Magic, Hope, and the Economics of Ebooks

When I first started thinking about ebooks, I was pretty excited. A magic tablet you can throw in your bag that has immediate access to every book you’d ever want? Sounds very Hermione-in-Deathly-Hallows to me. (In case you’ve somehow missed it, I’m a big Harry Potter fan, so that’s a good thing.) And on the more serious, non-Hogwarts side of my brain,* I think the transition from print to digital media is the most significant change to how we share thoughts and ideas across cultures since Gutenberg. This is big stuff. This is possibly word changing stuff.

Unfortunately, the world hasn’t seemed to be changing in a very good way, at least if you care about things like freedom, communication, and literature. The ebook revolution has been less Les Mis and more Big Bad Wolf. Instead of demanding control over our books and protecting the literature and ideas that our society is based on, we as customers have given our choices over to big corporations. These companies, sadly, are servicing their shareholders at the expense of their customers. Google and Apple initially showed promise in ebook innovation, but now Google has ended their partnership with independent sellers, and Apple is trying to lock books into their system to prevent sharing and user freedom. And Amazon? Amazon’s practices are just plain scary (read more here, here, and here).

Yesterday morning, something I was beginning to think was impossible actually happened: I started getting excited about ebooks again. The ray of light came through an email confirming that Church Street’s new ebook partner will be a little company called Kobo.

That’s a joke. Kobo is a big company with global significance, and it’s owned by the even bigger Rakuten, sometimes called the Amazon of Japan. So … why’d I get excited? Because, unlike the Amazon of America, this company doesn’t control its customers purchases in order to make more money. A quote from the Kobo website that made my brain all happy and fizzy: “Your books are Your books … we believe that when you buy a book, it’s yours. You are free to read your books on any open device — regardless of brand.”

This little sentence means a lot to me. It means that, come October, you’ll be able to buy your ebooks from Church Street and PostScript and read them on pretty much any reader (the apps for reading on Apple and Droid are free). It means that a company has found a way to do business without trying to control literature. Basically, it means a little bit of hope in an industry that’s seen too little of it for way too long.

* I’m kidding. There’s no part of my brain that hasn’t been invaded by Hogwarts.

Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.


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