Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, July 17, 2009

wait — where did it go?

David Pogue, from here:

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

This is ugly for all kinds of reasons. Amazon says that this sort of thing is “rare,” but that it can happen at all is unsettling; we’ve been taught to believe that e-books are, you know, just like books, only better. Already, we’ve learned that they’re not really like books, in that once we’re finished reading them, we can’t resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final.

As one of my readers noted, it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table.

You want to know the best part? The juicy, plump, dripping irony?

The author who was the victim of this Big Brotherish plot was none other than George Orwell. And the books were “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

12 comments:

  • Later statements said that it was a bookleg copy of 1984 that was put up without the proper rights. When the publisher contacted Amazon, Amazon removed the books and revoked the rights from all purchases. This happened with Ayn Rand's books and the Twilight books just a few weeks ago. It is bad publicity, but they are doing what is right to maintain their relationships with the publishers. As an author I would think this would be a good thing that you would support. The problem is a lot of bad (or at least too quick) reporting.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I think the real issue is not whether Amazon was "right" to do this or not.

    The real issue is that it starkly highlights the degree of control Amazon has over the books you think you "buy" and "own" with your Kindle, and invites the unflattering comparison with the degree of control the government had over information in 1984.

    Right or wrong, it's a public-relations disaster.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Adam, I think Michael's right. No doubt Amazon screwed up and (inadvertently) violated U S copyright — but the way they chose to handle it causes me some concern. I can't help but ask what else might happen to cause books on my Kindle to disappear the next time I connect to Amazon's server. Doesn't seem likely, of course — but as many people are pointing out, that's not something I have ever had to worry about with my paper books: whether the place I bought them from can take them back or otherwise deprive me of access to them.

  • The real 1984 is looking better all the time.

  • But your bookstore never had to worry that the books it was selling were pirated and that if they continued to sell them distributors of the real books would not continue selling them books. I honestly don't know what else Amazon could do. They have done it many times before to correct mistakes in formating and or other errors. When that happens most people consider it a feature. Some authors have actually corrected factual errors in their books this way.

    The point that I agree with is that ebooks and print books are not the same thing and the model for publishing will change for a variety of reasons.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Correcting mistakes is one thing, removing the book altogether is something very different. What Amazon could have done differently is to say to the publishers "We screwed up and won't do it again, and will pay you the following compensation." That would have been smarter, I think, because it wouldn't have allowed a situation affecting just a few people to create FUD for everyone who owns a KIndle.

  • It's not FUD when it's true. What happened to the books which those few folks thought they owned could just as easily happen to the books all Kindle owners think they own. If you think you're protected by the permissions that the copyright holders have granted to Amazon to distribute their books, think again. It's very easy to revoke those licenses. That, after all, is exactly why they refuse to sell you the books outright: so that they can reserve the right to revoke the licenses as they please.

    As long as you're a licensee, you're at *someone's* mercy. Now maybe that someone is indeed merciful, but maybe they're not. And corporations are never any more merciful than the market indicates they should be.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Speaking of Kindle FUD, the NYT article has about the most disastrous quote imaginable. It's so beautifully bad I'm not sure I quite believe it's true:

    Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading “1984” on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he said.

  • Andy Crouch said...

    It's interesting. I love my Kindle. Use it every day. Just this week I figured out how to get the Economist on it for free, and my joy was almost indecent (I already subscribe to the paper version, so I have no qualms about getting it, perfectly legally by the way, in free electronic form).

    But I don't think I'm ever going to buy a book for the Kindle again that I am seriously interested in. Will I download _Free_ when it's free? Sure. And I'm sure I'll buy the occasional non-fiction equivalent of a potboiler (_Influencer: How to Change Anything,_ which despite its breathless title is not completely useless but is not exactly collectible material).

    But really, what the Kindle is marvelous for is ephemeral material. Manuscripts I'm reviewing. Magazines and newspapers. All the incredible mountains of paper I used to recycle. It's all getting migrated, quickly, to the Kindle.

    For books, however, I'm going back to prior technology. Not least because, for the kind of books I am most interested in, many of them either are not available for the Kindle at all or are priced nearly the same in their digital edition as in print. I'll take print, thanks very much!

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Andy, I think I would use mine just the way you do if I didn't have to pay for the magazines and newspapers. (Guys who write big bestsellers like you play by different rules, I suppose!)

    And by the way, Free is already free — got it right here on my Kindle.

  • Andy Crouch said...

    Well, I have to pay for the magazines and newspapers, too, but I was already paying for them in print. (For the record, my current Kindle subscriptions are the WSJ, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, all of which I subscribed to before, plus the very reasonably priced NYT top stories, which technically I could find free online, although not in the same handy compendium that arrives without any effort a couple times a day as stories are updated.)

    The difference from books is that there are very few magazines, and no newspapers, I have ever wanted to save for more than a couple weeks, let alone give to a friend or donate to a local library. For that kind of semi-ephemeral material the Kindle seems perfect. However, I have had to find a new source of paper for my charcoal chimney, so there is that downside...

  • Tony Comstock said...

    We had an Amazon "error" cost us something on the order of $3,000 last Spring, and that's not including the many hours we spent correcting Amazon's "error".

    Like this current Orwell Uproar (tm) everything involved in last Spring's FAIL was perfectly understandable from a business standpoint, save the terrible PR aspects. All of us -- publishers, distributors, consumers -- are in terra incognita.

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