I’m not a Luddite – really – despite the fact that I continue to resist the lure of eBooks in general and Kindles and Nooks in specific. I started thinking about this again today because Fimoculous brought these “choose your own adventure” eBooks to my attention. That’s probably loads of fun, as I recall loving those kinds of books as a kid. Of course, computer games have really taken over that niche of infinite possibilities, but I think pick-a-path books are probably still loads of fun, especially on an e-reader.
I’m not a Luddite – I’ve embraced plenty of digital formats. My entire music collection is a mass of throbbing MP3 files, backed up to infinity. I don’t even play CDs any more, except in the car where I don’t have any MP3 player hooked up, and I haven’t bought a physical CD in years. When DVDs replaced VHS tapes I never looked back. Yet eBooks still don’t pull me in, despite the fact that the physical space my books take up in the house is a huge pain in the ass. Putting aside the fact that I’m a book fetishest who simply likes the form factor of books, there are 2 basic reasons why I’ve embraced other digital formats but refuse the eBook:
1. Rights. Right now, eBooks take rights away from me. When I buy a physical book, it is mine forever unless I choose to sell it or give it away. I can do what I like with it. eBooks come with all sorts of restrictions – yes, you can “loan” a Nook book for 2 weeks to a friend. You can do this exactly once. This is, to use a scientific term, bullshit. The other formats I’ve embraced have either preserved existing rights or expanded them; I can loan, give away, or otherwise mess with an MP3 file or DVD once purchased. The legalities of giving away MP3 files are suspect, of course; I am not supposed to be giving away thousands of copies, but in practical terms that file is mine to do with as I please. I don’t object to having some legal restrictions on things – I can get behind the concept that you can’t mass produce copies of your songs or movies or books and sell them or even give them away en masse. That’s okay; those are reasonable restrictions that existed prior to the advent of easily copyable digital formats. But eBooks take away some of these basics, like loaning a book indefinitely or reselling the single copy you own. Until that gets cleared up, why in the world would I pay for something I won’t really own? Something that can be taken away from me at a corporation’s whim if we have a disagreement?
2. Technology. The other problem with eBooks is the fact that there’s no standard. MP3 files may not be the best format in the world for music, but it’s ubiquitous and supported in just about every device on the market. My MP3 files will play in anything. If I upgrade my computer, my stereo, whatever – the files will play. This means when I buy an album from Amazon, I know it will play years from now, decades from now, even after a superior format takes precedence, in the same way LPs and cassettes played even after the CD came out. In fact, it’s better, because it only requires software. I won’t have to hunt around for a dwindling supply of MP3-capable players like my Dad did when his 8-Track tapes went the way of the DoDo – someone is going to create an MP3 player for every future computer platform the same way someone created a web browser for the Commodore 64.
Right now, Kindle books don’t work on a Nook and vice versa. And who knows if Kindle 2.0 books will work with Kindle 3.0 or 4.0 or 5.0. If I buy a Kindle today and then decide the Nook is better in 2011, my Kindle books cannot travel with me (I know there are “ways” to crack DRM and make this happen, but I shouldn’t have to troll warez sites just to keep books I’ve paid for readable). This sucks. This is, frankly, an unacceptable situation. I know that for many people books are transient pleasures – you buy them, read them, and pass them on or discard them. But for me, I keep my books. Forever. The idea that the books I read in 2010 will not be readable in 2015 unless I rebuy them is fucking ridiculous, and I’ll have none of it.
Sure, you can argue that music and movie formats have gone through the same thing, because my old cassette player couldn’t play CDs and I had to rebuy a lot of music. That’s true, but the formats themselves were widely supported and open technology. You can still buy a cassette player. Two years ago I bought a cassette player for my computer and ripped my cassettes to MP3, for god’s sake – if there was a way to easily, legally, and routinely convert your eBooks from one device to another, that would alleviate the concern.
See, I think eBooks are a great idea. They bring a lot of added value to the table. I would probably use one for certain things (I still love my physical books, so I’d probably still buy printed books no matter what) like travel reading and periodicals and such; in fact, if companies started offering package deals where you could buy the digital copy and the physical copy automatically together, I’d probably start doing that regularly. But until an eBook offers me the same ownership rights (perpetual ownership of my copy, perpetual access to it no matter the device used, right of first ownership) as a physical book I won’t be buying them. Your mileage, of course, may vary.