A Linux user's Nook experience

About two years ago I first used the Nook app on Android. That was my very first foray into buying digital books.
I’ve been trying to pare down my possessions in a manner Leo Babuta and Erin Doland would most certainly approve of over the past couple of years. A love of books doesn’t work so well with having few possessions.
Digital books promise:

  • You can read your book on a number of different devices
  • You can travel light and have your entire library at your fingertips
  • Your books won’t take up any physical space in your home
  • Food, drinks, and fire won’t mean you don’t own a particular book any more. Even if you leave your device on the plane, you’ll be able to get your books back (well, maybe.)

What stopped me from diving in head-first for a long time were some things that worry me about digital books:

  • Buying a digital book in a format that goes out of fashion and no longer being able to read it (my well-worn and well loved Anne of Green Gables physical book I have had since I was probably 8 years old is still on my shelf, and I can read it without having to hack or crack it.)
  • Buying a book from Amazon because B&N didn’t have it, and not being able to read the Amazon book on Nook and vice-versa.
  • Owning a nice collection of books that span multiple stores that are not compatible with each other.
  • Buying a cookbook, finding a great recipe you’d like to cook with a friend, and being unable to send her a copy of the recipe to buy the ingredients from because there is no way to send an excerpt of the book, copy the text, or even scan the text. (Had to manually type it out in an email. Ridiculous, right?)
  • Buying a digital book from Barnes & Noble and being unable to read it on my Linux laptop. (Yeh, not really possible without cracking the book. That is possible, depending on which bookseller you bought it from. Legal? I’m not sure, even though the purchase was 100% legit.)

Well, I won a Nook Tablet in a raffle today. I’m really excited about it because it seems like a nice device. I fully intend to root it. My experience with trying to use it in the way it was intended has not been so nice so far, however.
I had a lot of difficulty getting digital books I validly and legally purchased from Barnes and Noble on to the device. I had backup copies of the books that I had purchased via the Nook Android app long ago (I hope this is legal. It should be.) Customer support told me they would not work if I transferred them onto the device. So then I asked if they could be transferred from my old account to my new one.
“Ma’am, can you still access your old email address?”
“Then I can’t transfer them for you.”
“Okay, let’s say I can’t access it.”
“All right, let me transfer them for you.”
Okay, so he took a look at my old account.
Did you ever stop to think how much any customer support person at a bookseller can learn about you on a personal level by being able to read the titles of the digital books you own? This is something usually only someone you allow into your home and who has visual access to your bookshelf can do. I was surprised at how uncomfortable this made me, it felt like a real violation of privacy even though I know it’s technically not.
Anyway, the books I wanted weren’t in that account. My husband figured out that they were actually in his account, because Android devices still aren’t real great at handling multiple accounts on one device. Sorry, a digression. So I gave the (remarkably patient) gentleman my husband’s email address. His supervisor came on the line. She said she could initiate the transfer of my books, but she would need the credit card number they were purchased on entered into my account, because the books were encoded to that credit card number.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t have that credit card any longer. It was actually stolen…”
“That’s okay, you can provide any currently-active card.”
“Um, but you just said…”
“Any card will do.”
Okay. So I entered my current credit card number into the my Nook account. She put me on hold. I waited 5-10 minutes. The earlier gentleman came on the line.
“Ma’am, did you put your credit card in?”
“Well, it seems like it was invalid. The books have been transferred to your account, but you cannot download them unless an active credit card number is registered to your account.”
“But I just put it in…”
“You will have to call your bank.”
“We cannot allow you to download these books without a valid credit card. We must protect the publishers.”
“But I bought these books!”
“Call your bank, then you can download them.”
“Do I have to call this number again afterwards?”
“No, the books should appear in your account after your credit card clears.”
I typed my credit card in again and refreshed. Magically, the books appeared while the gentleman talked a bit more about protecting publishers and clearing credit cards with the bank.
“Okay I can download them now.”
“Oh okay it cleared.”
“Okay, can I removed the credit card from my account now?”
“It’s not possible.”
Basically, I am now more scared than ever to invest in digital books:

  • No option to avoid using credit card. My credit card number was likely stolen because of the Sony Playstation Network account hacking incident. Why should I trust Barnes & Noble with my credit card on the Nook?
    How can you use the device without a credit card?

    • Even if there is a gift card on your account, you cannot purchase books without a credit card on the account.
    • Even if the app you are trying to install is free, you cannot download it without a credit card.
    • Apparently, even if books you legally and validly purchased from B&N are in your account, you may not download them to your device without a credit card.
  • I was able to have all of the books transferred from my husband’s account without any form of verification. Don’t give Barnes & Noble my email address and ask for my books to be transferred from my account to yours, because it just might work. No verification of his first and last name, no verification of his home address, phone number, nothing. I gave them his email address and they accepted that as sufficient to slurp all of the books out of his account! (It was, of course, totally okay with him. But what if it wasn’t?)
  • Backing up your books does you no good. At least, according to the customer service rep. Now, I know a thing or two and believe this isn’t the case, but if you are a law-abiding citizen who doesn’t try to crack DRM mechanisms in order to enjoy the items you paid Real Money for the right to enjoy, this is really the case.

I try not to rant in my blog. I really do. I couldn’t help this one. I do get a lot of ribbing and even derision for my stances against Apple products. What I encountered here with the Nook embodies a lot of the issues I have with Apple devices. Is there a succinct, simple name for these issues? DRM-lovin’, proprietary-code, you-can’t-use-what-you-paid-for, hashing-your-credit-card-number-against-media-as-a-form-of-publisher-protection-because-the-developers-are-morons bullshit? How do you refer to this general stench?
Well, anyway, lesson learned. I don’t think I will buy any DRM digital books ever again. The silver lining here is that the experience has reassured me that my beliefs are not crazy, that digital freedom is a very valid concern and us FLOSS folks aren’t just silly hippies.


  1. Stephen Smoogen says:

    The sad facts about books…
    Actually book stores have been asked to track what people buy from their bookstores by various governments for a long time. It is a sort of “privacy” a person feels they have but don’t really.
    Buying a physical book only gives a reader limited rights. Legally you aren’t allowed to scan it in and OCR it.. and our right to “resell” the book is only articulated by a court decision and not law. So another 5-4 decision and poof no more reselling. What you have is a limited legal right to store a book, read a book, lend that book to someone but if they do any of those things, you could be liable. Now after the copyright of the book expires (if that ever happens) you are then given more rights to do things. Like write a new forward and recopyright the whole book.
    On the credit card thing.. I am looking at getting myself a minimum card. It is the thing I tie to the electronics but its only used for that. If there is a breakin I get them to change the numbers. Some banks have these “throwaway credit” cards others dont’

  2. Hey Mo!
    I own a Nook Color, currently running CyanogenMod 9, and I couldn’t be happier.
    I bought a bunch of Amazon Kindle books (Because I support the writers!), but manually removed the DRM by downloading PDFs or ePubs off shady websites and using a generic book reader like Aldiko instead.
    I still visit Barnes and Nobles to buy physical books, but since they refuse to sell digital books to Mexican Credit Cards, I’m left with Amazon and some other, more obscure choices.

  3. Stephen Smoogen says:

    That said.. 90% of the stuff on my nook are from either Project Gutenburg or Oreilly because they don’t add in DRM and I can back it up.
    I am not sure what publishing places don’t do DRM? I know my wife’s books via SmashWords don’t have it.

  4. pratfall says:

    Stunning. Fortunately, my local library will “lend” me ebooks on my Android device. The library gets paid, the author gets paid, all I had to do was give Adobe a throwaway email address (and a password, which ended up being a very crude suggestion for what Adobe can do in their spare time), so that they can revoke my ebook when the lending peroid comes up. Between that, Project Gutenberg, paperbackswap.com, and, erm, websites that shall not be named here, I’m able to read what I want, without having to concern myself with the notion that an ebook I bought with real money will turn out to be worth only pretend money. Enjoy your tablet!

  5. My Nook Color’s a pretty good experience if you do everything the way they want you to. They just don’t give a care for people who don’t or can’t, as you amply demonstrate. >.>

  6. Sad indeedy. FYI, Apple are just as sad. You can have an account when we have your active credit card… so you can buy with one-click? That’s their goal as I see it. Zero cost to them, their main income stream.
    No wonder people take to hacking. Bets are your backup is ‘wrong’ according to them.
    Glad you posted the conversation, makes Nook look like a bunch of ….

    1. twilightomni says:

      I could be wrong, but I have no active credit card on my iTunes account. I just buy gift cards from the grocery store and plug them in when I want to buy something.
      The Nook experience sounds horrible not because they use DRM, but because their DRM is worse than usual. You wouldn’t have had these problems if they 1) let you share books between accounts, and 2) didn’t link them irreversibly to individual credit card numbers.
      Not all closed proprietary platforms are so blatantly…dysfunctional.

      1. mairin says:

        I’m pretty sure DRM always sucks.

  7. I use a nook simple touch. That is great for me. And I use Calibre to transfer books to and from my nook to my f16 box. That works pretty well.

  8. dgoodwin says:

    That is pretty absurd. I’m a Kindle user, the experience has been fine so far and I quite like it, but I do persue my own backup solutions for my peace of mind.

  9. Okay, so what vendors sell e-books without DRM.
    O’Reilly http://www.oreilly.com/
    Baen http://www.baenebooks.com/
    Any others all y’all would recommend?

  10. Stephen Gallagher says:

    I think the term you were looking for is “defective by design”.

  11. All DRM free and you generally get a sizable Free Preview of each book. And In many formats(and I found some great page turners here):
    I have a Jinke Hanlin V3 eink reader running OpenInkPot and I only bother with DRM free books to buy. Else I buy the paper book and then grab a DRM free version using “other” means.

  12. Thanks so much for voicing this. I’ve avoided most ebooks (specifically the DRM variety) and all readers (aside from FBreader) because of these types of concerns. Instead I buy fewer books, and lug the ones I have long distances in enormous bags at the expense of my sanity and my back. When will the promise of the 21st century come true? It *could* be so easy.

  13. For what it’s worth, I’ve found a reliable method of DRM stripping Adobe-protected ePub books, and Kindle books. So I have accounts with a few stores that sell Adobe format ePubs (Sony and Kobo, mainly) and an Amazon account. Any time I want a book I buy it and immediately de-DRM it, keep a de-DRMed copy on my main system and on my reader. Then I know I’ve got the thing forever and can safely transfer it to any other device that takes my fancy.
    The 10-15 minutes it takes to strip the DRM (because you can’t easily do the entire process from Linux, with either format) is a pain, but still less of a pain than going to the bookstore and toting chunks of paper around forever more, so I just suck it up.
    But yes, it’s absurd.
    The _other_ absurd thing about ebooks is that the traditional publishers insist on applying their geographic restrictions to ebook sales; so I can’t buy an ebook from a UK seller if it’s cheaper there. It’s a text file. I mean, come on.

  14. I never used any device for for online shopping. I am a big fan of Linux but still I don’t have a android based smartphone.

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