Well, it’s time for another State of the eBook. Of course, this week was under the iPad shadow, but-gasp!-there’s other news out there too! Plus, with Apple landing smack in the ebook game, plus the final “Google Books” settlement, it has led to some interesting discussion about the nature of ebook digital rights management and how we, as consumers, can either accept or challenge the status quo. Not to mention the argument between Amazon and Macmillan books! All of these really touch upon many of the issues surrounding ebooks; as their popularity increases, questions about how they should be treated versus their paper siblings become more apparent, and the answers become more controversial.
Let’s start with some quick news:
-Acer, not to be outdone by Asus, has also announced plans to release an ebook reader this year.
-Amazon sold 3 million Kindles so far.
-Read an eBook Week is coming this March!
-Asus’s DR-950 posed for some glamor shots.
-Apple became a bookstore!
But it’s not all fun and games in ebook-land. Partly from Apple’s entry into the market, and partly from the rise of opposition to Google digitizing books, there has been quite a bit of debate this week about digital rights management. Kicking things off was the Guardian, with a frightening look at where DRM, and more importantly, handing the reins of content control over to someone else, can lead us. The scariest bit in the article, at least to me:
Second, you’re right to feel that our society wouldn’t tolerate a government seizure of books. But that’s precisely because books are physical objects: to seize them, someone must kick in our doors, and to destroy them, they must be burned. Seizing books would be a lot easier for governments were it not accompanied by such graphic displays of tyranny.
No one is saying that your Kindle is going to be hijacked and wiped clean by the CIA tomorrow, but it does point out that beyond letting Amazon/Apple/Barnes and Noble track our reading habits, they do have the ability to make books “disappear”. Yes, Amazon apologized for the 1984 debacle, and I’ve even chastised the Electronic Frontier Foundation for making a lot of noise about privacy pitfalls without actually offering a solution. But look at how the 1984 debacle ended; Amazon apologized, swore not to do it again, and STILL ends up being used constantly as an example of DRM and control run amok.
This is actually a good thing. The best weapon we have as consumers is to be vigilant and make it clear where we’re angry or disturbed by the actions of a content provider. Amazon wouldn’t have apologized for their actions regarding 1984, and publicly pledged to not use their kill switch, if they hadn’t been taken to task for it. Obviously, you have choices in ebook buying and can choose to not buy from them if it really concerns you. But you can also buy from a company, and still criticize when they’re wrong. The internet gives us all a soapbox, and with Twitter and Facebook, we can still call attention to “book burnings”, whether digital or physical.
(image courtesy Wikimedia)
Copyrights: Should Google Own Them All?
Then there’s the Google Books settlement. Google Books is a project to scan and digitize books that are in the public domain, making them readily available through keyword searches and ebook stores like Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, Cool-er Books, etc. There has been a huge amount of controversy over it, especially regarding international rights. There’s been a settlement, but not everyone is thrilled with Google moving into the book business. At the heart of this is a debate about the nature of copyrights and the digital age.
TechCrunch noted that Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig blasted the settlement because it leaves open the possibility of parts of books being copyrighted but not others. In other words, you could search for a book, and discover that only a few chapters are available to you, or the key charts are under a different copyright. He basically says the whole of the book should be under copyright or none of it; it doesn’t do anyone any favors to create this halfway system.
Author Cory Doctorow is also calling for a new approach to copyrights in the digital world. He talks about how the internet has changed the way information disseminates, and therefore the old copyright rules don’t apply anymore. He has different reasons than Lawrence Lessig, but the same general conclusion.
It’s hard to say exactly what will occur, but it’s clear there are changes ahead for how we claim ownership of digital works.
Macmillan Versus Amazon: Fight!
Macmillan, like many publishers, is not a fan of Amazon’s $9.99 pricing for ebooks. Apparently feeling empowered after Apple agreed to ~$15 a book, Macmillan asked Amazon to raise their prices. Amazon’s response? To pull all Macmillan books from Amazon.com.
The CEO of Macmillan claims he was just “trying to create a level playing field”, where all prices would fall in the $12-$15 range, and the trade-off would be ebooks being released same-day with hardcovers. Because clearly, publishers should be forcing retailers into a specific business model. After all, book pricing was relatively steady when they were printed on paper; why should we change what worked so well?
In case the sarcasm didn’t tip you off, I’m firmly on Amazon’s side here. Amazon has not, to date, asked publishers to shoulder some of the $9.99 pricing. It’s within a retailer’s right to set pricing. And in case Macmillan didn’t notice, Amazon has 3 million Kindles out there (not counting the Kindle for PC and Kindle for iPhone downloads), and they’re selling 6 Kindle versions for every 10 paper ones. But Amazon doesn’t know how to sell ebooks nearly as well as the publishers. Clearly, being able to sign an author and identify a potentially great seller is exactly the same as being a retailer!
Personally, I think Macmillan is living in fantasyland if they think their new friends Apple aren’t going to ask for cheaper book pricing sooner rather than later. Amazon set the $9.99 threshold, and consumers responded enthusiastically. Kobo Books is doing their best to essentially match Amazon on ebook pricing because that keeps them competitive. Even Barnes and Noble and Sony match on the biggest titles. Apple is the company that brought $.99 music downloads to the masses. Do you really think Steve Jobs is going to sit by and watch his competitors undercut him?
UPDATE: Amazon capitulated to Macmillan and agreed to the new pricing structure. Specifically, Amazon said:
We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.
So that’s a rundown of some of the issues boiling below the surface in ebooks this week. And I didn’t even touch on digital rights management (which I’m saving for another day). What do you think about copyrights in digital form? And the Google Books settlement as a whole? And was Amazon right to take action like they did against Macmillan? Discuss below!