Technical ebooks: some publishers don’t get it

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stupid thingsI like buying technical books.
Unfortunately, here in Hong Kong, we have less choice: there are not that many technical bookstores that cater for English-language books and the selection is rather limited.

So whenever a book isn’t available here, I buy it online as a PDF.
It’s cheaper, saves postage and I can keep them handy on my desktop computer at work and my laptop.

I love Safari and being able to access such a large library of books online in such a flexible way is great, but if you’re not in the US, the experience is not always that pleasant, with the site sometimes becoming a bit too slow for comfort.

GraphitiTek by Charles Kalpakian

The publishers I regularly buy ebooks from are O’Reilly, when they make the PDF available, and Apress.

O’Reilly’s PDF may have your subscribtion details embedded at the bottom of each page.
It’s perfectly reasonable and doesn’t ruin the experience: I can still search, copy snippets to the clipboard and print the book if I need to keep an annotated copy.

Apress encrypt the PDF with your account email. Again, that’s fine by me, they don’t prevent me from using the book and it’s not a great annoyance to have to type the password to unlock the book.

Now comes Wrox (Wiley): they publish fine books and even have some available as ebooks.
The biggest issue I have though is that they assume that people who buy their books are all potential criminals:

  • The book is as expensive in paper as it is in ebook format. That can’t be right: ebooks have zero reproduction cost while paper books have huge material costs.
  • The ebook version needs to be registered with Adobe Digital Editions that locks it to a particular machine.
  • You’re only allowed to download the ebook to 4 different PCs and you’ve got 2 weeks to do so.
    This seems fair, but it’s not: if I change OS or PC, I’ve already burnt 2 licenses.
  • You can’t copy/paste more than a page at a time, up to 10 pages every week… that’s just a bit silly.
  • Can’t copy any of the artwork, diagrams, etc.
  • Doesn’t say anything about what happens if Adobe drops their particular DRM software or if I need to use the book on the next laptop I’ll buy a year from now.
  • Adobe Digital Edition only supports Windows and Mac and a Sony reader. So using Linux (even though Wrox plublishes books about it) or a Kindle or any other mobile device is out of the question.

So the net advantage of buying an eBook from Wrox (Wiley) is: your guess is as good as mine.

Yeah, you can buy each chapter as a PDF: great value, at US$4.99 per chapter, the book is costing you nearly US$100. You can get the fully printed version for half the cost…
Still, I’ll concede that being able to download a particular chapter can be useful.

The bottom line is: if your book gets printed, it’s going to be pirated and distributed for free in ebook format within a couple of weeks of being published.
While thinking they are protecting their copyright, Wiley is in fact punishing people who buy their books.

I’ll stick with Apress and O’Reilly I think. At least I don’t feel treated like a thief.


12FEB2010 Update: Wrox is now trying DRM-free PDF ebooks. We can only applaud this decision. While the offering is still limited at the moment, most or all of their books will eventually be available DRM-free.


Bookshelf by Charles Kalpakian

Entry Filed under  :  Books,Business,Reviews

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jim Minatel  |  March 24th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    You make some really valid points and I’ll agree, our e-book solution isn’t perfect. A couple of minor corrections I’d point out: ebooks aren’t free to produce: we use a 3rd party e-book ecommerce solution and the per unit charge is roughly the same as the per unit cost of printing a book. I hope we can lower that charge soon and then have more flexible e-book pricing

    The social DRM watermark solution is something we are trying too. Right now, it’s not something ready to scale to all ebook sales rather than the Wrox Blox and Chapters on Demand we are trying it with. And it also isn’t something that ebook resellers can use. Yes, I can see it as the future solution for ebook PDF sales, but we’re not quite ready yet.

    And yes, we’re frustrated too by the lack of an Adobe solution for Linux.

    You can contact support to get re-download licenses if needed for when you’ve changed OS’s, PCs, etc.

    I’m not sure I understand the need for copying and pasting from the ebook. I’d welcome seeing more on this. It seems the limited copy/paste rights now should fit most needs.

    Thanks for sharing this, hopefully you’ll find we continue to improve.

    Jim Minatel Associate Publisher – Wiley Technology Publishing/Wrox Press

  • 2. Renaud  |  March 25th, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    @Jim: Thanks for taking the time to reply. I’m surprised at the cost of ebook production. It doesn’t seem right that you, as a publisher, suffer such high prices that you end-up passing to your customers.
    I don’t see where the value is for us at all.
    Ebook production costs should be marginal compared to classic manufacturing costs, there is nothing that really justifies them.

    I have to go back to the basic premise here: I don’t understand the value of such a crippled, high-cost offering.

    Checking some popular torrent sites would show that the book is there, available to download for free.

    As a result:
    – the DRM failed as an anti-piracy measure
    – the DRM removes some of our fair-use rights – the DRM alienates otherwise faithful customers
    – the DRM forces higher selling prices
    In short, the DRM is a liability.

    I really appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to respond to my post.
    I like Wrox books but I’m afraid you lost me on the DRM ebook thing and I’ll have to vote with my money.

  • 3. Tony Toews  |  February 14th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I find it very hard to believe that the cost of producing an Ebook is at all close to the physical cost of printing and distributing a book. If so the ecommerce site is making huge profits. Hire some competent programmers and build a solution in a month or two.

    P.S. I;m a software developer but I’m not at all intersted in this kind of work.

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Renaud This is a simple technical weblog where I dump thoughts and experiences from my computer-related world.
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