How Not to Make eBooks “Take Off”

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.