I want to rip all my books to bits

Why Amazon’s Kindle MatchBook service is a step backwards in owning digital media.

When Amazon announced MatchBook just over a week ago, I thought that the market leader in e-reading had solved the final piece of the digital media puzzle. There are two problems with having media on digital devices these days: the issue of converting physical stuff you already own, and how the industry is going to drag you kicking and screaming into going digital-only. The music industry’s got it sorted. The movie industry is getting there. The publishing industry is failing at almost every try.

No-one’s buying CDs any more: we’re all downloading music from iTunes or streaming from Spotify. But how did we get here? Well, it only became legal to download CDs you already owned on to your computer last year. We’ve all been doing it, though, so don’t worry about that. At least we have the technology readily available at no extra cost if I do decide to buy a CD from one of the last remaining HMV stores in the country. Before I started exclusively purchasing downloads, I was a sucker for ‘deluxe editions’ of albums. And album art/lyric booklets.

After the file-sharing situation of the early 2000s got out of hand (show your age and tell me which of Napster/Kazaa/LimeWire were your file-sharing networks of choice), the music industry appears to finally have got a handle on the situation and download stores are everywhere. You can buy music per track, and it’s a lot cheaper than physical versions – your digital media is there for you to take anywhere. It got a bit shaky with digital rights management (DRM), but now that’s been ironed out, too, and you can take your media anywhere you want.

The next step the industry took was to wean you off the concept of ownership altogether. Just stream it – it’s all you can eat, whenever you’re hungry. Don’t bother keeping food at home because there’s a restaurant serving whatever you want and it’s called Spotify. The buffet’s a great offer, except the cost of getting to it is dependent on how deep your pockets are and how good your mobile internet signal is (is that your Oyster card? your petrol? This metaphor has got out of hand…).

DVD sales are slowing: but when there’s a good deal on at a petrol station or another big-chain store’s having a fire sale, I normally convert my purchase using a free piece of software so I can access it whenever I want on my laptop (or iPad). At no extra cost. I watch a LOT of TV and film, so there’s often a lot of box sets for me to hoover up. Sometimes, I strike lucky with a recent release and the studio have been nice enough to include a digital copy on the DVD with no converting required.

The movie industry are playing catch-up with the music lot so they’ve skipped a few steps – the big studios seem to have gone for the subscription model via LoveFilm and Netflix, rather than the download+own of iTunes. (I know some download stores sell movies, but you’re more likely to find someone on the street who has a Netflix subscription than someone who’s purchased a film from the iTunes Store).

Now, the publishing industry: reeling from a scandal where ebook prices were found to be fixed at whatever price the publisher chose by conspiring with Apple. In return, Apple got a hefty cut and had a guarantee that it wouldn’t be cheaper on places like the Kindle store. Sounds great, except they still couldn’t beat the 3 for 2 table at Waterstones. Now MatchBook requires publishers to opt-in – and set the price for a digital copy where purchasers already own the physical version. Sounds like someone hasn’t learned their lesson.

I’ve spent probably close to £1,000 (yes, some of it taxpayers’ money, moaners) on books alone across the course of my further & higher educational career. Mainly because I chose a path of English Literature and Journalism, but I spend more on books than I do on film and music combined. And yet, I can’t put it on any digital device without re-purchasing the thing I already own? Well this is ridiculous, given the precedent that music and film have set. Even magazines are getting in on the game – my NME subscription includes posted copies and the digital version on my iPad.

I was at a book launch last week, and bought a signed copy of the book at the venue. It’s a hefty tome, and a digital copy would be a convenience. Should I have to pay again for that? No. Apart from the weight, the inability to get authors’ hand-written inscriptions and being unable to spread open books across a desk simultaneously, the digital copy I’m asked to pay extra money for is identical.

MatchBook teases the promise of some books being ‘free’, but only if I’ve bought the originals on Amazon. My Waterstones-feasting hopes are dashed. Why has this industry been left behind? Why isn’t there a way of ‘ripping’ my books to my digital device for free? Instead, I’m left illegally downloading digital versions of what’s on my shelves. A few digitising services have cropped up online, but they destroy your books and charge for the privilege – it’s unsustainable.

Before I jump on the e-reader bandwagon and abandon physical copies altogether, I want to take what I’ve got with me. If Amazon’s founder can buy the Washington Post and wants to send people to space, he can stump up the cash to find a way for this to work. Because MatchBook still isn’t going to let me rip my books to bits