How NOT to sell ebooks

Astak got a lot of press last year for promising an ebook reader in the $150 price range.  That never materialized, but they are now selling a rebranded Hanlin V3 for $270, putting them right alongside much of the competition.  Cheaper than Sony and Amazon, but not cheap enough to change anything.

So, they’ve launched Mobiebook, an ebook store to go along with their reader.  This makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is the giant disclaimer on the front of the site:

All eBooks on this website are powered by Mobipocket eBooks common library and you can read them on your PC, but not on the EZ Reader. This is because the EZ reader currently does not support DRM ebooks. We are working hard on supporting the DRM format, and we will notify EZ Reader users when a firmware update is available it will be displayed on this website.

Can you imagine if you bought an iPod and followed Apple’s instructions to head over to iTunes, and then were told you were welcome to buy songs, but you couldn’t play them on your new device?  iTunes would have lasted about a week with no sales before disappearing.

When you have two complementary products (MP3s and MP3 players, ebooks and ebook readers, whatever), sales of one are supposed to drive sales of the other.  Ideally, this even works both ways.  But here, because of the ongoing ebook format wars and the inclusion of anti-consumer DRM, we have a situation where the complementary goods aren’t even complementary.

They also have a really interesting “promotion” going on, where you can pay extra for things that are usually included in the price.  Maybe I’m missing something – the website is pretty awful – but I’m not sure where the deal part of this is.

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A small step forward, a giant step back

The  world’s  leading  provider  of  e‐reading  solutions,  Netherlands  based  iRex Technologies  (,  has  today  announced  that  it  has  reached  agreement  with  Adobe®  to license  the  Reader  Mobile  9  SDK  which  provides  support  for  the  PDF  and EPUB  file  formats  plus  support  for Adobe’s content protection technology which it will offer on its iRex DR1000 series.

It’s great that iRex is supporting EPUB.  The more support this format gets, the more likely it is we’ll have a standard format for ebooks across all platforms instead of all these competing formats.  Imagine if you needed a different web browser for different websites you visited (Beyond the terrible websites that only work in Internet Explorer).

And reflowable PDF support is fine – PDF isn’t an open standard, but it’s widespread enough that it doesn’t have the large drawbacks of some of the other formats.

Of course, no format support is complete without the inevitable DRM announcement.  It’s nice to call it “content protection”, but we all know it’s anti-consumer technology that doesn’t work.

An extra kudos to iRex for including this message on the email they sent me with the attached press release (a PDF) – “Please consider your environmental responsibility before printing this e-mail on paper.”  I not only considered my environmental responsibility, but also my convenience, and didn’t print a piece of paper for me to lose.

You can see the press release here.

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Bookworm – A platform for open ebooks

A friend pointed me to a new service to store all the ebooks you have in epub format so you can read them wherever you are – at your computer, on your web-enabled mobile phone, or on an ebook reader that supports the format.

I just signed up.  I downloaded Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations from Feedbooks and added them to my new Bookworm account.  Before you ask:  Yes, I would love to sit in a room with Rand, Smith, and Jeff Bezos and discuss the state of the electronic publishing market.

It is unfortunate that I have no mobile device capable of trying this out, but it’s not entirely unpleasant to read on my laptop.  Bookworm remembers my place, as promised.

More exciting than the service is the attitude.  From their about page:

Will other book formats be supported, such as PDF or mobi? What about DRM ebooks?

Bookworm is meant to push adoption of the open ePub format and there are no plans to support closed formats like mobi or those with limited flexibility like PDF.

DRM (digital rights management) has been shown to be detrimental to technology adoption, does not significantly prevent piracy, and provides a terrible user experience. Bookworm will never support DRM’ed ebooks that require special software to unlock. Instead we encourage publishers to explore forms of “soft” DRM (such as watermarking digital books with the name of the purchaser).

“Soft” DRM is silly – the idea is that if you stick the person’s name on the digital file, they won’t share it with others.  It is an improvement over typical DRM, but still decreases the value of the book while offering nothing to the customer in return.

However, open source publishing software, using only open formats, can only be good for consumers.  Openness leads to innovation because one group can build on the work of another.  And sooner or later, some of those groups will figure things out, and you’ll never again have to pay $9.99 for an infinitely copyable ebook.

Check them out – they’re getting a lot of things right, and the backing of a big company like O’Reilly will help show other publishers what’s possible.

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Ebooks – will we ever learn?

There’s a long and interesting article at Ars Technica from a guy who’s been in the ebook business for a long time.  His point is, basically, that everyone has gotten it wrong for the last ten years, making the same mistakes, over and over.  And the big players today are still making those mistakes.

He lists many of them, and most will sound familiar – Ebooks are too expensive;  DRM hurts honest customers and doesn’t do a thing to stop piracy, which is a vastly overstated problem anyway;  No one has tried anything really and truly new with ebooks.

It’s all a little depressing.  I was hoping he’d get to some brilliant idea to save the book industry, but he never really does.  But he gets it – he sees the ridiculous state of the industry now, stubbornly clinging to the old way of doing things instead of embracing all the new things you just couldn’t do before.

The world is still looking for publishing business models that work and will continue to work when all books are ebooks.  Someone could make a lot of money . . .

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Two minus two is not five, either

The new offline Follett Digital Reader will become available for downloading and installation on customers’ computers on February 9. Users will be alerted and directed to the Follett eBook Web site, for the installation. The new Follett Digital Reader will replace the Adobe technology customers currently use to download and read a Follett eBook.

Instead of using PDF format, which is proprietary but ubiquitous, Follett Digital Resources will force customers to use software that only works on Windows and Mac.  And this comes at a time when Linux is becoming more and more user-friendly, and when schools  are realizing that they can save a lot of money by skipping expensive operating systems and using free ones.

So in response, to “protect publisher content”, Follett is forcing a new proprietary format, even for books that schools thought they had already purchased.  As of March 2nd, your collection will be “transitioned” to the new format, like it or not.

The company claims that this “increas[es] the value of the Follett eBooks in a library’s collection”.  This is strange math.  They’ve taken something that can be used on virtually any platform and made it only available on recent versions of OSX and Windows.  It is difficult to see how this increases the value to the customer.

It clearly increases the value to the publisher, who can now collect money for every usage of the content, and certainly they have the right to do that.  But it would be nice if they could come out and say that rather than pretending that this change is intended to better serve the customers.

Article:  Follett Digital Resources Introduces ”Education-Friendly” eBook Reader.

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