When standalone ebook readers were the last word in the brave new world of ereading retailers were forced to accept that customers would continue to do what they always had – shop around and buy books from a number of different retailers based on factors such as convenience, price promotion and loyalty incentives.
The relatively ‘dumb’ nature of standalone readers meant there was nothing a retailer could do to prevent customers who bought their reader from them going on to by ebooks from whichever retailer offered the best deal.
That situation is radically changing with the rise of tablets and their app markets which offer retailers something they’ve never had before – a way to force customers to only buy books from them.
As I’ve written before, few (if any) of the ebook retailing apps currently available for tablets or smartphones allow the importing of files protected by Adobe’s DRM – the most common form of book encryption in most of the world.
Being charitable I’ve always assumed this inability stems from retailers not understanding their customers but less kindly souls might suggest that it’s, at least in part, about controlling how and from who customers buy their books
The arrival of free apps such as txtr and Bluefire are proof that it’s possible and relatively easy to bring books purchased from a number of retailers into a single app so we have to ask: why are retailers so slow to offer this feature?
The most obvious answer is that retailers aren’t keen on paying the licensing costs of the technology when the only application is to enable customers to shop with their rivals. At first glance that suggestion makes some sense but I think it ignores three very important points:
A number of shopping apps allow the loading of non-DRM protected ebooks purchased elsewhere. The existence of this ability is leading book owners – surely by definition a pretty bright group – to a very simple conclusion: ‘If I remove the DRM, I can put my book into my favourite reader app’.
Despite never having published details on how to strip DRM, a significant amount of traffic to this site is generated by search terms asking how to do exactly that.
By locking out legally owned books bought from rivals, ebook retailers are leading their customers down the path of piracy which, according to any sane analysis, is a bigger threat to their profitability than the odd purchase from a competitor.
Buying books via an app is quicker, easier and more convenient than switching your computer on, buying from a website, plugging your tablet in, downloading the ePub file, authorising it in Digital Editions and then copying the book to the device.
That convenience suggests that importing books bought from other retailers is something most customers would only do once when they first adopt an app as their chosen retailer.
Providing prices for any given book are fairly close to what a rival is offering – and the agency model now being deployed pretty much guarantees they will be – why would most customers bother with the hassle of manually transferring books when an easier option is just a single tap away?
I know a sizeable number of people with standalone ebook readers who are very wary of ebook apps on tablets and smartphones because they perceive them to be less ‘safe’ in terms of guaranteed access to their books.
Once you’ve downloaded your ‘traditional’ ePub file to your computer and copied to your standalone reader the book is yours just as much as any paperback sitting on your shelf. For as long as ereaders supporting the DRM format are made you can continue to enjoy your book.
Cloud-based books which can be read only from a single retailer’s app don’t offer that same guarantee of always being available. What happens if the retailer goes bust or abandons one platform for an exclusive tie-up with another?
If all retailers offered the option to download the ePub files – as my current favourite retailer Kobo does – and allowed customers to bring them into apps, this concern would disappear in an instant.
Surely the more confident people are about the longevity of their purchases the more likely they are to buy?
In addition to the points set out above, I believe there’s another reason why retailers stand to gain from opening up their apps – it could make them money.
The arrival of apps such as txtr and Bluefire effectively kills the prospect of retailers profiting from duplicate purchases by customers who ‘must have’ all their books in a single app – a friend of mine suggests this is the industry’s real secret hope.
However I suspect people with substantial ebook libraries would pay for a reader/shopping app which allowed importing.
For my part I’d gladly pay anything up to £10 for such an app – compared to replacing each of the books I already have this would offer me a great value solution – and the revenue raised would offset the development and licensing costs, removing the only disincentive for retailers.
It could even sit alongside a free version for those who don’t need this feature meaning retailers wouldn’t need to fear scaring newcomers away.
There are potentially big gains to be had for the first company to take the plunge, the question is whether any will be brave enough to do so.