Inventing the Future

Following links from this week’s issue of American Libraries Direct, I found two excellent, thoughtful articles about the current (and probably future) state of the publishing business, including background on Amazon and the ongoing Department of Justice case against Apple and the major publishers. The articles are so well-written and clear that I don’t have much to add, but I highly recommend reading them if you’re at all interested in ebooks – as a consumer, author, publisher, or librarian.

The first piece, “Why everyone is probably wrong about the DoJ ebooks case” by librarian Hugh Rundle, outlines both sides of the conversation taking place about ebooks: the confusion over what the DoJ case is actually about (investigating collusion to keep consumer prices high), and the short- and long-term implications of Amazon’s pricing (and effective monopoly) of ebooks. Rundle argues that the major publishers handed Amazon its current de facto monopoly on ebooks by insisting on DRM (Digital Rights Management). He concludes that “the future of books is not the present of books,” and that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Rundle linked to Charlie Stross’s piece, “What Amazon’s ebook strategy means.” Here is a fantastic article that includes Amazon’s history from its founding in 1994, as well as some important definitions (disintermediation, monopoly, and monopsony). Stross, too, argues that DRM is dead, or should be: “By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers—and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony.”

Rundle also linked to a post on David Pakman’s blog, “Why should ebooks cost $15?” In this piece, Pakman writes, “Absent from most of this [ebook] coverage are two main questions: a) what is the right price for eBooks and who gets to set it, and b) why are eBooks not interoperable on different devices?” Leaving aside the first question for the moment, his second question is one of the main reasons I still don’t have – or want – an ereader. Imagine how much more appealing buying and reading ebooks would be if all ebooks were DRM-free and could be read on all devices – Kindles, nooks, iPads, Sony eReaders. As it is, however, if you buy a Kindle and some Kindle books, but then decide you want to switch to a nook…well, too bad, you can’t take your books with you, because you can’t read Kindle books on a nook.

Given all this, we can hope that ebooks will be DRM-free sooner rather than later. Increased interoperability would certainly be good for consumers, and maybe for publishers and retailers too.

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