eBooks, Open and Closed

Wizard of EarthseaHere’s a book I bought decades ago, and thousands of miles away from Washington DC. I’ve read it more than once, my mother read it, and I’m currently reading it to my daughter.

If I buy an ebook today, will I be able to read it at a similar remove of time and distance: in 2040 in Sydney, for example? I doubt it. You may have gathered that I an among those who prefer paper books to eBooks. ReadWriteRichard provides 5 reasons to prefer paper, and comments on his post provide more.

This post is about ebooks. So isn’t just a rehash of the advantages of paper. That said, those decades with paper anchor my expectations about books,and those expectations carry over into the upstart format.

Make that upstart ebook formats, since there are many of them. In my previous post on ebooks, I decided that EPUB was the way to go, since almost everyone except Amazon uses it. The trouble is, almost everyone also uses DRM. So EPUB is an open standard that can be, and usually is, wrapped up in DRM, as Gizmodo explained earlier this year.

This means that I can’t buy an book in EPUB format and read it on my hardware or software EPUB reader of choice. Or rather, I can do so only under limited circumstances. For example, I can read a Sony B&N ebook on a Nook, but I can’t read a B&N ebook on a Sony reader. Or, when I Google anything to do with EPUB and DRM, I get a lot of links that seem to lead to instructions for stripping DRM.

This “Tower of eBabel” problem makes me think that my eBook era doesn’t need to start any time soon, unless I suddenly have to go on a long and bookstoreless trip. The prices of the books themselves aren’t particularly attractive, unless you have a free eReader. The selection has some surprising gaps, as well. For example, there seems to be no e-dition of A Wizard of Earthsea.