Sunday, 2 January 2011

Buy Weightless

When I first got my kindle, at the very end of September I think, books were cheap, usually a bit cheaper than the corresponding paperback. Even though Waterstones has hugely reduced its ebook prices since then, it's still much cheaper to get kindle books from Amazon.

Also, I think that Amazon subsidises the kindle a bit.

Then there was a revolt by publishers, and now quite a lot of kindle books are more expensive than their paperback versions. For example Diarmad MacCulloch's History of Christianity, for the monstrous 1216-page paperback of which I would have to pay just £8.24 (R.R.P. £14.99), now has its kindle price set by the publisher at £11.99. It's probably worth the extra £3.75 not to sprain my wrists, but I object to paying it. Otherwise I would own that book by now, because I really enjoyed his Reformation and it would have been a good meaty Christmas read.

The question is what the publishers are trying to achieve, and that worries me. I'm not one of those people who thinks that publishers don't do much -- they do absolutely tons. I've been involved in basic publishing enterprises and I was lucky to see a lot of the processes that produced my Margaret book, so I know that even the most basic book-production involves huge amounts of work. But clearly the physical production of books, their printing, binding, and trimming, as well as storage and transportation, cost lots of money which is not spent on a digital copy. Furthermore I cannot sell on an ebook. ( has just set up a feature whereby you can lend an ebook for a fortnight, but I don't think has this yet.) I can't give an ebook to Oxfam or to my nephew. I don't think I'm being unreasonable, therefore, in expecting to pay a bit less for an ebook than a paperback.

So what has gone wrong in that MacCulloch example? Is the problem really with the price of £8.24 for the paperback? I'd love to know how much money Amazon gives the publisher out of that £8.24 and that £11.99. It may be that the publisher wants people to choose the paperback instead of the ebook so that they can then justify their existing business models by saying that people prefer tree books. Also, the Penguin website will sell you the same ebook in an Adobe Digital Editions format for £11.99. (I hate Adobe Digital Editions.) So is it to do with their agreements with Adobe or Sony? Are they just trying to get back to the Net Book Agreement days via the back door? I can't entirely blame the publishers if their fear, in forcing higher prices for kindle books, is not that customers will swap to ebooks but that customers will swap and Amazon will end up with a monopoly. The big difference between a dead tree book and a kindle book is that the kindle book can only be sold through Amazon. It's a fair concern.

This really annoys me for two reasons. Reason 1: Someone out there needs to sort themselves out and rival Amazon. Reason 2: what we, the innocent book-consuming customer, motivated only by our delight in the written word and appreciation of literary culture, are paying extra for is DRM. Without DRM you can read an .epub on a kindle. An .azw kindle file is a .mobi file with Amazon DRM. The complications have entirely to do with the possibility of people ripping things off. Publishers are worried about what's happened to record labels. (Though it's not like there's no music any more, is it? I'm old enough to remember when home taping was killing music. Plus haven't publishers noticed that even itunes has DRM-free stuff now? Hasn't Amazon spotted that it's own MP3s don't have DRM?)

Part of me wants to revolt against the enforced publisher prices on kindle books by buying second-hand instead. But that would probably still be via Amazon, I'm afraid, so it doesn't really work, because I doubt it's just the publishers being stupid here. But there is another option! This is to buy direct from publishers who eschew DRM. This involves lots of different sorts of win: you can buy something which isn't on tables in every bookshop in England; you can support small interesting publishers; and you can buy from anywhere in the world instantly. Yay! Here is the website of Weightless Books. I think they're partly run by the same people as Small Beer Press, which publishes excellent and unusual stuff on the spec-fic/slipstream side of things, as well as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, an excellent short fiction zine. You can subscribe to it at Weightless Books, as well as to Lightspeed magazine. You can buy excellent stories by Kelly Link, one of my favourite writers around today, and the truly brilliant Carmen Dog and The Mount by Carol Emshwiller are both available too.  Plus at the moment there is a 25% off sale on.  You could buy The Mount for $7.50, less than a fiver.  And you can pay by paypal, which I find very convenient for overseas transactions.  Hurray!

They don't have DRM and theoretically I could copy them for people but I'm not going to and I expect that you wouldn't either, gentle reader. Or if you did you would deserve to go on the International Bell-End Register suggested by popjustice as a possible deterrent for illegal music file-sharers.

(If you're using a kindle you need to pick the .mobi or .prc format, or use .pdf.  Transferring your purchase onto a kindle is very easy. You could a) plug the kindle in and drag the file into the folder labelled Documents or b) e-mail it to yourself at your kindle e-mail address, which you'll find on the Manage Your Kindle page at Amazon -- free for things which are delivered via wi-fi or a small charge if it's delivered via 3G. Pdfs can either be converted or read as pdfs on the kindle.)

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