Re Readings, Bookish and other people who love ebooks

9781863954877Without a doubt, the greatest thing about ebooks is their convenience. If it’s 2am and you must read Anna Krien’s Into the Woods because an unexpected need to understand Tasmania’s environmental politics arises, in this day and age, you should be able to buy that book (in much the same way as you could find articles relating to the subject on the internet at 2am).

About a fortnight ago, the much-anticipated Readings ebook store was launched in Australia. A collaboration with SPUNC (the Small Press Network), the ebooks store aims to make electronically available independent Australian books, many for the first time. With 120 titles so far, authors such as Tom Cho and his short story collection Look Who’s Morphing or anthologies like Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2 are finding new electronic audiences. For books that are often swallowed by the sea of titles in a bookstore, this is fantastic news.

Ebooks, however, continue to be fraught and uneven territory: how do you read an ebook? On which device? Do you buy an iPad or a dedicated eReader, like the Sony Reader? Which will last longer? Which – especially important in Australia where we’ve been unable to purchase the electronic versions of many print books – offers the most choice? And, how do you prefer to read electronically?

Some debate

These are all questions the developers at Inventive Labs must have spent some time pondering when designing Bookish, the platform and personal library application that allows you to read books purchased from the Readings store. And the store is certainly a qualitative step forward for the evolution of ebooks in Australia, allowing small presses the opportunity to be serious contenders in the digital publishing game, and the future of publishing in general.


Still, some debate surrounded the launch of the Readings store around the webisphere. It started with Chris Walters’s pre-launch assessment at TeleRead:

It begins! The ebooks-in-the-cloud concept that I warned against earlier this week, the one publishers say is the ideal future marketplace (for them, not for consumers), is in private beta right now in Australia.

It’s using the Monocle web-based ebook reader–which I find really awesome, to tell the truth–and partnering with Readings, a small Australian book chain, to sell ebooks to Australian customers. It looks great. It’s the future of ebook sales. And it stinks.

Walters’s problem was that a Bookish sale doesn’t allow you to actually download the book to your computer: you therefore never ‘own’ a physical copy of the book, and would need Bookish’s permission to do something – anything – with the book.

In ‘Readings and SPUNC reject readers with new ebook store’, writer Benjamin Solah criticised the format of the titles:

The store is a very conscious rejection of eInk devices and seems to force people to mostly use backlit devices like computers, iPads and smartphones. Granted, it says you can access the titles via the browser in the Kindle 3 but aside from this being much more fiddly, a heap of other devices are excluded including the Sony Reader and Kobo.

Solah goes on:

Confronting the monopoly of one device by rejecting those devices completely in favour of this browser-only method is just as bad. It is not hard to have both. Smashwords.com, mostly for self-published titles, offers a variety of choices. You can read titles in a browser, download a PDF to read on your computer or download EPUB or .mobi to suit various eBook devices including iPhones and iPads.

With all this eBook business being in its infancy and lots of unknowns still to emerge, I think it’s a mistake for any bookseller or publisher to lock themselves into one type of technology. Surely it would be smarter to give consumers a wide variety of options of methods, at least until one key method of reading emerges.

Joseph Pearson, developer of Bookish responded:

We make no bones about supporting old Sony/Kobo eInk devices, because they’re not really a part of the future of reading. Sorry if you bought one. We fully support the Kindle 3 though, which has a very capable browser built in, like all the new eInk devices coming out.

It may seem like an outlandish statement, but today, Bookish books are compatible with more devices than any other DRM-protected ebook. What other service works perfectly on a Mac, a PC, an Android, an iPad, a Blackberry, a Kindle and a Nook?

(The discussion following the post illustrates reader concerns and designer intent, so well worth reading.)

Zoe Dattner, General Manager of SPUNC, addressed the issues raised:

We have one prime objective, and it is something that we will pursue for as long as this organisation continues to exist: Every title published by a small publisher will be given every opportunity to be read by as many people as possible. Up until recently, this meant getting a printed book into the hands of a bookseller, or else running a pretty sophisticated mail order campaign. Now we are presented with a new bag of tools, and we are all in the process of learning how to use those tools, how to improve those tools, and how to engage with each other so that for every reader browsing a bookstore today, there are 4 more online about to discover the joy of books. We merely invite you to receive this analogue to digital migration in the spirit in which it is offered, that being one of experimentation, play, and a keen enthusiasm for seeing what comes next.

The most thorough analysis of the Readings ebookstore and what it means for ebooks in Australia was by Mark Welker (highly recommend for the electronic-literary curious), as he covers pricing, stock, how the Bookish model works, concerns about ‘cloud’ reading*, and his experience reading one of the Readings ebooks. But this is what I found most interesting:

Thing is, I’m not a cloud hater. Google’s new ebook service is built upon a similar premise, and Google ‘do no evil’ right?. Book.ish are quite open on the reasons for the cloud approach on their blog, and although the idea of having a book revoked freaks me out a little, I can see their point.

Ownership in the digital realm is a fluid concept, there are few crannies left for traditional notions of physical ownership to wither away in.

Thing is, I have a draw full of DVDs I ‘own’, but in ten years they will be coasters, just like my CD collection. What will I ‘own’ then? Given that we consume such vast quantities of content online for free at the moment – through news sites, blogs and other means – ownership really feels more like access to me.

In this realm, a URL has permanency, at least as much as any digital file or device has. But if the permanency you’re after is of the ‘when I’m 80 I might read that again’ kind, then move away from the ebook space, and go buy a print book.

To their credit, much like Google’s ebook store, book.ish is leaving it to the publisher to set DRM controls, meaning that any publisher who wants to include an epub file on the book.ish platform can do so. And if Steve Jobs can pull DRM out of iTunes, surely he can lean on ebooks next.

Lastly (for this post at least), Joseph Pearson (Bookish/Monocle developer) offered his perspective:

The suggestion that this is the deathknell of ebook ownership really ignores what has been happening to your consumer rights for years. Amazon books can only be read on Kindles or Kindle apps. Apple books can only be read on iBooks on iOS devices. Nook books: only on Nooks. Books with Adobe DRM: only on systems connected to Adobe Content Server software. All these companies have the power to ask you to verify your identity as the purchaser, and to rescind your access to books you’ve purchased at any time. To do so for no reason would likely go against their contract of sale (or licensing, as I imagine they call it). But the power they have is no greater or lesser than Booki.sh’s. Unlike Booki.sh —which has no intention of exercising this power, and tells publishers to “get a court order” if they want to prevent you access to your purchased book — Amazon has already exercised it.

The major difference between Booki.sh and these other vendors is that they insist you download the file.

And this is the point: if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.

If we ditch that bad idea, new and perhaps better models of ownership can begin to supplant it. If a book is a URL, it is fantastically easy for you to lend a book to a friend: you simply give up access to the URL while they have it. That seems to me like a vital aspect of ownership, and an incredibly problematic aspect with files. More significantly, the right to re-sell your ebook emerges as a possibility — because you can transfer your right of access to another individual. That’s not something Booki.sh lets you do now, but it’s something we encourage you to discuss with the publishers of your favourite books (hint: they’re probably not going to like the idea as much as you do).

Some thoughts

While Pearson’s post is a clear indication of where the developers envision Bookish in the future, it’s not quite there yet. According to the Bookish terms and agreements, you can’t currently share books because you can’t loan your login to your friend: ‘Your login information may be used by you alone – shared accounts are not permitted.’

What Welker said is true, ‘ownership in the digital realm is a fluid concept’. There is no certainty about how ebooks will look in five or ten years, and whether the collections we’re building now will still be ‘readable’. But if Amazon goes out of business tomorrow, you keep your ebooks. If Bookish goes out of business, presumably, you lose your ebooks.

You could turn the wireless on your Kindle off forever, but you will still own and possess a copy of the book. With the Bookish model, as soon as your browser is reset, you lose your cache, and your ebook. Similarly, if Bookish has technical difficulties, you won’t be able to access your books. Most likely the interruption will be brief, but you will be prevented from reading the book; you paid for it, but you won’t necessarily be able to choose when you read it.

Some more thoughts on the future of ebooks in Australia

In my opinion, the real problem here is DRM (Digital Rights Management). Let us turn to the DRM visionary, Cory Doctorow:

‘Imagine audiences buy your books through the iPad’ … As a creator, you could not authorise users to move to the Kindle if, for some reason, you decided to move platforms (or distributor). ‘It would be like Borders telling customers they could only use IKEA bookcases on which to shelve their books.’ If you as creator decide to change stores, you have to be certain that all those customers will follow – meaning they have to throw away all of their old books and buy new ones, or be satisfied owning parallel collections.

As I’ve said before: ‘DRM affects ebooks. Ebook readers, on the other hand, are affected by formats. So the difficulty of eReading in Australia comes in where format issues and DRM meet. If you had a DRM-free EPUB ebook, you would be able to read it on most ebook readers, but without conversions you’ll still have problems reading in on an out-of-the-box Kindle. … This is a problem: publishers place DRM on books, and this DRM is then also ebook-reader dependent due to restrictive software.’ In the case of Bookish, restrictions exist but they’re restricted to browsers, rather than a dedicated eReader.

Embracing DRM on the independent Australian scene means replicating existing digital security issues. If a book is banned, my ebookstore will pull it, or if the government wants to see my account details, they’ll get a court order and my ebookstore will give them the files. While all existing digital companies would do this (being that they’re for-profit businesses subject to Australian law), my print library is anonymous – the bookseller will not come into my home to remove books and they will not pass on the details of my library (as they would rarely have a record of my individual purchases).

Surely the biggest issue for readers as far as DRM is concerned is portability: why do you have to be locked into any kind of technological device? Why can’t you read an ebook on any screen you want? Readers used to be able to. The first ebooks, back in 1971 when Project Gutenberg – the oldest digital library – first started, were purely text files.

If publishers insist on DRM, why isn’t it portable so the reader can use it on any device they want? In all probability, it won’t ever be, because the philosophy of DRM is antithetical to the ability to transport and share a file. Like Cory Doctorow, I look forward to the day we stop pretending that booksellers, publishers, authors and readers have the same interests. The economic interests of publishers and booksellers are not the same as those of readers and writers. They may indeed overlap like a Venn diagram, but the reality is: some people read books, some people make books and some people sell books.

Still, look how far we’ve come:

*I have to confess to cringing whenever I hear ‘cloud technology’; it seems to be a kind of buzzword describing anything from ‘distributed computing’ to merely being online. Maybe I am a ‘cloud hater’?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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  1. I really agree with the idea that DRM is the problem. It seems Readings and SPUNC in looking for an alternative to restrictive devices and files, were still looking for an alternative that left them with control of the content.

    I now there are concerns about piracy, but I have seen numerous methods to strip DRM anyway and what you end up doing is making it more frustrating to the users who want to pay for your books anyway. And a lot of books are available to download for free as torrents on file sharing sites and if that file gives you more freedom, how do booksellers expect people to pay for a file or access to a book that has more restrictions?

    I’m not a cloud hater either, and I agree with Welker’s ideas about ownership. I’m not one to go back and re-read books multiple times anyway. I just want access to read the book in the way in which is most comfortable to me. Through a browser, even in the Kindle is not ideal. I don’t think I’ll care so much if I can’t take my Amazon books with me, but for now, reading on the Kindle is actually the most user-friendly of all the DRM models because it actually works.

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  3. Thanks for an excellent summary of the debate, and for your additional thoughts. I agree with everything that you have said here. I particularly like the “emperor has no clothes” point re the differing interests of readers and booksellers.

    At present Readings is attempting to speak for itself and its customers, a mode that leaves little room for criticism from readers themselves. Indeed, the disappointment that greeted the release of Readings’ widely-trumpeted ebook store (see comments in Solah’s earlier post, linked to above) was strategically drowned out by the bookstore’s PR masquerading as analysis of its own site. Readings still hasn’t provided a satisfactory response to Solah and others on the non-portability of its ebook titles, and the fact that they can only be accessed by devices connected to the internet.

  4. I don’t see it discussed much in this debate, but Bookish ebooks will be accessible to readers who are structurally priced out of a dedicated ereader device – for instance, readers in developing nations. That’s a very big point in Bookish’s favour, as far as I’m concerned.

    • Thanks for your comment Laura. But I don’t think you need a dedicated eReader to read other ebooks. Pretty sure you just need a Kindle app or another web-based eReader (think the Ibis Reader is one option) to read on a PC/Mac.

  5. The thing not mentioned here about the Bookish model is the absolutely prohibitive pricing of an ebook that you have less ownership of than even a digital file. Without web access you can’t access your cloud, therefore your content, yet the prices are comparable to print books and way over the mark for ebooks of any kind.

  6. Laura, but most eBook Stores offer apps and programs to read books on your comptuter or phone. EPUBS can also be read on a computer anyway and the Kindle Store is bringing out a web browser reader as well.

  7. The bookish ebooks are too expensive. I really can’t seeing ebooks becoming anything more than marginal until they cut the price more compared to physical books.

    I want to get away from backlit screens as much as I can. I don’t know why they’d choose a format which favors reading on backlit screens.

    • As it stands Readings hasn’t got me as a customer and there are at least two eBooks that I’d like to buy.*

      The reason? I am required to purchase yet another device to access my ebook and read in a manner that is comparable to a pbook or a portable reader.

      To purchase what many consider to be overpriced eBooks through them I have the following options:

      1. Cheapest 3G Ipad $800 + 3G monthly charge
      2. Tablet PC with 3G connection $300 + monthly charge
      3. Reconfigure my mobile network at home and purchase mobile hotspot ($200) and purchase a wifi only version of a Ipad/Tablet PC,(300+) which then means I am bound to the house if I want a connection.

      So it’s going to cost me around $300-400 before I can buy a book. So instead I will buy other books from providers who have their books in a format I can use or convert.

      There is simply too much good reading out their to be placing obstacles in front of your readers/consumers. I hope many of the Spunc members are intending to pursue other distribution means as well.

      If not I’ll see you all in 2-3 years when I upgrade my devices.

      *I am becoming increasingly of the mind that I am not the target customer for Readings, but still i don’t think my situation is unique.

  8. I am slightly bewildered as to the Borders/Ikea analogy by Doctorow. Can someone shed some light on this? It astounds me that anyone who uses the internet frequently can say that cloud-based books are not a good idea. I don’t believe it would make a crap of difference if you were able to download a PDF/epub/whatever file of the book. What would you do with it, print it? Take it on holiday? Staple it to your door? The idea that your purchase is not safe because it is being stored somewhere you can’t physically hold is something I think we need to do away with. It implies a distrust in the internet that I would have thought we had grown past given our dependence on technologies we don’t understand. I would rather my eBooks were held on someone else’s server than on a Kindle that could, and probably would, get hit by a bus.

    I do agree the Kindle option should also be available as they are killing it in the eReader market at the moment. But SPUNC and Readings have, from what I can see, taken a safe and intelligent punt on cloud-based books. They’ve assessed what’s likely to happen to Sony eReaders (nothing good) and moved the whole machine forward. Props.

    • The issue isn’t about ‘cloud-based’ reading. The issue is somebody else having control over your library. It would be equivalent to me owning a bookshelf and all the books on it, but you having the right to read one when you want. At any stage, a third-party could decide that some of those books are politically sensitive, or don’t have the right ‘cultural values’, or perhaps aid in a crime, so you might return to the shelf tomorrow and a third of your books are gone. This is equally a problem with Amazon.

      As for the bookshelf analogy: Bookish has developed a platform that means those already participating in ereading now have another website to go to, another app to use (yes, a web-based app), and another, different location they have to store their books. Basically, early adopters of ebooks already have multiple places where their ebooks are stored, and now they have another.

      The issue isn’t about Bookish. It comes down to publishers and DRM. Non-DRM EPUBs can now be read on every device. And that includes a simple conversion to be read on all Kindles.

      I also don’t think this is about a distrust of the internet – presumably you don’t trust all websites equally. The web has a social construction that comes out of the real world: just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t make Fox News more true. And it doesn’t make any kind of News Ltd service (which thankfully Bookish is not) anymore trustworthy with anything that they do.

      If Harper Collins now has a morality code for their authors, what does that mean for their ebooks? If an author breaks the morality code, are all their ebooks going to get pulled from your library?

      This comes back to my main point. Not everyone has the same interests: why are we pretending otherwise?

      • I mean distrust of the internet as a reliable entity and our ability to interact with it. I see your point about sensitive material, and the implicit ability of a third-party to withdraw its publications, but I don’t see the point in mistrusting the reliability of it as a whole – that there might be technical difficulties that result in us losing our shit. Is the fear of censorship a good reason to not engage, though? Not saying you’re saying that, just saying.

        In terms of having different interests and fighting for control, this has always been the case for any published material anywhere in any format. And I’d say publishers have started pretty well by sparring for the right to decide themselves in terms of format, DRM vs Non-DRM and pricing.

        Thanks for explaining the bookshelf analogy.

  9. It seems absurd that we finally have ways to read books from the internet, minimise the size of our libraries, be able to read anywhere, and now have issues with formatting issues. I mean, what is that? Having pdfs sounds like a far brighter idea, although I suppose it does make plagiarism and distribution easier.

    I do think the most exciting thing about e books is the potential to access books that may be in limited access where you are, or that you’re uncomfortable for whatever reason, obtaining or reading in public. I’m thinking about when I was eighteen and not out to my parents and was trying to chase down seminal lesbian texts at my local library and on ebay (they were in notoriously short supply). It would have been great to have access to these novels on computer, if only so the covers weren’t visible when I read them.

    Also, I’d have loaned you my copy of Into the Woods if you asked. 😀

  10. Re Jack’s comment: “The issue is somebody else having control over your library… At any stage, a third-party could decide that some of those books are politically sensitive, or don’t have the right ‘cultural values’, or perhaps aid in a crime.”

    What sort of totalitarian regime would we be living with if this sort of action was made possible? Certainly there are countries in the world that do live under totalitarian regimes, but we in Australia do not. And if anything like what Jack is suggesting ever came to pass there would be a massive protest and our right to freedom of speech would be well and truly exercised. The human race is well-accustomed to taking this kind of action and we are all empowered to do so again should we be faced with the task of defending a commodity as precious as literature. Just because something is on the internet doesn’t mean that it is suddenly in the control of some Greater Entity. This is like complaining about traffic when we are in a car, in a sea of cars, waiting for the lights to change.

  11. Zoe, I wish I could agree with you.

    Firstly, I disagree with the assumption that most of the population care that much about books – okay well maybe cookbooks and the Twilight series – but not the sort of books that might be censored such as those containing views or material determined by those with power to be of the extreme left (as one example).

    Secondly, when was the last time we saw huge demos in Australia – there certainly weren’t those numbers out supporting Assange and free speech.

    We are also seeing in Egypt that government has the power to turn off the internet and we saw with Assange that big business cooperated with government to isolate him.

    And finally, I guess you’re right that literature is a commodity but it seems such a shame to think of it reduced to this.

  12. I think DRM fundamentally means you don’t have control over that purchase. A question has been posed a few times that what would happen if Booki.sh was to shut down? If the website goes offline or is shut down for good, where are our books? We can’t access them anymore. It is almost like renting the book really, or paying to view it.

  13. Thanks for your comment Zoe, but I strongly disagree. The scenarios described above are far from fantastical given the recent proposed internet filters/kill switches in numerous democracies across the world.

    And books have already been pulled from Amazon (though I think they were copyright-related), and other books on Apple have been censored, so this hardly remains the realm of science fiction.

    Censorship laws in Australia already variably affect the sales of books: American Psycho, for instance, is still banned from sale in Queensland. I understand it’s just one of many books it’s against the law to sell there. We also have numerous laws restricting and governing the sale of computer games and pornography.

    The fact is it doesn’t require a totalitarian regime – Australians already live in a country where censorship is in place.

    (Incidentally, if we can get the whole of Australia out on the streets to defend the sale of a book, but not to end indefinite detention and deportation of asylum seekers, we may need to question our priorities. I.e. Sign the death warrants of asylum seekers, Australian government, but hands off our books? Wtf?)

  14. I’m curious that the notion of ownership of an ebook file causes so much concern. Does it spring from comparing a print copy with an ebook? When you purchase an ebook, from any reseller, you are not buying a book. You are buying a limited conditional licence to access the material. Same copyright principle as software, music (and in fact a printed book but we’ve mostly forgotten/ignore the underlying conditions of use)
    Publishers are often rather coy about the nature of the licence of use, the true essense of an ebook. An area fraught with all the angst of the music industry and its stupid response to the rise of digital dissemination. DRM is partly about protecting licence integrity but its also about attempting to lock users into proprietary display protocols – modified .azt files for Kindles etc etc Pinch a Kindle exec hard enough and they will admit it is a short term strategy; Kindles will start reading ePub files within 12 months.
    And somewhat off topic but I think Doctorow is wrong – he ignores that copyright infers not just financial benefit but also the moral authority of the author/creator. Perhaps it doesnt matter to him but it sure does to persons of less privileged stature – such as Indigenous authors or knowledge keepers.

  15. Personally I couldn’t care less about abstract arguments about ownership and the issues of DRM. I simply want to buy a book and read it on my iPhone because that’s what is convenient to me. With Bookish, I have bought a book, and struggle to read it because it disappears every time the cache is reset in the browser. Now when I try to cache the book it spends half an hour trying before saying : ‘this book cannot be cached’. Basically the inconvenience of carrying a paper book is replaced by the inconvenience of having to connect to the Internet and struggle with the connection process every time you want to read a few pages. The bookish system is one with huge flaws that are not shared with the other options, but without any benefit. They are also not upfront about the fact that books cannot be reliably read offline. I will never buy Book with this service unless they release an iPhone app for permanent cacheing off books.

  16. A really good summation of all things booki.sh and DRM. My company coeur de lion publishing is firmly in the Cory Doctorow camp. We don’t put DRM on our ebooks. I’m also a member of SPUNC. I wasn’t enamoured with the booki.sh cloud storage concept to ebooks. But hey, they’re an Aussie start up and trying to differentiate themselves in the market and also facilitating ebook storefronts for independent bookshops so I was prepared to give them a go. But the fact that they want to charge publishers a larger percentage of the cover price for carrying their ebooks than a bricks and mortar bookshop, and other ebook stores like Amazon and Smashwords would is – I guess – the last straw for me booki.sh wise. I’m all for supporting Aussie businesses. I run an Aussie business myself. But not if it’s going to cut into my meagre profit margin more than I really think is fair, given what booki.sh offer is available to publishers elsewhere for a lot cheaper.

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