Saturday, June 14, 2014

eBooks, eBookshelves, eLibraries

A whole library dumped on my doorstep ...

One of the odd things about reading eBooks is that the booksellers encourage you to use only their own software for reading them. Of course this is to insure you will keep buying from them, since they have integrated their own digital "stores" as an extension of what you're reading.

Amazon is the worst culprit in this practice because they go further by using a proprietary format for their eBooks that insures you have to use their software. But Apple, Barnes and Noble, Google, Kobo and the rest do the same thing even if they agree on using the ePub standard format. Amazon even locks down their tablets to prevent you from installing reading software from other vendors. (This is the main reason I tell everyone not to buy a Kindle. Most other tablets, even from B&N and Kobo, will allow you freedom of choice.) So if you want to buy from multiple vendors you end up having to remember who you bought a book from so you can look for it in the appropriate software.

This is just weird. Imagine if you could only pick up and read one of your paper books if you could remember where you bought it. Hm, let's see. I was on my way to San Francisco, and in the airport ... or was it after I got there and went to City Lights? Or did I just take it with me to read on the trip?

It's possible to centralize your digital library with something like the Aldiko reader (for Android) or Adobe Digital Editions (Windows and Mac), but the lack of multiplatform support and digital rights management issues (the dread DRM) can make that challenging. So in practice we're ending up with these compartmentalized collections as if we had to organize our library in bookcases labeled "Amazon" et al. instead of Fiction, Biography, History, etc.

One of the downsides to this is that we're dependent on the bookseller to stay in business so they can continue to support their distribution ecosystem. How reliable is that? What would happen to all your eBooks (and music) if Amazon went belly up someday? Well, okay, maybe that's not likely. But what if it was Barnes & Noble? Not impossible, since they're struggling. It already happened to Borders, which had partnered with Kobo for eBooks. Luckily for their customers, Kobo remained open for business even after the chain of stores went down the tubes, but that was only because they were separate companies. (Kobo subsequently formed a partnership with the Independent Booksellers Association, which is why you should go to the website of your favorite indie bookseller and sign up for an account through them.)

Another case in point is Sony. The faltering entertainment juggernaut was in the eBook business at one time, and even launched one of the first readers with an ePaper display. This is where it gets personal, because the unimaginatively named "Sony Reader" was my first one. (I wrote about it here and here back in 2008.) I used it extensively for several years, mostly to catch up on the wealth of free literature available in the public domain from Project Gutenberg.

As the competition heated up with Amazon, Sony released a software update so they could convert to the ePub standard and abandon their own proprietary one. But they had missed the boat on distribution. What made the Kindle such a runaway success was not the reader or software or even the pricing available from Amazon's vast catalog. It was the ability to buy instantly over the air. Sony was too late to that party, having started out with the idea that you would shop on your desktop computer and push books onto your device through a cable. Quaint. So last year they decided to pull the plug on their whole book store to staunch the bleeding.

I was sorry to see them go. My Reader still works and still has unfinished books on it. (Be patient, Joseph Conrad, I'm getting back to you!) But I imagined my ability to re-download them vanishing. Kobo to the rescue! The Canadian company now owned by Rakuten of Japan struck a deal to take over all of Sony's existing clients along with their purchase history.

Amazingly, when the day came I didn't even have to do anything. I just got an email from Kobo letting me know that all my Sony books were now available in my Kobo library. Grabbing my tablet, I looked, and there they were. Instant gratification.

Imagine if when Borders went out of business a Barnes and Noble truck had pulled up to my front door and deposited copies of all my Borders-purchased books. Impossible of course, with traditional books. Not necessary, either, because they were already on the shelf. But with eBooks all things are possible. And necessary.

[Next time -- the changing library.]

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