The answer to that question, of course, is "Too bad, so sad."
When we look at the number of different eReaders that were announced this month, we realize that one of the biggest barriers to sales for any of those readers is the fear that my investment in books will one day evaporate because a business model has changed, a system update has obliviated my collection, or a bankruptcy has left the copy protection inoperable. And those are very real fears.
Ten years ago the industry started working on an eBook standard file format that could be viewed on any conforming reading device. The specification for that format called EPUB is now in its second generation and is managed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). But in the typical rush to become the dominant eBook distributor in the market, the big players pretty much ignored the standard. Adobe really wanted PDF to be the cross-over format from print to electronic. Microsoft had its own Reader and .LIT format. Sony, first to market with a major commercially viable eReader created its own .LRX format (a BBeB Secure Book). That's not to mention the formats that were evolving within the Open eBook Forum (pre-IDPF) like Mobi-Pocket, Gemstar, and others. Then Amazon came to market with both a device and a marketing arm with pockets deep enough to wait out the adoption cycle and a distribution model that locked publishers into a new file format (.PRC) and rights management (.MBP). But like its predecessors, the Kindle was and remains a closed system. Your Kindle eBooks will not play on any other device unless the device runs Kindle for PC, Kindle for iPhone, etc.
The new glut of eReaders coming on the market mostly support the ePub standard. Sony announced a few months ago that it would be shifting all its books to the ePub standard. Adobe's Digital Editions are ePub books. Nook reads ePub books. So problem solved, right?
We wish it were so simple. There is still that pesky digital rights management (DRM) thing going on. Publishers, authors, and distributors are so nervous about people pirating their precious words that they have devised countless ways to license and protect the works. This has probably slowed adoption of eBooks more than the lack of reader competition. Even if my book is an ePub, it may have any of a dozen different encryption and anti-piracy "features" built in that prevent me from moving the files from one device to another, or giving them to someone else to read. In other words, my books aren't my books. My library is a temporal thing that I really only have the right to read in a specific environment dictated by the distributor and initial choice I make.
Attributor Corporation, one of those companies providing content security, released a report January 14 painting a picture of nearly $3 billion revenue lost from digital piracy. The report makes it seem like everyone in the world will be downloading your content without paying you. But of course, Attributor makes its money by providing anti-piracy security. Magellan Media, updating their February 2009 report on digital piracy before the Booksellers Expo, stated that pirated books actually showed a second sales peak in the weeks after piracy that non-pirated books did not have.
Two things need to happen to avert the morass of problems experienced by the music industry. First, nearly all books need to have DRM removed from them completely. I'm only saying "nearly all" because I know that someone will come up with a reason that certain books really need to have high protection and licensing. I just can't think of them at the moment. Second, books with DRM need to have a single, portable standard that enables the book to be shared across any device. In other words, if I have a license to read on a Sony, I should be able to read on a Skiff. The license needs to be transferrable, not only among my devices, but to a different person if I decide I don't want to keep my "used" books.
The major readers brag about the extent of their bookstores--1 million, 1.5 million books available. But if you examine the stores, they contain the same titles. The publishers have obviously realized that they can't be tied to just one device. The device makers need to get to the point that they aren't the end-all and be-all for my book collection. They are really just shelves my books sit on.
I've been promoting that concept for ten years now. There may finally be a chink in the armor developing that will make eBooks as friendly as their printed ancestors.
I used a lot of sources in researching this article. Here is a list of on-line references that have hit the news recently.
JK On the Run: Competitive Shopping — the Sense Behind Multiple e-Book Sources
The eBookNewser The Attributor Reports Rampant eBook Piracy citing also U.S. Book Anti-Piracy Research Findings and The Impact of Piracy
Chris Gaylord in The Christian Science Monitor: E-readers: the compatibility conundrum
And for an interesting comparison to print piracy, Kate Mayfield pointed me to The book pirates of Peru (11 pictures) in The Guardian.