There is no doubt that eBook readers have shaken up the publishing world. The creators of readers from Amazon, Sony and now Barnes and Noble had visions of a printing revolution worthy of Guttenberg; the public has been left with memories of VHS versus Beta. Most of us in America who think e-publishing is a grand idea, are sitting back waiting for a clear winner and universal file format to emerge from the e-book Thunderdome. All the while American brick and mortar booksellers are hoping the fight will go on indefinitely not upsetting their business models. The booksellers of France are not taking such a passive role in waiting for the electronic gladiator to emerge. They have decided to get in the ring themselves.
Reuters ran an article on 13 Jan 2010 that summarized a plan presented by one group to lay the e-book matter to rest entirely. The rallying cry is for the government to create “a national eBook platform run by publishers and retailers with a single point of purchase”. Along with the unified platform approach, there is a call to force retail prices of eBooks to match their paper counterparts. Price fixing of this nature protects the interests of not only those distributing eBook, but those publishers who are slow to support electronic formats.
The French publishers and book sellers who are angling for a central eBook distribution point claim it is to fend off out of country competition and reduce the overall cost for eBooks to the consumer. An American might not care if the average French citizen is faced with paying more Euros for e-book, but there is a higher price such decisions will cost.
E-publishing represents a powerful beacon for those wishing to publish. Companies like Smash Words, in the United States, allow anyone to e-publish any text they wish without any initial cash layout. If texts are within their terms of service clauses, when a book is downloaded the author and Smash Words takes their respective cut of the retail price. The proliferation of eBook publishing services puts publishing houses in the same situation as the music industry found themselves in a few years back. If a band could produce an album and sell their content on line, who actually needed a record label? Perish the thought that traditional publishers are the only ones who control publically presented content. Free speech via the printed word rests in the hands of the populace.
Therein lies the problem intermarrying publishing and government regulations. Would the temptation for a government to censor or overly propagandize the digital catalogues be too great? Had a government distribution point for eBooks have been in place in America, would the previous Bush administration have been keen on including 9-11 conspiracy theory book s being added to the catalog? Or would the Obama administration keep books from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity from showing up on catalog searches?
The French proponents of a single eBook distribution point argue that the private sector needs policing in this area. Citing Google’s past history of censoring web crawls in China and Amazon deleting copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles, proponents claim big business is already exercising its brand of censorship.
No matter how the fight for control of eBook distribution falls in France, the implications could be far reaching. Should the model go into place, other countries might take France’s lead. If the proposal of a French universal eBook distribution point is not taken up, eBook vendors will be left to their own devices. Left in the middle are the masses who just want easily available electronic content to fuel our imaginations.