On Amazon, Nick Harkaway, and digital revolutions

I did have a longer book links post to put up yesterday, but it appears wordpress managed to eat it.  Unfortunately, I lost most of the links I was going to use, but I did remember where to get one of them. Nick Harkaway, the author of The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, put up a blog post about a new feature from Amazon called autorip. Now, I think this feature is ridiculous, and shouldn’t be as popular as it will likely be. The gist of it is that when you buy certain CDs from Amazon, they will install a “free” digital version into your Amazon cloud player for you. Now, I quote free because it’s not really free, you’re paying for the CD. And ripping a CD is insanely easy. Ripping it yourself also gives you control over the rip’s quality, the format, and what devices you want to put the rip on. Also, it doesn’t give Amazon the ability to just step in and erase your music for whatever vague reasons they can concoct like they have from time to time done to ebooks stored on their servers. I can think of literally no good reason to want to take Amazon up on this service aside from sheer laziness and apathy. And all of this is slightly to the side of Harkaway’s point in his blog post.

His point is that Amazon is setting expectations for what they get when they buy something. They buy a CD, they will expect to get a digital version for free. It’s something we’ve been seeing for awhile now with blurays, where they package another disk that has your “digital copy.” Harkaway’s thing seems to be that publishers need to get in front of this and start establishing their own brands by creating their own exclusive packages for people when they buy a book from them. And I pretty much agree, up to a certain level. I have to believe that at some point in the whole publishing process, someone has a document file that could be easily converted to a PDF and made available to download with the use of an access code whenever someone buys a hard copy of a book. It’s not like everyone is plodding away on typewriters or scrawling the final versions of their novels out by hand. And this should be a simple thing to do, and able to be used across a variety of platforms. Also, by using a common file, it might help stamp out the individual ereader market a bit and push everyone to a more generic use of a tablet as an all-in-one device for media consumption.

Where I would draw a line is with “enhanced” ebook experiences. I don’t know a ton about programming, but from what I do know, HTML5 seems to be a very powerful programming language that can handle a great variety of tasks from video to text to images to I don’t know what all. So, my suggestion would be to build enhanced ebooks around HTML5 because it would be a common file type that could be opened across a wide variety of devices, while still allowing an abundance of enhancements to make the purchasing of an enhanced ebook worth the price.

Still, with all of my editorializing aside, will the big publishers be able to make the transition? I think so, even if we’re not happy with how they’re doing it right now.I don’t really share Harkaway’s pessimism in that regard, in not being sure that these institutions will still be around ten years from now, filling largely the same role they are filling now. While I don’t believe they are too large to fail, and that the landscape may alter a bit, I think the Penguins, the Simon & Schusters, the Vikings, etc. will still have their place, and they’ll still be putting out big name, big selling writers.  If they would get a bit more aggressive now, though, they might be able to make sure that the landscape down the road is a bit more pleasing to their eye than what may other wise come about.

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