We reported yesterday on the sad news that e-book pioneer Fictionwise will be shutting down at the end of the year. I feel very bittersweet about this. The sweet is that I’m very proud of the revolution that little company started, and I love that e-books are a commonplace, normal thing, and that devices have evolved into cool little gadgets you can affordably buy at just about any chain store.

The bitter, of course, is that it didn’t have to end this way. Fictionwise never recovered from the one-two blow of agency pricing and its sale to Barnes & Noble. Its letter, published yesterday, points out that there has been declining interest in the formats they sell. But it was the company’s choice not to evolve and sell new formats, and not to grow into new markets. Barnes & Noble seemed to plan from day one to sacrifice Fictionwise for the sake of its own store. So, what’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong is that Barnes & Noble remains a defiantly American company, whereas Fictionwise remained—even after it joined Team B&N—decidedly more open. Customers from the U.S. and the UK can transfer their Fictionwise books to a Nook account (and in the process, get them upgraded to the better EPUB format), while customers not from those two markets are stuck with downloading their legacy books and reading them on software nobody supports anymore, until their devices eventually break and they lose those books forever.

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As for Canadians, we’re doubly screwed. Bill C-11, which passed here just recently, now forbids breaking digital locks, even to exercise fair use. Out of the 400-odd Fictionwise books I’ve purchased over the years, nearly half are in the secure eReader format. While my American sister gets hers upgraded to EPUB for free when she moves her account over to the Nook store, I’ll be breaking the law if I download mine while I still can, and then use an unlocking tool to free the book and make it readable.

How is that fair?










As I wrote in my initial post about Bill C-11, I am not against creators getting compensated for their work, and I do support copyright by paying for the books I read. But in a situation like this—where the store is shutting down, and consumer have content they’ve paid for that they risk losing access to—it’s only fair and reasonable to let those consumers do what they must in order to keep their legally purchased books. If you buy a book in paper and then the store shuts down, the book stays readable, doesn’t it? Nobody comes and takes it away. If you want to keep reading it, no one asks you to buy it again from a different store.

I know I’m on high ground—morally, at least—if I unlock my books while I still can, and keep them. But it bothers me that the law would dare to criminalize that behavior. Merge me to the Nook store like the Americans if you want to keep me locked into your management system. But if you can’t or won’t manage my books for me, then for goodness sake give me the right to manage them myself.

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  1. Joanna, You’re right that it isn’t fair. Periods of transition are seldom roundly fair to all, and that’s what we’re in.

    The entire world is in a period of transition from paper to digital – one day things will be be made right and we’ll look back and laugh at this period, but until we have to abide and make use of the ‘tools’ that we do have at our disposal.

  2. Joanna, marketing is all about controlling access to something in order to charge for it.
    Probably the only questions in the BN corporate minds were, “Will it be profitable? Yes, eventually. Is it legal? YES!”

    Wanna bet whether anyone asked, “Is it morally right?” (I’ll put a few bucks on ‘NO’ as that answer.

    I’ve watched half a dozen or more e-reader and ebook companies blossom and fade.
    A few died owing me money. The others died owing other authors money and thankfully didn’t carry my books. 🙂

    I dislike piracy as much as the next author (there are a few exclusions), but the ugly, clumsy DRM schemes so far presented serve only to annoy customers.
    Who here can remember when Harry Potter tomes appeared in pirated ebooks before they hit the streets in paper form?

    Locks only help honest people remain honest. They rarely deter determined thieves.
    Thieves don’t and won’t buy what they can steal.

    That’s why I haven’t bothered with DRM schemes on my own website sales.
    Ed Howdershelt – Abintra Press
    Science Fiction & Semi-Fiction

  3. My husband ran into this very problem yesterday when he tried to make sure he had copies of all the books in his account. And about half of them–formerly purchased in secure formats–were simply “not available.” I guess he doesn’t have to struggle with the moral dilemma of unlocking them or not. Gee, thanks, B&N.

  4. There are a couple of different issues here. Fictionwise made choices within the confines of the time: selling licenses for content in locked formats designed for specific payback devices. For the consumer, they got what they paid for at the time of purchase. Fictionwise discovered several years ago their model was not feasible and sold to B&N. B&N then took multiple, measured steps to find ways to make the sideline profitable and, obviously, was no more successful than Fictionwise. The result? Closure.

    The consumer is not screwed. The consumer got everything they were promised. The books they bought/licensed for the readers they were intended for were delivered. They’ve been available for re-download for years since. Now that the company is closing, B&N is not under any obligation, morally or legally, to convert these to another format. It’s nice they are able to do that for their “real” customers in the US and UK.

    I think you will find the new Canadian copyright legislation does allow you to make a backup of your books — you just can’t break the digital lock to convert to another format. But you never had that right in the first place; it’s just now codified in law. Having said that, as pointed out, laws that don’t have public buy-in aren’t worth a whole lot. So as long as you don’t step over the line to trafficking in goods, you’re probably golden.

  5. I think that the assumption that consumers knew or should have known exactly what they were buying is highly debatable. The average eBook reader may truly not know that they haven’t bought a copy of a book and that, in fact, they have only licensed a copy in some potentially transient form. Vendor misrepresentations on this point are obviously deliberate. If dear reader actually knew and understood the terms of sale (TOS), she might well seek out other options. Vendors don’t want that so continue to misrepresent the TOS. It’s my opinion that it would be appropriate for governments to intervene and require “truth in eBook licensing” as many do with “truth in lending.”

  6. “Vendor misrepresentations on this point are obviously deliberate.” That’s a bit of a stretch based on the evidence. I have been a Fictionwise customer. The deal was they were selling me a license (or an “electronic book”) that I could read on a device with specific software to “decode” it — an ereader or a computer. Nothing is changed. I’m not duped. I still have the full library of books/licenses I was sold. They still work exactly as they did the day I purchased them. Now the company is closing for good. That’s no effect on me and I don’t feel B&N is obligated to replace my existing content with an updated flavour.

    This is no different than buying content such as music. Just because I bought “Love Me Do” as a 45 in 1964 is no reason the successor to HMV is obligated to give me a copy as an LP, eight-track, cassette, CD, digital download, iTunes, Amazon cloud, stream it for me, etc etc etc. If my 45 copy and 45 player are kaput, I have not been “screwed” by the Beatles and their agents.

  7. I’d add you probably won’t even be able to download all 400 books if you wanted. Over half of the books I purchased on Fictionwise in the “Secure eReader” format can no longer be downloaded. They’re not even listed on Fictionwise anymore. Doubly screwed I guess. 🙁

  8. I find articles (and readers comments) of this nature very useful. They remind me that I owe it to myself not to “over commit” to any one company’s products or associated ecosystem. Diversification is an important, and legal, tactic in limiting ones dependency.

    It makes it easier to swiftly move my future spending away from a company that develops business practices I feel are unreasonable.

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