The Nameless Horror

Of publishers and giftanebook

I read a (incredibly puff-heavy, detail-light) piece from the Guardibserver on startup ValoBox offering ebook gifting.

This, US Amazon-buying readers and users of Kobo et al. might wonder, is national newsblog-worthy why?

FWIW, I have no beef with ValoBox and their launch last year of pay-as-you-go ebook reading is genuinely innovative and interesting. But this move doesn’t deserve the skirt-blowing given to it by the Observer here. At least, not for the reasons given…

(Also, the move was announced on November 7th, so my first thought is that this must be a slow news/blog day at the Observer.)

[ValoBox] provides an alternative to the closed shop-device system of Kindle, Nook and Kobo by operating on the open web, so you can read the books on any internet-connected device (which is currently no problem at home, but might be on the tube or a plane).

None of those three examples are closed shop-device systems. Even for DRM-filled titles, all three offer readers for all common device formats. Nook and Kobo use the universal epub format, and non-DRM titles from both can be read on anything.

As the company gets off the ground, it will be possible to save the books offline too, with plans to add full downloads as soon as negotiations with publishers’ digital rights departments permit. This stuff is hard, but attempts to break the corporate hegemony on ebooks deserve all the help they can get.

The restriction of access to “owned” content to constant-access-only is not a minor issue, nor one to take lightly. While I’m positive ValoBox genuinely are working to make purchased content downloadable because frankly they’d be insane not to, a launch resembling books-as-a-service (a model which made perfect sense for their earlier pay-as-you-read offering) is an exceedingly poor idea. And if you’re giving them a write-up for it, brushing it off as a minor issue in no way similar to a lock-in to one provider is intensely silly. If the only place you can read what you’ve purchased (or what someone has given you) is on Company X’s server, you’re locked in to Company X. You can’t take it off there at all.

That sucks.

If they’re in negotiation over downloadable content, that implies they’re in talks with publishers over DRM and copy protection.

That also sucks. And that also gives lie to the concept of “openness”.

See also: furore over Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription offering, the still-constant complaints from some gamers than Steam still likes to call in every few weeks (due to change to never). And both of those work offline.

For Christmas, ValoBox and Constable & Robinson have launched giftanebook.com, which allows you to purchase an ebook and then give a friend access to it. Not only is that something you can’t do on Amazon, it might pave the way towards some genuine alternatives, for the benefit of readers, publishers, workers and the Treasury alike.

You can’t gift ebooks on Amazon UK. You can do, and have been able to do for ages, on Amazon US. You can do on Kobo. You can do on B&N’s Nook store. The only difference here (and I had to reread the Observer piece a couple of times to understand that there was ny difference at all) is that you get, effectively, a free gift copy. You buy the book yourself and retain access to it, as well as your allotted friend getting a read too. Gifting itself is nothing new.

Also worth noting, from the giftanebook website:

In conjunction with Constable & Robinson, ValoBox is running a special offer. Whenever you buy one of their books, you can also gift it to a friend for free!

I don’t know if it’s a permanent thing or not, but that certainly leaves the possibility that it won’t be.

Startups trying to shake up established business like this are worthy of mention and support. Not, though, without better consideration of the challenges they both face and provide to their customers.

But.

But.

There is a story here. An interesting one. And yes, I’ve just buried the lead in the way that governments bury nuclear waste, miles below the surface, but the hell with it, they started it; C&R only get a mention in passing and I didn’t appreciate what I was seeing until I had time to think about it.

The service only has 2,000 titles (claimed; 1,237 viewable on actual site) on it, because the store is a deal with Constable & Robinson and serves their books only.

This is a well-regarded, mature publisher inking a deal with a young ecommerce startup to provide a proper, innovative (whatever the flaws with online-only access, the approach shows outside thinking) bookstore pretty much direct to readers, in a relatively universal format, in the way that publishers should have been doing for ages. It’s a separate brand (sensibly; how many readers pay that much attention to who publishes what) and a separate identity for the storefront.

Compare with, say, Penguin and Hachette (plucking my two previous publishers out of thin air because I know they have sold ebooks themselves; it turns out Hachette UK just link to the big 3rd party stores and only Hachette US sells direct. If anyone knows of other publishers doing this right, Tor being one that jumps to mind who might, please say). Where you can download books direct, assuming you know which publisher to look for in the first place, what do you see, front and centre? Warnings like this:

The eBooks available for download on penguin.co.uk are only compatible with Adobe Digital Editions supported devices, as listed here.

And:

What operating system/devices do the ebooks work on?

Adobe ebooks can be read on Windows & Macintosh desktops and the Sony Reader Digital Book device. Please see this page for a complete list of system requirements and devices supported.

What software do I need to download prior to purchasing an ebook?

To read Adobe ebooks, you’ll need to download the Adobe Digital Editions software.

Do the ebooks have DRM (Digital Rights Management)?

To read Adobe ebooks, you’ll need to download the Adobe Digital Editions software.

Can I read my eBook on my iPhone?

No, currently Adobe Digital Editions are not able to be read on the iPhone.

Every book is DRMed. You’re told you can’t read them at all on the single most-owned phone and tablet in the world (or, by Hachette, whose site may need updating in this regard) on anything other than a desktop or a largely dead proprietary ereader.

Everything screams, “Go away! Buy our stuff from somewhere else because this is so much hassle!”

C&R have gotten this very, very right by comparison. “Here’s a pleasant storefront, just like any other. One that promises you that you can read on anything you want. Why not buy something, friend?”

It’ll be interesting to see how C&R do out of this, and whether other publishers try similar ventures to circumvent the distribution lock enjoyed by the majors in the future.