This weekend Randall Stross asked "Will Books be Napsterized?" in the NYTimes. Writes Stross:
"Until now, few readers have preferred e-books to printed or audible versions, so the public availability of free-for-the-taking copies did not much matter. But e-books won’t stay on the periphery of book publishing much longer.
This is particularly true on campus. Members of the higher education (read students) community were among the early pioneers (read pirates) of music downloading and sharing, and if the publishing industry and Amazon refuse to learn from the music industry then history will repeat itself on campus.
The good news for publishing companies and Amazon is that a future is coming where students will prefer their books in digital format. The bad news for publishing companies and Amazon is that a future is coming where students will prefer their books in digital format.
This is a good news story because publishers and Amazon will be able to build book buying habits for the next generation of book consumers. If students get in the habit of purchasing digital and audiobooks from publishers and Amazon, then they will continue to do so once they leave college. The danger is that if students get in the habit of downloading books from Rapidshare then they will be much harder to convert to paid digital book consumers in the future.
Before I go on with some ideas about how the publishers and Amazon can avoid the repeating the higher education experience of the RIAA a quick note about Amazon. An under-appreciated (I believe) trend is the risk of Amazon's electronic (digital and audio) book consolidation. Amazon's ownership of the Kindle vertical market combined with its ownership of Audible.com places Amazon as by far the most dominant player in the e-book space. The company is as dominant in e-books as Apple is in downloadable music, a fact that I believe poses significant risks (and benefits) to the growth of this market. I very much hope that publishers and other companies develop alternatives to Audible for audiobooks and the Kindle readers/store for e-books. The competition could only be a good thing for us e-book buyers.
But for now, Amazon is the dominant player in the market, so I address my recommendations to Amazon and the publishers:
How to avoid repeating the Napster experience on campus with e-books:
1. Work With the Academic Libraries: Partnering with academic libraries holds the key to turning college students into responsible e-book buyers as opposed to e-book pirates. Libraries can be an unbeatable asset in socializing students to the benefits of working within the legal book acquisition framework. Do the major publishers and Amazon have policies to make electronic and audiobooks available to library collections? Students will bring the devices, the e-book readers and the iPods. College libraries need to supply the digital and audio books for these devices. However, college libraries cannot supply these digital books if Amazon and the publishers do not have programs to facilitate this. If a student can get her digital book, in the format she wants and readable on the device she has, from her college library then she will not resort to pirated downloads. She will not develop the habit of illegal book file downloading, and the culture around illegal downloading will not develop. However, if the e-books are not available from her college library then download she will!
2. Move Away from Overly Restrictive DRM: Digital Rights Management software on electronic and audio books represents an incredibly short sighted strategy on the part of Amazon and the publishers. Your best advertising is people passing along your digital books, all the while singing the praises of Kindle or Audible etc. Locking down e-books to one e-book reader will only inhibit the migration to the digital format, and push students towards pirated DRM free copies.
3. Enhance the Paid Experience: The lowest hanging fruit for enhancing the paid digital book experience is Amazon's Audible service. How do I put this gently? The Audible.com site is atrocious. If I never have to go on Audible.com to buy another book it will be too soon. This is coming from a long time Platinum ($229.50 per year) Audible member. Just recently Amazon began to link audiobooks available from Audible into book searches on its main site. In the future I very much hope that Audible.com goes away, and audiobooks gain a "Kindle" like store on Amazon. As for enhancing the paid experience of book on e-paper I'd say the main improvement would be to publish everything in a standard format, so that books purchased on Amazon could be read on any device, and books purchased elsewhere could be read on all Kindles.
4. Get Involved on Campus: Amazon and the publishers should make partnering with college campuses a major strategic focus of their operations. Use Google's Apps for Higher Education as a model. Come and talk to our students about the advantages of digital books. Work with our libraries and our faculty. Proactively engage in discussions around copyright and digital rights management. Gain a ground level understanding of where the higher education community fits into the the coming digital book tsunami.