Thursday, November 25, 2010

Buy once, read anywhere

I just saw the latest ad for Kindle smartphone apps. The "story" was a customer who had Kindle on her iPhone, and decided to switch to Android - and because Amazon has free Kindle apps for lots of different smartphone platforms, she didn't have to buy her library again. The tagline was "Kindle. Buy once, read anywhere."

Hey. Know what else you buy once and can read anywhere? Books printed on paper. Books, not e-books.

With e-books, movies on demand, et seems like the publishing apparatuses (apparati? how do you pluralize that, anyway?) are trying to find more and more ways to restrict ownership and portability, and force consumers to be much more beholden to them. No longer content with being the pipes, they're now out to convince us that they're the water.

I like physical books. I like holding the books in my hands. I like looking at the books on my shelves, seeing all the titles and the cover art. I like being able to easily lend - or give - books to a friend. We don't have to sync up our smartphones, we don't have to worry about data corruption, and we don't have to worry about some soi-disant authority yanking the books out of our library if somebody somewhere gets their knickers in a twist over people reading The Satanic Verses or George Orwell's 1984 (which, interestingly enough, WAS unceremoniously yanked from Kindle users' libraries...before being restored after a whole shitstorm.)

I think that ebooks can be useful. I like the idea that, as I get older and my vision begins to go, I can just bump up the font size on my books and still keep reading them. (It's hard enough to find some of my books in print any more, let alone available in "large print" formats.) If I'm going on an extended trip, it's easier to bring along several ebooks than the same books in physical format. And I have a few books that I like reading that, in the last few years, I've had to handle more delicately because they've just begun falling apart (cheap manufacturing / binding processes, acid in the paper causing lots of yellowing and accelerated aging, et cetera.) I can also understand that for publishers, an ebook costs less to manufacture and stock - and so for books that are not a huge draw, or books that may just be building an audience, or much shorter books (or even short stories) it's easier by far to make more copies of a file than it is to do another print run. So there are definitely advantages for the publishers, ASIDE from you having to buy their equipment and pay a regular fee to continue accessing your library. (You know that's coming. You just KNOW it is. Cloud storage or not, sometime down the road someone's going to make the case that even if people have paid for all of the titles in their library, they really haven't paid for the long-term storage fees or the bandwidth costs of downloading the files.)

But dammit...when I pay for a book, I don't want to have to have special equipment to read it. And if you're going to ask me to pay the same cost for an ebook as I would for a physical book, screw it, I'll go for the physical book and spend the time typing out a PDF for myself (to do that aforementioned font-size-increase in a decade or two.)

When your smartphone or your e-reader is lost or the battery dies, you can't read your ebook...but you can read your physical book. You can read your physical book when you take it with you on that cruise; but you might not be able to access your Kindle library if the cruise doesn't hug the shoreline. And - as Amazon points out - if you make the cardinal sin of not buying a Kindle and you switch smartphones, your new smartphone platform might not allow you to read your ebooks. For every gain, there is a cost.

I also don't care to think what will happen if Publishing House A initially publishes a title, but then they lose the rights to continue distributing it (the author dies, the author declines to renew, something.) Will that mean that places like Amazon will no longer let people read their copies that they perhaps bought when the book was first published, or even two years before the distribution rights reverted to the author's estate? Will consumers then have to buy that ebook from the new distribution-rights-holder? Has anyone at Amazon et al. thought this out? I'm betting that they have, and I'm betting their answer is "we have time to figure that one out, and if we don't, screw the buyers - they'll just have to pay for the book again, and if they really want it, they will."

Have -=consumers=- thought this out?

Love your Nooks and Kindles if you want. But know what you're paying for.