In recent days I have been made aware of three developments in the eBooks industry. One is a philosophical development, two are commercial. Two, in my opinion, are good news. One most definitely is not. They show that people from all aspects of the book industry are looking at eBooks; some objectively, not as something that is to be hated and feared, but as a new development which will change the industry and needs to be properly considered, others as a way of earning more money and locking in consumers.
The first is a blog post that was brought to my attention entitled “The eBook User’s Bill of Rights.” (Hereafter referred to as EUBOR because I’m a lazy typist) A librarian wrote this, and I can’t agree with the sentiments more. They basically boil down to “an eBook is a book. It should be treated like a book.” This requires that users can do whatever they wish to with the eBook they purchase (I’m not a fan of the concept of “licensing” eBooks, by the way. More on this another time, maybe) The consumer should not be constrained by DRM or overly draconian rules. The eBook should not be locked into any one particular device, it should be device agnostic.
This is also very propitious timing in that I learned about EUBOR the same day I learned that HarperCollins has introduced new rules that eBooks licensed by libraries to provide to patrons can be borrowed a maximum of 26 times, then are no longer available. At all. To anyone. Unless the library pays again. I fail to understand why this rule needs to exist. In my opinion an eBook is simply another method of distributing the text of a book. If you look at a book as simply a medium for conveying information to the end-user, an eBook and a print book are identical. Why, then, should eBooks be locked down in such a way? Why can a library, if it buys a print copy of a book and an e-copy of a book, lend the print copy ad-infinitum, but the print copy only 26 times? It boggles my mind.
Relating this back to the EUBOR, why should a library have to repurchase an eBook after only 26 uses? I am well aware that books wear out over time, especially library books, but if you consider that library books can last years or decades before being discarded and replaced, a 26-use limit seems extremely low.
This is not the first time that the restrictions of the eBook medium, especially when it comes to DRM, has come to light and caused consumer pushback. This happened when Amazon deleted copies of an eBook out of user’s Kindle libraries it was a shocking demonstration of the drawback of a DRM-laden, digital library. When the Writer’s Guild lobbied to have the text-to-speech functionality of the Kindle deactivated there was outrage. Will there be over this, since it “only affects libraries”? Although it only affects libraries now, who knows how this might go on to affect the wider eBook market if it is adopted as a standard industry practice? Should practices that limit the use of eBooks be introduced now that Google Editions and similar industry ideas (see below) are bringing brick-and-mortar stores into the eBook market?
The third piece of news relates back to some of my earlier posts where I discuss the advent of eBooks through the lens of digital comics. Comixology is the company that made it possible for DC, Marvel, and a host of independent publishers to offer their comics for sale as digital downloads via a portable, device agnostic platform.
The advent of digital comics, especially day-and-date release (the release of the digital and print copies on the same day with no staggering of the release schedule), is worrisome to brick and mortar comic book store owners (and staff). It is a trend that should also be watched by all booksellers. What happens in one electronic print medium affects all electronic print media. Comixology has devised a way to bring the brick-and-mortar comic store into the digital era by providing a “Digital Storefront.” In a manner similar to independent sellers who wish to sell Google Editions books, this will allow traditional comic stores to sell digital comics through Comixology’s infrastructure on their website. How costs and profits work out, I don’t know. I wasn’t able to find details on that. What this means is that digital comics do not spell the death of brick and mortar comic stores, just as eBooks do not have to mean the death of the brick and mortar bookstore.
Looking at these three developments as a whole, it means that the eBook industry is still in its infancy. It’s still maturing, trying to figure out where it should go, how it should behave, and what its potential is. The eBook User’s Bill of Rights and Comixology’s Digital Storefronts are steps in the right direction. HarperCollins draconian DRM is not.