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An Open Letter to Barnes & Noble Bookstore

An Open Letter to Barnes & Noble:

Greetings. I've been a customer since I first decided to take the plunge and enter the world of digital books (e-books), and I made a conscious decision to buy from Barnes and Noble over Amazon for two important reasons: First, your epub format is an industry standard usable on a wide variety of devices when the books are unencumbered by DRM, and second, your web interface allowed me to download copies of my purchased books to my desktop for archiving and backup.

Two years later, I'm back to Amazon. Why?

First of all, the download feature was removed: I can only access purchased books via your web interface or on authorized devices. And those devices only stay authorized for as long as I have a valid credit card on file. Late last year my credit card expired and to my surprise, I was no longer able to read any of my purchased books. Sound like a bad deal to you? It did to me!

Secondly, though formerly it was possible to remove the DRM using my user name and credit card number (essentially within the bounds of fair use, I'd say), your new encryption algorithm makes it impossible for me to remove the DRM from purchased books and archive them. This may sound to you like the right response and a moral imperative that keeps publishers happy by preventing piracy. In reality, like most DRM schemes, it annoys honest, well-intentioned users while driving the real pirates underground where they continue to steal what they like, and with an increasing sense of moral vindication, too.

So I'm back to Amazon, whose books I can keep a copy of locally and decrypt using the serial number of my device. I'm not a fan of the AZW or MOBI formats, but they are easily converted.

It's simple: I invest big money in books I expect to keep forever, and I don't want to rely on your credit card policy or even on the fact that you'll be around: I want my digital files stored on my home device, where I can read it on whatever device I choose. The digital music industry learned this lesson ages ago, and even Apple has been selling DRM-free music for several years. I am not aware that it has led either to legal battles or the bankruptcy of any record labels.

I'm not afraid to root for the underdog, and let's face it, standing in the shadow of the likes of, you are the underdog. But when you're the underdog and provide poor quality service, you won't be around long. (While I'm at it, I tried to use your LendMe feature to share a book with my father, and it roundly failed to work: c'mon, these things matter!) There is room for radical innovation in this field: open up your systems, let consumers keep the things they buy: that's the way to carve out your niche in the burgeoning ebook universe. Get that simple advice wrong, and you'll disappear.

Good luck!

Randall Wood is the author of Moon Handbook Nicaragua, Living Abroad in Nicaragua, and the Dictator's Handbook: a practical manual for the aspiring tyrant. (The Dictator's Handbook is DRM-free, and sharing has led to increased sales).


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