By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Stop me if you've read this before: A high-profile electronic-book store has trouble matching the selection, pricing or flexibility of the traditional ink-on-paper product.
This time around, the store comes from Barnes & Noble, which launched its "eBook Store" (http://bn.com/ebooks) on Monday, touting a selection of 700,000-some volumes. In some aspects, the New York retailer's new online shop outdoes the best-known e-book venture, Amazon.com's Kindle; in other areas, it repeats Amazon's mistakes or makes new ones of its own.
The Barnes & Noble store's greatest advantage is its compatibility. Where Amazon restricts reading to its Kindle wireless tablets and its Kindle Reader program for Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch, Barnes & Noble provides reader software for Mac and Windows computers, iPhones and iPod Touches, and newer BlackBerry phones. You can read your purchases on still more devices in its older eReader program (http://ereader.com), which comes in additional versions for Palm OS, Windows Mobile and Symbian phones.
Next year, Barnes & Noble will add support for Plastic Logic's upcoming, Kindle-esque wireless eReader tablet.
That hardware's arrival would be a positive step for Barnes & Noble, considering its current software's issues. To buy an e-book, you have to launch a Web browser. The first time you open a book on a new device, it requires you to authenticate your purchase by typing in your name and a credit card number on file in your store account. If you switch devices mid-book, the software doesn't remember where you left off.
On most devices, you can add bookmarks, highlight text and type in notes, but you can't copy more than a paragraph of text -- even if that paragraph is one word. You can't print a book, and there's no text-to-speech function to read it to you.
Other flaws are confined to particular releases of Barnes & Noble's software. Its ugly Windows version obscures some of its toolbar buttons by default, but you can't hide its own menus for a distraction-free reading experience. The Mac edition doesn't look much better and can't download recent purchases.
The BlackBerry release, meanwhile, took as long as a minute to winch a book into memory and lacked highlighting, annotation and copying features. The iPhone version looked cleaner than the others but provided no way to remove highlighting (weirdly enough, it let me add multiple layers of highlighting, eventually painting over the text in yellow).
Barnes & Noble's selection isn't as wide as that 700,000-title boast would suggest. Half a million of those titles are public-domain books available free through the Google Books site -- many of which you can download free at sites such as Gutenberg.org. The remaining 200,000, including some duplicate editions, cover many new releases but tend to leave older works out. For example, Barnes & Noble carries only seven e-books by the prolific science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, compared with 97 hardcover and 273 paperback volumes by him.
Barnes & Noble doesn't sell electronic editions of newspapers or magazines, although its software could support those publications.
Most new books sell for $9.99, but some top $20, easily exceeding prices for paperback copies. Older titles tend to go for less, with many priced at $7.99. Participants in B&N's $25-a-year membership program, which provides discounts on physical books, don't get a break on e-books.
The least attractive aspect of the Barnes & Noble e-book effort is its use of "digital rights management" restrictions on most paid e-books (publishers can opt out of them, but the store doesn't say so if they have). Although its DRM controls lack the strictness of the Kindle's -- you can theoretically lend or resell e-books, if you're willing to give your credit card number to recipients -- they still limit your reading to the software and devices that Barnes & Noble permits, not the ones you might like.
Plus, there's always the chance that DRM can be abused by a publisher or store in some unforeseen way. Consider the example of Amazon, which on June 17 deleted purchased copies of some George Orwell novels and refunded their purchase price to buyers after learning that the publisher didn't have the right to sell those books. Amazon has apologized and says it won't do that again, but Kindle users now know how tenuous their ownership of e-books can be.
In its insistence on DRM -- not to mention its spotty selection, questionable pricing and glitchy software -- Barnes & Noble's e-book venture resembles nothing so much as the early, awkward attempts of record labels and the current, awkward attempts of movie studios to set up digital storefronts.
Those parallels don't bode well for the future of the electronic book. If we're going to have to watch publishers and stores repeat all the mistakes of the music and movie industries, it's going to be a long few years in the e-book business.