Wednesday, March 09, 2016

you "own" nothing, electronically speaking

When you "buy" a movie on, say, Amazon Prime, as I have done many times, you don't really own it in the same way that you own a DVD of said movie. What you own is a license to go to Amazon's site and access the movie. This feels like ownership for only as long as exists, which I suppose is fine if we think of Amazon as "too big to fail," to misuse a term from almost a decade ago.

But consider Barnes and Noble, a company that, for a while at least, fancied itself Amazon's rival. In case you missed it, Barnes and Noble is now closing down its international Nook store. (The Nook is the B&N equivalent of Amazon's Kindle e-reader.) Imagine you're a Nook user, and you've spent the past few years amassing a large library of e-books that can only be read on a Nook. Now, unless B&N sells its platform to someone else, you're basically fucked. Here's how the above-linked article lays it out:

With Nook revenues having fallen to half that of the previous fiscal year ($264 million) and expected to continue declining (authors are already reporting that the malfunctioning website has killed their sales) the odds are very good that B&N is going to throw in the towel on their ebook money pit.

Should that happen, the only question will be whether they will sell the Nook platform or simply shutter their ebook operation.

If Nook users are lucky, B&N will find a buyer. Kobo, for example, could take over the customer accounts just like they did when Sony pulled out of the ebook market last year.

But B&N could still simply close the Nook Store, and there is a chance that incoming B&N CEO Ron Boire might pull a rabbit out of his hat and save the Nook.

"Might pull a rabbit out of his hat." If B&N shuts the Nook arm of its operations down and eventually dismantles the facilities where e-book data are stored, all those books (and videos, etc.) that you thought you "owned" will basically go... poof.

This turn of events has caused me to seriously rethink my current bad habit of buying movies off Amazon Prime and purchasing e-books instead of dead-tree books. Dead trees are actually an amazing storage medium, when you think about it: they can retain data for centuries with very little degradation (the pages might yellow, but the words and images remain clear), and when it comes to books, the only skill you need in order to access data is the ability to read. Despite my current e-bookish spending habits, I'm old-school at heart, so I'm partial to the heft and fragrance of dead-tree books. I may be part of the last generation to feel this way.

"Ah," you say in your wise-sage voice, "But e-books and videos are two different animals! You, with your Kindle, will never lose the books you've already bought because they're stored on your device, not on Amazon's servers—unlike Amazon Prime videos, which require the internet for access." My reply: true enough for me as a Kindle-app user; by extension, a Nook user might be able to keep his current library of e-books, but he's still screwed if he wants to purchase more books or get customer service for the 'brary he has (e-libraries can deteriorate, after all, and the e-reader itself can develop bugs or otherwise go wonky).

All in all, it's not looking good if you're a Nook owner. Such are the perils of e-ownership: it's not really ownership at all—not in any tangible sense. Dead trees, by contrast, will never let you down.

ADDENDUM: this BBC article says the following:

Many British Nook owners received the news on World Book Day.

The UK versions of the online book shop, Android app and store accessed via Nook devices will all close.

Barnes & Noble said it is teaming up with supermarket giant Sainsbury's to ensure that customers can still access content they have already paid for.

"We thank you for your patronage and are working closely with Sainsbury's to make this transition as smooth as possible," it said in a statement to customers.

Customers must take action by the end of May in order to retain purchased content, it added, with instructions to follow by email.

Why customers should have to "take action" at all, if they truly own their wares, is a mystery.



Charles said...

I really like my Kindle. It's nice to have a relatively tiny and lightweight thing I can carry around with hundreds of books on it. I also have access to those books from any internet-connected computer in the world through the Kindle Cloud Reader.

That being said, my Kindle does not replace my DTBs. I generally use my Kindle for light, recreational reading. For important stuff, or stuff that I want to be durable, I still buy DTBs. And its not just about the inherent instability of the digital medium--when it comes to just pulling a book off the shelf and flipping to a given page, DTBs still win out. Yes, the Kindle's got fancy functionality like hyperlinks and that sort of thing, but it's not as convenient as holding a book in my hands.

I think of ebooks versus DTBs as analogous to GPS versus paper maps when it comes to driving. (We don't have GPS in our car, but I've used it in rentals in the past.) One thing I really dislike about GPS is that it zones you in to a very small window of the world around you. Sure, you can see the next turn coming up, but you don't get the bigger picture of the world around you. You can zoom in and out, I guess, but that's not as convenient as a paper map, and you still can only use one view at a time--either the zoomed in view for your immediate surroundings or a zoomed out view for the bigger picture.

This might be a stretch, but I feel that books are similar. When I am holding a real book in my hands, I feel like all that information is at my fingertips, readily available. But with an ebook I only get a small window on that world of information. Even with hyperlinks and bookmarks, the functionality is very limited. Other than simply getting to the next "location" in the text, moving from one place to another is a pain in the neck.

There's a lot more to it than that, of course, but this is one way I can explain it that technophiles will (or at least should) understand.

The Maximum Leader said...

This is a great subject (and one for which I should actually write a full post myself). It is my understanding that for e-book & videos that you purchase from Amazon, the license agreement allows you unlimited access of the product from Amazon. I seem to recall a clause in there that stated that you'd be allowed to download a copy of the product to a non-Amazon device in the event that Amazon no longer supported the product that you purchased. Of course, as you mention, that downloaded copy can become rife with bugs or otherwise compromised. So, that is a risk you take...

Myself, I make a determination to either buy a book electronically or on paper based on how long I feel I might want to access the book. If I believe I will want to make sure I have the book "forever" I go with paper. But if I want to read it now and will likely never come back to it, I go with e-book. (So the SOIaF books get bought on paper, but the murder mysteries of Donna Leon are electronic.) I generally get "more serious" books on paper.

I would love to speculate on the lawsuits that will arise out of this turn by B&N.

Frankly, I would be willing to pay $5-10 extra when buying a paper book to also get an electronic version simultaneously. But apparently book publishers are too greedy to figure this type of licensing out...

Charles said...

TML: I'm pretty sure you can get the Kindle version simultaneously with the paper book at Amazon, so you can read the book on your Kindle while you wait for the dead tree to arrive in the mail. The best part, though, is that in some (relatively rare, I think) cases, the Kindle is thrown in for free! I benefited from this once when I bought a book for someone else and was able to get a free Kindle version of it. That was pretty sweet.

Rhesus said...

Some publishers, like O'Reilly, produce only DRM-free eBooks. These can be read on any reader even if you buy them from B&N or Amazon or whatever.

There are also reliable ways to break the DRM on certain kinds of eBooks. This is illegal, but also maybe the only way for Nook owners to safeguard their libraries.