Barnes & Noble E-Book Store Yields Prosaic Results
Its software -- you can see the Windows version at right, the iPhone release below -- fails to recreate the paper-reading experience as well as Amazon's Kindle 2 and Kindle DX tablets. (The New York retailer won't have an answer to the Kindle until Silicon Valley startup Plastic Logic ships its planned wireless "eReader" next year.) Its selection, as my colleague Steve Levingston notes in our Short Stack blog, is not as impressive as B&N's announced numbers suggest. And as many of you wrote in your comments on Monday's blog post, B&N's e-book prices often compares poorly to those of Amazon's Kindle e-books or even its own paperbacks.
To B&N's credit, its "digital rights management" controls on most purchased downloads are not as confining as Amazon's. But because they exist at all, they limit this store's utility -- as long as DRM stops you from reading an e-book on software and hardware that a store doesn't support upfront, you run the risk of having your own purchases made unreadable if you buy the "wrong" computer.
That last factor, more than anything else, explains why I haven't been tempted to buy a Kindle for myself. It's a neat little device, but when I purchase a music, movie or book download, I want to know that I own it and can use it as I would its physical-world equivalent.
So if Amazon and Barnes & Noble's efforts don't cut it, what am I looking for in an e-book store? Here are my four major requirements -- based in part on what I like in my two favorite, DRM-free music-download sites, Apple's iTunes Store and Amazon's MP3 store:
* Reasonable discounts. The advertised $9.99 prices at the Kindle Store and B&N's e-book store can offer healthy savings off new hardcovers, but they often represent a minimal discount -- or none at all -- over paperback copies of the same books. It's not enough to roughly match what you paid for a physical book, not when the electronic kind has near-zero distribution costs and demands no shelf-space management.
* A deeper selection. It's well and good for these e-book publishers to brag about how they offer all of today's bestsellers. But those aren't the titles that anybody has trouble finding in real-world stores! Matching the selection of airport bookstores is not much of an achievement; what you want is to be able to find the more obscure titles that mass-market bookstores won't think to stock, and which already make up a huge chunk of Amazon's print sales.
* No DRM. I'd like to think that I wouldn't have to explain this point by now, but movie studios and, now, book publishers keep proving me wrong. Any sort of software restriction that limits my access and use of a downloaded file makes me feel like I don't own it, and therefore makes me much more reluctant to spend the money in the first place. Take away that uncertainty, and it's a lot easier for me to drop $1, $5 or maybe even $10 on a new download.
* Graphical refinement. Books, especially hardcovers, have never just been piles of words. They use cover art, typefaces, page layouts and the occasional photo or illustration to set themselves apart. But Kindle and B&N e-books only offer, at best, the cover art. Even if we can't yet reproduce the lavish designs of coffee-table books, can't we at least let e-book publishers pick their own fonts? (Yes, I'm one of those typographical nerds who reads the "About the type" notes at the end of books. And yes, I wish this was appearing on most of your screens in something more exciting than Times New Roman.)
What do you want to see in an e-book store? Post your own requirements in the comments. Then stop by my Web chat, starting at 12 p.m. today, and we'll discuss this further.
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