I’ve had my Kindle for about six weeks now and I love it. It’s lightweight enough that I take it pretty much everywhere with me and I always have plenty to read. The screen is great for reading books and the battery holds its charge for days – I’m currently only charging it about once a week.
The technology is great – but there’s a small issue. Content is hard to come by.
Ok, that’s not really the case. There are thousands of books available in the Kindle store. What I really mean is that content is hard to come by in a format that I’m happy paying money for.
Remember when buying music online was overcomplicated? When you had to be careful which web site you bought your music from because you might not be able to play it on your computer or your portable music device? When buying a track from one computer meant that you might not be able to play it on another computer? In short, do you remember DRM?
Well, that’s the stage that the ebook publishing seems to be at currently. They’re paranoid that people will share ebooks with each other and therefore they treat every customer as a criminal and place massive obstructions in the way of us using the products that we’ve bought. It’s really easy to buy ebooks from the Kindle store, but having bought that book you can only read it on your Kindle (or on other Kindle applications associated with your Amazon account). If in two years time I decide to buy a different ebook reader from a different company, it’s likely that I won’t be able to use it to read books I’ve bought for my Kindle. This is unacceptable to me, so I’m looking for alternative sources of ebooks.
The Kindle will happily read books that aren’t in the Amazon DRM format. It reads PDFs (although they don’t reflow in the same way as a real ebook) and Mobipocket files. So the problem becomes finding a better source of Mobipocket ebooks. Actually it’s easier than that as there’s a wonderful program called Calibre which will convert between various ebook formats.
Going back to the comparison with music, when music files were all DRMed, there were two sources that we all used to get music. We ripped our existing CDs and we (well some of us) used service like Napster to get hold of other music. Can we take a similar approach to books?
Of course, converting your existing library to ebooks is a bit of a non-starter. Scanning books takes far too long – and you’d end up with something that might well be difficult to convert to an ebook. I hear there are companies in Japan who will do the conversion for you for about a dollar a go. But you have to send the books to them and they do it by destroying the books. So that’s not really an option for most people.
So how about alternative sources. The first place that many of you will be thinking about is Project Gutenberg. Since 1971, they have been building a digital library of out of copyright material. And, yes, they produce Mobipocket versions of their books. In fact they recently changed the description of their Mobipocket versions to Kindle versions. You can get thousands of books from their site. I’ve already stocked up on Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and dozens of other out of copyright works. If you want classic literature, then this site is all you’ll need.
But I don’t just want classic literature. I want other kinds of books too. As a geek, I like to read technical books. O’Reilly (one of the best technical publishers out there) make a huge selection of their books available as ebooks. Buying an ebook from O’Reilly gives you access to a pack of up to five DRM-free formats – which includes Mobipocket. So for technical ebooks I’m pretty much sorted. O’Reilly also allow you to upgrade from a paper copy of a book to the ebook edition for $5.
But this still leaves me missing some books I want. This lunchtime I was in Waterstones and I could easily have bought a couple of dozen new books. The new David Mitchell novel, Stephen Fry’s autobiography, the new Derren Brown book and many many more. Those are the books that I want to be able to buy DRM-free.
And let’s be clear here. I don’t want them DRM-free so that I can put them on a web site so that anyone can take a copy. I don’t even want to give copies to my close friends. I just want DRM-free ebooks so that I’m not tied to using an Amazon Kindle for the rest of my life.
When I asked about this on Twitter this afternoon I got basically two types of reply. Firstly, there were people who suggested bittorrent sites and other dubious ways of getting hold of ebooks. I’m not hugely comfortable doing that, but I’ll do it if that’s the only option. And some people pointed me at other sites that sold ebooks in various formats – for example Mobipocket’s site. These sites are ok if they have the books that you want to read. But I haven’t been able to find any of the three examples I listed above on any of these sites. I should also mention authors like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross who always make free copies of their work available in various formats. These people are the exception rather than the rule and their trendsetting doesn’t solve my problem with getting the books that I want.
So it seems that we’re stuck where the music industry was five or six years ago. The publishers are all so paranoid that we’ll steal their content that they’ll make it unreasonably difficult for us to use the versions that they deign to sell us. And that’s a real shame. It’s pretty much a certainty that eventually they’ll realise that what they’re doing is stupid and at that point they’ll start making DRM-free content – as the music industry has done over the last couple of years. But it’s frustrating to have to go through all the same pain for a different medium. Why can’t the publishers learn from the record labels’ mistakes and skip ahead to their inevitable change of heart?
To summarise. I don’t want books for free. I don’t want pirate copies of books. I want to pay a reasonable price for an electronic copy of a book that I can read on any device that I choose. And that I’m free to convert to other formats as my reading devices evolve and change in the future.
Why is that so hard to find?