If you dig beneath the surface, many people’s problem with ebooks is not that they don’t smell.

Jani Patokallio writes:

Crippled by territorial license restrictions, digital rights management, and single-purpose devices and file formats that are simultaneously immature and already obsolescent, they are at a hopeless competitive disadvantage compared to full-fledged websites and even the humble PDF.

Let’s take it one at a time:

Territorial license restrictions?

True. It leads to very absurd situations, like when I published a story about the Middle East while being in the Middle East and then having Amazon tell me it’s not available in the Middle East. I wish this was just a problem with ebooks… As a non-American I’m blocked from Netflix and Amazon for streaming movies. In Germany everyone could watch the soccer euro-cup as a free livestream, but all I see from here is: “Not available in your country.” Hulu? Pandora? Everything is blocked by the politics of territorial license restrictions.

Digital rights management?

Yes, publishers still do it and think it prevents privacy while it clearly just frustrates those who purchased a book legally and want to convert/transfer it to a different device. If people want to pirate your book, they’ll do it with or without DRM.

Single purpose devices?

My Kindle doesn’t do a lot of things, that’s right. But to be honest, I’d be happier if it did even less! The sole purpose of an ereader should be to facilitate reading. If it does that and does it really well, great! Contrary to the hype of multimedia augmented ebooks the power of a book is very simple: words put together, one after the other, arranged in paragraphs that please the eye. Tablets like the iPad also do ereading but there’s always a danger of slipping away, dipping into Twitter, just skimming or being distracted by incoming email.

Websites and PDF are better than ebooks?

There have been studies (quoted in Netsmart) which show that readers remember significantly more from a text without hyperlinks than from one which sends them out into a spiralling galaxy of cross references. The word is a cliché, but it’s true: hypertext-less text is more immersive. And PDFs? Well, they are beautiful but their fixed layout makes fluid reading on different screen sizes a pure horror.

To summarize, none of these criticisms is really about the concept of ebooks per se, but “the problem with ebooks” is actually a problem with politics and ecosystems. It’s the publishers and marketplaces (forced by laws and lobbies) that are limiting the way ebooks can be purchased and consumed. On top of that there’s the confusion about the nature of ebooks. Should they have integrated twitter feeds and pop up ads? Or are they still about the text itself?

In this complex entangled mess it’s often easier to blame the ebook itself and flee into leather bound romanticisms of ink and dust.

But in the end, books and ebooks have a lot more in common than we tend to admit.

Like my friend Brian The Book said: “[both books and ebooks] are about imagination and ideas” and we should all chill out and eat some ice-cream.

The past is not coming back. And the sooner publishers, law-makers and marketplaces understand this, the better.

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