The Ultimate Guide To EBook Retailers (Spoiler: They’re All Terrible)

The Ultimate Guide To EBook Retailers (Spoiler: They’re All Terrible)

We’re in an odd place with eBooks right now. While Amazon has, without a doubt, established itself as an eBook giant, the jolly orange conglomerate is by no means the only player in the game: there are at least a dozen other eBook retailers scrapping over the marketplace – and most of them, in at least a few respects, are fighting dirty. It shouldn’t really matter where you buy an eBook – just like it shouldn’t matter where you purchase a paperback novel. And yet we find ourselves in a bizarre situation where buying an eBook from the wrong store could mean you never get to read it.

In their rush to corner the market, many eBook retailers are keenly trying to lock in their loyal customers by making it unduly expensive or difficult to ever shop anywhere else. Thus, if you happen to own a Kindle, the chances are you shop at the Kindle Store. Purchased a Nook? You’ll be buying most of your reading material from Barnes & Noble. But are you getting a decent deal? And what can you do if you don’t like the store you find yourself locked into?

Presented here is a simple guide to your options when it comes to purchasing and reading eBooks. Given the range of devices available, we’ve organised it by retailer, and started with the big ones. We’ll keep adding to this guide as we research more eBook stores. Whether you’re trying to decide which eReader device to buy, or looking for another place to shop that will be compatible with your current device, the listings below should be a good place to start.

One caveat though: there’s actually no particularly good option. Every single retailer we’ve looked at has some glaring flaws. At this stage of the game – unless you’re willing to engage in some DRM-stripping (the subject of a future article, watch this space), you’re down to picking the best of a bad bunch. Sorry!

Kindle Store

The Amazon Kindle Store - a great selection, but severe issues with DRM.

Amazon Kindle devices and apps only.

As evil as Amazon is sometimes, there are still some good things to be said about the Kindle Store. It has an excellent range of titles, from bestsellers all the way down to obscure self-published numbers. And it’s great value for money as well – books are priced aggressively cheaply, and often promoted through discount deals and “free” days, when whole books can be downloaded for absolutely nothing. It also allows some limited gifting and lending of purchased books.

Amazon falls down, however, when it comes to DRM. That’s Digital Rights Management – a catch-all term given to the technological attempts to make books difficult to copy, share, or access at all if the original retailer doesn’t like you. Amazon uses a combination of complex DRM technology and a unique book format not recognised anywhere else to ensure that you can only read books from the Kindle Store using Kindle devices or apps. Not only that, but they have a history of remotely taking back books that they feel aren’t being used appropriately. When you buy an eBook from Amazon, you aren’t actually buying it at all – you’re merely purchasing a licence to read the text until such a time as Amazon decides otherwise. Beware.


Smashwords - an excellent eBook retailer with a very limited range.

Any eReader you like!

Independent eBook retailer Smashwords, on the other hand, takes a rather more positive approach to DRM – in that they don’t use it at all. When you purchase a book from Smashwords, that book is yours. They trust you not to copy or redistribute it, but don’t take any technological steps to prevent you from doing so. This means, of course, that you can access books purchased from Smashwords on almost any device or app, or even just from your computer, in some cases without installing or purchasing any extra software.

On the downside, the range of books available via Smashwords is extremely limited. While the store is overflowing with self-published titles, most mainstream novels and popular books are not available via this platform. Similarly the interface isn’t terribly slick or clean, and can sometimes be difficult to navigate. The whole thing feels as though it might break if you lean on it too hard… which isn’t to say it isn’t clever – Smashwords converts books into a huge range of formats, so you can read any way you like. It also offers several nifty features missed out by larger, more corporate competitors, including the ability set your own price for certain titles.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook

Nook Store - a basically decent eBook store, with a few DRM issues.

Any Nook device or Nook app.

Had they made different choices, Barnes & Noble might have been a serious competitor when it comes to eBook retail. They’re slightly more expensive than other retailers, but their prices are still reasonable, and their website is clean, intuitive and easy to use. Not only that, but they have a fairly decent range of titles available, including both bestsellers and more obscure reading material.

Unfortunately, while Barnes & Noble do present their books in the commonly-used EPUB format, they also insist on wrapping them in some awkward DRM shenanigans. The upshot of this is that you may only read Nook books on a Nook device or app, and won’t be able to move your books around freely between devices, or keep your books if Barnes & Noble go bust. That last little detail is a significant one, as Barnes & Noble have already withdrawn support for Nook products from the UK – a move that decimated the libraries of any reader who wasn’t quick enough to download their books.


Kobo - a pretty decent reader that doesn't have quite the same range as the Kindle.

Any Kobo device or app. Some books may work with other devices or apps.

The Kobo Store is among the better non-Amazon solutions for buying eBooks. It does have a number of weaknesses though, not least among them a fairly limited range of titles. If you’re content to forgo some of your favourites, though, you’ll find the store clean and easy to use, with some good daily deals and discount offerings. You can even collect points each time you purchase an eBook and put them towards discounts on future acquisitions. Despite this pleasing infrastructure, however, the Kobo Store doesn’t permit you to give eBooks as gifts, although you can purchase some rather-fiddly gift cards instead.

Some Kobo eBooks come wrapped with DRM and some do not – it varies in accordance with the policies of the publisher. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether the book you’re purchasing will work on the reader you own – if it happens to be a Kobo device you’re probably safe, but shopping in the Kobo Store will be extremely hit and miss with any other device or app. You’re not quite as locked in as you are elsewhere, but the difference is minimal.

Apple Store

iBooks Store - a good option, if you're already a user of Apple products.

Apple devices and apps only.

Apple like to keep their cards close to their chest – their eBook store is a walled garden, to which only those with an Apple device are granted access. This means, of course, that anyone thinking of picking up an Apple device for the purposes of reading won’t know until after they’ve got their purchase home whether they can actually get the books they want on their shiny new machine. Some investigation reveals that their selection is, as it happens, pretty comprehensive, but anyone who has a taste for obscure literature should hesitate before selecting an Apple device as a reading option.

Another reason to pause before shopping with Apple is the tight control they keep over some of the books you buy. When you buy from the Apple store, you definitively cannot access your books in any non-approved manner. While most of the books sold via the Apple Store are in the commonly-used EPUB format, many are also wrapped in a unique kind of DRM, ironically called “Fair Play”. This DRM system is unique to Apple products, and as such you will only be able to access these books from an Apple device. This means that, unless you own a Mac as well as an iPhone, there’s no way to access your books via a desktop, and you’ll have to content yourself with the small screen until you splash out for a Mac.

Google Play

Google Play - easy to use and functional, but with very few books to choose from.

Most devices or apps, with the exception of Kindle and Nook devices and apps.

The Google Play book store isn’t really a serious bookshop. It is, for the most part, something of an afterthought. The selection is extremely poor and prices are generally higher than you’ll find anywhere else. That said it does have a lot of free out-of-copyright titles, and the store is wonderfully clean and easy to use. You can download titles for the desktop, or for almost any device using a process that’s straightforward, quick and intuitive.

The Google Play Store does impart some of its titles with DRM, but it’s among the more user-friendly DRM schemes you’ll find. You should, with some effort, still be able to read your books on most devices, although owners of Kindle and Nook devices will likely be out of luck. Some books come, at the behest of their publisher, without crippling DRM, and as such can be freely copied, backed-up and transferred after purchase. While the Google Store isn’t really an option for the bulk of your reading material, you may be able to find a title or two there to supplement your collection.