Rethinking Ebooks

Domo is not a fan of ebooks
Domo is not a fan of ebooks

Until now I’ve been quite against ebooks. Back when I was in college I had an iPaq and I downloaded the Microsoft reader to it. I bought about 3 – 5 books for it and, at first, I thought it was great. It would allow you to annotate the book and highlight passages. And it was electronic so I could carry a bunch of books in the space of my PDA. But it was one of the first times I was bitten by digital restrictions management (DRM). I had to reset my PDA because it got into a locked state. After that, I couldn’t read my books until I reauthenticated the PDA. After all, everyone out there is out to destroy authors and steal digital books, so they need to make sure I’m the one who paid for it. This worked the first time around, but the second time I needed to authenticate, the server refused to authenticate the device and I could no longer read the books. So I was out around $20. Imagine buying a regular physical book and then having it no longer work because it wasn’t sure if you were the person who bought it. Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous.

I would be really pissed if I couldn't access this book.  Also, most ereaders are currently in b/w making them unsuitable for these types of books.
I would be really pissed if I couldn't access this book. Also, most ereaders are currently in b/w making them unsuitable for these types of books.

For the most part, back then we were limited to reading digital books on PDAs or the odd book reading device that only read its own obscure format. And when that company realized that no one wanted to read digital books, you would be stuck with a bunch of locked up files that would only work until your device died. (Maybe less time if it had to regularly phone in) And I disliked reading on the computer because I like to read in bed or while traveling.

A few years ago the Amazon Kindle came out. They licensed the eInk technology that Neal Stephenson had forseen in The Diamond Age and which made it just as easy to read a book on the Kindle as reading a physical book. Three things kept me from buying one. First was the fact that this device, too, used DRM to restrict access to the files. Second, the price was that of a more capable laptop. Third, I couldn’t share books with others. Many of the authors whose new books I buy without reading any reviews are authors I discovered by borrowing a book from a friend or a library. Sharing books is a huge part of our shared American culture. The ability to get a skeptical person to read a new author by allowing them to read your copy for free is a basic idea in the US. Yet publishers are too afraid to allow this to take place. More people need to be like Eric Flint, originator of the Baen Free Library (and an author himself). Here’s a bit of what he writes there:

1. Online piracy — while it is definitely illegal and immoral — is, as a practical problem, nothing more than (at most) a nuisance. We’re talking brats stealing chewing gum, here, not the Barbary Pirates.
2. Losses any author suffers from piracy are almost certainly offset by the additional publicity which, in practice, any kind of free copies of a book usually engender. Whatever the moral difference, which certainly exists, the practical effect of online piracy is no different from that of any existing method by which readers may obtain books for free or at reduced cost: public libraries, friends borrowing and loaning each other books, used book stores, promotional copies, etc.
After all, Dave Weber’s On Basilisk Station has been available for free as a “loss leader” for Baen’s for-pay experiment “Webscriptions” for months now. And — hey, whaddaya know? — over that time it’s become Baen’s most popular backlist title in paper!
And so I volunteered my first novel, Mother of Demons, to prove the case. And the next day Mother of Demons went up online, offered to the public for free.
Sure enough, within a day, I received at least half a dozen messages (some posted in public forums, others by private email) from people who told me that, based on hearing about the episode and checking out Mother of Demons, they either had or intended to buy the book. In one or two cases, this was a “gesture of solidarity. “But in most instances, it was because people preferred to read something they liked in a print version and weren’t worried about the small cost — once they saw, through sampling it online, that it was a novel they enjoyed. (Mother of Demons is a $5.99 paperback, available in most bookstores. Yes, that a plug. )

Take, for instance, the phenomenon of people lending books to their friends — a phenomenon which absolutely dwarfs, by several orders of magnitude, online piracy of copyrighted books.
What’s happened here? Has the author “lost a sale?”
Well. . . yeah, in the short run — assuming, of course, that said person would have bought the book if he couldn’t borrow it. Sure. Instead of buying a copy of the author’s book, the Wretched Scoundrel Borrower (with the Lender as his Accomplice) has “cheated” the author. Read his work for free! Without paying for it!
The same thing happens when someone checks a book out of a public library — a “transaction” which, again, dwarfs by several orders of magnitude all forms of online piracy. The author only collects royalties once, when the library purchases a copy. Thereafter. . .
Robbed again! And again, and again!
Yet. . . yet. . .
I don’t know any author, other than a few who are — to speak bluntly — cretins, who hears about people lending his or her books to their friends, or checking them out of a library, with anything other than pleasure. Because they understand full well that, in the long run, what maintains and (especially) expands a writer’s audience base is that mysterious magic we call: word of mouth.
Word of mouth, unlike paid advertising, comes free to the author — and it’s ten times more effective than any kind of paid advertising, because it’s the one form of promotion which people usually trust.
That being so, an author can hardly complain — since the author paid nothing for it either. And it is that word of mouth, percolating through the reading public down a million little channels, which is what really puts the food on an author’s table. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
Think about it. How many people lend a book to a friend with the words: “You ought a read this! It’s really terrible!”
How many people who read a book they like which they obtained from a public library never mention it to anyone? As a rule, in my experience, people who frequently borrow books from libraries are bibliophiles. And bibliophiles, in my experience, usually can’t refrain from talking about books they like.
And, just as important — perhaps most important of all — free books are the way an audience is built in the first place. How many people who are low on cash and for that reason depend on libraries or personal loans later rise on the economic ladder and then buy books by the very authors they came to love when they were borrowing books?

So recently I heard about the Barnes and Noble Nook. Unlike the Kindle, you can share books (although it’s up to the publisher to allow this) and unlike the Kindle you can use the open format EPUB. Now we’re talking. And it’s getting to be within a price range that I might be willing to shell out. So am I about to just start buying ebooks? Well, not quite yet.

First of all, even with the Barnes and Noble Nook, the files are still locked with DRM. Publishers (like the music industry before them) continue to view their readers as adversaries rather than as their clients. They have not taken the lesson from the music industry that legal MP3 sales sky-rocketed once DRM-free tracks were available. Now I don’t know anyone who illicitly obtains music. Before everyone I knew did. And nearly everyone I know illicitly obtains movies because there aren’t DRM-free versions available and I figure the same will happen with books. A quick search online shows that hackers and crackers have already figured out how to break the DRM on Sony and Amazon books. This means that, just as the music industry was doing before, you’re punishing the honest guys while those who would have obtained a copy without paying will still do so. And I refuse to be left holding the bag again with a bunch of books I paid money for and can’t read. I LOVE to support my favorite authors. I WILL pay for books – electronic or otherwise. But I will not be made the fool again.

Second, there’s the matter of Amazon having a little too much power over the Kindle (and perhaps other book reader manufacturers wielding the same power when they also control the store you buy from). You may have seen in the news last year that they removed a book (1984, ironically) from people’s Kindles. That’s right, if the company doesn’t like it (or maybe the government in a country like Iran or China), your books can be remotely removed from your device. This is one of those times where you may be better off with a third party reader like this Viewsonic reader (linke to B&H) where their loyalties are more to you than to a publisher.

Like this....but digital!
Like this….but digital!

Third is the matter of convenience. Books can be read anywhere and anytime. Electronic devices have to be shut off at certain times on airplanes and cannot be brought into some work places. A book can be thrown around casually, but an electronic device cannot. A paperback can be pocket-sized and light – many readers are not.

To see if I can get into electronic books, I have downloaded some books from Cory Doctorow. He provides his books under a creative commons license which allows people to convert his book into every ebook format possible. I also have the Gutenberg project which contains all the classic books for free! I chose to get them on EPUB since it appears to be the book version of the Open Document Format (ODF) that I use with If there’s a compelling reason to use another file format, let me know and I’ll consider it.

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in that I do not own a book reader or a smart phone. I have my computer and my laptop. But the laptop could have been very useful on a recent train ride. And it can be useful at the airport when there’s power available (my battery doesn’t last long these days). I can even use it in bed – even though it is a bit cumbersome and hot. I installed dropbox on my laptop and main computer so I can keep my library in sync. It won’t be ideal, but it will give me somewhat of a feel for things. I’m using FBReader as it works on Linux and appears to support nearly every format. Who knows, if I can find myself enjoying this non-ideal way to read ebooks, it may inspire me to invest in an ebook reader. All I need now is the reader revolution demanding DRM-free books as they did with MP3s. Make your voices heard!

What kind of books will he end up reading?
What kind of books will he end up reading?
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