Unlocking DRM Lets You Open Multiple eBooks Simultaneously

The Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad and other e-readers are fast becoming mainstream and their usability has improved tremendously over the past years. However there is one area in which printed books are still much better: the ability to open multiple books at once. This might not matter if you are reading the latest “50 shades” novel and want to be uninterrupted. However, if you are working on a research project and constantly need to switch across multiple books, you will find that current eBook readers are a nightmare. Switching eBooks involves creating bookmarks, returning to a main menu (library page), going to another book and navigating it. This quickly becomes tedious. I cannot understand why tabbed browsing is absent from eBook software since it is rudimentary and exists in practically every web browser.

One solution is to buy multiple eBook readers and open one book per device. This turns out to work quite well. One might argue that the savings from not having to ship printed books will more than cover the cost of additional eBook readers. However it occurred to me recently that another solution exists: simply remove the DRM from your existing books. This is really easy to do. You can then manage your books using software like calibre, which allows multiple eBooks to be opened at the same time. On a fast computer with a large screen, this is a liberating experience! A 27″ or 30″ screen is sufficient to give me as good an experience as with 3-4 printed books. You can even do things that you cannot with regular books (without mutilating them) such as opening multiple instances of the same book for quick cross-referencing across different sections. If you take the extra step and export your library into pdf format, you then have the ability to manage, annotate and search your eBooks using software like Papers 2, treating them just like any other pdf file and merging them with your collection of journal articles.

There are other benefits of unlocking DRM, including the ability to prevent vendor lock-in (e.g., read your Amazon ebooks using Apple iBooks), avoid arbitrary and unfair removal of your books, and to overcome silly device download limits. For some of us, opening multiple books at the same time is another big plus. I suspect that over time, eBook DRM will go away. We are at the stage of the eBook industry that we were at with music 10 years ago, when we had to rip music from our personal CD collections or the proprietary formats on iTunes and convert them into unlocked files that were more flexible. Today music is sold unlocked and I don’t see why it should end up otherwise with eBooks.

(ps: yes I know eBooks are licensed, not sold, but lets save that for another discussion).

Reading multiple books at once
Your 30″ monitor can show all these books at the same time

New Models for the Book Industry

IPRIA Seminar- Books
MBS/CMCL/IPRIA Seminar on Book Publishing. 9 Feb 2011

Traditional book publishers have been increasingly challenged by e-books and other digital technologies. We decided to organize a public seminar with industry participants to learn about new opportunities in this area.

A common theme among our speakers was of the growing fault lines between those who create content and those who distribute it. From the point of view of content creators, digital technology is not a bad thing. It presents new ways to reach customers. To a firm like Lonely Planet, printed books, e-books and apps are alternative and useful delivery mechanisms. The heterogeneity is a good thing since each delivery mechanism has its strengths and weaknesses. For example a map-based application on your mobile phone may be useful for navigating the streets of Melbourne, while a printed travel book might be preferred if you are traveling the Australian outback (books are more durable than electronic devices; they also require no electrical power).

Authors are beginning to explore new pricing schemes. For example several authors are trying to sell a larger volume of e-books at lower prices (around $2.99 – $3.99) instead of a small number of regular books at higher prices (say, $10). Other authors are trying “pay what you want” schemes. Our guest speaker Max Barry will be selling his next book as a real time electronic serial, distributing it directly from his website in small chunks and for an attractive price ($6.95). It is too early to know which of these will work well and for whom because the book industry has many different segments of customers with different needs. Furthermore, there are concerns with e-books around the issue of digital piracy. However, we were reminded by one of the speakers that for many authors, obscurity is worse than piracy. Besides, piracy has long been a threat even with printed books: you will of course remember the photocopy machine which has existed for quite awhile, as well as those suspiciously inexpensive textbooks printed on poor quality paper brought in from various developing countries. It seems to me at least that in the digital world, selling a large volume of e-books at a low price makes a lot of sense. In this context, the serialized e-book has an added advantage because it builds a repeated interaction between the reader the author. Over time this may help create loyalty towards the author.

I see three areas of opportunity and these arise along the fault lines described above.

The first opportunity is with “apps”. It crossed my mind earlier this month that simply repackaging a book as an app gives the author tremendous freedom. With books, the author is stuck with publishing delays, parallel import laws and other legal impediments, not just the need to physically deliver products. With apps, all that is gone. Re-purpose a book as an app and it morphs into a software program, so different rules apply. If you go one step further and make the app exciting to use, you can counteract the myth that printed books are superior. Those who have tried The Elements on an iPad will find it hard to go back to a printed Periodic Table. Similarly, having compared both this app and the book version, I much prefer learning about photography using the app version which is more interactive and has built-in videos.

A second opportunity lies in offering new skills combinations. In order to serialize his next novel, Max Barry combined his computer programming expertise with a passion for writing: he is essentially selling each subscriber a private RSS feed as a separate product. Most people do not have this combination of skills, especially the generation of authors that went to journalism school and did not acquire a technical background. An opportunity exists for people who can bridge this divide and provide new tools and services to help content authors to craft their products and reach customers easily. For example, Graeme Connelly spoke to us about the new “expresso printer” at Melbourne University Bookstore which produces small print runs that were uneconomical in the past. I believe this is only a starting point, e.g., we don’t yet have the equivalent of WordPress for creating books with existing tools being either too complex or too amateurish.

The third opportunity lies in further disaggregating the value chain. I learned from the session that one of the benefits to authors of going with traditional book publishers is their expertise in editing. Publishers convert the messy raw material that is a manuscript into a curated experience that is proof-read, edited and checked. I suspect that the editing activity will split apart into a distinct industry segment, just as has happened in other industries such as semiconductors, which used to be vertically integrated but which now has some firms focusing exclusively on system development and others on chip design or manufacturing. This is pure speculation on my part, but I don’t see why the editing process, while valuable, needs to be tied much longer to the manufacture and distribution of physical products.

It is hard to predict how things will work out and I don’t think the traditional book will completely disappear. This industry is definitely going to be interesting to watch over the next few years.

Internet Sales and Copyright

Last month, CMCL and IPRIA organized an event to discuss whether internet service providers should be responsible when their customers upload/download illegal material. I wasn’t able to attend, but Sarah Berriman, one of my young and energetic students, did. She wrote to me expressing how a ‘generation gap’ exists in the way the music industry perceives its customers.

The main points made by each speaker were interesting, but also not unexpected. There seems to be a disconnect between the copyright holders and their customers.  They don’t seem able to adapt to the needs and desires of the current generation, and it is a mystery to many why this should be.  It is not as though broad and expensive market research is required to tell them this: the cinema is perceived as poor value for money.  People like convenience, and having things when they want and how they want.  Is it really such a leap to move to simultaneous international online sales?  Is copyright the issue here, or the protection of an outdated business model?  Perhaps it is time infringers were offered a carrot, instead of perennially getting the stick. [reproduced with permission from Sarah Berriman, Medical Student, Melbourne University]

Today I received a stack of books from amazon.com. They were shipped all the way across the world from Kentucky in the United States. And no less by the same company that refuses to sell me the very same books as electronic downloads because we are outside the United States. I am glad I’m young enough to fall into the same side of the generation divide as Sarah.