Scott Adams is offering a free download (here) of his book God’s Debris. It is a no-strings-attached unprotected, printable PDF. Scott writes:
I’m confident that some percentage of the free e-book readers will be inspired to buy a physical book for friends or for their own collection. And if you like it, you might want to try the sequel, The Religion War, available only in hardcover. At the end of the e-book you’ll find some links to Amazon.com for your impulse-buying pleasure.
. While I believe DRM, when we make the user experience simple enough, will continue to have a role in ePublishing, it’s still a necessary evil, and so it’s nice to see major authors and publishers (like Baen, with their Free Library) thinking more expansively about the financial upside of more open forms of digital distribution.
I’ve heard more than a few sad stories about problems with eBook DRM, but PDF DRM, Why Ebooks Haven’t “Taken Off” and How I Wasted $150 in Time on a $9 Ebook takes the cake. The sad thing is, while justifiably critical of the current end to end experience, writer J Wynia also validates the great potential of eBooks: “I paid a dollar amount that most ebook publishers would be thrilled with: $9 for a digital copy of a book. I was OK with it. I barely even hesitated. I wanted the immediate delivery”. I am convinced that if we can fix these (and a few more) shameful problems, that the time has come for eBooks to become successful.
Not to sound defensive, but despite Adobe PDF bearing the brunt of J’s ire most of the obstacles that writer described are really industry-wide issues, and some have nothing to do with Adobe or PDF. I summarize his primary issues as:
- poorly integrated online purchasing experience (J had to re-enter his credit card info on Amazon to buy an eBook)
- unduly complex rights bundle with purchase (“print once” in particular)
- lack of “truth in advertising” (it apparently wasn’t clear to J that he was only buying “print once” rights)
- overly obtrusive and clumsy DRM (such as using LDAP ports to validate)
- other client issues (required SW update before working, slow to launch after “buy”)
The DRM and client issues seem clearly to be Adobe’s: atlhough they might arguably exist with alternative eReading systems, that’s immaterial to this poor guy’s particular experience. But the first three issues are really more with Amazon and its suppliers’ etailing infrastructure and DRM rights-offering choices. In fact therein lies a dilemma for infrastructure vendors like Adobe. Apple’s vertically-integrated iTunes Store in many ways provides a better end to end experience to users. For example Apple FairPlay [sic] DRM rights are consistent and reasonably simple to understand. Yet, Apple’s ecosystem is completely closed and proprietary, and gives users and publishers no choices. In order to create a compelling eBook user experience, must we abandon an open ecosystem, where publishers and users have choices of different kinds of rights and different channels for acquiring content?
I tend to believe that there is some middle ground between iTunes Store monoculture (which I don’t believe is sustainable in the long run), and a bazaar of options that creates consumer confusion. In part this middle ground will be forged by publishers and authors like J that make the decision to release content under the rule of law, not the rule of DRM. Unprotected content is the truly simple proposition for users, and I tend to believe that it will have a significant role to play in the future of publishing, and that its existence (like the existence of the ripped MP3 alternative for music) will help keep us focused on providing better DRM solutions for end users. A great consumer DRM solution should strive to be like the best underwear: it should be almost like wearing nothing at all.
This past week Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all announced major intiatives in online access to books. This has led some to wonder whether browser-based online-only access to texts will become the ultimate solution for digital consumption of texts. Personally, I don’t see browser-based access to digital editions as a panacea, but as a sign of the bigger obstacles that remain in the way of mainstream adoption.
First, in audio and video media it’s clear that consumers want untethered access to full downloads of their content, including the ability to use the content on dedicated devices. None of the countless “personal storage space in th sky” solutions have gained broad consumer adoption. Online-only browser-mediated access may be acceptable for transient access to freely available content, and is certainly a fine way to allow users to preview content. And providing a usable solution for immersive reading on electronic displays has proven challenging. So it is hard to imagine page-flipping JPEG images on standard notebook monitors, online-only in a web browser proving compelling to end users, even if dressed up with an AJAX or Flash-based RIA.
And we have some real-world data points. Zinio delivers digital magazines to over a million subscribers. Zinio’s standalone Reader client is the prevailing solution despite a nice Flash-based online-page flipper option (“Zinio Express”). In Japan, eReading on mobile devices of both texts and comics is proliferating rapidly, and while the first wave including a lot of browser-based online solutions, publishers and solution providers there are telling me that users are increasingly choosing client-based solutions that enable full-book downloads and offline access.
Yet the experimenting that publishers like Random House are doing with online access to texts with partners like Amazon should also be viewed as a natural response to the fact that we as an industry haven’t adequately solved the hard problems for offline access to digital editions. DRM for eBooks is confused at best, and the proliferation of different eBook formats, most of them requiring users to install custom clients, is a nightmare. PDF is the closest to an “MP3 for digital texts”, but it is only a great solution for final-form paginated content and it’s easy to create PDF files that are too big or otherwise unsuitable for digital consumption. Online reading of JPEG page images in a browser may be a mediocre user experience but it bypasses all of the format, DRM, and custom client installation issues.
Page-at-a-time online access to eBooks has its place, no doubt, and you can expect to see Adobe work to further such solutions. But I believe that to really make digital consumption of book-length textual content happen, we as an industry need to step up and solve the hard problems. When we succeed, I believe we will look back in a few years and see online JPEG-flipping readers not as a harbinger of the “MP3 of eBooks” but more akin to the cheesy .WAV audio clips that used to be commonplace on web sites.
Of course in the long run things will cycle around. I still buy the “network is the computer” vision and believe that someday my personal digital storage won’t be in a hard drive I need to see or touch (or worry about). But there is no reason that digital consumption of books need await some pie-in-the-sky “Web 3.0″ future.