Until recently in the UK all ebooks were equal. You could buy a reader from Waterstones and put on it a book you’d bought from Foyles or WHSmith because all ereaders and all ebooks supported the same Digital Rights Management (DRM).
Unlike the US, there was no vendor lock-in. You didn’t need either to buy all your books from the same seller as you bought your ereader from or strip the DRM in order to get a book bought elsewhere onto your reader.
Today the UK ebook market is very different. The ‘old’ players such as Waterstones and Sony now look like bit players in a world dominated by Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks.
(Yes, iPad owners currently have a choice of book selling apps but it’s not clear this will always be the case and in any event the anecdotal evidence suggests they’re plumping for the Kindle app rather than those from other vendors.)
Makers of non-Kindle e-ink readers valiantly continue to churn out models – a number of were on display at the London Book Fair – but none will ever sell in huge numbers here in the UK.
The ascendancy of the Kindle and iBooks means most customers – those who wouldn’t know how to carry out the jiggery pokery required to circumvent the DRM – are now tied to a single vendor for their ebooks.
Perhaps in a world of agency pricing this doesn’t really matter. Maybe we should be happy simply choosing our hardware and filling it with books which cost the same no matter what choice we’ve made.
Or maybe, as others have suggested, DRM will prove to be transient and we’ll one day revert to the ‘buy from anyone’ market UK shoppers used to enjoy just 18 months ago.
I suspect even if that did happen, the mental hold the two brands already have over the wider marketplace would render the supposed competition benefits of DRM-free books redundant.
I’m increasingly convinced the ebook market is destined to be carved up two huge, non-British firms and that the point of no-return, if it’s not already here, is just around the corner.