Dear Tech Companies: Stop Bashing Readers

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Bashing Readers

‘I just bought myself an early Christmas present: A Kobo Aura One. It’s true. I’m neither a Kindle nor a Nook girl. (I had a Kindle once. Didn’t care for it. Had a Sony, too. Loved that, but Sony crapped out of the e-reader business.) I stick to the oddball Canadian company that forces me to import their devices because they’ve given up on the U.S. market. My old Kobo croaked, so Merry Christmas to me.

Why do I use Kobo? Because for one thing, my eyes need the larger screen. The Aura One has a 7.8 inch screen. Even the newest Kindle only caps out at 7″. For another, I find that Kobo’s simply work. They don’t have advertising (or force me to pay more for the device to get rid of it). And, while Kobo has a store, they do not tie me to their ecosystem quite as viciously as do the Kindle and Nook.

I love my e-readers, in general. I love being able to carry a ton of books around with me. It’s easier to hold a small object than a large tome. (Given that I’m prone to reading doorstoppers, this is important.) And my aging eyes appreciate the ability to adjust fonts and screen lighting.

But my little gift has not come without some headaches. The firmware didn’t want to update. The device didn’t want to synch with my Overdrive library account at first. And the storage on this model is smaller than the last generation I had, so some books had to be left off.

Still, things went better than when I moved to Kobo from Kindle. That required a massive conversion of books into new file types, and resulted in the “loss” of quite a few. (I can still read them on my phone or computer via Kindle’s app, but the Kobo doesn’t recognize Kindle’s format.)

Which brings me to my point and that is this: Readers who want to pursue the ebook path have to prepare to take a huge bashing from the tech companies in the process. If you choose a Nook, you’re tied to the Nook format. Same with Kindle. If you ever want to switch brands, you’re out of luck. Bashing readers is the name of the game in ebook land. Nobody cares about you as a reader. It’s all about money.

(Yes, there are file conversion programs like Calibre — which I highly recommend — but they cannot convert a file which is protected by DRM. Which is pretty much everything sold in a bookstore. And, yes, I know there are ways to illegally circumvent DRM, but I’m not going to get into the ethics of piracy. Although, given the point of this post, maybe I should. Another day…)

Anyway, ebooks have their benefits, but they can be super frustrating when compared to a paper book which always “works.” There are no formats to screw up, no batteries to run down. Unfortunately, they’re harder to carry around.

What I wish is that the companies that make and sell ebooks would stop giving readers such a hard time. Pick a format and adopt it as the universal standard. Stop with the DRM. Study after study has shown, in books, music, games, and film, that DRM does nothing to stop piracy but does hurt sales. (Duh. Why buy something if your use of it is so severely restricted as to be crippling?) Pirates will pirate, no matter what. Thieves of any sort will always find a way to steal. The trick is to stop alienating your customers by making them buy things over and over again just to use it on a different device.

In this respect, I point to TOR Publishing, that stalwart of sci-fi and fantasy. They stopped using DRM in 2012. Sales have not been hurt, and they have not seen an increase in piracy. What they have seen, however, is more readers forming a community around their authors and books. People are so grateful that TOR is not bashing readers, they’re happy to buy their books. Authors are happy that more people can engage with their work across a broader range of devices. Their readers can share books among themselves and introduce new readers to their favorite authors who then gasp, go forth and buy more books! It’s a revolutionary idea! (Not. That’s how paper books worked for years.) It’s all been a win. Unfortunately, it’s a win that other publishers and tech companies don’t want to share.

They’re too busy trying to convince customers that this crap is somehow good for them. All it’s really good for is the company. By locking people into certain devices and formats, they guarantee themselves a revenue stream for years. And they will protect that stream even in the face of evidence that these practices are hurting, not helping. Sigh.

And let’s not even get started on library ebooks. The hold lists can be extreme because a library has to pay for a license to each copy of the book they have in the collection. So twenty “copies” of the book means they have to pay twenty times and most will/can not pony up for anywhere near that many. Maybe they get one. I understand this to a point. The publisher is thinking of the ebook in the same way as a physical book and charging accordingly. The problem is convincing patrons that this is a good way to do business. Your average library patron only knows that a file can be served to hundreds of people at one time, so what’s with the ridiculous hold queues? It alienates people right off the bat.

Making matters worse is that these licenses are often short term, meaning the library has to pay up again in another year or so. Again, thinking about ebooks like physical books that get lost or damaged and must be replaced. The publishers want that revenue stream, even though an ebook can never be truly lost or damaged as long as there’s a backup somewhere. The expense of this is what keeps many libraries from having robust e-collections. (At least with hard copy books they can sell them at book sales and make a little money back on the deal. They can’t do that with ebooks.)

It’s all a huge clusterfuck which makes something that could be totally awesome (ebooks!) into a huge chore that’s often more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve seen many readers either give up on ebooks altogether or refuse to get into them at all because they know they are going to be bashed. And the people who can benefit most from ebooks and library lending (the elderly, ill, shut-ins, etc.) are often the ones who get mistreated the most, simply because they are not tech-savvy enough to understand how all of this works.

It’s a sad state of affairs and it’s not much better for writers. We have to deal with the backlash when a publisher DRM’s our stuff, or fails to put our book on every platform, even though we had no say in the matter. Sure, we don’t want our books pirated, but neither do we want legitimate customers unable to buy our book because they don’t have the “right” device. And we don’t want our readers to lose a beloved book if they want to switch to a new device. If we self-publish, we have to go through the nightmare of creating several different formats of the book to suit every different platform so we don’t lose sales. It’s a mess.

The answer? I’m no expert, but it seems to lie in two directions: First, more companies realizing what TOR has already realized. Books are books and should be available to use on any device. Special formatting does not stop piracy. All it does is alienate customers. eBooks should just “work” the same way paper books work. No crazy DRM and proprietary formats, just a book that can be read anywhere and on anything. And shared so that others can find new authors to love.

Second, there is the issue of greed. I understand that companies have to be profitable. But some of this is simply driven by pure greed and a desire to lock people into your ecosystem forever. Respect the open market and let consumers have freedom of choice. If you start to suck, your patrons have every right to flee you for your competitor. That’s how it’s supposed to work. You’re not supposed to trap them and render them powerless because of your, “Love me forever or lose your purchases,” ethos.

In no other universe does this sort of strategy work other than the digital world. If you tell someone that there are severe limitations on their paper books, or Lego, or stuffed animals, or food, they will look at you like you’re nuts and stop buying your products. But somehow we’re willing to put up with this bashing in the techno-world. As much as I love my ebooks, I daily ask myself why this is the case. I don’t have an answer.

All I can do is throw this plea into the void: Dear tech companies, publishers, and purveyors of ebooks to libraries: Please, stop treating your readers like idiots and thieves. You might find you make a helluva lot more money if you treat people with respect instead of bashing them at every turn. Thank you.


(Photo courtesy of pippalou)

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