As books go digital, much of the focus has been on which gadgets offer the best approximation of old-fashioned paper and ink on a screen. But there’s another choice that’s just as important for readers to weigh before they make the leap to e-books: which e-bookstore to frequent.
Reading devices like the iPad, Kindle and Nook will come and go, but you’ll likely want your e-book collection to stick around. Yet unlike music, commercial e-books from the leading online stores come with restrictions that complicate your ability to move your collection from one device to the next. It’s as if old-fashioned books were designed to fit on one particular style of bookshelves. What happens when you remodel?
Much of this problem stems from the publishing industry, which has demanded that e-bookstores embed digital rights management software in most best sellers to keep them from being stolen and swapped, free, online. The music labels once asked the same from digital-music retailers, but eventually agreed to open up.
The e-bookstores share in the blame. Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), Apple Inc. (AAPL), Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS) and Sony Corp. (SNE) all want you to buy their own gadgets and to continue buying e-books from their stores. For example, purchases from Apple’s new iBooks store can be read only on Apple’s own iPad (and soon the iPhone). Even though Apple said it would support an industry standard format called ePub for iBooks, in practice your iBooks purchases remain locked on Apple’s virtual bookshelf. (So I hope iBooks customers like Apple’s light-brown wood paneling.)
Browsing Amazon.com on the Kindle
Many of the biggest e-book providers fall short of putting readers fully in charge of their own digital-book collections, but they have begun to unveil their own solutions for moving your e-books around.
Amazon, which jump-started the shift to e-books with its Kindle, lets customers read its e-books through apps on at least six kinds of devices. Amazon custom-built the free apps for gadgets that include the iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, PC, Mac and (later this summer) devices running Google’s (GOOG) Android software. If a device has an Internet connection, the apps automatically load Amazon e-book purchases from the company’s website, saving you the fuss of keeping track of files and transferring them between gadgets with cables. In many ways, this is more convenient than the way we manage our digital-music collections by manually adding and deleting files from iPods through a computer.
Amazon’s apps are slick and work on many of the most popular devices today, but Amazon buyers should know that they’re likely stuck using the retailer’s software forever. While Amazon says it plans to keep making apps for more devices, the list of potential devices for reading grows longer every day. Moreover, Amazon sells its e-books in a proprietary format, so there’s no way to open those files on another device without an Amazon app or without resorting to cumbersome (and potentially illegal) third-party conversion software.
The Nook with Barnes & Noble store
Barnes & Noble, too, adopted an Internet-connected app approach, providing a seamless way to shift its e-books between the Nook, PC, Mac, BlackBerry, iPhone, WindowsMobile for the HTC HD2 and soon iPad. Barnes & Noble has been integrating its e-bookstore into niche e-reading devices, like those by Plastic Logic, Irex and Pandigital. It also, uniquely, offers you the chance to “loan” some e-book purchases to a friend for 14 days. But its bookstore requires a somewhat annoying step: Each time you download a book to a new device, you must enter your name and the credit-card number that was used to buy the book in order to unfasten the digital lock on the book.
Beyond the apps, Sony, Barnes & Noble and Apple and a few smaller e-bookstores all promised they’d put their weight behind the industry standard format ePub, which is the e-book version of music’s Mp3 and can be read by almost every reading device (except the Kindle). That sounds great in theory, but in practice, the ePub files either can’t be transferred or doing so is cumbersome.
The problem is each company adds digital rights management software to an ePub book. A copy of “Moby Dick” I bought from iBooks delivered just blank pages when I opened it on the Nook. A Barnes & Noble e-book produced an error message in Sony’s PC ePub reading software. Barnes & Noble says its books will be compatible with devices like the Sony Reader after a software upgrade.
An iPad showing Apple’s iBooks store.
There were two notable exceptions: Purchases from Sony’s e-bookstore and a Borders Group (BGP)-backed store called Kobo could open on the Nook and other ePub-reading devices if I used a free program from Adobe (ADBE) called Digital Editions to transfer it. That’s a nice insurance policy but the process is far more complicated than it should be.
There may yet be a third way. Google, which plans to launch an e-bookstore later this year, says customers will be able to access its books through apps on popular devices and through a Web browser on any device—including a phone or computer. Google’s argument is that we shouldn’t lock ourselves into one bookstore if it is going to offer titles that are dependent on special apps or devices. Google’s existing free out-of-copyright books service works under this same general premise, but it isn’t yet ready for prime time. It requires you to always be online to read a book and its pages aren’t well formatted for reading on small screens or mobile devices. Google executives say they will fix both issues when the commercial service launches.
For now, the e-bookstore choice comes down to which compromises readers are willing to accept. Anybody who just wants a simple way to carry digital books around might be happy with an app-based approach. But readers intent on building an e-library may want to either invest in an ePub-based collection, or hold off until the industry figures out a better solution.
Walter S. Mossberg will return June 10.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at email@example.com