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Saving Barnes & Noble from itself: The DRM angle

BNHere’s a heartfelt suggestion for the besieged people at Barnes & Noble, in the spirit of the recommendations that Joanna Cabot and my other friends at TeleRead have offered:

Rid your operation of DRM to the maximum extent your publishers will let you, and if they resist, at least make a case for social DRM, so technical incompatibilities aren’t a factor. By itself, that won’t save your company. But at least I’ll have a reason to buy from you despite prices so often higher than Amazon’s.

I’m plugged into the Amazon ecosystem, as well as a cloud with nonDRMed ePubs for my Android machine. And while I could run your reader on my Nexus 10 or iPad, it ain’t so hot compared, say, to the amazing Moon+ Pro Reader that I use with ePubs, while at times enjoying the Amy voice from Ivona. But suppose I could read B&N books with Moon and not have to worry about losing already-purchased titles. “Lose” is exactly what happened to the some of the few DRMed books I warily bought from Fictionwise, the independent bookstore you’ve shut down. The more familiar readers grow with e-books, the more they’ll hate DRM. It’s a great way to keep losing market share.

Please, B&N. While I can’t recall the last time I bought an e-book from you—thanks to mix of higher prices and DRM—I’d love an excuse to take up the B&N habit. And maybe you’d pick up a second customer as well. My wife owns a Nook HD+, but for now she is using it almost entirely to read OverDrive library books.

Nate Responds:

I like DRM-free ebooks as much as the next guy but this strikes me as a pipe dream. This isn’t going to happen absent publishers signing on, and I just don’t see that happening. Sure, several independents have gone DRM-free, Wiley has started selling DRM-free ebooks via O’Reilly, and even Macmillan is dabbling in DRM-free ebooks with SF publisher Tor-Forge.

But a large concerted action to get rid of DRM just to save B&N? I don’t see that happening. Sure, they all fear Amazon, but even though it is easy to tell people the sky is falling it’s hard to get them to act before it completely falls.

reposted under a CC license from Library City

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Paul January 6, 2013 um 10:29 pm

The last three books I bought for B&N were DRM-free.

Nate Hoffelder January 6, 2013 um 10:35 pm

The last several I bought were not.

Tom Semple January 7, 2013 um 12:41 am

Amazon has shown they’re willing to match just about anything B&n does. So a DRM free world would still favor Amazon because of their superior ecosystem. All the vendors offer a DRM free option to publishers, but publishers (and probably moreso, authors) are not availing themselves of it.

And by the way while Moon+ is great there are really good reading apps that will read B&N books without stripping DRM. Mantano Reader for example. The latter offers paid cloud storage to sync, backup annotations etc.

I think it would be interesting if ebook vendors offered publishers a watermarking option, similar to what Pottermore Packt and Pearson do on their storefronts.

Nate Hoffelder January 7, 2013 um 6:12 am

I really doubt Amazon would push for DRM-free. Like David says, they’re requiring DRM on audiobooks distributed via Audible. Amazon also requires DRM on the Android apps they sell and they even use it on mp3s. There’s no reason for the apps to not have a DRM-free option, and yet even the free unpaid apps are still encumbered by Amazon Appstore DRM.

David H. Rothman January 7, 2013 um 3:32 am

@Nate, @Paul and @Tom:

Nate: Hard to say for sure what’ll happen. But if B&N has the smarts and guts to promote various major titles as DRM-free, and to explain the advantages for book buyers, then we may see progress. What’s more, it can offer the social DRM option as well—not as great as no DRM, but still an improvement. Cutting back on traditional DRM, as I’ve noted, isn’t enough by itself to save B&N. But it will help. Most book buyers don’t want to bother with DRM-stripping. Assuring them they can own their books for real will provide B&N with at least an initial competitive advantage in the cases of books without DRM, and that’ll buy time even if Amazon catches up. Not to mention a reduction in tech support costs! B&N won’t succeed in getting rid of all DRM, but, especially given its importance in the brick-and-mortar world, it will enjoy a helluva lot more clout than existing DRM foes have. The publishing industry’s many remaining Luddites can’t stand the idea of losing paper outlets; yes, they can be myopic about the future, but in this case, we’re talking about primeval fears.

Paul: I suspect that a very high percentage of bestselling e-books at B&N, probably most, are DRM-tainted.

Tom: Yes, last I knew, the party line at Amazon was that publishers could choose whether to do DRM. Perhaps Amazon would follow B&N’s lead described in the scenario. But then again, maybe not. Remember, Amazon owns Audible and, despite the "you choose" line for publishers, might actually like the idea of houses being able to turn off text to speech. Impossible to say if this would be a major factor or not. Regardless, whether or not Amazon follows through, B&N has a chance to "own" the DRM issue if it acts first and promotes its pro-consumer efforts. B&N could also talk up its use of the ePub "industry standard" and note that rather than trapping consumers within its own ecosystem, they could enjoy their books on a variety of machines.

As for Mantano Reader, it’s wonderful, but, at least when I’ve tried, could not read DRMed books from a library system near me. Beyond that, Moon+ has more features. Within Mantano so far, I’ve managed to get all-text bolding available within one font. By contrast, Moon offers a bunch of fonts with all-text bolding—I have yet to use a reader with more options. Awesome. I absolutely agree with you, of course, about watermarking. Think of it as training wheels. Ideally, though, the real grown-ups will eventually stop using them.


Mike Cane January 7, 2013 um 9:23 am

I’ve been down this damn road for YEARS now and B&N won’t listen. Their customer base has traditionally been *everyone*. Walk into a store with cash, walk out with any damn PRINT book you want. Want to buy an eBook? *BUZZER SOUND* You need a damn CREDIT CARD for their mutant DRM. How many cash-only customers went to Amazon instead? Hell, I have downloaded THOUSANDS of free Kindle books — and I don’t even have a credit card linked to my account! B&N gives away "free" Nookbooks only to those with CREDIT CARDS. Dropping their mutant DRM would help them in a huge way that they refuse to see. I’m sure DRM royalties to Adobe are a factor (it is with Kobo too), but they should bite the damn bullet and welcome all comers, just as Amazon does.

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 7:18 am

DRM is a marginal issue. It is not a silver bullet.
B&N’s problems are with the core experience of the customer. A crappy experience plus DRM-free ebooks is still a crappy experience. And B&N’s problems with the customer experience are merely a sympthom of their core, top-level problems with policy, priorities, inventory control. Their problems aren’t just with ebooks or international presence or even lack of profitability; in fact, their profitability was masking the reality that they *had* all those problems. So they kept on doing what they were doing…

They were poorly run, but more or less profitable; they could delude themselves into thinking they were doing a good job.

Now that they are face to face with a decline in B&M traffic, a decline in Nook hardware sales, and a minimal increase in digital sales that might even be a masked *decline* in ebook sales, all at a time their competitors are *not* declining…

Well, now there is no masking the fact that their websites are poorly designed and run, their customer service is legendary, their policies increase their costs and needlessly annoy paying customers, driving them away, and now they have to do something about those things.

Of course, maybe they *will* buy the idea of DRM-free as a magic bullet and get the publishers to go along and spend the next six months retooling to sell only watermarked ebooks. And do nothing else. Or maybe they’ll go international and subject buyers all over the world to their brand of service instead of just americans. They might even get mack to being marginally profitable for a while.

Bezos and Cook would enjoy that.
Especially Cook; iBooks needs market share donors and Kindle is not cooperating much. They could put B&N’s market share to much better use than they are.

B&N has deep-rooted problems and they need to go deep (straight to the top) to start fixing them. They aren’t anywhere near collapse but if they don’t make fundamental changes they soon *will* be. They no longer have time to be throwing tantrums over trivialities, "high-minded" hypocritical posturings about Amazon, or quixotic crusades on marginal issues.

They need to clean house and understand that serving their customers–not the big publisher–is the only thing that will stave off disaster in 2014.

Nate Hoffelder January 7, 2013 um 7:30 am

"their customer service is legendary" infamous

Fixed it for you.

B&N’s online customer service reminds me of the Twilight Zone story about the aliens who come to Earth with a book titled "to Serve Man". B&N seems to have been inspired by that cookbook, because their CS certainly isn’t provided for the benefit of the customer.

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 7:42 am

The internet needs a sarcastic font. 😉
Infamous will do.

You may be right about their inspiration.
I just ran into another annecdote of B&N quality service over at mobileread. Apparently, they have a storefront policy for selling damaged pbooks: don’t tell the buyer, heavily wrap the book, and when he complains, send him to HQ customer service.

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 7:46 am

BTW, did you even sleep? 😉

Nate Hoffelder January 7, 2013 um 8:06 am

I went to bed at my usual time and dozed for about 6 hours. I was too excited to really sleep.

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 7:53 am

Oh, yeah: "To Serve Man" is a short story from Damon Knight.
It first ran in GALAXY SF, Nov 1950.

"The story was written in 1950, while the author was living in Greenwich Village in New York City. Knight has stated that he wrote the story in one afternoon, while his wife was out with another man."

I’ve read a fair amount of his works; he did not think highly of humans.
If you run into "A for Anything" check it out.

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 7:44 am

Here’s a slightly different take: in boom times, the "rising tide" lifts all boats. Even the leaky ones. Once the tide starts to recede, that boat is going nowhere but the beach.

willem January 7, 2013 um 8:18 am

DRM is an irrelevant side issue in regards to B&N’s problems. The real question is why are they in the hardware business at all? Undoubtedly part of the reason for their various problems – aptly summarized by fjtorres – is simply lack of resources.

All their remaining money, time and effort is being spent on an unprofitable business which they should not be in – certainly not tablets. They will never match the big guys, and if they continue to try they will soon pass their fiscal event horizon – and then down the hole they go to the bottom with Borders.

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 8:49 am

Well, Nook needs to be *on* tablets but that doesn’t mean they have to make tablets.
Partnerships, rebadging…
There are other ways to play the game rather than trying to match amazon in everything branded Kindle.
Are they going to do a Nook phone too?

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 8:52 am

Fiscal event horizon.
I’ll have to remember that one.

Mike Cane January 7, 2013 um 9:27 am

In fairness to B&N, they have done some really great hardware and a generally good UI. If they weren’t a bookstore, they’d have some good tablet marketshare. Their mistake is locking them down and not making them all-in full Android devices with their UI as a skin and Nook as just one more Android app.

Greg M. January 7, 2013 um 11:27 am

While DRM-free might be better, it’s a side issue, at least for me. Even if B&N sold without DRM and Amazon sold with, I doubt my buying habits would change. Side loading a B&N DRM book to my Kinfdle is would be more trouble than just buying it directly.

What Amazon gets right, B&N doesn’t. For example, a few weeks ago I bought Swann’s Way for my Kindle, but after read 100 pages I discovered an omnibus edition of In Search of Lost Time with all six books at a much better price than buying each on its own. I was able to return my first purchase and buy the omnibus. I don’t think B&N would have allowed that with a few clicks on my screen. It’s the only ebook I’ve returned since buying a Kindle in 2008, but it’s good to know the option is there. Better than DRM free. Go Amazon.

fjtorres January 7, 2013 um 12:13 pm

B&N’s ebook return process is well documented.
You need to call customer service, deal with them for several hours and escalations until you reach Riggio and he then explains they don’t do ebook returns except on february 29 when it falls on a tuesday and there is an eclipse over NYC.
(Or something like that.)

Syn January 8, 2013 um 1:10 am

Hey guys,
If you ever have to call, they have to apologize all the time. But the main thing is, customer service has very little empowerment. Amazon does let you return ebooks, up to 7 days after you bought them with one click. BN will not let you return them unless they are a duplicate purchase or you meant to buy a hard cover/paper back and accidently bought a Nook book instead.

Like I told Nate once before, people shop with them like they are doing them a favor. I don’t get it, they have the worse customer policies. Why reward someone for doing a bad job?

By the way, if you see this Nate, please find out if the Lenovo wireless monitor is using Wacom? 😀

David Rothman January 8, 2013 um 1:19 am

Just a reminder that the inferior customer service makes the DRM hassles even worse. DRM requires babysitting. B&N can’t do support as well as Amazon does. So in that sense, it has more to gain from dropping or at cutting back on DRM.

Like others, I don’t think that DRM is the only reason why B&N is trouble—far, far from it—but it’s certainly a contributing factor to one extent or another.

fjtorres January 8, 2013 um 7:54 am

It could be as simple as: Amazon has a consumer-focused corporate culture and B&N has a publisher-focused culture.

Amazon is big enough no single supplier can easily bully them (the main reason the BPHs despise them) and they know that as long as they keep customers happy they’ll have the upper hand with suppliers, whereas B&N has always depended on "the kindness of strangers" the volume discounts the BPHs "generously" provide. Witness their role in the Agency Conspiracy, helping pressure Random House into compliance at Penguin’s request.

Look at B&N’s public positions over the past few years and you’ll see they strongly prioritize keeping the BPHs happy and don’t prioritize consumers. With them, upstream deals are more important than downstream deals…

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