News broke two weeks back that three independent bookstores (Posman Books, the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza and Fiction Addiction) had filed a lawsuit against Amazon and several large publishers. The bookstores allege that the named parties are using DRM to keep smaller booksellers out of the eBook business.
As publishers tell the story, agency pricing was supposed to level the playing field for independent bookstores. A model in which publishers set prices was seen as a way to support booksellers while bringing new platforms into the market.
Certainly, a few competing platforms have emerged, and Amazon's relative share of eBook sales has diminished since 2010 (its total eBook sales continue to rise). But independent booksellers have struggled to sell eBooks successfully, largely because the Kindle and Nook ecosystems are locked.
There's a way to get locally bought eBook content onto these devices, but it's not easy. Moreover, publishers are reluctant to sell eBooks that are not wrapped in some form of DRM, further complicating the work required to "side load" an eBook.
I'm glad that booksellers are coming to see DRM as a term of business, one that denies them access to the most popular eBook reader. Amazon has deliberately used DRM as a way to lock users into their ecosystem. They have benefited greatly from the cooperation of publishers who mistakenly have acted as if DRM has any measurable impact on piracy.
Most of those named in the suit have been slow to respond. An exception is Simon & Shuster, whose spokesman told the New York Times:
We believe the case is without merit or any basis in the law and intend to vigorously contest it. Furthermore, we believe the plaintiff retailers will be better served by working with us to grow their business rather than litigating.
Normally, I'd agree. Let's try to have productive conversations first. Of course, when it comes to eBooks, that's the advice I would have given to libraries, as well. Maybe a lawsuit can focus the mind.