dyingbitesJPG I ran across a post in the baen.EBookReader forum of Baen’s Bar from someone who said he got “format bait-and-switched” by Barnes and Noble. He said he ordered the e-book of D. D. Barant’s Dying Bites expecting to get the eReader format, which is what they had last time he shopped there.

Instead, he  got an ePub—which didn’t do him any good because he reads e-books on his Palm.

Curious, I went to Barnes & Noble to check for myself. I loaded up the page and cast myself in the role of the average consumer who knows very little about e-books, but who was at least smart enough to know what format he needs. I found a number of “helpful” little clues that end up confirming the wrong impression.

Clue #1: Under the title, the book claims to be in “Digital (eBook)” format. How “helpful.”

imageClue #2: Further down the page, under “Product Details,” the format is given as “eBook, 336pp”. All right, what kind of format is “eBook”?

 Clue #3: On the right side of the page is a logo that I have reproduced at right: “Works with the eReader you already own.” And it shows a picture of an iPhone, a Blackberry, and Windows and Mac monitors.

imageIf you click through the “Learn More” link, what do you see? A list of supported devices that is precisely those four, plus “Other Devices”. If you click on “Other Devices,” what do you get? “Please check back for an expanded list of other supported devices.”

Now here is where the lamentable tendency many have of calling e-book readers “e-readers” (or, using Barnes & Noble’s studlyCapped form, “eReaders”) really comes back to bite the consumer. Because what B&N obviously means is “works with the e-book reading devices you already own (as long as they’re one of these four)” but what the consumer is going to see is “works with the eReader™ you already own.”

And so if the consumer has one of the devices eReader supports that are not iPhone, Blackberry, Windows, or Mac—to be precise, this includes Android, PalmOS, old Windows CE, new Windows Mobile, Symbian, and OQO—he is basically out of luck, and has no way of knowing this until he’s already sunk the cash.

There is nothing on Barnes & Noble’s e-book page—or even on their e-book FAQ—to give any suggestion that Barnes & Noble’s application is not still using the same format as plain-vanilla eReader. This is the closest their FAQ comes:

What is the Barnes & Noble eReader?

The Barnes & Noble eReader is an application used to read Barnes & Noble eBooks on your iPhone, Blackberry, Windows PC or Mac. Without it, you will not be able to read Barnes & Noble eBooks. Our eBooks are encrypted to protect the authors’ work. Thus, other eBook Readers will not work with Barnes & Noble eBooks. The Barnes & Noble eReader can display styled text (italicized, underlined, etc.) and formatting as well as perform functions not found on other eBook readers. The Barnes & Noble eReader is FREE and is supported on multiple devices.

To be fair, it again mentions only those four platforms. But it still uses the term eReader—and to make matters worse, it is now clearly using it as a proper-noun application name. Because when Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise so they could create their own reader app to go head-to-head with Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone, they did not bother to rename it.

Thus, there is a Barnes & Noble eReader, which works only for the four platforms above, and there is a Fictionwise eReader, which is the original. So again: “Hey, I’ve got eReader—I’m covered, right?” Wrong.

(And let’s not even go into the way this is written to imply that nobody else’s e-books are encrypted to protect the authors’ work.)

I know that Fictionwise was talking, in the past, about upgrading their eReader apps to support the ePub format, with eReader encryption. (And the fact that B&N’s encryption uses credit card numbers suggests that they’re still using Fictionwise eReader encryption, so presumably they are using this technology in the Barnes & Noble eReader.)

When Steve Pendergrast discussed this with me last year, he seemed to be saying that the rollout would not happen until the codebase for all eReader apps was upgraded to support the new format. Did Barnes & Noble force a change in plans?

I really hope this is not what it looks like. I hope this is not Barnes & Noble giving the old eReader format a gentle shove into obsolescence the way Amazon did for MobiPocket. It does not bode well for the future of those heavily invested in eReader books if so.

On the bright side, unlike MobiPocket’s President, Steve Pendergrast is not in France, and has been extremely forthcoming in the past. If he is at liberty to let us know what is going on, I’m sure he will respond and clear things up.