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Summary:

About a month after I bought my iPad, one thing became clear to me: I’d no longer be buying paper books. Sure enough, almost a year later I’ve only bought a couple physical tomes. But is it wise to go all-in on the future of e-books?

iBooks

About a month after I bought my iPad, one thing became clear to me: I’d no longer be buying paper books. Sure enough, almost a year later the only physical books I’ve bought are a textbook or two and a couple of glossy picture books on baseball. But is it wise to go all-in on the future of e-books?

For the most part, the limitations of e-books — primarily the lack of letting someone else read it — haven’t bothered me. I don’t tend to loan my books out often. Platform lock hasn’t been an issue, since the Kindle app is cross-platform. But Apple’s recent statement that they want their cut from third-party purchases reminded me how vulnerable our digital libraries are to the dealings and fortunes of the companies who provide them.

What Happens When Your Retailer Goes Away?

Businesses fail. Can any of us really say for certain that Amazon or Apple are going still be in business 10, 15, or 20 years from now? Or that you’ll always be able to read your e-books on your favorite device? If you’ve been computing for more than 10 years, it’s likely you’ve got a floppy or two in a format unreadable by your current machine. My early fiction writings are likely on an old SCSI hard drive buried in my closet at my parents’ house. If Amazon shuts down the Kindle store, or completely goes out of business, we could be screwed in terms of getting access to our purchases. While I use Amazon as an example, any e-book retailer is vulnerable (and quite possibly e-book authors, too).

DRM Is a Problem, Not a Solution

I’m going to be honest here; in addition to being cross-platform and having a better library than the iBookstore, the other reason I purchase Amazon books is because it’s fairly easy to get around their DRM restrictions. Now, I’m not advocating piracy in any way, but when I break the DRM on my personal purchases I’m ensuring I (just me, not someone else who didn’t pay for the thing in the first place) can read the book on any device. It also helps me back up my e-book library in different locations and formats so I’m confident that if I lose a device or a format stops being supported, I’ll still have access to my library.

While I understand the need for publishers to protect their property, the fact is DRM does more harm to legitimate consumers than it does to would-be pirates. It’s time for the publishers to follow the music industry and sell e-books DRM free. The excellent Take Control e-books use this model, and I’d love to see more publishers follow their lead.

Archiving Your Library Is Key

The biggest thing you can do to protect your library is to archive it. If you buy your books through the iBookstore, your purchases are in the \iTunes Music\Books folder. If you purchase your books through ereader.com, you can re-download your files from the site. Make copies of these files and keep them stored on separate devices to make sure they’ll always be accessible to you. With Amazon, unless you’ve got a physical Kindle, I don’t believe you can directly download the files.

My Plans Going Forward

Until I see a tangible downside resulting from the new App Store e-book guideline implementations,  I’m not changing my purchasing habits. Amazon will continue to get all my e-book purchases, and Zinio will continue to be my sole source of magazines because both storefronts are platform-agnostic. Unless the new in-app purchases lock the content to my iPad, I don’t expect my purchasing habits to change, but I’ll be even more careful about ensuring that my personal library survives intact, no matter the whims and corporate clashes of the companies that filled them to begin with.

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  1. A word about DRM. Your example of Take Control Books is a good one, as is O’Reilly Books. Both companies provide fully functional PDF files as well as other formats. Manning Publications also provides fully unlocked PDF files, which are watermarked with the purchasers email address.

    All of these share one thing in common. There are all technical books, which have a limited shelf life. How many of us would be looking to purchase a book on Microsoft Office XP?

    There are other books however which have a shelf life of decades or more. Publishers are worried that if their works get passed around that they could loose decades of revenue. Think of something like Strong’s Concordance.

    I don’t think that DRM is the perfect answer to this problem, but it is one that has allowed some publisher to enter the market place, that wouldn’t have otherwise.

    A note to device makers, and publishers. I didn’t get an iOS device until it had software to support the DRM’d books that I had acquired over the years (eReader.com).

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  2. It’s very much like the conundrum faced by audio and video archivists. Digital formats come and go, and the hard- and software to read them becomes obsolete at a frightening rate. How many of us have CD, DVD, or DAT backups that are no longer readable? Even for discs that are still readable, for how long will we have working drives/players? Fine, archive your iBooks. How long will readers be around? Digital for present convenience. Analog for long-term preservation.

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  3. I agree, I think DRM does more damage then actually protect the books. As we have seen even the best DRM protection has bypass and pirates are always going to try to break them, most of which because you can’t share it. All in all, since they actually go against the customer they should just remove that to begin with.

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  4. You can access your Kindle books on a Mac by downloading the Mac reader for Kindle. It saves the books you download in your Documents folder.

    Its how I archived all of my Kindle purchases.

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  5. I am suffering exactly the same conundrum as we speak. I have iBooks and Kindle on the pad, but just don’t know where to get the books from moving forward. If there’s a way of breaking DRM then I’m all for that, for purely legitimate reasons of course, but I’m still pulled towards paperbacks simply because, barring burglaries, no-one can come in and take them away again, or stop me from reading them. It really shouldn’t be this way in the 21st century.

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  6. Scotty from Star Trek Future Wednesday, February 9, 2011

    I agree with the author. I love Zinio mags and books and do not want to have to rebuy the content when the next cool device or format comes out. And I am hoping to be able to sell my entitlement to other users when I grow tired of a piece of content — because afterall, I “own it”. Right?

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  7. Good point about the longevity of the retailers of digital content. FWIW, on Windows too, you can opt to download the Kindle books to your computer (in order to transfer them by USB to the Kindle when you can’t/don’t want to use the wireless network). That should work as a backup option too.
    Cheers,
    Tom

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  8. I’m not worried about the issue of out of date media. Like old VHS tapes and 8 mm film, there is usually a method to convert them to new media. I have kept a few hard copy books and other media, but honestly have not looked at them since. Unless the media is readily accessible in this day and time, most don’t bother to drag out the old films or books, but whipping out an ipad or iphone to show someone is no problem.

    Once you have been around for a few years, you will realize that change in media is a fact and not a new problem at all.

    As far as Apple or other businesses not being around, that too is inevitable. Lots of persons did not think Apple would be around this long in its battle with Microsoft and other PC manufacturers, but look who’s still surviving by leaps and bounds.

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  9. Solution for Zinio…make a tablet to compete.

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  10. [ Re: --- "With Amazon, unless you’ve got a physical Kindle,
    I don’t believe you can directly download the files." --- ]

    You don’t need a physical Kindle at all, actually. You can just go download Amazon’s free Kindle for PC app — http://amzn.to/k4pc — and then buy a Kindle book or download one of the 16,000 free ones onto your computer for reading there, whether a desktop or laptop/netbook.

    The Kindle e-books are downloaded to your Kindle for PC app and put into a place like “C:\Documents and Settings\user\My Documents\My Kindle Content\” …

    The same goes for Kindle for Macs — http://amzn.to/k4macs — no Kindle is needed.

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