I will defend the political rights of publishers and resellers to use digital rights management (DRM) for electronic books if they wish. I’m not convinced the practice makes for good business. As it stands, DRM is preventing me from buying an e-reader and e-books.
Meanwhile, with my shelves mostly full and without much room to expand my collection of printed books, I’m planning to be selective in buying paper-and-ink books. We live in a mobile society. People frequently change jobs and move. In some parts of the country lots of people spend considerable time on busses, subways, or trains. The market is ripe for e-books, yet the production and distribution of e-books sucks.
This is not a problem of technology. With modern software it is trivially easy to convert a book to an electronic format. (Indeed, practically all books are printed from a digital file.) While I have not used one of the e-readers, I am convinced that the technology makes the text look quite nice and readable. The good Doctors Hsieh have debated various aspects of the Kindle, but they agree the text looks nice. I imagine that new generations of e-readers will be easier to use and more versatile. (By the way, feel free to peruse my Disclosures Unjustly Compelled by the FTC.)
But compatibility issues are hell on consumers. If I buy a Kindle, I cannot even read Amazon’s e-books on my Mac, though Amazon has released a PC reader and claims a Mac version is on the way. More importantly, if I buy Amazon e-books, I cannot read them on any competing e-reader (except the iPhone or iTouch, which uses the standard backlit screen rather than the cool text-friendly, low-power screen).
I love Amazon, but forbidding customers from reading Amazon e-books on other readers strikes me as pathetically stupid and short-sighted.
Contrast the situation with e-books to digital music. True, iTunes uses unique encoding, and its songs do not work with other players. But it is trivially easy to convert iTunes music to the standard mp3 format. Amazon might consider the fact that I’ve purchased mp3 files from Amazon to play on my iShuffle, but I have purchased exactly zero e-books from Amazon because of the compatibility problem.
Meanwhile, Barnes&Noble’s e-books will only read with that company’s exclusive software. Nook, with an “expected ship date” of February 1, is priced at $259, which is, surprise surprise, exactly what the Kindle is selling for. They are both ridiculously overpriced. The Sony Pocket e-reader costs only $199. It doesn’t have wireless, but I don’t want wireless! [December 19 Update: I changed “wi-fi” to “wireless” for accuracy. The Kindle is wireless but not wi-fi, while the Nook is both.] I would be perfectly content with a USB cable. The problem is that Sony doesn’t sell the e-books I want to buy. So I can get a more-economical reader that won’t read the books I want, or I can get a clunky, overpriced Kindle. My solution is to buy neither.
While Amazon is great at selling books, it sucks at producing e-book readers. So why not sell me e-books that I can read on an inexpensive reader made by somebody else? With a standardized format, I suspect that a number of producers would make a good, inexpensive reader.
I understand that some publishers are whining about e-books. Get over it. Publishers have two options: they can adapt their products to the digital revolution, or they can die. Publishers should insist on a standardized format, or at least sell reasonably priced, DRM-free e-books themselves.
Let’s take an example. I’m interested in buying Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. Both Amazon and Barnes&Noble sell the e-book for $9.99. But both of those versions have sucky DRM that makes them far less valuable to me. What is the solution of Random House, the publisher (via Knopf)? They will sell you an e-book! The hardback costs $27.95. And the e-book, which does not have to be printed, bound, stored, or shipped, costs… $27.95. Gee, thanks, Random House.
And publishers wonder why people aren’t buying as many books? Do you seriously think I’m going to pay $27.95 for an e-book that has a marginal production cost approaching zero and that I can buy hard-copy elsewhere for $16.34? If Random House sold DRM-free e-books at a reasonable price, I’d be happy to buy them, and the publisher would get a much higher profit margin relative to selling through Amazon or Barnes&Noble.
Some readers may have noticed that my own book, Values of Harry Potter, currently sells only in soft cover. But it will become available in DRM-free digital format soon. (Whether it will sell through Amazon’s Kindle system or other e-systems remains to be seen.)
Standard text formats already exist. They’re called HTML and pdf; you may have heard of them. But God forbid that publishers sell books in a format that consumers can easily read.
Update: After reading several comments, I thought I’d further contrast Apple and Amazon.
Apple started life as a computer company that excelled at making great hardware that works seamlessly with good software. On this platform Apple built iTunes, a retail store.
Amazon started life as a book retailer and tried to build an integrated digital book program on top of this. The problem is that the iShuffle and other Apple players work great, while the Kindle is an overpriced technological piece of gossa. I mean, it’s relatively cool, but it’s nothing like the e-reader I’d like to buy. (I certainly don’t want wireless or a tiny keyboard built in.) If Amazon produced the e-reader equivalent of an iShuffle, that would be one thing, but it doesn’t.
Another difference is that, when I buy a song from iTunes, I own that file. I can copy it to disk, back it up, and control the way I use it. If I were to buy a digital book from one of the major sellers, my “library” would be established by the selling company. The seller can alter my library. Thus, it feels a lot more like renting books than buying them, and I don’t like that. If I buy a book, I want to buy it and be in control of the file. Screw online “libraries.” Just send me the file that I pay for. I neither need nor want Amazon or Barnes&Noble to “manage” my library.
The standardized mp3 format works great for music. Practically any modern digital device will play an mp3. I will buy e-books when they are similarly portable and convenient.
December 16 Update: Another obvious difference between iTunes and e-book “libraries” is that I can import all of my music into iTunes. It will import standard CDs as well as mp3s. Try importing a Barnes&Noble e-book into your Amazon library or vice versa. This is forbidden, which again creates a major barrier to buying e-books in the first place.