• 31 Jan 2010 /  News, Opinion, Rants

    DRM'ed BookRecently several authors, including people like Cory Doctorow and J.C. Hutchins have reported that Amazon.com has gone to war with Macmillan Books, pulling their entire library off its virtual shelves. The New York Times reports that the reason behind this “ban” is a dispute over pricing of eBooks. The story is that Macmillan wants Amazon to increase the base price for eBooks to $15 US, up from $10 US and in response Amazon has stopped selling Macmillan’s products.

    Has Amazon Gone Too Far?

    Herein lies the problem with allowing Amazon to become so powerful as to dictate to publishers what they will be charging for the items that they’re selling. For years publishers have been telling authors just how much they would be selling the author’s works for and now the tables are turned. The average cost for a first-run hardcover book is approximately $30 US, or about $38 CAN if you live in Canada like I do. Authors receive royalties based on the selling price of the book, so a lower cover price means less money for the authors. Publishers never seemed to have a problem with giving authors less money for their books—the average selling price for a hardcover book these days runs around $20 US despite the $30 cover price. People just don’t seem interested in buying books at the current cover price so publishers are constantly dropping that price in order to get more books off the shelves which means that authors are getting less and less money back in royalties. For years books have been perceived as “disposable” by many people which is a huge problem in itself. Now that Apple has released it’s new “larger iPod Touch” (ie: the iPad), there are more options for publishers besides Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Nobles Nook.

    Amazon has thrown down the gauntlet and said, “We will sell your books on our terms or we will not sell your books at all.”

    Publishers Not Without Fault

    Publishers print thousands of copies of their books knowing that they will never be sold because it’s almost as cheap to print 75,000 copies as it is to print 50,000 copies—once the book is on the press and running, it really doesn’t take much more effort to print more copies. However all of these extra copies must also be transported and stored, and the paper doesn’t come cheap either so printing thousands of extra copies doesn’t really make sense. I’ve also read somewhere that Publishers feel that consumers will buy more books if they see more books on the shelves and that they commonly pulp (destroy/recycle) up to 40% of the books that they’ve printed! An article by the BBC in 2001 suggests that, “300,000 books are shredded in Britain every week.” A more recent article by the UK Daily Mail suggests that, “Publishers are quietly disposing of around 77 million unsold books a year.”

    This is insanity.

    eReading Devices Are Inherently Flawed

    Now back to the problem of eBooks and eReading devices. The main problem with these devices is that most of them rely on DRM and closed operating systems to keep their customer base. This forces the user to purchase a closed device to consume closed content and only the closed content provided by the retailer. In other words, once you start adding to your Kindle or Nook library you are pretty much stuck in buying only the content that Amazon or Barnes & Noble sells because you cannot read this content on another device, you cannot resell it and you cannot lend it to someone else. And, as I’ve said before, you aren’t even purchasing the content that you’re getting, you are RENTING it. This makes the provider happy but it doesn’t do much for the end user.

    Amazon’s End User License Agreement states;

    Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

    Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

    Which would make you think you own the content you’re purchasing, but while it says you can keep a “permanent copy,” it is a “permanent DRMed copy,” and we’ve already seen that Amazon can, at any time the wish, remove this “permanent copy” from your possession without you even knowing it. Also when someone owns an item, they generally have the right to resell it. Not so with Kindle eBooks.

    A very useful annotated version of the Amazon EULA can be found here.

    It is also common knowledge that Amazon is quietly compiling information on everything you read on your Amazon Kindle.  This includes any websites that you may be scanning via your Kindle, except that up here in Canada the websurfing ability of the Kindle has been locked out with the exception of popping over to Wikipedia because we know that Canada is on another planet and we should not be allowed to surf the web up here. Amazon also knows where you are on the planet when you’re surfing or downloading information to your Kindle by pinpointing you through the 3G mapping feature and Google Maps. So if you’re using your Kindle, Amazon knows. Common sense would also imply that devices such as the Nook and the iPad will also have these tracking features quietly included in their core software.

    An article by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing entitled “EFF’s ebook-buyer’s guide to privacy” states;

    “…your Kindle will periodically send information about you to Amazon. But exactly what information is sent? Amazon’s wording—”information related to the content on your Device and your use of it” —reads so broadly that it appears to allow Amazon to track all content that users put on the device, regardless of whether that content is purchased from Amazon. Some security researchers have indicated that the Kindle may even be tracking its users’ GPS locations. Is this the future of reading?”

    Which begs the question, “Do we have the right to privacy when using our eReading devices?” The answer should obviously be YES… but is this the real answer?

    Some Possible Solutions?

    With the Amazon vs. Macmillan in the news, now is the time for other publishers to step forward to say, “Yeah! We want more money for our products!” Amazon can’t pull them all off their shelves otherwise they won’t have any products left to sell.

    Secondly, Publishers need to rethink how they sell and publish books. Consumers enjoy the immediacy of an eBook but do not want the draconian DRM measures that come with a book in electronic format. You need to find another way to provide this content without DRM. You also need to look at new ways of providing physical books to the consumer—Most consumers only want to read the book, they don’t care if it’s a hardcover, trade, or mass market paperback. You should be providing them with choices from the get-go. Printing up 75,000 hardcover books in order to sell 25,000, sell off 10,000 as remainders and pulp the other 40,000 is just stupid and insanely wasteful. You need to start offering the consumer choices of format—Bibliophiles will be happy to pay $25 for a hardcover version of your publication which most other people would probably rather have a trade version or a paperback version. Sure you will end up selling books at a lower price, but you will sell MORE books in the end.

    You also need to start providing the consumer with an electronic copy of the book when they purchase the premium version (hardcover/trade) of the book. When the Apple iPod first came out, people could take ANY CD, pop it into their computer and put it onto their iPod, this is what we need from publishers for eBooks. Providing a CD with each book may not be cost effective, but you could certainly provide a PIN number in each book and allow users to log onto a website to download the electronic copy onto an eReading device of their choice.

    Finally eReading devices need to be as universal as iPods, but cheaper. If you want people to use your device then it needs to be open, and it needs to cost between $100 and $150. We also want the right to privacy and the expectation of not being tracked and scrutinized while we use the device that we’ve purchased. Retailers have no right to invade the consumer’s privacy by tracking their reading and surfing habits. It’s only a matter of time before a lawsuit pops up because of this.

    Purchasing a current eReading device is like purchasing an automobile that will only run on a specific kind of fuel that is provided only by the car manufacturer. For the consumer to buy into this is just plain stupidity and shortsightedness, but then that’s what retailers like Amazon are relying on. It’s about time that we, as consumers, start speaking with our wallets and stop being stupid because of the sheer convenience of immediacy.

    Use your head for more than a hat rack, people!


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  • 17 Nov 2009 /  Rants

    amazonkindleSo they announced on Monday that the Amazon Kindle is now available in Canada. (Please insert a half-hearted woo-hoo here.)

    The “new, lower” price is still a hefty $259 US (approximately $271.50 Canadian) plus you’ll pay an additional $31 Canadian (approximately) per device in Canadian Customs charges to get it over the border. It also appears that you need to log on to the (American) Amazon.com website to order the device as the Amazon.ca website doesn’t even list it for sale (currently). And while it says that the item “qualifies for FREE Super Saver Shipping,” I am unsure if that applies to items that are shipped over the border to Canada. Under the terms for “Free Shipping” on the Amazon.com website, it only talks about US destinations.

    While reading the various articles on the Kindle coming to Canada, I also noticed one important detail; The Kindle web browser will NOT work in Canada, “but customers will have free access to Wikipedia.”

    Why was the device delayed in coming to Canada after being launched almost worldwide about a month ago? No surprise there; difficulty finding 3G access for Amazon’s Whispernet connectivity that runs on AT&T in the US. Up until recently, only Rogers Communications had access to 3G connectivity, but since then Bell Canada and Telus Mobility have also announced that they now how a 3G network. Rogers Communications also lost their monopoly on the Apple iPhone when Bell and Telus announced that they would be offering the iPhone on their own 3G networks, although this didn’t seem to decrease the cost of running an iPhone. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Whispernet is a liability, not a feature for this device. WiFi would be much easier and 10 times more effective and more economical.

    As usual, there seems to be all sorts of fawning and drooling over the announcement of the Kindle coming to Canada with so-called experts saying, “Canadians have been excited and have wanted Kindle” and “We know that Canadians are passionate about books and reading.” Well the second statement may be true, but the first statement is NOT. At least not for this “passionate reader.”

    Everyone continues to talk about the “ease of access to thousands of books online,” and how you can “subscribe to your favorite newspaper by subscription,” but the fact remains that the content is still protected by DRM.

    You do NOT own anything that you purchase for your Kindle! You are RENTING books!

    I don’t know how many times I have to yell this in the streets before it dawns on people that they don’t own the content that they are purchasing. You are paying approximately $10-12 to RENT a book that you could get at the library for FREE. You can also read this content on your computer as Amazon has released Kindle applications for the PC and Mac, however you still do not own this content and once you’ve consumed it, it’s worthless. You cannot resell your content, you cannot lend your content to a friend, and you cannot put this content on a shelf in your living room for all to see. (Although some people see books as just clutter anyway.)

    Also look at the price of the content with books starting at around $10 (US at Amazon.com) for brand new books downloaded to your Kindle device. What does this do to the authors and the publishers? Amazon is trying to fool you by offering books at a reduced rate in order to convince you to buy their price-bloated reading device. In the end, Amazon wins and authors lose. We have already seen that Amazon is quite capable of removing purchased content from the Kindle at any time they please, what makes you think they won’t do it again? Despite Amazon’s “promise” I have a hard time believing that any business in the same situation will balk at removing content when they decide that they need to.

    But the electronic book market isn’t limited to Amazon, Canada’s Chapters-Indigo also has it’s own eBook retail store called Shortcovers which allows you to purchase and download electronic book content via devices like your Apple iPhone, iPod Touch, Blackberry® Smartphone, and Android enabled phones using either WiFi, 3G, or by direct connection to your computer. One of the annoying things about Shortcovers is that it doesn’t download the entire book in one go, it downloads new chapters as you read them so you have to have a constant WiFi connection in order to read your eBook. Prices at Shortcovers also run around $10-12 Canadian for brand new books.

    PUBLISHERS: Your current business model no longer works. Get over it. Move on.

    I love Chapters-Indigo, I buy thousands of dollars of books every year from Chapters and other bookstores online, but I’m not interested in paying 10 bucks for ephemeral content that is essentially worthless after I’ve consumed it. If you want to convince me to consume books as data, then you need to offer me a larger incentive, like how about including the eBook with the printed book? Seems pretty logical to me! Charge a couple more bucks for the printed book! Throw in a PIN code with the purchase receipt so that people can log into their Chapters-Indigo account and download the eBook to their device of choice via the Shortcovers app. Very simple.

    Also, I would like to know why lately new hardcover books are being released with “list prices” around $38 (Canadian) but they are usually offered for sale at 30-50% less ($26.50-$19). If you can publish a first edition hardcover book and charge only $19 for it, then WHY aren’t you pricing it at $19 to begin with?! For that matter, why are we wasting resources on printing hundreds of hardcover books when publishers usually only sell about 30-40% of the print run while the rest either go to liquidators or get pulped as recycled paper. Wouldn’t it be more logical to introduce first run books as Trade Paperbacks at around $15 and print far fewer hardcover editions for institutions and die-hard fans to purchase? When you release a new book and then make people like me, a passionate reader, wait for almost a YEAR to see the mass market paperback; YOU ARE LOSING SALES. It’s almost 2010, how about we stop thinking like we’re still in 1970’s?

    eReading devices will never get a solid foothold in the market until the price drops.

    The fact also remains that there are many more cost-effective devices out there for reading electronic content at this price that do a lot more than just allow you to read eBooks! For under $300 I have the choice or purchasing either a Netbook, which will do a hundred more things than the Kindle can do or an iPod Touch, or even a cell phone for that matter. The price for these eReaders remains way too high.

    Also we’ve seen these devices seen eReaders starting to filter into schools, with at least one school choosing the Sony eReader over the Kindle because, “Sony e-readers have much more flexibility in what you can get, in terms of the files that it will read.” (Source: Brandon Kerstens, Director of Development at Blyth Academy, speaking to The Globe and Mail.) “Blyth Academy already has plans to provide Sony Reader Digital Books—preloaded with textbooks, course outlines and assignments—to all its students under an arrangement with Sony and textbook publisher Pearson Canada.”

    This is the future of eReaders, people! And in order to get that penetration into the schools of tomorrow, these devices need to be (a) cheap, (b) have a screen that is approximately 8.5 inches by 11 inches, (c) have an OPEN file format, and (d) provide easy connectivity. The next steps, which should follow almost immediately are; a colour screen, the ability to annotate documents right on screen in real-time, and the ability to connect to SMART Board-type technology within a classroom environment (which needs more penetration itself).

    Until these devices are open and cheap, they will remain just a geeky toy used by very few people. Take a note from Apple’s iPod; Provide an open device and the public will provide the content. Then you can monetize your own content on top of that.


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  • 09 Feb 2009 /  Opinion


    Same Product, Different Face

    Amazon releases the Kindle Version 2 today, ho hum. This is a perfect example of a product designed by a Marketer who has no idea of what the public wants, but they know exactly what they want to sell. Doesn’t matter what the consumer wants, just look at the benefits of locking the consumer into your store with a device that reads only your DRMed media content. What else could a marketing exec ask for? The Kindle version 2.0 offers nothing new worth having.

    The Kindle’s New “Features”

    New specs include; A thinner unit, 10.2 ounces (instead of the old 10.3 oz, wow!), a screen with 16 shades of grey (instead of the old 4) at a resolution of 600 x 800 at 167 ppi (pixels per inch), 25% longer battery life, more storage space, a 20% faster page refresh, and a text-to-speech option using a computerized voice. Formats supported; Kindle (AZW), TXT, MP3, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively; PDF, HTML, DOC, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP through conversion.

    What’s Missing?

    What it still has that it doesn’t need; A butt-ugly chicklet keyboard, Sprint 3G “Whispernet” access which bloats the price, text-to-speech (do we REALLY need this?), a proprietary DRMed format (AZW) so that you cannot trade your ephemeral products with your friends or read them on other devices.

    What it still doesn’t have; A reasonable price, an SD card slot (why would you remove the most useful feature?), a touch screen, a use outside the US of A, support for Word and Excel files, and a colour other than white.

    One of the new features includes something called “Whispersync,” which allows you to switch between devices while you’re reading a book and pick up where you left off. This implies that you were stupid enough to buy multiple units. “No computer needed,” so why do you need to charge it via a USB cable? Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Also, I thought one of Amazon’s selling points was the fact that your library is all online, so why do I need more storage if everything is online?

    Target Demographic

    The Kindle continues to be targeted at business-type people who think it might be a “good idea” to be able to read their Financial Times or a book while traveling, but they are much too sophisticated to be seen carrying a newspaper or a book, the techno-geek who wants all the newest gadgets no matter the price, and the blogging media. People who actually want to read books wouldn’t want this product, at least not at this price. Sadly, people will still buy this product and wave the Amazon flag while yelling, “Hey! Look at me! I’m a geek on the cutting edge!” Sad really.



    The Other Side of the Coin

    On the other side we have a company called Plastic Logic that actually appears to understand what people want in an eReader. Here’s a product that’s due out in 2010 with an 8.5 by 11 inch form-factor aimed squarely at the business consumer. We can only hope that Plastic Logic will look at the mistakes that Amazon is making now and not follow them in the future. One can only hope that they will take this same technology and apply it to a smaller, paperback-sized device aimed at bibliophiles like me.

    What’s Offered?

    For specifics on the device, you should go to the Plastic Logic’s website and have a read.

    The short list is as follows:

    • Less than 7mm (about 1/4 inch) thick
    • Weight less than 16 oz
    • form factor, as mentioned, is 8.5″ x 11” (or a full letter-sized page)
    • battery life measured in days not hours
    • support for a wide range of document types including PDF, Microsoft Word, Excel & PowerPoint, and others
    • E Ink Active Matrix Display
    • A touchscreen interface
    • Tools for acquiring, organizing and managing information
    • Wireless and wired access to content

    It also states that the device uses a “version of Win CE from Microsoft, but the features of the operating system are not directly visible to the user” and it “will support digital rights managed content,” which should keep the marketing grubs happy. One can only assume that DRMed content will be only one of the many formats offered and that it will support a wide variety of other non-DRM content. Since the unit will support native PDFs, there will be all sorts of copyright free content available from Google books. There will also be supporting software that runs on Windows and the Mac, which makes one assume that it will be easier to download and organize content. There is no specific mention of support for an SD card, but the hi res image of the device offered on the website implies that there is a port for them. As well, they hint at a colour screen for future devices.

    Also there is no mention of an estimated street price for this unit (to be announced in 2010), but one hopes that Plastic Logic is keeping their eye on what Amazon is doing and realizes that the average book reader will not pay that sort of money for the technology when they can get something ultimately more useful, like a Netbook, for the same price. If they found themselves in the $100-$150 range for a trade paperback-sized (5″ by 7″) version and around $200-$250 for a full letter-sized version, I think they’d be in the ballpark.

    So here’s a vastly superior device with a touch screen giving you the ability to do markup right on top of your document and use gestures to flip pages and type on an actual on-screen keyboard! I have high hopes for this product, hopefully Plastic Logic does not disappoint.

    YouTube Video

    Here’s a short product demo video from Plastic Logic.

    Image credits; Amazon Kindle from John Pastor on Flickr. Plastic Logic eReader from the Plastic Logic website.


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