The Not-so Silver Lining of Cloud Ebooks

I’ve talked about ebooks in the cloud on this blog before, but with the launch of (partnered with Readings) and the imminent arrival of Google eBooks, we have two very viable cloud ebook systems setting up shop in Australia. Despite very different backing and support, these two platforms share a similar philosophy – ownership of and access to a book is essentially the same thing.

Technically, if you buy an ebook these days, you’re not really buying the book itself. It’s a common complaint and criticism of ebooks – the ebooks that are for sale are crippled with unreadable and ignored user agreements and with DRM (copy protection software). You can’t resell an ebook and you can’t share it with a friend (with some notable and limited exceptions). You don’t actually own anything physical, just the bits and bites of ones and zeros inside your e-reader or computer.

The  and Google eBooks systems don’t really give you any fewer rights to your book than if you bought it via the Kindle or iBooks stores. The difference is that there is no file to download. Instead, you access your book directly from Google or’s servers using your e-reading device. Your computer may temporarily store (or cache) a copy of the book so that you can read it while you’re not connected to the internet, but you never actually download a file to your desktop that can be moved around, copied or accidentally deleted.

The functional difference between accessing your ebook through the cloud or by downloading a file is negligible, and the possibilities offered by cloud ebook systems (instantaneous bookmark/notes/social network syncing etc) are exciting. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that a book I buy through a cloud ebook store is not really mine.

I do understand the frustration of people like Joseph Pearson, one of the people over at, who spent some time this week defending the concept of ebook ownership in the cloud to readers on the company blog. As he says:

And this is the point: if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.

And this may well be the rub. When I buy an ebook, I like to think that given some light Googling and a bit of an investment of time, I can probably strip the DRM off the sucker. That means I own that file no matter what happens to Amazon or Apple’s servers. I don’t, in reality, bother doing this very often – but I know I could if I had to. Relying on cloud-only access to my book makes it feel more like rental than ownership – even if the DRM on an ebook makes it functionally the same.

Having said that, I doubt most ebook buyers think about this at all. So I’m interested in what you think. Do you buy ebooks? If so, where from? Would you consider buying ebooks through a cloud service like or Google eBooks? If not, why not? Do you consider the ebooks you do buy and download to be yours, and is DRM a consideration when you purchase? Even if you’ve never bought an ebook in your life, let me know whether this is something you think matters or would affect your purchase (or even the price you’d be willing to pay). Sound off and let me know in the comments below.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

11 thoughts on “The Not-so Silver Lining of Cloud Ebooks”

  1. I don’t like the system because I think it’s just a way of vendors controlling what they sell even more than getting a DRM file from Amazon. As a publisher I don’t like the whole DRM setup. I think Creative Commons licences are much more reflective of what copyright should be in a digital environment.

    Interestingly over at Benjamin Solah’s blog[] I asked whether I as a publisher could put non-DRM laden content up on Readings site. Jonathon Pearson replied – ‘ and Readings would be thrilled to sell any participating publisher’s books DRM-free. This essentially means we make the EPUB available for download from the purchaser’s library. Get in touch and we’ll set it up. Thanks for considering the DRM-free route — we hope to encounter many more publishers like you.’

    This surprised me, given opinions on the site to date but I think its a good thing. Like a lot of people – some publishers included – I think DRM is just going too far. It treats consumers as if they’re evil criminals. Some of them are, but the vast majority are not out to rip producers off, as long as what we sell is easy to use and reasonably priced.

    1. From the blog post I linked to over at, I’m not surprised that they’re happy to make your books available without DRM. I genuinely believe they would prefer to make books available without DRM – in the case of, anyway. Amazon and Apple are different stories – although I have heard about individual authors making their books available through the Kindle store without DRM, it’s definitely not their preferred way of doing things.

      Having said that, given that the reality at the moment is that DRM is included on most books, would you prefer a DRM locked downloadable file or vendor-locked cloud access?

  2. Hi Joel – Yes, you can upload DRM free ebooks via the Amazon Digital Platform. Actually Australian author Shane Jiraiya Cummings is embarking on a little ebook experiement using just that and Smashwords []. Apple is different as Cory Doctorow recently found out.

    And, yes, I’d prefer a DRM locked file, than a url book. Not only because I worry the url book might disappear into the ether some day, but also, as you say, because it’s not something you actually ‘own’.

  3. I don’t buy any DRM-files anymore, so my ebook access is limited to some of the amazing freely available ebooks out there, eg. by the afore mentioned Cory Doctorow.

    It’s frustrating, but I’m stubborn. If I were ever to buy DRM files, I would expect them to be very much cheaper than the max acceptable amount I’d pay for an uninfected ebook (around $10 atm), and I would strip the DRM off as quickly as I could. I don’t like being told that I can read 1/3 of my library in this application, 1/3 on that application, and the remainder in ‘any compatible browser!’

    1. Is limited to reading percentages of the total in particular applications? I hadn’t seen anything to that effect. But I hear you, in regards to DRM. I still buy the books, because I want to read them and I don’t want to read them on paper any more. The only viable alternative to that is piracy, but it is, of course, illegal, and none of the money goes to the author or publisher. It’s too bad that there is no option for DRM-free ebooks, at any cost, but I suspect most readers who knew enough about it and cared would buy the cheaper DRM version and strip it off. All in good time, I suspect! Just like MP3s, we can expect DRM-free ebooks sometime in the next decade…

  4. I would consider buying through readings if :
    a) I didn’t need purchase a 3G tablet device to read in comfort
    b) their prices were lower

    I personally prefer having the file as a download but then I am perhaps old fashioned.

    I used to be perturbed by DRM but Calibre, a plugin and one page of idiot proof instructions fixed that for me. I had thought about buying a kindle but now I purchase amazon titles, strip the DRM and convert to epub for my sony.

  5. I am trying to be OK with this idea and not indulge in old-fashioned thinking -and I think I will investigate it further when I buy a tablet (which I will do this year) – at the moment my only eReader is a Sony touch so that would be no good. However I don’t see why I should pay MORE for accessing a book in the cloud than for a download – 6 books I looked at on were all $1.00 more than the downloadable ePub at Borders Australia – which in itself wasn’t very cheap (around the $18-20 mark).

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