Vernor Vinge classic at $8.54, and so on. So, what do you think are the chances that I’ll decide to spend $12.99 to buy the new Charles Stross book instead? Sorry, Charlie, but I hope you can see you’re up against some stiff competition there.

The same happens with music. When Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France Soundtracks” was released, EMI wanted $18.99 for it. My response was sorry, but no, not even for Kraftwerk. I waited until I saw a copy for under $10. (Ironically, I then ended up buying the album a second time when I ordered the German language Kling Klang boxed set, but that’s another exceptional situation.) Meanwhile on another occasion, Mute records decided to put their entire back catalog on sale for under $10 per album, and I sent in an order so large that I got an e-mail comment after I submitted it.

So yes, I totally believe that authors will sell 1.74× as many e-books at $9.99 as they’ll sell at $14.99, and I think album sales probably work similarly. Once that price hits four digits, there’s a psychological barrier that makes me think “Hmm, I think I’ll just pick something with a 3-digit price instead”. I could be wrong, but I think there are a lot of people with huge queues of books they want to read who think similarly. Amazon has a ton of data about people’s purchasing habits, and when they say that e-books have high price elasticity of demand, I don’t think they’re lying.

Looking through my wishlist again, I see evidence that some publishers are getting smarter about pricing books in such a reality. I see fewer examples of e-books being more expensive than physical books, a situation that always feels like the publisher is giving you the finger. I see many publishers taking their older books and gradually reducing the price of the e-book, taking advantage of time-based differential pricing. The superfans who’ll pay anything pay $10 to get the book on release day, and then by dropping the price by (say) a dollar every couple of months, the publisher picks up as much income as possible from everyone else.

I have friends who are authors, and yes I do know how much work goes into writing books. Maybe we should live in a world where all books are at least $15, forever. However, we don’t, and in the world we’re in, I’m pretty sure that pricing an e-book at $15 screws the author.