Happy Birthday, eFictionReaderWise!
Just over one year ago, on January 9th, 2008, Fictionwise bought its oldest, largest surviving competitor, eReader, marking the end of the company’s long journey through a series of four previous owners.
E-book Hot Potato
eReader began life as Peanut Press, one of the first e-book vendors for the Palm Pilot platform. They had the distinction of being the only e-book vendor for the Palm to offer both their own e-book reader and their own e-book file format. (I suppose you could count Mobipocket.com, but they were more of a software company first and a bookstore second; Peanut was the other way around.)
But Peanut did not stay self-owned for long. In 2000, the company was acquired by NetLibrary—which then turned around and sold it to Palm Inc., the makers of the Palm Pilot, who renamed it Palm Digital Media.
The game of e-book hot potato continued in 2003, when Palm sold off its Palm Reader division to Motricity—who apparently didn’t want to go back to the “Peanut Press” name, and hence renamed it eReader (leading to a great deal of confusion among those who refer to any generic e-book reading software or device or person as an “e-reader”). Motricity held onto eReader longer than its prior owners had, but in January 2008 sold the division to Fictionwise.A Format of Their Own
Fictionwise’s purchase of eReader gave them ownership of their very own multiplatform, DRM-capable e-book format—something very important in the modern world of e-books, where many e-book formats are owned by direct competitors. For example, Mobipocket is owned by Amazon,com, who use it for their Kindle and may be suppressing it from being released to the iPhone. What if they decided to close down competing e-book stores’ use of it altogether? Owning eReader gives Fictionwise assurance that they can continue to sell e-books with the DRM that publishers insist on putting on them.
It took nearly a whole year for the wisdom of this approach to become obvious—Overdrive refused to renew their contract with Fictionwise to serve DRM-protected books, potentially leaving customers without continued access to their works. However, since they own the eReader format, Fictionwise is able to negotiate with publishers to replace the Mobipocket works with versions in the eReader format—thus giving customers at least some access to those works that would otherwise be lost.
Under Fictionwise’s ownership, eReader has made a number of important moves, helping Fictionwise to build momentum in the e-book field. They updated existing clients and released new clients for Mac OS X and the iPhone (and the iPhone client was good enough even to siphon Kindle-users away), and have plans for Blackberry and Linux clients in the near future. They created mobile versions of the eReader and Fictionwise sites, for easier shopping from iPhones and other cellphones.
They released the “Pro” versions of the eReader client for free, and removed restrictive licensing on the use of the eReader e-book format by other publishers. They embarked on a drive to get all or almost all of their Mobipocket-only books available in eReader as well. They licensed the eReader format and DRM to Stanza, and helped Stanza open their own branded Fictionwise store.
Despite some observers’ fears, the eReader store has not been “ruined” by the acquisition. It continues to exist separately and independently of Fictionwise, though it did phase out newsletter discount codes in favor of a new, slightly confusing recursive discount system.
What Lies Ahead
In the coming year, eReader will be updating its reader to accept a new version of the eReader format—the popular ePub format in an eReader DRM wrapper. It’s about time the format got an update, as it is definitely starting to show its age in the form of such limitations as a cover image that can be no larger than 64 kilobytes.
Hopefully eReader will continue to expand to new platforms—Android Linux, the Palm Pre for example—and license its format in places where expanding wouldn’t be possible.
One thing that a number of people have wished for is the ability to read eReader files on dedicated e-book devices such as the Cybook. Whether this is even remotely possible is anybody’s guess, but Steve Pendergrast has made clear that Fictionwise is committed to getting eReader on as many platforms as possible.
Although Stanza has gotten a lot more more press on the iPhone, Fictionwise and eReader also continue to have hundreds of thousands of client downloads and sell hundreds of thousands of e-books, helping give the iPhone and iPod Touch its reputation as a viable e-book alternative to the Kindle. As the only commercial e-book DRM format fully readable on the iPhone, eReader’s future looks brighter and brighter the longer Mobipocket fails to release a reader of its own.