eBooks for school

This is a bit of a rant.

My wife loves her new Sony Reader Touch. She’s got it synced up to check out books from the local library. She prints web pages and documents to PDF so that she can get to them from anywhere in a few seconds. She tried buying a book from the Sony store … but that didn’t work out so well.

But the burr under the saddle has been schoolbooks.

Her university has a partnership with a couple of different ebook retailers, but most of her books end up on iChapters, a.k.a. Cengage Brain. In theory, iChapters is an awesome business model: break up a textbook into ebook chapters and allow students to buy or rent them individually. For example, look at the prices for one of her textbooks, Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge, 12ed:

Hardcover Textbook:$135
130-Day Rental, whole book:$87
6-Month Rental, eBook$79
eBook Chapters, each:$8

That particular book has 16 chapters. At $8 each, buying them individually would be only negligibly cheaper than buying the whole book outright. But some of her classes only require a handful of chapters, making individual chapters an absolute steal.

… and too good to be true.

It turns out that iChapters does a little bit of a bait-n-switch. The sample chapters are in PDF format, but the paid-for chapters are in SPDF format—a “sealed” PDF, slathered in DRM. Really, the SPDF file extension is misdirection: Acrobat can’t read it. You need an Acrobat Reader plugin to “unseal” (read: unencrypt) the PDF. This isn’t the DRM that Adobe built into PDFs. That DRM is pretty much transparent, and works flawlessly with the Sony Reader. Library ebooks use the built-in Adobe DRM to time out after 2-3 weeks, when the physical book would have to be returned.

No, let me be perfectly clear: iChapters SPDF files can only be read on your computer. They can’t be read on any eReader: the Sony Reader, Nook, Kindle, or what have you.

Better yet, the unsealer plugin disables printing to PDF (as you figure it would).
… and the files are watermarked on every single page with a large background image right in the middle—behind the text and diagrams making them tricky to read.
… and absolutely no conversion of formatting has been done—books that are formatted badly on paper, requiring lots of flipping back and forth, retain the bad formatting and now require jogging back and forth with the scroll bar.
… and the PDFs aren’t optimized: they are huge files with 300dpi images and layers obscured by other layers.
… and many of the images and text blocks have been removed, with large “unavailable due to copyright restriction” messages. (wtf, really?)
… and, oh yeah, the chapters are really rentals, too. The license to read them times out, even though you don’t learn that until after you “buy”.

In short: excellent idea, horrible execution.

All this can be yours … for $0.50 per page. I pity the fools rushing out to buy an iPad as an eBook reader. If they think the user experience is going to be any better … ha!

I get the feeling that eBooks are now where MP3s were 10 years ago. I had the same experiences trying to buy MP3s to put on my Rio back then. We’ll get to a point where people stop being stupid … but it’s going to take a few more years.

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Rick Osborne

I am a web geek who has been doing this sort of thing entirely too long. I rant, I muse, I whine. That is, I am not at all atypical for my breed.