The Demise of Fictionwise

This past weekend I was saddened to learn that Fictionwise, one of the longest-running vendors of eBooks on the Internet, has announced that it will be “winding down” its operations over the next few weeks and that all sales will cease on December 4, 2012. Fictionwise customers and publishers have been sent an email informing them that they will no longer have access to their eBook libraries after December 21st.

Barnes & Noble, which has owned Fictionwise since March 5, 2009, has offered to transfer everyone’s eBooks over to their Nook accounts so that no one loses any purchased titles (if you do not have a Nook account, you will have to sign up).

That is nice of B&N, but according to Nate Hoffelder, this process didn’t really work. The automated transfer was only able to move “one in ten” of his Fictionwise titles to his Nook library. Most likely, you will have to manually download your eBooks and convert the file formats yourself.

I’m wondering if there are any customers out there who have forgotten about their Fictionwise eBooks or have moved on to a different email service? Let’s hope they didn’t have too much money invested. This closure is a perfect example of why customers need to have more control over their digital media content.

Like Mobipocket before them, Fictionwise succumbed to a large buyout made by an even larger competitor. Its former owners, Scott and Steve Pendergrast, were key figures in the early eBook movement. They had a close relationship with their customers and often posted comments on early eReading blogs. By the beginning of 2010, after Barnes & Noble took the reigns, the Pendergrasts seemingly disappeared from the scene. Their philosophy of offering DRM-free eBooks (when possible) in multiple formats, expressed by the company motto: “platform neutrality and eReader everywhere,” was obviously not well received by their new parent company. Barnes & Noble went on to create its own proprietary DRM format for the Nook’s eBook store.

Former head writer at TeleRead.com, Chris Meadows, attempted to contact Steve Pedergrast in early 2010. He could not be reached. Meadows blogged about the incident on TeleRead:

Steve Pendergrast used to be a regular commenter on TeleRead, and even called me up about an impending Linux version of eReader (which subsequently never materialized) a little over a year ago. Since the acquisition, however, he hasn’t posted here anymore and it has not been possible to speak to him.

I have been trying to arrange to interview Steve via Barnes & Noble’s publicity department since January—but when I finally managed to get someone on the line, she informed me that Steve wouldn’t be allowed to answer questions about eReader’s development anyway, as it was B&N policy not to discuss such “strategic” matters. An e-mail to Scott Pendergrast’s PR address at Fictionwise also went unanswered.

As time went on, Fictionwise was basically scuttled by Barnes & Noble, even though the original press release proclaimed that the company would continue to grow with B&N’s support.

Many people lamented the loss of one of the largest independent purveyors of DRM-free eBooks on the Internet. Fictionwise had a loyal following, and customers didn’t like the change.

B&N itself has suggested that it used Fictionwise as a learning tool to help them get into the digital bookselling market. Amazon did the same when it purchased Mobipocket back in 2005. When these eBook sellers were purchased, plans for eReading apps and individual expansion suddenly dissolved.

Of course, there is another way to look at this. Despite its uncertain beginnings in the year 2000—before most people had even heard of eBooks—Fictionwise grew to be a viable company. It helped to make eReading more popular, and it became a model for the future of the industry. The owners cashed in, and the market evolved.

Without Fictionwise, eReader.com, Mobipocket.com, and other proto-pioneers of digital reading, eBooks could have been a much later innovation. Now that they are gone, let’s hope history will remember their contribution.

There are many bloggers who were around for the early heyday of eBooks, so check out sites like TeleRead.com, The-Digital-Reader.com, and MobileRead Forums for more on this subject.

As a side note, I recently found one of the first major eReaders, the eBookwise 1150, on eBay. I will be posting a review of this soon. If you have any more information about the Pendergrasts or Fictionwise, feel free to post links in the comments section.

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