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Sony sparks digi book fireworks with ePub move

Giving Mills and Boon readers something to hide

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Banging the DRM

Services such as WattPad are intended to provide hosting for user-generated texts, but only remove copyrighted content when requested to do so: authors whose publishers who can afford to keep checking get their stuff removed while others don't manage it in time - and readers are unlikely to buy a legit version of a book once they've read it.

Libraries also like DRM: with protected content, libraries such as Luton's can lend out electronic content to members with time restrictions included - borrow an eBook for free, with no fine to pay when the text disappears after seven days. More than 23,000 authors got paid for library loans last year, under the Public Lending Right (PLR) which includes electronic books, representing an important revenue stream for many.

DRM is also essential if an advertising-supported model can be viable. Amazon's Kindle platform can not only place adverts in the pages of a book, but it can also update those adverts and target them based on context or user: providing subsidised reading material for those willing to put up with the adverts.

But that's not enough to convince the IT-savvy crowd who early-adopted mobile music, and still refuse to buy anything unless it's completely unencumbered with DRM. But this time it's not that gang who will be dictating things: electronic books have found an audience that doesn't give a toss about DRM, but buys a hell of a lot of books:

Trashy Books

It won't be the IT Crowd calling the shots this time around

Romance publisher Mills & Boon are enthusiastic supporters of both ePub and Adobe's Electronic Editions software; unsurprising given that, according to the New York Times, 80 per cent of US fiction sales went to women, so a Mills & Boon endorsement could mean a lot more than Sony's. The publisher does support Mobipocket though its Harlequin brand, but the future of romance is clearly Adobe's. Women are buying a lot of ebooks, and they'll buy hardware to suit the content they want rather than finding a way to get content onto their chosen hardware.

Mills & Boon don't publish the kind of literature that looks good on a shelf: few people want to show off their collection of bodice-rippers that are less "literary tome" and more "extended magazine", with the disposability of the latter. While we might rant about the risk to long-term access that DRM presents, those buying Mills & Boon don't care about that - they want to read stories, backed by a brand they trust to ensure a level of quality, and with at least one rippling torso on the cover.

Device manufacturers will need to support that content, including the DRM that comes with it. When MP3 players launched there were a range of different DRM systems being proposed, confusing both users and manufacturers, but an Amazon/Adobe duopoly could simplify that.

Qualcomm, which provides chips for the Kindle 2 as well as Sony's Reader line, reckons there are 20 companies working on electronic books at the moment, with half of these scheduled to launch before CES in January. So we're about to experience an explosion of hardware from manufacturers whom Adobe will be actively courting in an attempt to turn a duopoly into a monopoly - and we've not even seen what Apple has in store for us yet. ®

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