Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Unlock the Handcuffs

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Few topics are more likely to incite heated debate among technophiles than the mention of electronic media. Music, movies, and most recently books. A quick search of the Internet will reveal half a dozen stories of how ebooks are destroying reading - or not, depending on your point of view. To self-publish or not. Are 99 cent books ruining the industry.

I admit it - I'm a convert to ebooks. Originally, I didn't see how this "fad" would be viable. I mean, books have been around for, well, forever. Then I realized there is great joy in never being without reading material - and not just one book, dozens. I read on my iPhone. Small screen, yes, but I find it manageable.

But recently, and culminating this weekend, I realized their is a massive issue, a massive barrier, facing the publishing industry. And it's related to ebooks. But it isn't the face that books are digital. No, the real handcuffs on the industry can be summed up in three letters: D-R-M.

For the less technically-minded, DRM is "digital rights management." It's the thing that keeps you from illegally copying digital material and it's been around in various forms for a long time (anyone remember the Sony CD DRM debacle - anyone?).

Sometimes it's just a pain the the butt. You know, Kindle books can't be read in iBooks because they use a proprietary format (.mobi). You can read them on a Nook, but only if the publisher has disabled DRM and you jump through a few hoops to convert the format. iBooks use the more universal .epub format, but you can't read them on a Nook because Apple has inserted DRM code. You can read Kindle and Nook books on an iPad, but only if you download the Kindle or Nook apps. I've even read of problems where if someone moves from one country to another, stuff they've purchased from Apple disappears and they can't download it again.

It's preposterous. Take a DVD. It would be like saying that if you buy a DVD from Universal Pictures, you can only play it in a Panasonic DVD player (and yes, I can't believe I just used movies as an example because they have their own DRM issues - and I'm ignoring regions for the moment). Or buying a CD from a Sony Music artist and you can only play it in a Sony CD player. Stupid, right?

My daughter wants a Nook for her birthday. I had to caution her against buying books from the iBookstore because if she does, she won't be able to read them on her Nook. She'd wind up buying the book twice.

We both liked the Hunger Games trilogy. We bought the paper books - we can both read them. But if I buy the book for the iBookstore, she would have to buy a new version for her Nook - or at least get the Nook app and buy the book through there (and let's not discuss the fact that you can no longer buy books right from the Nook or Kindle apps, shall we?).

As a consumer, I find this irritating beyond measure. When it comes to digital reading, I prefer the iBooks app (please, I'm not an Apple fan-girl, I've used lots of reading apps and settled on iBooks). But I bought some things via Amazon and the Kindle app before iBooks came out. I have to keep the Kindle app around because I can't read Kindle books in iBooks - or I have to buy the book again, and quite honestly I haven't encountered too many books that I love so much that I want to buy two or three times.

As an author, I find this even more irritating. I want my words read in as many formats as possible to reach the biggest audience. I don't care if it's paper, digital, papyrus, or stone tablets. I don't want unnecessary barriers put in their way by publishers.

The bottom line is this: ebooks should work in whatever reading device the reading public wants to use.  Period. Because the reason that the market is full of different versions of DVD players, CD players, can openers, or whatnot is because different versions appeal to different people. But I can open any can on my can opener. I don't have to buy cans designed specifically for Sunbeam can openers. I shouldn't have to buy digital books designed specifically for a specific reading app or device.

So publishers, please. Find the key to the handcuffs. Readers want to buy your products. Don't lock them out.


  1. As a reader, I hate electronic readers. Maybe that's as an older reader, where I used to grab books off my parents' shelves and love the smell (and taste, I admit it) of the old 1940s books they owned. I love paperbacks and hardbacks. Mostly. I've noticed a trend in books today where they are making taller paperbacks. I don't like those and won't buy them. And also some are using thinner paper and weaker ink or something in gray rather than black. I don't like those and won't knowingly buy those. (I do shop online a lot.) Reading is a whole sensory experience for me, and reading on a reader is too much like multi-tasking to be pure escape, and I wonder what would happen if I dropped it in the tub.

    1. Those are trade paperbacks. The e-book has replaced the mass market paperbacks - at least that's my opinion because I don't really see them these days. You know, the ones you can read in the tub. =) I appreciate a beautiful book, but I'm more interested in the story than the medium by which it is delivered. At least with an e-reader, if I go on a 10-day vacation I can be assured of having plenty of reading material. And if I run out it's easy to get more.