Put another one on the list, and this time it’s significant. I’m talking about e-books. Particularly your rights and ownership of “your copy.” That’s confusing, I know, but bear with me.
It’s not the first time one of these e-book “publishers” has decided to shut down. And in shutting down any e-books it sold will soon just dissolve away into free electrons. Leaving no book on your tablet, none of the notes you may have dutifully made in the margins, tags, bookmarks… It’s all just gone.
You will get a refund from Microsoft this time, if you’re sharp enough to follow their instructions. That is unless the book was “free.” Then it just goes away.
Refunds don’t always happen. I’ve lost books and the money I’ve paid to prior companies with no offer of a refund. Yeah, it sucks. It comes down to the fact that there’s no equity between an e-book and a physical book. They don’t offer the same feature; permanence. And they should not be priced even close to the same. And don’t get me started on all the years publishers said book prices were going up because of paper costs.
Again, this is not the first time this has happened. Not the first time an e-book publisher has decided to leave the business and essentially removed its books from its customer’s libraries. It’s just that this time it is one of the bigger companies associated with such a closure. And Microsoft isn’t going away, they just decided they don’t want to be in the business any more. But even that’s not the real point.
The problem is that it’s happening more often these days. I first wrote about this in an article for Fanboy Planet five years ago when my entire collection of one publisher’s graphic novels disappeared. (It’s a good set of articles, and it explains the whole digital mess without expecting you to have a degree in computing: Digital Fanboy.)
Recently we’ve seen it in the area of digital movies you already “own.” A big shakeup in that arena left customers scratching their heads over instructions on transferring the digital ownership of materials they had already bought to another service. Several shakeups in fact. And the fact that it’s happening more often, and in bigger companies, is very disturbing.
I’m finding more and more people, typically younger adults, who are going completely digital these days. It’s a point of honor for them not to own physical things when there is an alternative. To be free of the “burden of the bookshelf.”
And I don’t have a handle on how this digital generation actually feels about their books going away. Not sure it matters to the generation that coined such phrases as “wall of words” and “TL:DR.” And maybe they more easily embrace the impermanence of things. Or maybe they’re just better at breaking the system; removing the digital rights management that allows publishers to continue to “own” the media they’ve bought. They free up the media they have bought, or maybe “borrowed”, and don’t care because it doesn’t affect them.
I wish I could sum this up in some pithy way, but I only have a sense of dread for you. I often consider what Post-Apocalyptic Ric might have to do to when knowledge is needed out there in the wastelands. Digital books are gone, wiped off the face of the Earth because we can’t even recharge our batteries. Physical books are the only stored knowledge, because yeah, they don’t need anything but a little light to work. Can we find a book that helps us make penicillin, perform light surgery, cook up a batch of risotto? Maybe, but maybe not.
I guess I just hope the Apocalypse comes before the digital marketplace replaces physical books completely? There, that’s close to something bizarrely poignant.
July 1, 2019
Postscript: I live in both worlds. I love my physical books. I also love my e-book reader. It lets me carry hundreds of books when I travel. I’m also hopeful that some congressperson will eventually revisit digital rights in a manner that benefits and protects people more than corporations. Yeah, I’m silly that way.