The Format Wars have begun! To arms! To arms! Choose your weapon, grab your hardcovers for close-in combat, your paperbacks for ranged attacks. Get your kindle and hope that the screen doesn’t shatter on the first impact!
A month or so ago I read the headline “Barnes & Noble Pulls Watchmen, Sandman And 100 DC Graphic Novels From Their Shelves” and my first thought was “Censorship!” Then I read the whole headline “Barnes & Noble Pulls Watchmen, Sandman And 100 DC Graphic Novels From Their Shelves Over Amazon Kindle Fire Deal” and I realized I should be less impatient and read entire sentences before jumping to conclusions. The story behind the complete headline is that following a deal between DC Comics and Amazon such that certain DC graphic novels will only be available via the new Kindle Tablet, Barnes & Noble decided to stop carrying these specific graphic novels in print in their brick-and-mortar store. (The books could still be ordered off the website for home delivery, but that’s neither here nor there, I just think that as far as boycotts go it’s kind of funny.) Here’s an article from Comic’s Alliance that goes into more depth about the DC deal with Amazon.
A few days later Books-A-Million followed suit, pulling those books which DC has exclusively licensed to Amazon to sell digitally from its shelves. As many have pointed out, Barnes & Noble has their own in store eBook reader, the Nook e-reader, which is essentially a direct competitor of the Kindle. Books-A-Million also sells the Nook, licensing it from Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble has stated that they will only sell a book in-store if they can offer it to consumers in all available formats, citing that as the reason for pulling the books from their store shelves.
Now, an interesting subtext to this dispute goes beyond simply print books vs. e-books, it also delves deep into an area that I’m extremely interested in, and one that I’ve commented on several times before while writing about eBooks, that of device agnosticism. Why is it that an ebook I buy on one device should not be available to use on any other device that I choose to read it on? Why does the manufacturer of the file get to decide what company I have to buy a device from to read the file? Would consumers be satisfied if they were told that as of tomorrow all DVDs they buy from a specific movie studio will only play on one brand of DVD players? Would consumers be satisfied if they were told that in order to get cable television from one service provider they have to buy a specific brand of TV? No, they wouldn’t. So why is this ok for eBooks and other digital files?
A concept that I was introduced to a few years ago is that of Net Neutrality. The idea that ISPs and other entities should not have the right to dictate what content you receive online and at what speeds you receive it. This came about because of, among other things, proposals that ISPs should be allowed to charge websites to deliver their content to the consumer. In a world without Net Neutrality Facebook would load faster on your computer if they paid your ISP a certain amount per month, or you chose facebook as part of an internet “package” like with cable channels. I see the issue of Device Neutrality becoming just as big an issue in the coming years, especially with the advent of cloud-based storage becoming more popular. If I store my files on a server somewhere it’s on the assumption that I can access them any time I want from any device I want. Why would I store files in the cloud if I can’t be assured of accessing them when I need them?
Situation like this, in my opinion, will only serve to hinder the spread of eBooks as a viable medium in the long term. In October 2010 I heard Jim Lee, the co-publisher of DC comics, say that between print comics and digital comics they are not looking for one format to “win” they want to support both. While this action by DC Comics does not directly contradict what he said I feel it goes against the spirit of his message, by directly supporting only one brand of device to read digital comics, they are effectively looking for a winner, and limiting their audience.
image resource: Comic Book Resources