As my fellow self-published authors continue a spirited debate about the merits and drawbacks of Amazon’s KDP Select program, I find that my greatest concerns are those of a reader rather than an author.
Not so long ago, before the advent of e-books and the demise of Borders, finding a book to read was a fairly democratic process. Anyone with a few dollars to spend could walk into any one of a number of bookstores—indie or national chain—or into a library or book fair, and walk out with something to read. Most importantly, if they were looking for a certain book, they could get it from virtually any source they chose, be it brick-and-mortar or online. Competition among booksellers kept them on their toes, providing good prices and friendly customer service.
Today, however, e-books with proprietary formats are forcing readers into partisan camps: Kindle versus Nook versus iPad, Sony, and all the rest. Choosing an e-reader has become a political act. Once a reader aligns himself with a format by choosing an e-reader, he immediately becomes limited in his choices of where to buy e-books. Until recently, many authors have made their books available in as many formats as possible so that no potential reader is left out. Smashwords, among other online sites, has been an excellent resource for writers in making the necessary format conversions.
But Amazon’s demand that KDP Select authors give the company exclusivity means that readers get screwed as authors seek higher visibility with the Internet’s largest e-book retailer. As an author myself, I understand why some authors are drawn to this model. But as a reader I’m incensed that I’m being excluded from buying books that I want. It’s not even a matter of telling me where I must buy them; I’m prohibited from buying them because my e-reader can’t display Amazon’s proprietary e-book format.
Further complicating my book-buying experience is the confusion over which e-books employ DRM (digital rights management) that prevent me from loading them into my e-reader in a readable epub or mobi format. I recently had an email exchange with a representative from Barnes & Noble, who sells the Nook e-reader, which also employs a proprietary e-book format. The conversation went something like this.
Me: I don’t have a Nook. Can I download purchased books from your website in epub format? Your website just says “NookBook,” but doesn’t specify the file format.
B&N: We support multiple readers. It depends on the formats your reader supports.
Me: Mine supports epub, mobi, pdf, and any universal format. Can I get those from you?
B&N: You can read any of our books on your computer with free software.
Me: I don’t want to take my computer to bed, into the toilet, or on the train to read a book. I just want ebooks in epub format. Do you sell them?
B&N: We employ a format that can be read on a Nook and several other devices.
Me: So let me clarify: I can’t get an epub-format e-book from B&N to read on my third-party e-reader, is that right?
Me: Thank you. I’m sorry I cannot be a B&N customer ever again.
About two weeks later I was passing through a B&N store on my way into the local mall. Out of curiosity, I stopped to look up a friend’s book, just to see if it was being offered by B&N. When it came up, I was surprised to see that it was identified as having “no DRM.” In other words, it was in epub format. I confirmed this with a store employee, then proceeded to buy the book right there at the terminal. When I got home, I was indeed able to download it and install it on my e-reader. Either B&N doesn’t want people to know this is possible, or they have no clue what they’re doing. A check of their website confirms that no such information is given to readers shopping online, yet if you go into the store, you can find non-DRM e-books from indie authors. (You’re still screwed if the author or publisher employs DRM.)
The takeaway from all this is that the market-dominating booksellers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, don’t care a whit about customer service. They want to lock readers into their proprietary catalogs of books like mobile-phone providers do with phones and apps. Choose your hardware, accept a provider who supports it, and live with the selection of books we want to sell. We don’t care what you want to read. Amazon’s KDP Select is the most predatory model yet developed. Both authors and readers will suffer as it continues to gain traction.