Two weeks ago, I broke down the benefits of reading digital books—the sheer volume of titles you can carry around, the thrill of a speedy download and the glories of e-Ink. Now, let's talk about the downsides to reading e-books, and, as much as I adore this technology, there are quite a few.
And now, the bad...
If you missed it, check out the last column here.
Digital books can be the catalyst of some of the most frustrating experiences of your life—enough to make you take a computer and chuck it out the window and toss your digital reader after it. New curse words have been formed by readers attempting to set up and authenticate a digital book purchase. It is baffling and intensely irritating to find how many hurdles are placed in the path of a reader buying digital books, especially when so many of these obstacles could be easily removed. This brings me to the biggest and baddest of all things bad about reading romance digitally—DRM.
DRM stands for “Digital Rights Management,” or what I like to call “Driving Readers Mad.” It’s the security wrapped around a book file that is supposed to keep you from copying it or e-mailing it to 14 million of your closest friends. DRM alone covers many of the things wrong with digital reading as a user(not)friendly experience.
There’s more than a few different forms of DRM, almost as many as there are e-book formats, which is another pain in the digital ass. Some DRM forms are tied to your credit card number. Others require you to download a piece of software to your computer that then collects information and authenticates the book to that machine. That form of DRM is particularly troublesome—often there are limits to the number of authenticated machines you can have connected to it. Thus, if you upgrade to a new computer and have reached your limit in number of machines authenticated, it’s a troublesome and frustrating process to manage your library on the new machine, transfer those books to a new device or even open them to read on the computer screen. Basically, DRM can and often impedes access to books you already paid for and own. It can turn the process of buying a book into a 10-step process.
DRM is supposed to prevent users from pirating the book file, making it available for mass download. It also is supposed to prevent you from loaning digital books out to your friends, though your paperback books are still, of course, welcome to be loaned and shared and passed around. The Barnes & Noble nook, and more recently the Amazon Kindle, announced sharing of digital book files as an option to make their bookstores and digital reading devices more attractive.
The problem is that publishers are removing the sharing function on many popular books, even though the sharing feature is only available for one-time use over 14 days and renders the file locked for the original purchaser for the duration of the loan. As a point of information, public libraries that offer digital lending also have a limited number of copies of an e-book to lend—except for Macmillan Publishing, which refuses to make its digital books available for library lending. “Sharing,” where digital books is concerned anyway, has become a Very Bad Word, which makes me very sad and angry because sharing books I love is part of who I am as a reader and reviewer. I loan books to people regularly, but am limited by publishers when I want to loan a digital format book.
Let’s take a look at the book file you’re buying, shall we? Often, it already comes wrapped in a security barrier that can and may likely block your access to the book itself, which may be substandard to its print version. There might not be a cover. You might not get a table of contents or one that is click-enabled so you can select where you want to start in the text, which is a handy feature in anthologies. There may not even be a title page. You might open the file and start with page one, and woe-be to she who can’t remember titles and authors well. Additional material, like glossaries or indexes that appear in the print edition, may not be included in the digital file.
Plus, the file itself may be riddled, and I mean riddled, with errors, from typos to conjoined words formatted incorrectly. One pass through the file with spell check or even a competent proofreader would catch most, but unfortunately, far too many digital files are sent out with errors. Or the content may be clean, but the book file itself has no title or author information (known in the industry as “metadata”) that enable the book to be displayed correctly in a digital library. Instead of One Flew North by Jane Smith, the files show up on the reader as 4950295586-3.prc with no author, or as a book title with “Author Unknown.” When a reader sorts by author or by book title, alphabetical order does nothing to help locate a book with an invalid file name or absent author data. One has to remove the DRM (yes, it can be done) to correct these metadata errors, if correction is possible. Publishers are sending consumers an unfortunate message with DRM-protected files—thanks for your purchase, but a subpar product is the best we can offer you as an avid reader.
E-books can be more expensive, too. So, how about that for awesome-sauce—you pay for a file that’s compromised by security, may be substandard, incomplete or riddled with errors, AND you might have to pay more! Thanks to the wonders of the Agency Model, five out of the big six New York publishers set the retail prices for digital books, and often they are higher than the comparable print version, or they’re just high enough to be ridiculous. Sometimes, even publishers outside the Agency Model price their digital books prohibitively higher than the paperback version, some in an attempt to drive traffic to their own digital bookstores.
Here are some examples, including an older title available digitally: Jayne Ann Krentz’s Family Man (Pocket, 1992) is available digitally for…$17.99?! Jess Granger’s Beyond the Rain (Berkley Trade, 2009) is $10.20 for the paperback at Amazon, but $12.99 for the Kindle version. Hot Pursuit by Suzanne Brockmann (Ballantine, 2009) is $14.30 at the Sony eBook store, and $14.04 for the Kindle, but only $7.99 in mass-market paperback format.
Romance isn’t the only genre affected by digital-pricing discrepancies either. For example, David Baldacci’s Hell’s Corner (Grand Central, 2010) is $9.99 in mass market paperback, but $12.99 for the digital edition.
It speaks volumes as to the positives of digital reading that despite all these annoyances and barriers, readers do buy and read digital books—and in record increasing numbers, per the International Digital Publishing Forum. In the third quarter of 2010, for example, the IDPF released sales figures that show digital books topping $119 million in sales, up from just under $100 million the previous quarter—the IDPF’s sales figures are almost always turgid and sexy in the way that only profitable sales figures can be.
Certainly, the lineup of hurdles and obstacles when adopting digital reading can make it less attractive to techno-hesitant readers. By far the biggest hurdle is that by electing to use e-books, you are often made to feel as if you have dishonest motives and that you must prove your intentions over and over, each and every time you have to re-authenticate access to a book.
Yet, despite the hassles, I remain a devoted e-book reader. I own a Kindle 3 and have tried just about every other digital reading device offered. What I like best about digital reading is that it is such a customizable experience. There isn’t one way to experience an e-book. Everyone does it differently. I love having control of the text size, the screen layout and, with syncing capabilities through the Kindle and nook apps for phones and PCs, the ability to read a book in an unprecedented number of locations. As a result, I read more often, in more places and more books. And reading more is always a good thing.
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.