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August 30th, 2011:

Amazon’s Print Replica

A few days ago, Mike Ward tipped me off to a new ebook format coming from Amazon: Print Replica. The new format is a lot like PDF, in that it presents a fixed page layout that cannot be reflowed, only panned and zoomed. A lot of people have been scratching their heads over it, but some things were almost immediately obvious to me:

  • Amazon will some time (reasonably) soon release their long-rumored high-res color tablet, capable of displaying fixed-format color page layouts at high quality.
  • Amazon wants a piece of the digital textbook market.
  • The whole point of the format is time-limited DRM.
  • And the whole point of time-limited DRM is to prevent any least possibility of a used ebook textbook market.

I’ve spent a couple of days sniffing around for details, though not much is out there yet. The format in question is .azw4, and you can buy some titles in the new format right now. However, .azw4 ebooks will only render on Kindle for Windows 1.7 and Kindle for Mac 1.7–and only in the US. It’s not only a great deal like PDF; it is PDF, inside a proprietary wrapper. For the moment, it seems that publishers submit a conventional print-image PDF to Amazon, and Amazon places it inside the wrapper.

I’m pretty sure that Print Replica is Amazon’s version of Nook Study, which I mentioned in my April 18, 2011 entry. Nook Study is also a DRM wrapper around a PDF. The DRM is draconian and mostly hated by everyone who’s ever tried it. I’ve never seen evidence that Nook Study is being adopted broadly, but if Amazon’s imitating it, that market must have begun to move.

If it is, it’s probably the only segment of the publishing market that is moving right now, where “moving” means “better than marginally profitable.” Textbooks are the cash cows of the publishing business, and because college education is a monopoly market for books, students shrug and pay well over $100 a copy, often more. There’s very little competition and almost no choice. The prof assigns the book and that’s that. The only shopping possible is for cheaper used copies.

The argument made for digital textbooks is that they are less bulky and can be cheaper than printed textbooks, but cheaper here means $80 as opposed to $120. The argument against is that the legal waters are still very murky on used ebook sales. The doctrine of first sale makes it legal to sell used print textbooks, though there are wrinkles involving importation. Current case law for software suggests that license agreements (even ones that can’t be examined before the sale) may prohibit resale of a physical boxed software product, like AutoCAD. It’s pretty clear that if ebooks are eventually considered software, first sale may no longer apply. To be certain, publishers want textbooks to vanish once each term is over, so that they cannot be resold irrespective of future legal decisions. Once most textbooks are ebooks, every sale is a new, cover-price sale, and if time-limited DRM is taken at face value, once the term is over, the book goes poof. (And whaddaya bet that that $80 e-text will be $85 next year, and $95 the year after that?)

I still have about a quarter of my college textbooks and still refer to them occasionally, most recently Listen, by Nadeau and Tesson (1972.) It’s hard to imagine not having any of the books I studied back then (granting that I only kept the better ones) but it’s sure starting to look like that’s the future. It’s also hard to think of a redder flag to wave in front of the nascent ebook piracy scene than an $80 price tag. As I’ve said many times, I’m glad I got my degree in the 70s, when a term cost $600 and you could keep your books forever.