When I moved in to my neighborhood seven years ago, there were three independent book stores, which fell like dominoes that year. Then Borders Books & Music by my office turned into a bank, while my beloved Strand Annex notified its loyal customers that it was combining with its parent store uptown. The loss of the Strand Annex really hurt, because I was in the habit of spending my lunch hours browsing through stack after stack of stories. Some of my most memorable books came off the dollar pile there — short story collections from the 50s, post-apocalyptic survival novels, books recording art exhibitions long since forgotten.
Browsing seems like a lost art now, since it is difficult for me to drop into a nearby book store, even though I live in one of the most populated places on the planet. Every New Yorker knows that the song goes “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” so I admit a great anxiety for the future of book stores everywhere.
Just yesterday, I got into the old discussion about paper books versus e-books. I read both, depending on what’s at hand, but increasingly, it is digital books that available. I do still order books to be shipped to me, from time to time, when the book is something special, or illustrations are an important part of the text. But with shipping fees being what they are and the nearest book store is an out of the way forty-minute drive, digital books are accessible books.
And yet, I’m invested in publishing and writing remaining a profitable industry. While Amazon is notoriously exploitative of writers and publishers, I bought into their system for convenience when I bought my first Kindle. But I’ve finally reached the moment where my conscience won’t allow for it any more. I decided I wanted to support a real book store, a place where people can go and look and feel and touch books. Some of my best memories as a teenager happened while browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble in a mall that is now closed and gone, and I want the next generation to have that experience too.
I finally gave into my want-not-need longing for a modern e-reader. I bought a Nook, thinking that at least my new book purchases would support Barnes & Noble — an actual brick and mortar book store as well as a company that has fairer practices for publishers. Then I discovered that you cannot download ebooks that you purchase through their store; they will deliver them to your Nook, but you cannot download them anywhere else, including your computer. If you later decide that you wish to use a Kindle or a laptop or a tablet that is not from Barnes & Noble to read your purchases, then you’re out of luck. If Barnes & Noble stops selling the Nook, again, you’re out of luck. This is not purchasing books — this is borrowing them at full price.
Although my profession makes me think more about technological disaster than most people, it’s not crazy to be suspicious of the perils of allowing your bookseller to store all your books for you. While painstakingly downloading my library from Amazon (book by book, as Amazon provides no other method), I’ve repeatedly hit the message that the title I want to download isn’t available. Once, while on a downloading frenzy, I was even logged out of my account. I’m sure that was accidental…or am I?
I’m not looking to pirate my books. I’m simply interested in being able to transfer my property between any e-reader that I choose. I want all of my books, no matter where I buy them, to work on the same device. I finally got this worked out with my current set of e-books after fiddling with removing DRM for a few days so that I could put my Amazon purchased e-books on my Nook. (This method has worked well for me.)
I am admittedly the sort of person who, repeatedly and willingly, makes her life more difficult for the nebulous sake of principles. I want authors and publishing houses to be paid fairly. I want to support book sellers. I want to also own the books that I buy. This doesn’t seem like such a strange desire. So, what to do? How do I buy e-books?
After doing a lot of reading, I’ve settled on a combination of direct purchases from publishers that offer DRM-free books and using Kobo to purchase books that are not offered in a DRM-free format. Buying DRM-free books directly from the publisher has its obvious advantages, while Kobo is an online marketplace that facilitates e-book sales for independent book stores. If you’re inclined the way I am, you’ll do your shopping through your favorite book store and, presuming they’re a Kobo affiliate, follow their links for your purchase so that some of your money goes back to the little guys. You can find a list of Kobo affiliated book stores here.
Kobo delivers its books in .epub format, which can be read in Adobe Digital Editions. As a Linux user, I’ve set it up Calibre to scan for .epub books and automatically remove the DRM. I have to manually transfer new books to my Nook (which Calibre makes simple), but I get a a DRM-free copy for my efforts. If I ever decide to buy a different e-reader after the Nook, all of my purchases will transfer to it without hassle. Its a little more work, but let’s me sleep a little better at night.
I think what we will see as the e-book market matures are more marketplaces like Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where book are rented like DVDs. But what will that mean for authors? Will they see royalties for every rental? Or will it become even harder to make a living as a writer? With the death of brick-and-mortar book stores and decreasing funding for local libraries, how will the next generation learn to love books the way that we do?