What happened to ebook innovation?

Due to pervasive DRM and closed ecosystems dominated by Amazon and Apple, the possibilities of ebooks are nowhere near fully realized.

When Steve Jobs and Apple came out against DRM on music files in 2007, it permanently changed how digital music was sold. To this day, Apple, Amazon and a host of other services continue to sell DRM-free music, even with the push to streaming services.

The situation with ebooks is much different: DRM is the standard. When you buy an ebook from Apple, Amazon or any number of smaller sellers, that book is locked into the service you bought it from with limited rights for what you can do with it. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but I view this as a massive tragedy for humanity. (I’ll assume readers are familiar with the arguments against DRM. If not, the Jobs letter linked above is a good place to start.)

In practice, the situation with books is even worse than it was with music. As Jobs’ letter points out, consumers could always buy the CD and rip DRM-free mp3s. So there was always an easy way to have digital music without DRM. With books, there is no simple way to create digital copies of the books you already own.

The result is that the possible advantages of ebooks are nowhere near fully realized. Neither iBooks nor Kindle are good pieces of software and there is little incentive for Apple or Amazon to innovate. Right now I don’t even have the ability to search across all my ebooks at once. As Patrick Collison said on twitter, “Getting books onto the screen was a good first step.”

I want beautifully typeset ebooks that I can read on any device, with a vibrant ecosystem of third-party software to help me annotate, cross-reference and synthesize everything I read. The alternative ebook readers I’ve found (that can view non-DRM files) are not good at all. Which makes sense, given the smaller size of the DRM-free ebook market.

Well, let me clarify: the legal market for DRM-free ebooks is small; the black market is massive. There are websites offering several million DRM-free ebooks for open download and other sites offering tools to remove encryption from Kindle books. So once again, DRM ensures that the people who actually paid for the ebook have fewer rights than the people who downloaded a free copy from a Russian server.

As I understand it, the push for DRM primarily comes from publishers. Until they have a reason to change, it’s up to authors, readers, students, and librarians to press this issue. I don’t see Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook publishing a “Thoughts on Books” letter any time soon.

In the meantime, there are some bright spots. Standard Ebooks is working to make definitive ebook editions of public domain books. They’ve also created a set of software tools to help with the ebook creation process.