If nothing else, it’s good to see publishing technology is still moving forward. The latest hipster on the scene is cloud streaming (cloud publishing, cloud computing), where content is stored in a central server on the net rather than saved to a device. The technology has been in play for awhile (think online gaming subscriptions and O’Reilly’s Safari Books), but it’s just starting to show up in mainstream book publishing. It’s based on the premise that readers can buy access to eBooks, but they won’t actually own them. Thoughts of Amazon.com stealing away one’s library and the resulting $150,000 settlement immediately come to mind, but Google Editions does offer a spoonful of sugar to help this particular pill go down.
Google Editions is an eBookstore/wholesaler set to launch next year with several hundred thousand books in its catalog. Like the giant online bookstores it will offer a Search Inside feature and the option to buy books in paper format, but Google plans to throw off the chains of proprietary formats and DRM and set their customers free! If the laptop upon which you set up your Google Editions account explodes, you will soon have options to retrieve your content without jumping through hoops. Yes, the Age of Enlightenment can finally be seen flickering on the horizon and it’s a majestic sight indeed. However, a perfect system it is not.
This move by Google is a game-changer because it dredges up cultural issues that haven’t yet been resolved. Getting rid of the idea of multiple formats that tie people into using an exclusive reading device and all the DRM drama that goes with it are great things, but what about this word “access?” Readers are granted more control in some ways, but potentially lose it in others. If you’re someone who likes to believe that purchasing content equals ownership, you’d best stick to paper books. Cloud streaming moves towards making ownership obsolete in favor of things like instant content updates (fine for non-fiction, but useless for novels) and group reading experiences. “Owners” have been going the way of the dinosaur for years with “users” cropping up in their wake. The service providers like Google and Amazon are the new “owners” and it’s their pleasure, not your purchasing dollars, that decide how long and in what ways you will utilize that eBook service. In the cloud there is no certainty for the consumer because it’s really just another form of DRM. I’ve seen references to the term “smart DRM,” but really, Big Brother is Big Brother no matter how shy and retiring he looks sitting in the background. Questions like “What happens to my content if the service provider goes out of business?” and “What recourse do I have if my content is updated in a way that doesn’t work for me?” are real issues of trust that vendors STILL don’t seem inclined to address in ways meaningful to the consumer. Honestly, what is it going to take vendors and publishers, to get us past the “pay no attention to what’s behind the curtain,” stage of this relationship?
If, however, ephemeron doesn’t bother you, there is an upside to this rental arrangement: by default, eBook prices will have to drop. Because of the lower value placed on digital content, the higher volume of content to be sold due to increased online distribution and the rising competition from other service providers, consumers will still play a role in price determination, especially as eBooks become more and more popular. Consumers will also of course get to choose what service provider gets their hard earned ducats, but is that enough of a consolation? We’re being asked to give up our control for the sake of convenience, something that deserves serious consideration. Does it make sense to sell out our rights for rock-bottom prices, or can there be a better way?
Technology may be moving in the right direction, but this debate is far from over.