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Ebooks: sellers, hosters, readers, and DRM

February 24, 2012

When you look at ebooks, there are at least three different elements that could be separated in theory but which are (largely) tightly bound in practice. First, there are the sellers. The sellers include large companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but could (in theory) also include your small local bookstore as well. Next we have the hosters: the entities that host your ebooks in the cloud so that you can easily move them between your devices. The hosters tend to be large entities that can build and maintain a cloud and synchronization architecture: Amazon, B&N, Google. And lastly we have the reader providers, who provide the client applications on phones, tablets, etc. that allow you to read your ebooks.

In theory, all of these elements are separable. You could buy an ebook from your local bookstore, host it in Amazon’s cloud, and read it using an experimental reader from a startup. After all, we’ve done it with other media types. You can buy a CD from a local store, rip it, use iTunes Match to get it into Apple’s cloud, and play it using any number of unusual audio players. Both Google and Amazon let you upload audio tracks into their respective clouds as well.

So why aren’t these channels separate for books? Simple: (most) publishers are still insisting on imposing Digital Rights Management (DRM) on books. So that book you buy from Amazon is useless in Google’s cloud (even if you could get it there), and no reader but Amazon’s Kindle reader will let you read it. Yes, I know publishers are playing a rearguard action to try to protect sales of physical books. Hey, every other media type tried it, maybe it’ll actually work for books, right?

Except it won’t. And in the meantime, publishers are giving Amazon a stick to beat them with. So here’s an idea: try to actually get ahead of the curve. Work with booksellers to make it easy for any of them to sell ebooks without DRM. Work with cloud providers to make it easier for users to host their books (regardless of who sold them) in a provider’s cloud. And work with companies to create new and better ebook readers (there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement!) that work with books regardless of who sold them. Then ebook reading might be so awesome and compelling that you’ll have shaped the future of ebooks (and raised your profit margins accordingly) rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into it. Just saying.

From → Musings, Technology

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