HarperCollins inexplicably turns to Bookshout to offer ebook downloads

If there’s one thing readers love it’s extra reading apps on their iOS and Android devices. A few years ago there were about a dozen – apps for long-form writing, apps for books, apps that let publishers monetize (not really) by offering their own downloads. Now there’s Kindle. And, we learn today in a press release from HarperCollins, Bookshout.

HarperCollins recently announced that they have moved to Bookshout to offer ebook downloads from their own bookselling site. The site, which is abysmal to begin with, will allow customers to purchase ebooks and then read them inside Bookshout, a prospect that is about as appealing to those familiar with reading apps as opening them on an Etch-a-Sketch.

First a bit about HC’s efforts. Nate at The Digital Reader notes that the site itself “was the industry poster child for how not to run a retail operation, and its demise will hopefully mark the end of the obsession with direct retail.” This is true. The site looks like something a few cheap, outsourced web devs would hack up for a maple syrup company owner in Vermont who wanted to try his hand at online sales. It goes as far as to offer links to competing stores right in the product page in case you came to your senses before checkout.

What does that mean to the average consumer? It means you can escape HC’s retail experience if you want to but if you’re too tired to click just one more time and you decide to by a full-priced digital download from them you get to use Bookshout. I’m positive the folks at Bookshout mean well. I love books and I’m sure they do to. But the days of standalone, DRMed reading apps are over. There are a few very rare cases where I could see their value – if an ePub isn’t sufficient for your multimedia needs, for example – but Kindle has won the reader war and to try beat Amazon at that game is folly. Even folks like Story Bundle offer direct-to-Kindle solutions that allow you to dump non-DRM media to your current reader.

The ebook race is far from over. Amazon could still lose. But when a massive publisher can’t pull of its own retail site you wonder if they should be trying in the first place. Harper Collins is good at putting out books. They sold 19 million copies of the Divergent series in 2014 and that bumped the company up 5% to $1.43 billion last year. Thirty-five percent of those sales – and most of the profit – came from ebooks.

In the end partnerships like this one made sense when the market was in its infancy and it was anyone’s game to lose. For HarperCollins to sell books using an outside app, say, in 2008 would have made perfect sense. There was no clear winner in the ebook race and Barnes & Noble was still a contender. Now, however, to spend any time building your own retail service – even one as primitive as the publisher’s – is silly.

Should HC abandon their retail ambitions? Absolutely. Until they realize that the definitive book platform is the one to bet on and that their own ebook download solution is silly at best and dangerous at best – I, personally, can imagine my dad buying a book and then losing it on his iPad when he forgets what Bookshout even is – it is irresponsible for them to force new things on readers. Digital content is no longer a game. It’s a real and growing part of their business and while it’s fun to play when a media is new it’s dangerous to play when a media is established. It was funny and cute when you mislaid a few MP3s in iTunes back in the iPod days. “Wow, look at al that content,” you’d chortle. Today it’s criminal when a platform actively violates a user’s trust.

HC will abandon their retail efforts soon enough. There’s no money in putting books in boxes on a small scale. But what happens when they do pull the plug and countless books are trapped in an insurgent app that will lose support if the company dies? When that happens you are faced with DRMed books that are unreadable, unusable, and unwanted. That prospect, however distant, is very real and could cement Amazon’s stranglehold on the industry completely, a prospect that, in turn, is quite frightening to indie publishers and, more important, HarperCollins. Publishers are slow, to be sure, but they shouldn’t be stupid.