eBooks: a love-hate story

A Christmas tradition is developing in my house. It goes a little something like this:

  1. Some gadget is announced in the run-up to the holiday season.

  2. I become obsessed with said gadget.

  3. Said gadget gets an announced release date well in advance of Christmas.

  4. My wife tires of hearing me talk about it and suggests I buy myself one as an “early Christmas present”.

This is how I ended up with my 2013 Kindle Paperwhite, which is truly a wondrous device for those who enjoy reading books, as an upgrade to my now-passed-on Kindle Touch. I rate E Ink up there with the best innovations of the past twenty years. It is infinitely more comfortable for casual reading than having a backlight blazing into your eyes, and for darker rooms, the Paperwhite’s front light complements this awesomely.

And yet, despite all my adoration for Kindle-the-hardware, I can only recall having spent a total $1 at Amazon to purchase books for the thing—on a very short story written by a friend of mine. The remainder of my reading has been exclusively loans from my local library via OverDrive, random freebies, and a small handful of side-loaded titles from other sources, paid and otherwise.

It’s not that I don’t want to read books from Amazon’s fantastic selection; far from it. The prices are sometimes really good. But I know that whatever books I get from Amazon stay in Amazon. Should I ever be in the market for a new reader, it would have to be one of Amazon’s, or my library would become effectively worthless. And, deep down (way deep down, I suppose; it’s amazing and a little troubling how a gadget that truly speaks to me can keep me from thinking clearly about its full impact), I’m a little unsettled by the fact that a single company is compiling an effectively complete reading history on me.

This unpleasant situation has arisen by the hand of DRM—digital restrictions management. To be perfectly clear on my position on the matter of DRM, I don’t think it is always intrinsically bad; its careful application in the context of a good publisher-consumer balance, such as rentals, unlimited streaming arrangements, or goods priced so low as to be easily considered disposable, is both fine and appreciated. But if I’m going to outright buy a book—and there are several I would have by now—I need to be able to know I can keep the thing as long as my computers don’t eat the backups, and reread it whenever I wish. I need to make sure my continued ownership of my library is not subject to the business plans of external forces.

I can do this with MP3s (even with Amazon themselves, which I’ve done on more than a few occasions), which I suspect is due to timing more than anything else. Market forces pushed the MP3 and a myriad devices that could handle it to the point that anyone trying to sell locked music looked foolish. I am denied the right to resell the MP3s that I’ve purchased—at least, as far as the T’s and C’s are concerned—but, fine, one battle at a time here. I am otherwise free to shuffle my music around to whatever device I see fit, listen to it how I wish. That is exactly what I, consumer, desire.

But books—and movies—are a different animal. Publishers of both have managed to lock up for themselves the role as the technical gatekeepers because they are utterly convinced that selling bare, unprotected media means forgoing all profits as nobody past the first purchaser will pay for the work. Freeloaders are going to get their piratical access to your works despite your efforts, so why are you punishing your paying customers so? Sorry, but I refuse to throw money after your goods with such strings attached.

I still love my Kindle-the-hardware. But Kindle-the-publishing-platform leaves me severely wanting. And I am not sure who, if anyone, on the publishing side of the equation is willing to change that.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

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