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Books Hell in a handcart Technology

Amazon’s Kindle: publishers, what the hell are you doing?

There’s a superb article on Slate about the Kindle – and in particular, the dangers it poses to the book industry.

the Kindle locks you down with more rules than the Army Field Manual. The Kindle won’t let you resell or share your books. Anything you buy through the reader is fixed to your Amazon account, readable only on the Kindle or other devices that Amazon may one day deem appropriate. (The company has hinted that it’ll build an iPhone app that can read Kindle books.) Even worse, you can buy books for your Kindle only from Amazon’s store. Indeed, the device makes it difficult to read anything that’s not somehow routed through Amazon first—you can surf the Web on the Kindle, and you can convert some of your personal Microsoft Word or text files to the device’s format, but doing so is slow and not very reliable. In order to read blogs, magazines, newspapers, and books, you’ve really got to go through Amazon’s store first.

Publishing is already changing because of the rise of Amazon and supermarkets, both in books – the independent bookshop sector has been decimated – and in magazines, where increasingly you can’t sell enough copies to make your publication viable if the supermarkets don’t stock it (and you might have to change your covers, content or hand over some cash to persuade them to do that). But at least there’s still a little bit of competition in the real world. If Amazon dominates ebooks – and the linked article’s argument that that’s going to happen seems pretty persuasive to me – then online, you’ll either have to go through Amazon or fight for scraps.

This, inevitably, involves DRM. There are all kinds of open formats for documents, including ePub, but guess what? They don’t have DRM.

The best way to make e-books sharable and to untether them from proprietary devices like the Kindle would be to sell them without copy protection—but the book industry, like every other content business, is paranoid about piracy. Record labels fell into the same trap: They demanded that Apple impose copy restrictions that forced iPod owners to buy music through the iTunes store. But that ended up making Apple the nation’s largest music retailer, with the power to single-handedly determine the price of all recorded music.

There is a smart way and a stupid way for publishers to approach this. The stupid way seems to be happening already.

The smart way? Assuming that DRM is a deal breaker, which I assume it is, then print publishers of all kinds need to come together, agree on a standard, cross-platform, royalty-free format for ebook publishing, get all the hardware firms to support it, get shitloads of titles available as soon as you possibly can and – this bit is key – only deliver books in your format. Amazon wants its own format? Tough shit. Good luck selling nothing but vanity publishing!

I appreciate that getting a consensus will be as easy as catching air in a net, and of course any copy protection will be cracked. But book piracy already exists. Scanned books have been online since scanners were invented. The trick isn’t to get rid of piracy. It’s to create a market so easy and so compelling that people won’t think of pirating because they can get what they want on the hardware they want for a price they won’t mind paying.

You know, like the music industry should have done a decade ago – and like Amazon is trying to do right now.