Saturday, December 20, 2014

Evil-free internet shopping (or how to read books on an iphone without patronizing Amazon)

My many devoted readers will know about my obsession with Lorrie Moore.

This has been such a busy year that I completely missed the fact that she has a new short story collection until I sat down one Sunday in November to review the PW Best Books of 2014 list and saw it there: a new short story collection, Bark.

My first instinct was to go straight to Amazon and get it immediately--and then I thought, well, okay, this is a book I can by at any bookstore in America. Every book on this list is going to be available at any bookstore in America. Shouldn't I maybe do that instead?

We all know why Amazon is evil, but just for a little refresher, here are some highlights in order of terribleness in my personal opinion:

8. Disappearing Kindle content. In what everyone has already acknowledge was an ironic turn of events, 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from Kindles everywhere Friday July 17 2009. The discount ebooks had been posted in violation of U.S. copyright law; Amazon, informed of the issue, made the illegal books disappear and distributed refunds to customers. Everyone was furious, not so much about the loss of their purchases as the overwhelming creep factor involved in the experience. (You'd think this incident would have given Apple some clue that the magically appearing U2 album of September 2014 would be unwelcome.)

7. Marketplace sellers. One of my least-favorite features as an Amazon customer is the difficulty in telling when you're buying from Amazon, or from some guy in Minnesota who will take two weeks to mail a package and has a totally different return policy. But there's an actual reason, other than mild-inconvenience, why the trend toward marketplace sellers is problematic. Basically, Amazon has successfully created an environment in which the only way these sellers feel they can survive is by selling through the Amazon platform; the company has found an ingenious way to earn a fee through sales by its direct competitors, further homogenizing everything.

6. Price fixing. Between the anti-Amazon author coalition, the Apple/DOJ settlement, and the rash of Amazon agency-model deals squeezing in before year end, this one can be a bit hard to frame. Is it the big six who have the problem, or Apple, or Amazon--or is it all some massive conspiracy? The general consensus seems to be this: in initial rounds of ebook negotiations back in the early oughts, publishers failed to appreciate the impact and importance of what would become the Kindle. When the deals were done and $9.99 or lower became the standard Amazon price, publishers felt threatened by low (and falling) ebook prices conceived the agency model, which put pricing at publisher's discretion, rather than retailers'. Amazon argued that a lower price point would lead to bigger sales; the publishers argued that a higher price point reflects value.

5. Censorship. In 2009, the company was shamed for excluding feminist, gay, and liberal texts from sales rankings. Because those kinds of books don't count, obviously. Amazon has been known to employ such tactics as removing the 'buy' button from all Macmillian titles (2010), or more recently jacking up prices and delaying shipments of Hachette titles (2014) as part of a contract negotiation tussle, infuriating basically every author whose name you know.

4. Taxes. Or lack thereof. Amazon doesn't pay state and local sales tax, and it passes those savings on to you. And your roads. And your public schools. And your emergency services. The company also avoids taxation internationally, sparking anger in the UKJapanGermany, among others. It's not that they're actually breaking laws (except maybe in Japan)...more taking advantage of outdated laws written with normal-sized businesses in mind and some extremely adept lobbying.

3. Differential pricing. That is, charging different customers different amounts based on previous internet traffic and buying patterns.

2. Undercutting indie booksellers. (And even corporate booksellers. Remember back in the day when Barnes and Noble was the bad guy?) Amazon's business plan has always included strategic low-pricing: in the early days, selling print books below cost and eating shipping fees was designed to increase market share and eliminate brick and mortar competition. The same strategy has persevered in the ebook market, where Amazon beats out the competition by roughly $2.00. Of course, avoiding state and local sales tax probably makes this a lot easier.

1. Labor practices. Amazon fulfillment centers have been described as Industrial Revolution style assembly lines monitored by overseers in charge of of maintaining quotas, who doll out reprimands to workers for things like talking to one another and pausing to catch their breath. The list goes on: per hour quotas that rise in step with length of employment, culminating in eventual firing. Failure to meet expectations, or a clever way to get rid of people who are now entitled to benefits? Searches on entering and leaving the warehouse. Lack of climate control; workers collapsing from heatstroke or working in subzero conditions. Hiring temps, again, in order to skimp on benefits. Union busting.

So: no Amazon. I started to look into alternatives.

The status quo:

Amazon Kindle version is $9.99. I can order it and have it open on my phone in under a minute from anywhere. The same book is also available on my kindle and my home computer, all three of which sync against each other, so I never loose my place. My book is stored in the Amazon cloud, so I can download it again anytime I get a new device and I'm not responsible for maintaining the files myself; it's also in Amazon's own proprietary file format, which means its tied to an Amazon device or app. Its not clear what would happen for example, Amazon failed, or started charging a monthly service fee or any one of a dozen other business models. Plus, as previously discussed, there's the evil.

The alternatives:
Disclaimer: I'm going to ignore the many awesome sites that offer out-of-copyright books (Project Guttenberg) or those that are specially for self-published authors (Smashwords, Lulu); I'm interested in buying a best seller.

iTunes. For those more concerned with issues of format and ownership than buying into a massive corporate machine, there's always this old standby. Books from the iTunes bookstore are delivered in ePub format, an open ebook standard which you can use across virtually any device except the Kindle. Just like your music, iTunes ebooks are available across a limited number of devices. You, the user, own your file, and you are responsible for backing it up.

Google. Everything I just said about iTunes can be said with equal truth about Google Play ebooks. If you care about the supporting the indies or screwing the man, this is obviously not recommended. To their credit, Google did actually try an indie-driven model, but it didn't work out. The devious thing about Google is that they know your search history, and, if you're a Chrome user, they know your Amazon browsing history as well, so your first visit to the Google bookstore will include pretty much exactly what you might expect.

Google books come in a few formats: for those out of copyright, pdf scans or ePubs are the norm. Those for sale from a mainstream press will still be in ePub format, but will have the .ACSM file extension. This is an Adobe software used to keep you from steeling. The price for Bark is an identical $9.99 and like all things Google,  your books live in the cloud, and you don't have to worry about keeping track of the files.

Barnes & Noble. Everyone knows that B&N's online bookstore and Kindle-like device, the Nook, aren't doing so hot, so we can more or less skip this one. For the sake of argument, though, you can get Bark for $11.99 at barnesandnoble.com in ePub format, which you can then read on your Nook. Nook will also read ePub files from other stores, for example, you can transfer books from your Sony reader to your Nook, but it doesn't go the other way, ie you can't read Nook books on another reader. Be warned: the end is nigh.

Kobo. Since it was acquired by the rapidly growing Japanese e-commerce beast Rakuten in 2011, shopping at Kobo really isn't all that different from shopping at Amazon. Your buying from a company that sells 100 million different items and promises to deliver them all overnight (this is not an exaggeration; its from their Wired profile two years ago). (Incidentally, they also own a big old share of Pintrest--I still haven't worked out how Pintrest makes money, but all that crap made out of mason jars is looking pretty corporate about now.) Anyway, direct from the Kobo site, Bark in ePub format will cost you $11.99. You can actually get the paperback from the Rakuten website and have it shipped for another fifty cents.

But here's where it gets interesting. Kobo partners with brick-and-mortar indie bookstores (a full list is available on indiebound.org), allowing them to sell ebooks on their own store sites. I can get that same $11.99 ePub copy from the website of San Francisco's own Green Apple books--or at first glance, it seems like I can.

A little background on book sales here. Typically, only stores big enough to take advantage of graduated bulk discounting buy direct from publishers, everyone else goes through a book distributor (Ingram or Publishers Group West are big out here in California) who can buy books in enough volume to take advantage of publisher discounts, save small presses the expense of in-house indie sales staff, and sell the books to independent booksellers at a better price than they'd get on their own. The publishing industry also has a bizarre depression-era returns policy which allows booksellers to return unsold books to the publisher for credit. There are some exceptions (magazines and certain mass market paperbacks are not eligible) but generally, if the public doesn't buy it, it goes back and probably ends up getting pulped. This is why those of us in the publishing industry love it when authors go to bookstores and sign every copy--they can't be returned!

You might assume your neighborhood books store has the same arrangement with Kobo as with their normal distributor, with a discounted business-to-business price and a similar profit margin, but this is not, in fact, the case. The language is vague here, but you're not really buying the ebook from the bookstore. They don't own it, even on a credit returns basis, and they aren't making normal profits from its sale. Instead, they receive a kickback more akin to the Amazon 'Smile' program, or what your grocery store might do to support the local schools: a 'portion' of each sale goes to the store you've selected, but you're still buying the book from Kobo, who bought the right to sell it from the publisher.

So, not great. But getting better. 

Initial set up is a little worky. You'll need to add the Kobo Indie App on your ereading device(s) and specify which participating Indie seller you want to receive a little boost from your purchases. Kobo, like Amazon, has a cloud where your activity is stored. You can download your books again; if you loose your files, its going to be okay.

The Public Library. Yes, your friendly neighborhood library has ebooks. If you go there once a decade, you probably already know this.

There are a couple of different ways this can work on the business end of things, depending on the service. In some models, libraries essentially have a subscription to a publisher or distributor's titles. Often, this arrangement includes a cap on how many 'copies' the library can use; alternatively, the library may pay incrementally for whatever their patrons check out over a certain threshold. Many libraries have formed consortiums specifically to take advantage of programs like this, sharing e-resources across several institutions.

For example, Berkeley Public Library subscribes to OverDrive, an ebook distributor who's subscription-based model allows libraries to create their own digital collections with their own specific numbers of e-copies available. In effect, if one patron has 'checked out' the library's e-Bark, it's not going to be there for me to check out until they 'return it'.

In another model, which I'm sure is publisher preferred, the library buys and owns the title, but its only good for a certain number of reads. In imitation of a print book, the ebook version gets artificially worn out over time and must be replaced. This seems to be on its way out, as the restrictions make everyone angry.

Obviously, like all libraries, you have to give your ebook back. Conveniently (if you've finished the book; if not, perhaps less so) it will magically vanish from your account when your lending period ends.

Feedbooks. In common with Amazon, Feedbooks is a distribution platform for mainstream titles as well as a publishing platform for indie authored titles. Unlike Amazon, it supports the Creative Commons licensing, and is very much focused on establishing format standards and protocols that will allow for cross platform use.

The search functionality and browsing aren't nearly on par with what you'd see on a Google Play or an Amazon, but if you know what you're looking for, getting it is easy.

Compatibility wise, Feedbooks titles are better than most, though still complicated and imperfect. Anything out of copyright can be read on multiple platforms, including Kindle. Copyrighted DRM material (anything you paid for in the store, basically) will not run on Kindle, but will work on devices that read Adobe Digital Editions, and of course there are apps for every device (again, other than Kindle). Bark is available at $11.99. Again, interface is a little rough...there's no 'send to' function, but you can download from more than one device, apparently with no specific limits.

So here it is: my very own digital edition of Lorrie Moore's Bark, on my very own power guzzling iphone, ready for action.


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