Without 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?
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.)
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).
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
‘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’?