I’m alternately delighted and bemused to read the widely circulating memo that our big ideas — Monocle and Booki.sh — are the harbingers of doom for book ownership evermore. I’ve worked so hard at the Labs for the last twelve months trying to bring these ideas to fruition that it’s kinda wonderful to see other people acknowledging their importance.
I would, I suppose, have put the emphasis elsewhere.*
But wouldn’t it be wrong if you got to choose the emphasis? It lands where it falls. And although we haven’t actually launched yet (!), the emphasis has fallen on the question of whether you “own” your ebooks. Booki.sh is heralded as instigating a new era of cloud-delivered ebooks, where you access your books through the gateway of the vendor.
I do think we’ve thrown back the curtain on this, because we proudly declare that we stream your ebooks — you don’t have to download them. You can of course download your Booki.sh books for offline access on most devices — you just can’t read them in anything other than Booki.sh.
The suggestion that this is the deathknell of ebook ownership really ignores what has been happening to your consumer rights for years. Amazon books can only be read on Kindles or Kindle apps. Apple books can only be read on iBooks on iOS devices. Nook books: only on Nooks. Books with Adobe DRM: only on systems connected to Adobe Content Server software. All these companies have the power to ask you to verify your identity as the purchaser, and to rescind your access to books you’ve purchased at any time. To do so for no reason would likely go against their contract of sale (or licensing, as I imagine they call it). But the power they have is no greater or lesser than Booki.sh’s. Unlike Booki.sh —which has no intention of exercising this power, and tells publishers to “get a court order” if they want to prevent you access to your purchased book — Amazon has already exercised it.
The major difference between Booki.sh and these other vendors is that they insist you download the file.
And this is the point: if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.
If we ditch that bad idea, new and perhaps better models of ownership can begin to supplant it. If a book is a URL, it is fantastically easy for you to lend a book to a friend: you simply give up access to the URL while they have it. That seems to me like a vital aspect of ownership, and an incredibly problematic aspect with files. More significantly, the right to re-sell your ebook emerges as a possibility — because you can transfer your right of access to another individual. That’s not something Booki.sh lets you do now, but it’s something we encourage you to discuss with the publishers of your favourite books (hint: they’re probably not going to like the idea as much as you do).
Book ownership doesn’t die with the new wave of services adopting the Booki.sh model. It died — in the sense you probably mean it — with DRM ebooks. A bunch of DRM files sitting in a directory on your hard drive might give you the illusion of a neatly arrayed bookshelf, but most people know that it’s no more than an illusion.
DRM-free files are completely different, of course. If you buy a book from a DRM-free publisher on Booki.sh, and you want to download the EPUB, of course you can do that. We ask all of our publishers to at least consider the DRM-free option.
But I think that even in the best case scenario, you’ll be waiting at least a few years for that world.
Meantime, we have a plan to address the problem of vendor lock-in, which we believe is the real issue confronting ebook consumers. I’m going to outline that in another post.
* Like on the fact that anyone — who has or has never seen an ebook before — can start reading a book in a single click. By clicking this link, for instance. That seems important to me — I reckon that could get my mother or father reading an ebook. I reckon that could get my colleague reading the same book as me just by shooting them an email.
Or I might have emphasised that for the first time, independent booksellers can sell books that work really well on the Kindle. I come from a country that prizes these indies; we buy something like 20% of our print books through them. But 0% of our ebooks. If Booki.sh can make a difference to that number, I think that's hugely important for people who read books and people who publish books alike.