J.K. Rowling and the incredibly expensive unreadable ebook

Well, I have to ask: Is this the future of ebooks?

Today, probably the biggest book of the fall season, J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, was released today. Folks have already been outraged by the unbelievable price of $17.99. (Remember, that is the price simply for the privilege of a license to download and read it –  you don’t actually own it or anything.)

And it that wasn’t hard enough to swallow, that ebook you paid all that money to pre-order was basically unreadable. You can see pictures of the formatting at PaidContent.

The price and formatting issues, as well as actual criticism and feedback on Rowling’s first adult novel add a surreal element. The varying points of view on this can be seen in the flurry of reviews on the book’s Amazon page which seem to break down into the following categories:

    1. Reviews based on the book’s price.
    2. Reviews based on the book’s formatting.
    3. Reviews based on the fact that people liked Harry Potter.
    4. Reviews from people who actually claim that they have read the book.

While this was said to be an unusual situation and the problem has supposedly been fixed, those of us who have been buying ebooks for a while now have a somewhat more cynical opinion. The truth is, typos, scanning artifacts and formatting issues are all too common in ebooks that publishers want to charge top dollar for. If major publishers can’t get it right on a release this big, I truly fear for the future of traditional publishing.

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DOJ files suit against Apple, Big Five

As has been hinted at for weeks, the Department of Justice has filed a civil suit against Apple and the so-called “Big Five” publishers: Hachette SA, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster.  Random House did not initially sign on to the ageny model, so it is not a part of the U.S. lawsuit. The DOJ has alleged collusion and price-fixing over the agency pricing model. Here’s a link to the DOJ filing. The level of detail in the filing is amazing and very muh at odds with rumors that the DOJ “had no evidence of any wrongdoing.”

According to this article from Bloomberg, Hachette, Simon & Shuster, and Harper Collins are rumored to have settled with the DOJ. The article further states that Penguin intends to fight.

In Macmillan’s response, CEO John Sargent says that they will fight the suit.

Penguin says users can’t sue

Paid Content is announcing that Kindle and NOOK users must accept arbitration instead of suing them in the pending class action lawsuits over ebook pricing. Penguin is using the rationale that users agreed to this in Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s terms of service for the ereader devices.
 
I am not a lawyer, but I don’t think the argument holds water. When the publishers put the agency model into effect, Amazon became their agent, not the other way around. Amazon even collected sales tax based on the publisher. It doesn’t make sense that the publisher can’t turn around and hide behind Amazon on this one.

Penguin pulls Kindle Books from libraries

I wanted to sit down and write my impressions of the Kindle Fire now that I have had a few days to play with it. Instead, I was shocked to find that Penguin has pulled its Kindle books from the OverDrive system.

According to OverDrive:

Last week Penguin sent notice to OverDrive that it is reviewing terms for library lending of their eBooks.   In the interim, OverDrive was instructed to suspend availability of new Penguin eBook titles from our library catalog and disable “Get for Kindle”  functionality for all Penguin eBooks.   We apologize for this abrupt change in terms from this supplier.  We are actively working with Penguin on this issue and are hopeful Penguin will agree to restore access to their new titles and Kindle availability as soon as possible.

The Digital Shift is reporting that Penguin is saying the new policy is not specific to Kindles, but governs all versions of their ebook titles across the board.

Libraries and patrons are telling a different story, however. In an Amazon forum on the subject, some patrons are pointing out that only Kindle versions are disappearing. Some libraries have had as many books vanish from their digital shelves. It is important to note that those are books purchased with library funds (generally taxpayer funded).

I don’t think that it is coincidental that this is happening when Amazon is trying to start a Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. There has been a lot of tension about ebook lending since Big Six publisher Harper Collins limited libraries to only 26 check-outs of their titles.  Many people (myself included) are still boycotting Harper Collins  until that limitation is resolved.

Penguin has already been facing criticsm over its Book Country “service,” which many authors believe does nothing but take more money from authors.

But to single out the popular Kindle smacks not only of fear and greed, but a form of censorship as well. And that’s not something that sets well with me. Sure, I could read books on one of my other devices: I’ve got an iPod, a Nook. I could read any format on one of the apps on my android tablets. But I will not be told which device I have to read their ebooks on. I already boycott MacMillian and Harper Collins because of their practices. I already boycott books priced over $9.99. I will be happy to add Penguin to the list as well.

Whiners and Typos and Fears, Oh My: How publishers still don’t get it

There is a must-read article by Jon Evans on the Tech Crunch website today.  Entitled Dog Bites Man; Pope Condems Violence; Publishers Still Don’t Get It, this is an unbelievably astute commentary on some of the biggest issues affecting the publishing world today. (Hint: There’s nothing about dogs or the Pope in the article.)

Whatever you think about Amazon, it is increasingly apparent that Amazon “gets” what readers want. Say what you will about Jeff Bezos, but he is a reader and really does understand what readers want.

Authors asking for a boycott of Dorchester Press

Popular mid-list author Brian Keene has asked on his blog for a boycott of Dorchester Press (Leisure) for non-payment of royalties and publishing ebooks whose rights have reverted back to the authors. He is asking fans to:

*If you follow them on Twitter, please unfollow them.
*If you like them on Facebook, please unlike them.
*If you receive their marketing emails, please remove yourself from their list.
*If you belong to one of their book clubs, please consider canceling your membership.
*If you are considering publishing with them, please reconsider.
*Most importantly, please don’t buy their books, regardless of whether it’s on their website, in the $1.99 dump bin at Wal-Mart, or available on the Kindle.

When asked why he doesn’t hire a lawyer, he answers succinctly:

… someone asked me why we (the authors) didn’t just seek legal means. Well, I can’t speak for any of the other authors involved, but I’ll tell you why I haven’t — because I’m broke. I’m broke because Dorchester didn’t pay me what was owed, and then I gambled to get my rights back, and then they continued to fuck me. And yes, I’ve got a nice new deal with Deadite and Ghoul starts filming next month, but I won’t see checks from either of those until a few months from now, and until then, I can barely pay the rent and eat anything more than Ramen noodles, let alone hire an attorney.

Keene gives a list of authors supporting the boycott and links to a post by Robert Swartwood also asking for a boycott.

This situation is disturbing for several reasons. First, generally speaking, fans want to see authors to get paid.  That’s part of the reason that indie authors do well in the ebook market. As of today, Keene has 224 comments on his blog post and I read message after message of support.

Secondly, this highlights a concern about ebooks and digital property. There have been issues before about people publishing content they don’t have rights for. Amazon will certainly assume that a publisher (especially a well-known one) has the right to distribute an ebook for an author. 

Keene’s books happen to be on my TBR list; I don’t own them yet. And as a potential fan who wants to buy the books in an ebook format, it is extremely frustrating. I want to support the author but want to make sure that I don’t put money into the hands of a greedy publisher who would treat authors in this way.

Today Keene updated his blog with information from some other authors owed money by Dorchester.

This post composed while listening to the Ramones’ Greatest Hits.

What’s in your ebook bill of rights?

One of the big issues over this last week has been Harper Collins’ announcement that they were placing limits on how many times a library book may be circulated. The last-minute announcement broadsided librarians and readers alike. (There are roundups of the blog entries and media coverage available and  you can follow the discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #HCOD.) EDIT: Sorry, but that hashtag no longer has the same meaning and that information is no longer available.

Ironically, the new limits went into effect on March 7, 2011, right at the beginning of Read an Ebook Week.

Those discussions have yielded a lot of interesting ideas about accessibility, DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the future of ebooks. One of these ideas is the aggressive promotion of an eBook User’s Bill of Rights, most frequently the one offered by Sarah Houghton-Jan on her blog, Librarian in Black.

Sarah’s bill of rights focuses on:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

Well known tech blogger Mike Cane tackled this subject as well on his own blog last August in his article the Ebook Buyer’s Bill of Rights.   His bill of rights focuses mainly on issues involving appearance and functionality: covers, table of content, bookmarks. Formatting issues are also important in his version:

3) You have the right to proper formatting by default.
a) Formatting should mirror a proper printed book.
b) Paragraphs should have indents without spaces between paragraphs.
c) Only after such proper default formatting should a reader be able to mix things up via a device’s software settings (typesize, spacing, margins — in other words, reflow overrides).

A site called the Reader’s Bill of Rights promotes rights for readers of digital books. Created by librarian Alycia Sellie and technologist Matthew Goins, the site advocates critical looks at the downsides of ereader technology and has an anti-DRM stance. The powerful graphic for Libraians against DRM shown above comes from their site. (Note that this site was registered in April 2010, well before the Harper Collins OverDrive announcement.) Its bill of rights focuses more on DRM and accessibility.

The Readers’ Bill of Rights for Digital Books:
1. Ability to retain, archive and transfer purchased materials
2. Ability to create a paper copy of the item in its entirety
3. Digital Books should be in an open format (e.g. you could read on a computer, not just a device)
4. Choice of hardware to access books (e.g. in 3 years when your device has broken, you can still read your book on other hardware)
5. Reader information will remain private (what, when and how we read will not be stored, sold or marketed)

The site also has an interesting blog entry about the ALA president speaking out about this issue on Facebook. The entry links to one of the best arguments I have ever seen for NOT joining the social networking giant.

Each of these rights statements makes it extremely clear that they are meant to be starting points for the conversation about rights. It is also quite obvious that each author has different priorities that are important to them, whether it is the first sale doctrine or DRM.

What I personally find extremely surprising, given all the discussion about eBook prices, is that none of these rights statements even mentions the concept of the price of digital books as an important factor.

How about you?  Is there something that you think should be included in an ebook bill of rights?  Is a fair price something you would like to see as part of the discussion?