All Tim wants for his birthday is a copy of the Maltese Falcon on ebook. Without DRM. For a book published in 1929 and famous worldwide you’d think that was possible. Every summer he re-reads all the Raymond Chandler books and most of Dashiell Hammett (who wrote Falcon) and since we’re travelling most of this summer he wanted an ebook copy.
This isn’t the first book this has happened with – getting non DRM copies of ebooks or even copies of books in digital form isn’t as easy as you might think. The surfeit of books offered for sale on Amazon or iBookstore is tiny compared to the history of book writing , we just get lulled into thinking EVERYTHING is available when that’s absolutely untrue. Despite having a small house and not much space I’ve hung onto a copy of every book I’d regret not being able to read again, as well as buying as many as I can on ebook.
So what’s the problem? Amazon, where I usually buy ebooks (only because the DRM is so easy to remove) doesn’t sell it. Barnes and Noble does and you can remove DRM from those too but I have to create a fake american identity to do that and I’m not convinced the quality of the book they are selling is better than many of the free or cheap ones out there. Those free or cheap books are scanned and OCR’d and the quality goes from “OK, if I ignore the typos” to “unreadable”. So far every public version of The Maltese Falcon we’ve tried has been unreadable with the additional bonus of missing chapters. The iBookstore sells a Dashiell Hammett collection that includes The Maltese Falcon that I own but I read that on my iPad, the DRM in place. Nothing removes the iBooks FairPlay DRM – a few years ago a hacker called Brahms brought out a tool called Requiem that did remove all DRM from iBooks and it was disabled by the next update of iTunes and Brahms then “retired” his code (I assume this means Apple had her / him killed but what do I know). There are tools today that remove DRM from Apple media content but not books.
Why is this bothering me so much? Well the idea that today the world of “books” for the generations behind me has shrunk down to those available as ebook. I still love to browse a bookshop whenever I can find one but I’m also usually the youngest person there. Our choice, range and ownership has gone out of the window. Amazon have no interest in building a large publicly available all encompassing library of books that might have a small audience. They have an interest in selling high volume / high profit. The most recent fight between Amazon and Hachette where Hachette books (including those by Michael Connolly and “Robert Galbraith” were removed from sale with no explanation) gives all of us reason to worry.
So is there another way? A way to have DRM free ebooks. I realise greedy and backward thinking publishers hold much of the blame but my access to books is in danger and it’s time for publishers to realise they are strangling their own market, for resellers to realise that DRM isn’t protecting sales and for the rest of us to start doing I don’t know what….. I had hoped that Apple would negotiate with publishers to go DRM free but clearly writers are more powerful than musicians and the argument that worked for music isn’t going to work here. It also is more than apparent by the closing of bookshops that they haven’t learnt the lessons of the music industry. The bookshops are your storefronts to the online purchase – I connect to your wireless in the store, download a book and the store gets a % of sales. Seems easy to me.
If there’s some good news out there for the future of books, bookstores and ebooks I’d love to hear it…