EPUB is irrelevant to the consumer; DRM is the issue; Amazon is brilliant

defective.jpgEven though I spend a lot of time fussing about with this blog, in the end I'm just an average consumer when it comes to ebooks. I like to read classics, best sellers, history, science fiction, literature in other languages (translated), etc. Luckily I am a very fast reader, so a copious supply of books is necessary to meet my addiction. Now here's the simple truth, I don't give a damn what format they are in, and EPUB doesn't help matters much, despite all the hype. Why is this? Well, take classics. Who cares what the format is. I can get classics that will work on my Kindle, my broken Sony Reader, my Palm, my iPhone, my Nokia phone, etc. from many sources. I don't care if they are in azw, lit, mobi, ereader, etc. as long as I can read them, which I can. Since they come in many formats I can keep one version on my Kindle and then follow up reading it on my iPhone with eReader. To the consumer the format, then, is irrelevant. Does EPUB do anything for me here, no. Now let's go to current publications. As long as they are not DRMed I can read them the same way I can with the classics. So EPUB isn't relevant to me there. However, if they are DRMed then I am stuck. I'm on the second volume of Stephenson's System of the World and I can only get it in a DRMed version. DRMed in Sony format, in Kindle format, or from Fictionwise in DRMed eReader, Mobi, Microsoft Reader or Adobe. This limits my reading potential. I can only read it on the platform that will support the particular DRMed format I am forced to buy. As a consumer this drives me straight to Amazon. Why? Because I can read the book on a large reader, which is my preference, but still keep a copy with me to read on my iPhone when I'm out and about. Why would I ever buy a Sony Reader in the future if Sony doesn't have an iPhone (or a Nokia or Windows Mobile) solution.

Amazon, brilliantly, has turned the ebook into the equivalent of a hardback/paperback solution. I think they are the only one who has understood the reading patterns of real people – as opposed to ebook techies. Read the hardback at home or when traveling (e.g., Kindle) and take the paperback with you when you are at the coffee shop (e.g. iPhone). It simply makes the entire reading experience more compelling. After doing it for a while I can’t imagine any other way of ebook reading.

And why am I forced to Amazon? DRM. DRM forces me to choose a platform. Does EPUB do anything here for me, the consumer? No. It is entirely irrelevant, because most of the books I want to read are DRMed, so I couldn’t are less about EPUB.

This won’t make me too popular when I go to the IDPF Conference next week, but it’s the truth. To the consumer EPUB adds nothing at the current state of the ebook market, and will continue to add nothing until the books we want to read are free of DRM and can be read on any platform we choose. Until that happens lets continue to fool with EPUB because it’s always nice to have a standard, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that that standard will help the consumer in the current DRM environment.

If EPUB wants to become relevant to the consumer, it should come up with a DRMed format that can be read on all these different platforms – a cross platform DRM solution. It’s going to be years, and years, and years before we get publishers to drop DRM so we might as well bite the bullet and deal with reality. And I bet you could even sell this to the publishers.

Cross platform DRM – that’s what the IDPF should be looking at. That would be a real boon to the consumer at the current state of the market.

14 Comments on EPUB is irrelevant to the consumer; DRM is the issue; Amazon is brilliant

  1. Well, right now it seems to be quite easier to strip epub files off their DRM than, say, prc or azw (I you want to stick with Amazon).

    So, epub is indeed quite relevant to the customers if they want to spend the 20-some seconds to get a DRM-free file … and get all the freedom you’re perceiving years ahead.

  2. Amazon is completely irrelevant to a very large number of ebook buyers.

  3. I must agree with the above comment. Amazon is just relevant to US market. Amazon is a fiction when it comes to e-books in Latin America and Brazil, where I live.

    I don’t think a cross plataform DRM will make things better for people. It’s a lazy solution – give up a free DRM market, a real cross plataform solution, because you have Amazon on Kindle and iPhone, and that looks fancy and nice.

    Publishers wont drop DRM? Yes, they will. People can’t get fooled for so long. I can just think of music market / mp3 / when i read opinions like this.

  4. DRM is the main issue, I agree: It keeps users from transferring their purchased book to any medium they so choose, it damages sales, and it threatens to make books vanish with even minor technical problems. And in that atmosphere… yes, ePub isn’t making much of a difference. But that’s only because we are still stuck in the Tower of eBabel.

    If DRM went away, the industry would only benefit from selecting one unifying, common format for all to use (and for all devices to translate into their on-board display format of choice). ePub would be an ideal format for that (or about as ideal as we have, currently… or some other HTML-based format of the future). The industry would then be ready to develop according to a free market system.

    Creating a unified format was the most important building block of the digital music industry. Removing DRM cemented it down.

  5. Lots of good points here. I think we sometimes confuse the ideal of ePub with its current status. The ideal is a single format which can be read on every device. The reality is that most users don’t have ePub-capable reading devices and so ePub falls short of the ideal.

    I don’t think this means we should stop pushing vendors to support ePub because moving toward our ideal makes life better. What we all want is what you say, Paul–to be able to read great books on whatever platform we’re currently using.

    I agree with David about the hassle of multiple formats. I support seven formats and every time I publish a book, I end up spending hours tweaking formats to get a look that works.

    Rob Preece

  6. Felix Torres // May 7, 2009 at 8:13 am //

    Books are not music.
    What applies to the digital music market does not necessarilly apply to the ebook market.
    And DRM is *not* a binary “yes or no” decision.
    Pretending that zero DRM is always the right answer is as wrong and small-minded as pretending that strict DRM is always the answer.
    THe real world is all about context and environment and qualifiers.
    There are situations where DRM’ed ebooks are not only acceptable, not only appropriate, but 100% absolutely *necessary*.
    Some business models, some applications, are simply impossible without DRM.
    Now, you may not have a use for those applications; you may not live in the market served by that particular business model; but that does not mean other people don’t.
    Two samples residing at opposite ends of the spectrum:
    At the high-end, electronic versions of technical and professional data are extremely valuable to professionals and companies. Accessing that data generates income and is at the same time very expensive to compile, maintain, and support.
    DRM is the way or corporation ensures the other corporation lives up to its contractual obligation and the way the client organization makes sure its staff do not put it at legal risk by doing stupid things. In this arena, stripping out DRM brings risk and trouble. Hence you see server-locked subscriptions to the Electronic versions of Janes and other industry-specific publications.
    At the low end; public libraries.
    Simple question: what publisher would license *any* valuable content to be freely (in both senses of the word) distributed without DRM? Would anybody buy a book they could simply check out electronically from a public library? If we are all to have access to public libraries (a very, very, good thing, by the way) then the only way we are going to have it is with time-limited ebooks. And that is DRM.
    I’m no fan of DRM.
    More precisely, I *loathe* intrusive DRM designed to lock-in customers.
    I am not a Kindle owner.
    (My eReader today is a BeBook. And this week I’m running OpenInkpot which support zero DRM’ed formats. I’m experimenting, okay? πŸ˜‰ )
    And I am probably the biggest fan of Baen and their Webscription business model. I love that they trust me not to rip them off and I love that they sell me *books* not files.
    I’d really like it if other publishers would voluntarilly follow their lead.
    But I don’t demand it; I can’t justify it. I don’t *know* enough to know it will work for everybody in every situation.

    It is way too early in the evolution of ebooks and ebook markets (note the plural) for *anybody* to pretend they know anything with absolute certainty.

    Me, all I know is that ramping up new products and technologies requires making a decent profit at every step of the way in the ramp up. (Look at the rampup approach at Tesla Motors; a classic by the book approach. Might not work, but that’s how you do it.) And that the mature ebook industry of 2020 is not going to look anything like the industry of 2010.

    My inclination is to let things play out for a while before I brand anybody a greedy monopolistic villain or any particular approach or technology a clearcut positive for the consumer.

    One thing I do know with a certainty, though; corporations exist to make money. Some are more consumer hostile than others but none is your friend. And when a corporation presents itself as my “friend” and claims they are looking out for my long-term interest, that’s when I put a padlock on my wallet.

    As somebody who’s lived through the workstation wars of the 80’s and 90’s, I also know there is no such thing as an open system.

    *Everything* has lock-in of one sort or another.
    Caveat emptor, folks!

  7. You have your own personal subscription to Janes do you? :)

    Pretty sure this discussion is about standard consumer-level retail product, not high-priced industry analysis reports.

    However, your argument has a big hole. There are large numbers of journals etc. that are very expensive. I have access to huge numbers of them, DRM-free. Password-protected and subscription-based whether personally, or by organisation, sure, but html, pdf, and doc files abound.

    I don’t think Janes is orders of magnitude more expensive than scientific journals, is it?

    Your average consumer can’t afford these of course, much like the publication you mentioned. They can get them via their libraries though. That will of course vary from place to place.

    Non-fiction periodical databases and libraries are different to buying the latest Bujold or Travel Guide, certainly.

  8. Besides, it is greedy oligopolistic villains, in the book industry. (USA/UK). :)

    Or, reader abusing scumsuckers, if you like. :)

    Everything has lock-in? Only in the sense you need electronics to use it.

    Nothing stopping anyone using amiga/unix/mac/linux/windows/vax/ibm or whatever created text files or html anywhere else, is there? Commodore 64 if you like, too, speaking of the 80s. πŸ˜‰

  9. @Felix: Sure, there are some situations where security is paramount, like in protecting corporate resources. But we’re primarily talking about public publishing when we say “DRM is bad.” No one’s putting Microsoft’s corporate papers on a Kindle.

    Public libraries and companies like Baen represent the evidence that there are other business models besides the “1-person-1-sale” commercial model, potentially more besides, all of which should be closely examined to find the best model to pay producers and supply consumers.

    Like Rob and David, I produce in multiple formats. Put simply, it’s a ridiculous time-waster, and the exact opposite of the way the market ought to work. It’s the equivalent of needing to format every television show for different brands of TVs… instead of allowing the TV to adjust the signal for optimized viewing on its screen. The sooner we are rid of backwards practices, the better.

    Even if the format isn’t ePub… even if it is not perfect… just so long as there’s only one.

  10. Felix Torres // May 7, 2009 at 11:20 am //

    Blue Tyson: you ever try to read an old Commodore or Atari 8-bit word Processing file? πŸ˜‰

    More importantly; you folks are focusing on hardware as the lock-in.

    May I suggest considering the isolationast aspects of committing to a fenced-in ecosystem? Any choice of platform is by definition a rejection of the alternatives. Unless you choose not to choose.

    Defacto market standards are the result of the choices people make and they can fence you in no matter what.

    For the rest:

    Of course, Janes and the tech manuals are different from consumer stuff. That is the whole point of the argument; there is a lot more to ebooks and publishing than the NYT best sellers or the latest Honor Harrington Novel (which is great fun).
    But letting one market define the rules for another is a prescription for major failure.
    Even in consumer fiction there are different customer behaviors associated with different genres and even in the same genre you get different behaviors. Some of us like to collect our books and reread them, others read a book and toss it or trade it in or give it away. No revisiting. And different people have different ethos; some of us prefer to buy our content, whether in print or electronic form, while others have been conditioned by the Napster or torrent-ization of electronic content to only pay for what is not found “free” in the depths of the net.
    When facing an emerging business where the financial rules aren’t clear, relying solely on the good will and honor of the masses is risky behavior.
    Baen chooses to take that risk; I applaude them for it.
    Random House doesn’t.
    I will not condemn them for it without actual evidence they purposefully intend to screw customers.

    It is early in the life of the industry.
    Many other industries have come to regret rash choices made early in their history that turned out to have distorted their development.

    Just one example from the PC business–the domination of Lotus-compatibility over MS-DOS compatibility in the early 80’s–serves to illustrate how short-term considerations have long-term lock-in effects. (Do 21st century PCs *really* need to be able to boot up Dos 2.1? Yet all can. And there is a price we all pay in functionality lost to this day.) The tyranny of the installed base is as much a form of lock-in as any DRM scheme ever concocted.

    Lock-in takes many forms, not all are immediately obvious. Long-term thinking is required to avoid being short-term wise and long term foolish.

    Hence, caution in one’s (technological) passions is required. Or, as Hypocrates said: “First, do no harm.” Me, I’d say, don’t burn bridges before you get to them, you might need them to escape the forest fire hidden beyond the ridge. πŸ˜‰

  11. Felix Torres // May 7, 2009 at 11:25 am //

    Hmm, let’s try this:
    (Naming names to be short.)
    Adobe would like nothing better than to use Amazon as a boogie monster to stampede everybody into adopting Adept-encrusted ePub as the alternative to the “evil empire” so they can acquire their own, bigger empire.

    Me, I refuse to be herded anywhere, so I keep an open mind as to who is my friend and who is here “to serve man”.

  12. Sure, everyone as a consumer would rather not have DRM on commercial eBooks (or DVD’s for that matter). But DRM is an industry reality for now, and as Felix points out there are long term use case needs for DRM – public libraries being a notable example. So the discussion around what makes for “good” DRM (convenient, portable, flexible, cross device, standards friendly, personal privacy enabling, consumer value add features, enables sharing, enables subscription models, enables content updates, etc) benefits from some separation from the discussion of when and where DRM should or should not be used.

    Yes, there is an intersection point where well designed, well supported DRM might be more attractive to employ when the decision is on the bubble. Perhaps that is why DRM-free content advocates often are not very excited about the discussion of what makes for “good” DRM and sometimes take the tact that “the only good DRM is a dead DRM”.

    But when it is required can’t it be better? That is what Adobe is trying to do IMHO. Dont’ get me wrong, lots of room for improvement there for sure. However, any device manufacturer can license the technology, any publisher or digital services company can license the encryption server, and any store can sell the content. That is a decent start.

    For the record I think Mr. Bezos is one of the great visionaries of our time and the Kindle is surely an industry leading device/service. Now, if it only had the Reader Mobile SDK on it so I could check out library books and read DRMd EPUBs that I already bought elsewhere to read on my Sony Reader, and if I could read any content purchased from Amazon on my hardware/software of choice, I’d buy the DX in a heartbeat.

  13. “the Kindle is surely an industry leading device/service”

    No it isn’t. It is a leading “America” solution. The “industry” is a world-wide collective of readers from hundreds of countries all of whom have managed to develop an e-reading base in spite of Amazon stubbornly refusing to service them. Amazon will NEVER be an ‘industry’ leader until they open up to the world.

  14. Logan Kennelly // May 7, 2009 at 4:02 pm //

    “That is what Adobe is trying to do IMHO … any device manufacturer can license the technology”

    Can we really say they are helping the situation when their licensing costs are so high that they are prohibitive to device manufacturers and publishers? Isn’t the eReader technonology free and doens’t it pre-date ADEPT?

    I also think that Adobe is helping the industry quite a bit, but I’m not certain that creating yet another DRM solution with high licensing costs was in anyone’s interest except Adobe.

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