The problem with ebook services – How Kobo doesn’t get it quite right.

Kobo has recently joined the Royal Rumble between Apple’s ipad ebook service and Amazon’s Kindle, and it’s interesting because it allows more flexibility than is usually the case by relying on Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM, a fact that allows for PC and Mac clients, support for various ebook devices, and a host of client apps for smart-phones.

Kobo is certainly the least restrictive ebook service I have yet found, and is to be applauded for that reason. On the other hand this DRM severely restricts the usage of the content; where is Linux support, why can’t i read Kobo media on the Kindle I have already bought, and why isn’t there a Kobo app for my Maemo smart-phone? The fact that Kobo use the .epub format would otherwise be commendable, instead the advantage of an open-format is irrelevant because it is riddled with DRM.

Publishers might require DRM now, but the music industry proved that that stance was not immutable, and there is an argument to make to publishers that books older than five years old should be de-restricted, as by this point its market visibility is negligible by dint of shear volume of new releases, so its value as a commercial property is more dependent on its convenience to the customer than its security from piracy.

The Games industry has in part adopted a similar stance, with many developers getting permission from their publisher ro release a patch six months down the line that removes restrictive DRM. Obviously the shelf life of a game is shorter than a book but the point stands, and the continuing success of Good Old Games demonstrates that old properties can become commercially viable once more provided the customer can see the improved convenience.

There is also a benefit to ebook publishers, as they will not be tied to a never ending merry-go-round of new devices and platforms. Every platform has FBreader support, imagine telling customers; “buy it, use it” rather than being forced to create page after pages of detailed explanations of which formats work with which devices under which circumstances………? Hardly the one-click customer experience that online consumers have come to expect.

More than this, there is an inbuilt suspicion of DRM resulting from the poor service of previous market channels. I have watched too many e-distribution channels come and go, leaving their customers high and dry when they; go bust, change encryption, leave obsolete devices behind. All that expensively purchased digital media becomes useless, and customers fume.

As to the possibility of getting a linux app and Maemo platform support, I would be happy if Kobo released a reader app for them, and more than willing to give the process a try. It isn’t the cost I worry about, merely the inconvenience, and this comes back to the final argument against DRM:

Can i back up my ebooks?
Can i use my ebooks without authentication?
Can i use my ebooks on any device I own?
Are the ebooks formatted in an open standard?

Thus far, the answer has always been “no”.

I want my unencrypted ebooks, and it will happen one day just as it did to music and just as is being experimented with on games today, the only question is whether I will be motivated to do more than try an ebook service in the interim.

I have a feeling that the dead-tree printed media has some years of life left in it yet.

Update – Oct 14th – Adrian Hon talking of the ease of finding ebook torrents:

I try doing this every six months or so, and I usually end up mired in a swamp of fake torrent links and horrible PDF versions; for what it’s worth, this was mostly out of curiosity, since six months ago I didn’t own an iPad.

This time, it took me 60 seconds to download a pristine ePub file, and another five minutes to move it to my iPad and iPhone. While this was going on, I took the opportunity to poke around the torrent sites and forums that my search had yielded, and discovered a wonderful selection of books, including.

Pretty much all of these books are available in ePub, mobi, PDF and every other popular format (the non-fiction and literary selection is much worse though, which probably reflects the tastes of the people uploading the torrents – that’ll change soon enough).

I am not a torrent-finding genius – I just know how to add ‘ePub’ to the name of a book or author. I don’t need a fast internet connection, because most books are below 1MB in size, even in a bundle of multiple formats.

@ Publishers – “Can we please have DRM free ebooks now……….. before it’s too late and you go bust from your crazy business model?”

6 responses to “The problem with ebook services – How Kobo doesn’t get it quite right.

  1. You’re right you know. Instead of being dragged through the mud though, you could always just make your own bookserver using dropbox (for hosting) + calibre (for conversion) which you can access on any wifi connected device. Too bad you still need a computer to sync your pc library with your server.

    • I do use calibre, but its not so much the web-convenience i seek, merely a portal from which i can buy books as a product (i.e. no drm) rather than rent books as a service (i.e. drm).

  2. Also, the biggest problem I see here is the way everybody tries to hide the information about their DRM usage. They behave like it is something everybody is aware of. I have a couple of accounts on different online stores for a couple of years now, but until now I spent a total of maybe 10USD for the content.
    Also, book prices are too high to motivate people to switch. Comparing the expenses involved in production and distribution of digital content with regular paperback, people can’t help but feel robbed by publishers. It seems that the same mafia from music publishing has now switched to book publishing.

  3. Interesting I am reading a post from 4 years ago and yet recoginising the same problems that existed then still existing in 2014. DRM is a big problem for people with different devices with which to read their books, it is quite simply inconvenient and people need to work out and remember what they need to do in order to read a book they bought on their different devices, assuming that is even possible.

    Also the big players like Amazon are set on their route of having proprietary software for their devices, rejecting epub for their own KF8 format. Authors that publish on KDP can of course elect not to use DRM but they are still stuck with either AZW or KF8 although Amazon do provide aps for ensuring their books, at least, can be read on multiple devices. It doesn’t look like the ebook reading jungle is going to change significantly anytime soon however albeit epub and KF8 are now proving to be the pre-dominent formats for ebooks.

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