You cannot buy an ebook in Switzerland without surrendering to two foreign companies

I recently started reading Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. It’s a fantastic series of books. I had downloaded a cracked MOBI format version from somewhere — something that is legal in Switzerland.

However, I also want the publisher and hopefully Dan Simmons himself to make some money, since I’m liking the books a lot and will probably read all four in the series. What I discovered is that even today, in 2013, it is impossible to legally buy an ebook in Switzerland without giving money to two companies known to be tax evaders and surrendering your personal information to at least one US entity.

If you buy the book from Amazon, you support a company that isn’t paying any EU or local country taxes even though it turns a happy profit in countries like Germany. Also, Amazon has the right to delete the book from your device at any time if they like to, without giving any reason. That’s more like renting a book than owning a book.

If you think you could support your local book shop by buying from stores such as bol.ch or books.ch, you’re in for a rude awakening: Not only is bol.ch 300% as expensive as Amazon and 200% as expensive as books.ch, both of these companies use Adobe DRM on their books.

In order to use an Adobe DRM-crippled book, you need to support two known tax evaders, two American companies; you have the choice between Microsoft and Adobe or Apple and Adobe. Adobe’s DRM restriction system works only on Mac OS X or Microsoft Windows. In order to use it, you will have to submit personal information to companies in the USA. Finally, you will have to tie your ebook reading devices to your Adobe ID.

There is no way to keep your money or information in Switzerland, even though you’re buying from a Swiss bookstore.

I still bought the ebook in the end, but I will keep reading the already decrypted version that I’ve downloaded elsewhere, since I can’t use what I’ve legally bought. Think about it, though: If you buy ebooks in Switzerland, you are sending the signal that it’s OK to cripple books in this way, and that it’s OK for you to surrender your personal information and a part of your control to known tax evaders in the USA. Do you really want to send that message?

If not, what options do Swiss people have? I can think of three:

  1. Keep downloading pre-cracked books that work on any device, without collaborating with US companies. This sucks because that way, authors never get your money.
  2. Buy the paperback and download the book. This sucks because the paperback costs three times as much and printing and shipping dead paper around the globe is a waste if you would already be willing to read on your ebook reader.
  3. Stop reading ebooks until the market understands and offers truly decentralized, local methods to buy ebooks. Unfortunately, most people don’t even understand that there is a problem and will happily feed these companies their money.

All of this also applies to EU citizens, only that EU citizens cannot legally download cracked books, so they lose option 1. It’s sad: I wanted to relieve my conscience but instead I’ve stumbled upon something that makes me feel even worse about ebooks than I did in the beginning.

Update: I contacted bol.ch and they said that not all (but most) ebooks in their store are crippled with DRM. They say, predictably, that they have no control over DRM and that it’s the publishers that hold on to this crippling. If they want to carry an ebook, they must also agree to cripple the title for their customers.

Update 2: I just received an answer from Orell Füssli, the company behind books.ch. They say that they receive many complaints due to DRM, more complaints every day, and that something must change. What exactly will be the new strategy, they can’t yet prophesize. It’s good to see that even the bookstores themselves hate DRM. Then my question is: Why do publishers stubbornly stick to that crap?

11 thoughts on “You cannot buy an ebook in Switzerland without surrendering to two foreign companies”

  1. These *are* fantastic works.. After wearing and tearing my way through 2 sets of paperbacks, I finally got them in hardcover. Second-hand, mostly. I’m in your “Option 3” kind of people. But even that appears to be all but impossible to do, from Belgium, at least within a reasonable timeframe, without involving these companies!

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  2. I still buy paperback books, because e-books are still in such a horribly crippled state when you compare the two formats.

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  3. Yeah, analog is fantastic. I guess I’ll go back to the old mode, read the (freely downloaded) ebook until I’m sure I like it, then buy the paperback. For things like Hyperion, it’s really worth it. But what about the rest? It feels like a waste to hoard paper when you only read it once and a 512 KB download could give the same result, especially when you already have some e-ink device.

    Some of these books I’d read at $4 for the ebook, but not at $15 for the paperback. But since the market is too stupid to provide non-crippled ebooks, the author gets $0 from me in such cases 😦

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  4. Well, that’s one of the benefits of dead tree, isn’t it – you can sell them again afterwards. or give them away, of will them away, or lend them and never get them back, or eat them, wipe your ass with the pages, burn them (I have actually burnt some books in my time – dangerously outdated technical manuals for example) etc.

    Try any of those with an e-book. And never once has Amazon disappeared one of my paper books while I was trying to read it. 😉

    Even if you get not much back for a second sale, it’s still *some* money, no?

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  5. True, that. Ah damn, if there were a good book-swapping site in Switzerland, I could use that. I have the whole Discworld collection that I won’t really reread, I’d happily swap some of that for the Hyperion omnibus.

    So: I guess I’m getting the next books in the series on paper. Stupid thing is that they’re only a few dollars in the US and up to 30 francs in Switzerland 😛

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  6. Sounds like a coding opportunity, the lack of good book-swap sites in switzerland, no? 😉

    As for the price of books, well yeah, switzerland, expensive, discuss. Drive to Germany and buy an assload at one time?

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  7. I found out that exsila.ch has a few book offers for swapping, but it seems the average Swiss person does not read much English literature. And those books that do exist at Exsila are usually not available used — they’re just ads for new books by the bookstores themselves!

    So that brings us full circle. How could a Swiss book swapping site possibly work? We’d need to establish some sort of critical mass before anything starts working. Also, there are surely people who’ve already written something like that, no?

    And the horror: We’d probably have to dig into Amazon’s public book data web service to do any of this (since people won’t want to enter all the book details themselves, otherwise they’d never use the site).

    I think this is too big and risky to tackle, but if anyone finds a book metadata service that isn’t Amazon, let me know 🙂

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  8. Ah, I found another solution. It does involve ordering from Germany (unfortunately), but it has some extra benefits. I found out that bookzilla.de carries many of the books, even the English paperbacks, at prices only slightly higher than in the US. A portion of Bookzilla’s profits goes towards the Free Software Foundation Europe.

    I just found my perfect bookstore. Not for ebooks (yet), but we’re getting there. Too bad nothing like this exists in Switzerland.

    Interestingly, the nerds who made the platform behind Bookzilla are the same nerds that made the platform behind bol.ch and books.ch. They’re a fucking awesome company.

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  9. And yet one more update: The following book catalog/sharing/trading site has some members from Switzerland who read English books:

    https://www.librarything.com

    Not so bad, so far. It can also recommend local book stores around Zürich that carry books you might like. I found some really nice little independent stores that way. Awesome shit. Now I’ll dump my collection into LibraryThing and then I’ll get swapping.

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