Three Thoughts/Observations on the Current State of the Ebook

by PocketGoddess on February 28, 2011

I don’t often cover ebook news here at the site, but three recent observations/stories came to light recently that I wanted to cover, if only briefly. Ebooks are great resources for so many reasons–portability and search-ability come to mind–but even though ebooks have been around for more than a decade, the market is very much in its infancy. It’s hard for readers to choose formats, choose a device, and navigate the treacherous waters of DRM and access when their ebook vendor goes under or simply stops updating its reader software to work with new hardware. These are trying times, and it seems that things are only getting harder, not easier.

Trouble Brewing Over New HarperCollins Library Policy

Over the last few days a storm has been brewing regarding the new library ebook policy from HarperCollins, which would require a library to purchase a new ebook once a particular title has been loaned out 26 times. I was shocked when I first read about this on Digital Reader over the weekend. Library ebooks have become an increasingly popular resource for readers, and one that I definitely enjoy. I don’t have any hard numbers on their popularity beyond my own experience–I have had to wait as long as three weeks to check out a popular ebook, even when my local public library has multiple copies of the title.

So why is it necessary to limit the number of times an electronic resource can be checked out? Ebooks certainly don’t wear out and fall apart like physical books. Libraries are already restricted to a one copy per patron lending policy for ebooks, which in my mind equates them to physical books that also can only be lent out to one person at a time. Since libraries are likely paying more for ebooks than for the equivalent physical books thanks to agency pricing, why should those same ebooks be further restricted to a certain number of loans?

The whole idea sounds like pure insanity to me, and evidently I’m not the only one. According to Teleread, a boycott has already started to protest this new policy, and you can learn more at http://www.boycottharpercollins.com/. The site includes an explanation of the reasons behind the boycott as well as a sample letter you can send to HarperCollins to show your support for the movement.

Missing Preorders at B&N

I’m an avid Elizabeth Moon fan, and I’m anxiously awaiting her latest book in the new “Paks World” series, Kings of the North. It’s available for preorder in a variety of formats, from hardcover to audiobook, but there’s no B&N NOOKbook edition available. It has been available from Amazon as a Kindle book preorder for several weeks now.

Curious and growing concerned since the hardcover will release in just three weeks, I contacted both the author and the publisher. Ms. Moon stated that “once the e-rights are licensed, the writer has no choice of format and is not informed which, or when, new formats will come online.” That’s unfortunate, but understandable: once the contract is signed, there’s not much the author can do as far as distribution is concerned.

The response from Random House wasn’t too promising either: “It is up to the indivdual resellers to convert our ebooks to any proprietary formats they need.  If your preferred ebook store is not offering this title in the format needed for your reading device you should contact them for assistance.” Of course the only option available at the Barnes & Noble site is to click a button that says “Tell the publisher you want this book in NOOKbook format.”

Why are both the publisher and the vendor passing the buck back and forth to each other? Who’s responsible here? Should I really have to work this hard just to read the latest book (in the format I prefer) by one of my favorite authors? I’m eager to hand over the cash to read this book, and won’t even grumble about paying more than I think I should have to due to agency pricing–but I need it in NOOKbook format and have no idea when/if it will be available from Barnes & Noble.

Ebook Piracy: Not What You Think

Last week eBookNewser published a list of the most-pirated ebooks, and it was quite surprising. I expected to see current bestsellers and popular authors, but instead it’s just a few computer books and sex manuals.

What the article actually highlighted for me is the fragmented and confusing nature of the ebook industry. Some authors are bypassing publishers altogether and signing exclusive ebook deals with Amazon. That nets the author a higher royalty rate, but doesn’t mean too much if it excludes potential customers who happen to own a B&N nook or NOOKcolor, or a Kobo or Sony Reader device, for example. And then there are authors like J.K. Rowling who simply refuse to release their books in ebook format.

Let’s not forget the “agency pricing” scheme, which seems to be a bad deal all around for consumers. The one thing I was hoping for was to more standardization in the ebook marketplace, with more titles available and at the same price no matter which outlet the consumer chose to purchase from. Instead we just got higher prices, ebooks costing several dollars more than the equivalent paperback editions in many cases, and a market that is just as fragmented and frustrating as it was before.

Final Thoughts

Shouldn’t publishers and booksellers should be focusing on making it easier, rather than harder? Haven’t the publishers learned anything from the music industry’s struggles just a few short years ago? Now that it is so easy to buy music through iTunes, I buy a lot more of it than I ever did before. I would like to do the same with ebooks, but proprietary formats, restrictive DRM schemes, ebook “windowing” that forces ebook readers to wait months after the hardcover release, and ebooks that are priced higher than their physical counterparts are all standing in the way of that.

Stop locking us into proprietary formats, because DRM only punishes honest consumers. If you want to switch from an Amazon Kindle to a B&N NOOKcolor, for example, you’re out of luck if you think you can take your ebook library with you to the new device. That just isn’t fair, but there’s no legal alternative to buying all of your ebooks all over again, unless you’re willing to engage in illegal activity to remove the DRM. If pirates want to crack it, they’ll do it. But that process takes time and some programming knowledge, and most honest consumers would rather just buy the book and start reading.

Make buying a book as easy as clicking a button, and most consumers will do the right thing. That may be the only option available in the future if the new HarperCollins policy goes forward, especially if other publishers follow suit. I wouldn’t be surprised to see many libraries drop their ebook programs altogether, or perhaps severely limit their electronic acquisitions, and that would be a real shame. As usual, it would be the dedicated readers who suffer.

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