eBooks – product or service?

Apparently the EU has decided eBooks should be taxed as services (link) instead of goods (like physical books).

I don’t think it’s that simple. 

When Digital Products Are Services

eBook “retailers” like Amazon are essentially offering you a licence to access a digital product, not ownership of a copy of the product. 

Of course, their casual wording might lead you to believe otherwise:

But you’ve purchased a licence, not a book. 

Compare it to NetFlix. You pay a monthly fee to access a library of digital content. It happens to be the same library everyone else gets too, not a customized library. We are more comfortable with the idea of subscription because we aren’t picking specific movies, and we even expect that some titles will disappear. 

These are services – the companies sell access, not goods. 

When Digital Products Are Goods

When I buy a book from Humble Bundle or Baen though, I’m buying a book (aren’t I?). I’m allowed to use it in certain ways (e.g. on multiple devices), and they’re not able to revoke my licence (I don’t think). There is no DRM to lock me into a platform or a service, and the expectation is that I will manage my purchases honestly and appropriately. 

And I’m glad they provide the ability to download my books at any time, but I don’t expect them to maintain my library for me. I keep my local copies, just in case. 

I’m certainly thinking of an eBook as a thing I’m buying, not a licence I’m buying. I want permanent access.

Can’t the Retailer and/or Publisher Choose?

I think there is room for both types of access, but it’s currently not clear to the consumer what they’re paying for. 

It would be nice for the publisher, or possibly the publisher and retailer together, to decide whether they’re licensing or selling (or both), and then price differentially and accordingly. 

Don’t forget

I have no legal training. I’m just making lay observations, so don’t interpret any of this as legal advice, silly.


My thoughts on DRM: Digital Rights Management

DRM has been around for a long time. There are a lot of arguments for and against DRM from the perspective of the creator and the consumer, the publisher and the distributor.

I see these arguments being talked about along with the Amazon-Hachette battle. People are concerned about being locked into a platform.

I understand that. I like it when products are offered DRM-free, because I’m more confident that I will be able to access the product in several years, and because I have choice in how I consume the product.

I also understand how publishers are afraid of piracy; if it’s too easy to copy digital media, people may steal instead of paying.

But I think both groups are missing something (at least, some people in both groups).

DRM isn’t such a huge problem sometimes

At least, it’s not a huge problem when the management platform provider is good about ensuring the media is available forever on all popular devices. Amazon, for example, lets you read your Kindle books on pretty much everything. They don’t lock you into the Kindle device [anymore]. I have a Kindle, an iPhone, an iPad, and a laptop; all of them are perfectly happy with my books.

It’s also not a problem if DRM is a choice. If I can choose to purchase a book with DRM or without DRM, even at a premium, I’m a happy consumer.

What’s more, Amazon isn’t the only place to get books. I’ll admit, I prefer to buy books there (because then I have everything in the same account), but publishers have lots of other options (including other prominent booksellers like B&N, or distributing the books themselves). Amazon has provided a robust distribution platform, but anyone can publish and distribute an ebook. I’ve done it myself (for free, of course), several times.

Tor Books recently started a new imprint for ebooks. They’re going to be DRM-free because it doesn’t hurt sales and it’s best for the consumer. I’m happy about that.

DRM is a huge problem sometimes

Sometimes DRM is terrible. You have to have 17 different apps, which all function a little differently, to read graphic novels from 17 different DRMing publishers. That’s really irritating (“terrible” is overstating the case, I suppose). I don’t buy graphic novels for Kindle unless they’re exceptionally cheap because I don’t like how the iPad app handles them.

And if the publisher goes belly-up, stops supporting the app, or even stops supporting the app on your specific device, you’re out of luck. Enjoy your eternal subscription to the media you can’t view.

And it doesn’t work

If you want to keep people from copying digital works, you have to prevent them from viewing digital works.

For books, screen captures are inconvenient but effective, and only one person needs to do it. Retyping is slow, but people do that too.

You want to prevent people from copying music? You can’t let them play music, then, or they’ll find a way to copy it.

It’s not a solvable problem, since our playback and recording devices are the same things.

Interestingly, DRM actually encourages piracy in some ways. If you require your graphic novel to be viewed in your own app and a consumer already has a different preferred app, they might seek out a pirated copy so that they don’t have to use your platform. See?

I’m not worried

For now I’ll just make my choices, and hope that publishers start removing DRM from their products (they’re allowed to, after all, even/especially on Amazon). I want to be able to archive my own stuff, just in case Amazon deletes my account or Dark Horse stops supporting iOS apps.

To the publishers reading this, though: I sometimes decided to not purchase a work because it was DRMed and not available in the ecosystem I live in. I didn’t want to download another app or create another account, so you didn’t get my dollars, neither did your author, and I enjoyed someone else’s book. If you hadn’t DRMed it, I would have bought it. Sorry.

What if ebooks had come first?

I like to read books. I always have, and I expect that will continue for the rest of my life.

But I’ve changed in my reading habits a lot over the last few years. Now I read far more ebooks than print books, and I listen to audiobooks as well. Most recently I’ve started exploring graphic novels, mostly digitally on my iPad.

When I talk to people about reading ebooks (usually novels), they either hop excitedly foot to foot inquiring about the Kindle titles I love or they scrunch their faces as though tasting bitterness in their old-schoolery while proclaiming they prefer print books.

Why the polarity? Why do people love one or the other?

Why ebooks are better

They’re sometimes cheaper (not always).

They’re easy to get on release day, or any other day. They’re always available and never out of stock.

You can bring (and read) hundreds of them anywhere without lugging anything you wouldn’t already have (phone, tablet, etc.).

They’re not heavy (ever try to read a Brandon Sanderson hardcover?).

They’re not lost in a basement flood, they can be archived, and they can’t be stolen by literate, opportunistic ruffians in the coffee shop.

You can share your notes (even voice notes!) with a social network.

They can synchronize across devices, and with audiobook narrations.

You can adjust the type and screen to account for your failing eyes, the brightness of the room, your font snobbery, and the colour you want the “paper” to be.

From a publisher’s/distributor’s point of view, they require no storage and no shipping; that is, no per-unit cost. They can therefore maintain a back catalogue into perpetuity at no additional cost. Books can even be updated to correct typos, improve covers, and so on.

Why print books are better

You can share them easily.

There is no question that you own it, and you’ll always be able to read it.

You can write in them with a pencil.

They work when you’re out of power.

You can leaf through them quickly, which is helpful for some times of reading.

You can’t change the type, colour, or where stuff is on the page (that’s a good thing).

They don’t depend on screen resolution to look good.

But what if we had had ebooks first?

But of all the reasons people list for preferring print books, the one I hear most often isn’t such a “logical” reason: it’s just that people “are used” to them. It’s almost an argument from nostalgia.

I think if we’d had ebooks before print books the market would be different.

People buying print books would be incredulous at the delays (“You mean I can’t just click the button and start reading?!”), and at the limitations of the format (“I can’t embiggen the font!”). They would feel cheated at only being able to have a small number in their bag at once.

But print books would still have their place, because they truly are better at some things. They’re better when you need to look at a series of charts. They’re awesome for marking up. They are locally very shareable.

Sometimes digital text is later produced in print formats. For example, a series of blog posts might be sold as a paperback book (even while remaining free on the web). Or an ebook is successful and then has a print run. This is often to hit both markets, I’m sure, but sometimes it’s because a text is better represented in print. The authors whose books are published with gorgeous covers, creamy paper and stitched signatures revel in the work of art they were a part of. They may love the pagination, or how they were able to choose the font to evoke emotion instead of relying on Caecilia.

I love that there is a market for both, and I’m sad that many books will never make it into my digital library because of a publisher’s retention of rights without the will to digitize. I hope that authors and publishers will make both forms available to us, and I’m happy that print-on-demand will make it reasonable to do so without many of the costs of warehousing and shipping.

If ebooks had come first we would still have both forms, but more people would think more kindly of them.

What I’m Reading

I saw this post by @PernilleRipp via @OSSEMOOC today:

First, go and read the article. Great advice.

Now, I’ll share what I’m reading right now. See how I was inspired?

  • Gabriel’s Journey (Book 1, Gabriel’s Redemption) by Steve Umstead (Kindle; just listened to #0 in audiobook)
  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (audiobook; second time through)
  • Play by Stuart Brown (borrowed hardcover; haven’t actually started yet)
  • Star Trek: Ongoing (graphic novel/comic series; just finished issue #32)

What are you reading?

First look at Liberio beta, a slick, free eBook publishing service

My friend and colleague Jennifer Keenan (@keenanjenn) asked me recently on Twitter:

I had not, but we both requested invites for early (beta) access. When I had a few minutes I started to play around with it, and I’m really impressed.

A screenshot of the Liberio login screen on a computer


It’s still in beta, so not everything worked perfectly (but nearly so!). Overall it’s pretty awesome.

I wrote a short story (originally published here) and so I tried making an ePub file using Liberio.

You have a library of your own stuff. When you click/tap on the “plus” item, you can either select a Document from your Google Drive or upload a file from your computer. I grabbed a Google Document, and it was ready in seconds.

Libary view.


You have some control over the settings in your published book. Here are the basics:

Edit Book screenshot.

Expanding “More Options” gives you these choices:

Edit book advanced options screenshot.

I especially liked the License and Rights section, which gives you “All Rights Reserved” and then a half dozen Creative Commons choices.

Pro features aren’t available yet. Also, I’m not a pro :)

I didn’t try uploading a cover image (because I have neither mining photos nor pictures of silver), but the option is there.

When you’re ready to publish, you save your changes and then choose a sharing method. Just saving will upload an ePub file to your Google Drive. You can download to preview the file in your reader of choice (the site doesn’t display for you, but that’s hardly a problem these days), and you can share via email or social media.

Sharing options in Liberio.

For comparison, here are the versions produced by Calibre and by Liberio as viewed on my iPad Mini. Note that publishing in Calibre provided more control but was rather finicky. I think I like the Liberio default better, and being thoughtful as I create my Google Doc would give more control, I imagine.

Calibre-generated eBook viewed in iBooks on an iPad Mini.

Produced by Calibre.

Liberio-generated eBook viewed in iBooks on an iPad Mini.

Produced by Liberio.

The site looks great on my iPad and iPhone both, although there were a few intermittent browser issues. Some problems may have to do with the wifi here, I’ll admit. Being mobile-friendly makes it much more useful in then K-12 context, I think.

The view on an iPhone

Liberio also gave me an email address to send feedback to, and they’re very responsive so far (both by email and on Twitter at @LiberioApp). I’m looking forward to a few tweaks and updates, and I’m hoping this could be an easy way for students to publish online. This is one to watch, for sure.

Troubles reading digital graphic novels


I’ve recently started reading graphic novels in both print and digital forms. I borrowed Ember and Buffy Season 8 Volume 1 from the Sault Public Library; I bought Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi Volume 1 – Force Storm in print; I purchased several comics for Kindle from Amazon (Star Trek Vol. 5, Star Trek: Countdown, Fray: Future Slayer, and a few more); and I bought this week’s Humble Bundle, which was a nice collection of Image Comics.

I like the print books in some ways. I find I take the time to look over the pages a little bit more, and it’s nice to be able to flip back quickly to review a previous scene.

I like the digital form for portability and selection. Plus I can buy them any time I like.

But there is a problem that prompted this post. Unless there is a magical setting I can’t find, the Kindle app is terrible for viewing comics.

When you try to zoom (pinch-style) a single panel remains visible and sometimes zooms in closer on any text. The remainder of the page is greyed out. You can’t zoom further, and you can’t pan around the pan or panel. Swiping will shift focus to the next panel (or a different part of the same panel) in sequence.

This is a brutal problem when a panel stretches across the entire page, because selecting a panel doesn’t necessarily make it bigger. I’m also using an iPad Mini, which has only 768 pixels across horizontally. The app only lets me view graphic texts in portrait mode (I could get 50% more pixels horizontally if I could rotate). On an iPad Mini (or even a full-size, Retina iPad) the text is often still difficult to read for me. I also can’t zoom in to view the artwork in detail.

And not to be overly picky, but I don’t like how greying out the inactive panels obscures the rest of the page. That’s just preference, I suppose.

On the other hand I use Cloudreaders for iOS to view other formats (like PDFs, CBRs, and CBZs that the Humble Bundle provides). This app gets things right in many, many ways. Swiping, zooming, and more work as I would hope. I can really get close to the artwork, and I can read the tiny text. I can use it in landscape or portrait orientation, letting me decide how best to use the pixels at my disposal. Unfortunately it can’t be used for those pesky, locked down Kindle books.

Until Amazon fixes the problems with the Kindle app for comics, I’ll be buying my graphic texts elsewhere so that I some freedom to view them the way I’d like to. It seems odd that they’ve made the design choices they have; hopefully they change things soon.

Will I teach computer programming again?

How I learned to code

I started to learn programming on a Commodore VIC-20 (great online emulator at http://mdawson.net/vic20chrome/vic20.php), then on the Unisys ICON computers (also BASIC) when I was about 10. It was interesting, but I don’t feel like I was really ready for a lot of the concepts involved. Maybe things would be different today…

I dabbled in this and that (learned a tiny bit of assembler, more BASIC, some C) until Grade 10, when I took Computer Science with Mr. Boston at White Pines C&VS. That’s when I really started to take an interest. We worked in Turing, a procedural programming language, and I learned the basics pretty well there. In particular, I remember writing a program to draw a Mandelbrot set on the screen in black and magenta. Eventually I rewrote the program to make a more colourful version, but I can’t remember whether that was in Turing or something else.

Ahead to the University of Waterloo, where I started as a Pure Math student planning to get a minor in Computer Science. My first CS course used Turbo Pascal, a procedural programming language. This was not a course for CS majors (so I qualified).

Partway through my second year of school I was looking for a job for my Coop term. There were positions advertised for the Instructional Support Group (ISG) for tutors. I needed to stay in the Waterloo area (my wife was in North Bay at school and we couldn’t afford to keep up three apartments), but I wasn’t really qualified for any of the serious CS jobs at RIM or Sybase or anything. When I interviewed to be a tutor for CS120, a Turbo Pascal course, the interviewer informed me that they really had a need for Java tutors. I had no Java experience at all, but they hired me anyway (must have been my exceptional charm) and I had a couple of weeks to learn the language well enough to stay ahead of the students.

I started by trying to complete the first few assignments that students were going to have to complete. I started out okay, but then I found that whenever I tried to compile and run my programs I was getting errors like

Non-static method doSomething(int) cannot be referenced from static context

I didn’t know what that meant, really, and I wasn’t Googling then, so I just “fixed” it: I made everything static.

I didn’t understand how object-oriented programming (OOP) worked, and it wasn’t until I’d asked for help, fixed my programs, and saw the power of objects that I really understood what it was about.

I learned a lot about Java in several terms with the ISG, including some interesting work with JKarel, a virtual robot (based on Karel) used to teach OOP. I also learned some shell script (evidence here), bridge, and 5-handed bid euchre (thanks Phil).

I’ve since been disappointed in the security issues that Java has had in the past few years, and had thought my days of Java programming were possibly over.

But now…

This September I’m planning to return to classroom teaching, so I’m starting to think about what I’d like to do. My teachable subjects are Math and Computer Science, and I’ll be the Subject Area Head for Math. I’m expecting that CS won’t be on my timetable for the 2014-15 school year, but I think it would be nice. I haven’t had a chance to teach programming and programming concepts since I left the ISG 2003, and although I’ve dabbled on my own I’d like to jump in again with both feet.

About a week and a half ago I stumbled across and bought “Programming Android: Java Programming for the New Generation of Mobile Devices” on Kindle for $7.51 (I see that today it’s $19.66, which makes me feel unreasonably clever). I haven’t even cracked the virtual cover yet, apart from skimming the Table of Contents before buying it, but I’m kind of excited to revisit the world of software design. I didn’t realize that Android programming was based in Java (using a non-Oracle VM called Dalvik), and so hope rekindled. I don’t even have an Android device, but I’ll be able to code for free using the Android SDK and software emulators, as well as actually loading onto a device down the road.

I’m kind of excited

Programming in Turing helped to develop some useful, basic skills (like understanding loop structures, program logic, data types, etc.) but didn’t really leave me working in a “practical” language (one that is used in real life). Java is a language used in industry, and the prospect of writing Android apps has to be a least a little engaging for students, I hope. This seems like a good starting point for grade 10-12 students who want to learn something fun that will also be useful for them when they leave us. I hope I get the chance; I’m certainly going to ask for it.