But the access model it eventually adopts could point the way to a very unfriendly future for all e-book consumers, especially those who value genuine ownership of books.
Toward the downside?
In my last post I told how academic libraries have found themselves with large collections of e-books that, since they cannot be viewed on e-readers and smart phones, remain largely unread.
Now used for searching rather than reading, these e-book collections stand to be made redundant by Google’s more familiar interface and brand.
But as some of the astute commenters on the post immediately pointed out, the next generation of tablet/slate devices, should they contain technology that allows the screen to mimic e-paper (a la Pixel Qi), will certainly bring these e-book collections back to life.
If this method of delivering e-books works for scholarly publishers, it can also work for trade publishers and it may come with a significant downside for the consumer.
Downloadable or flowable?
What is important in this is not the tablet technology so much as the way publishers will be providing content for them. Will it be through downloadable e-books of the kind consumers are beginning to buy in such large numbers? Or will it be as “flowable” HTML of the kind academic libraries currently provide (that is, e-books that are streamed from a server that you must be constantly connected to in order to view)?
Downloadable ebooks work on e-readers and smart phones. Flowable e-books work on pc’s and any device that can maintain a constant connection to the web, including and especially the coming tablet pc’s. Downloadable e-books make the reading device key to the reading experience (how well can you search, annotate etc.). For flowable e-books the reading platform performs this function (think Stanza, or in the case of academic libraries, ebrary).
Naturally the next generation of mobile devices won’t be tied to flowable e-books in that you’ll still be able to download e-books on them. But I’m betting trade publishers are going to start to see what the big academic publishers presumably have already—that flowable e-books have a much greater profit potential because they allow for much greater control.
Gatekeepers and DRM
Contrary to popular belief, DRM isn’t just something stuck to downloadable e-books—vendors of reading platforms love it too. In fact, flowable ebooks and DRM were made for each other. As any undergraduate who’s tried to print extensive sections of their library’s e-books will tell you, DRM can be built into the platform to control what the reader does with the content. This technology empowers the platform vendor, potentially allowing them to charge readers for certain basic functions like printing, copying text or even just taking notes. This isn’t to say that this kind of DRM can’t be hacked somehow. But it can be very effective and annoying, and not particularly sophisticated. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked to intervene with a publisher on behalf of a student or class because the DRM has inexplicably blocked them from viewing the text.
More to the point, the platform becomes the gatekeeper. Access to the text is password protected (or in the case of academic libraries, gated by IP address). Since the e-book is not downloaded to your device, access can be shut off at any time. And you can’t file share a flowable ebook. Although you can share passwords, these too can be easily blocked if it’s determined the user has violated the license (by accessing from another IP address, for example).
This kind of DRM would make a database like Google Books a gold mine for publishers who end up selling their e-books as flowable content only, not ePub files to be downloaded to an e-reader. Creative publishers could start charging micropayments for rentals (say 50 cents for a day’s use). A convenient, smooth rental system might even persuade consumers away from the idea of owning e-books altogether. This may seem far-fetched, but academic librarians have been talking about the virtues of what they call “access over ownership” for years. Ironically, though, in an e-book rental scenario, it would be libraries that end up going the way of the music industry, not publishers.
The Other DRM
The DRM welded to downloaded e-book files seems positively benign to me in comparison. OK, perhaps not benign, but it at least seems to level the playing field a little more between reader and content provider. As long as the file is on your device and the DRM doesn’t screw up (a big “if,” I know), it’s yours, not the provider’s. Of course Kindle owners have reason to doubt this, but given the amount of competition for devices consumers can now make a different choice. They can go for a device that allows you to archive your e-book in a place beyond the provider’s reach.
Will the flowable e-book scenario actually happen? As movie fortune tellers always caution, this is just one possible future. As long as consumers demand ownership of the e-books they purchase, including the right to archive, it won’t. But as the next generation of mobile devices emerge, and as Google Books develops, consumers of e-books should beware: access will always leave you vulnerable; ownership has the best potential for giving you security.
As for academic libraries, they may finally get the value out of their e-book collections that they paid for, but the Digital Industrial Complex keeps rolling on. Only a resurgent Open Access movement and a new, more skeptical generation of library administrators will be able to stop it and ensure that libraries, as the immortal Bob and Doug McKenzie might put it, never get hosed like that again.
Bio: Dan D’Agostino is collections development director at a large research library.