Harlequin reminds us we don’t own our purchased ebooks

by Sunita

Last week I saw a discussion about a change Harlequin Books is making at its website with respect to how ebooks will be delivered to buyers. Until now they have used Adobe DRM and if you wanted to download your books you had to do it through Adobe Digital Editions. This was a pain, given how awful ADE is, but it meant the files were resident on your computer and could be transferred to any compatible ereader, i.e., one that read epub files and played nice with ADE. I’ve used it for my Sony, Nook, and Kobo ereaders over the years. I’ve also stripped the DRM and put the files on a Kindle. This was handy because Harlequin.com would occasionally have sales and it was worth buying from the site. Also, I found when checking my account that I bought my first Harlequin ebook back in June 2007, before Kindles or Nooks existed (I read it on my Palm phone, as I recall).

Anyway, at this point I have 620 books on the Harlequin site. I’m pretty sure I’ve downloaded most of them, since I long ago stopped trusting ebook retailers to stay in business. But Harlequin isn’t shutting down. Instead, they’re changing their DRM system from ADE to Overdrive. This seems like not a big deal, except that Overdrive system requires you to read the books in its app. In other words, you can’t put it on an ereader unless you can figure out a way to get it off the app (which may be straightforward, but I haven’t seen discussion of it). You can still buy the books at Kobo, Amazon, and other major retailers, of course, and maybe they will have sales and promotions there that are comparable to the ones Harlequin has had at their site in the past.

The biggest inconvenience for me is that I have to decide whether I want to download/re-download hundreds of books, or spend almost as much time checking to see if I have them already. The changeover date is November 12, so I have a week to decide. It’s not that big a deal; I have most of the books, I know, and it’s probably only the oldest ones that are likely to have gotten lost in a computer/ereader/platform transfer. Still, it’s a hassle I don’t really have time for now.

In addition, for me at least it’s a reminder of two things:

  • Ebooks are licensed, not bought in the same way as print books. As long as the DRM is applied, you are subject to the terms of the license. If ADE goes away, you can’t read ADE-DRM’d books anymore. In the future, if you don’t have an Overdrive app, or you don’t want to put it on your phone or tablet, you have to read Harlequins on a computer with a data connection. This is what I don’t like about Hoopla, by the way; I don’t like their app interface at all and it’s frequently glitchy.
  • Today’s Harlequin is not the Harlequin I bought from in 2007, or the Harlequin whose books I reviewed at Dear Author for years. It’s owned by HarperCollins and it’s a shadow of its former self. Some of my favorite authors still publish there, but a lot don’t. It’s less reader-focused and reader-friendly. It’s a Big 5 imprint and it feels like one.

More broadly, it’s pretty clear that romance reading is not what it was 5 years ago, let alone 10. The explosion of self-published books, the demise of many small presses and many ebook retailers, has changed the landscape. Authors who don’t self-publish are moving to women’s fiction and publishers are making covers look like chick lit or women’s fiction to attract new readers. I understand needing new readers (romance readers are aging and they have to replenish the churn with younger people), but the fact that they are changing the way romance novels look and how we can access them suggests to me that there may be trends that are distinct from the overall decline in readers (and one that is not replaceable with younger readers and/or readers in new markets).

I’ve been trying to figure out what the trends mean, and whether the new ways of publishing are fully replacing the old ones (and with new readers replacing the old ones), but the lack of public data makes it very difficult. My pessimistic guess is that reading is declining everywhere, including in romance. Traditional publishers like Harlequin are hit harder by the decline, but I’d be surprised if self-publishing sales are fully making up for the overall declines. I think people just don’t read as much anymore, and voracious romance readers are a dwindling population.

I have print Mills & Boon books from the 1950s and US Harlequins from the 1970s. The publisher has been a part of my consciousness for most of my life, and I’ve bought and read their books from bookstores and libraries across three continents. I know they’ll still be around, but this does feel like a(nother) nail in the coffin.