This article originally appeared in the 8.27.09 issue of Metroland
With the Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle e-book reader last year, the stalled movement towards digitized literature got a little bump. Previous e-book hardware had never gained any real traction, as the older devices were too bulky or just generally unsatisfying.
E-literature has always been a tough sell. Unlike music or photography, where the migration to digital was natural and seemingly inevitable, there’s just something about a book that people don’t want to let go of. Part tactile, part romantic, and part practical, the physical book’s appeal has stood down several generations of plastic-shelled devices.
Is that changing now? I haven’t used a Kindle, but I’ve read a number of glowing reports that the consumer experience is a significant improvement over previous e-book readers. And Sony just announced it’s rolling out its new Daily Reader in December, which looks like it might be a contender. And then there’s the rumored Apple tablet, maybe coming very soon, which may or may not have e-book reader capabilities. Considering Apple’s success with everything else it touches, and the synergies with the ever-popular iTunes store, the tablet could be the game-changer.
Obviously, one benefit of these things is the fact that you can put 1000 books into one little book-sized thingy. Another is that all of these devices are now hooked into wireless networks, which means you can download books on-the-fly, and also opens the door for subscription newspaper and magazine delivery, and integration with the web and social networks.
Right now, cost is a serious factor. The Kindle is around $300, the Sony reader is reportedly gonna be around $400, and the Apple table won’t come cheap. These devices all come with free connectivity to wireless networks, but still, that’s a chunk of change to commit to a technology with a history of failing to deliver enduring customer satisfaction.
And then you have to buy the “books.” Amazon’s got best-sellers going for $10 each, and one has to wonder if this price-point makes sense. Like with music MP3s, there’s no cost of production of anything physical, no shipping, no warehouses. But to be sure, charging $10 for an ebook where the hard-cover version is $25 makes more sense than charging $10 to download an album when you can buy the CD for $12.
And finally, there’s what you get and what you own when you “buy” a book. Last month, Amazon found out that it had been selling George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm pursuant to a license from a publisher that apparently didn’t have the rights to the books to begin with. In other words, it was in effect selling pirated copies of the books. So Amazon invoked its “rights” in the fine print of its user agreements, and utilized its “digital rights management” technology, which basically tethers the “books” it sells, and removed all of the copies of the books it had sold consumers from the consumers’ Kindles. Anybody who had bought these books suddenly didn’t have them any more. At least one kid reported that his copy of 1984 disappeared while he was reading it. Amazon did credit everyone’s account, but that really didn’t address the main point.
Which was “whaddya mean I don’t ‘own’ the book I just bought”? And even more frightening was the fact that Amazon had hooks into your reader. If Amazon could simply remove a book you “bought” at will, what else could it do? Does it know what you’re reading, and when? Can it hear you, too? Does it know where you are right now?
Obviously, the delicious irony that this happened with Orwell’s 1984 puts the episode into the “you just can’t make this stuff up” category.
After a long week of public outcry, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos issued a statement that this was a horrible mistake on Amazon’s part, that he was outraged, and that it would never happen again. It was the right response, but it doesn’t really fix the problem.
The debacle is grounded in the idea that publishers are demanding that when you “buy” an ebook, you’re not really buying an ebook; rather you’re licensing the right to look at the ebook. And that license comes with conditions: you can’t, for instance, edit the ebook, you can’t give the file to a friend to read on their Kindle; you can’t transfer the file to another device that you own. And, if you do the wrong thing, or if the publisher just decides, your ebook can get removed off of your Kindle. Just like that.
I don’t know how Bezos cranked the publishers to let him promise he’d never allow the erasure of an ebook again; maybe Bezos agreed, as a business decision, to be financially responsible for whatever perceived financial fall-out the publishers “suffer” now that they can’t recall their books.
But it’s a cautionary tale, and another example of the train wrecks that occur when digital reality comes face to face with the fictions of old imperial copyrights.