Featurs, Not Bugs

I’ve been asked when my book will be available on the Kindle and I’ve sort of hemmed and hawed a bit in answering, because, to be honest, I don’t like the Kindle. I think it’s a flawed device and would rather not support bad technology.* Besides looking like something that was a ten generation predecessor the iPod, the Kindle is broken by design, as some unfortunate Kindle owners discovered recently, when Amazon decided to delete books from users devices:

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.

Turns out, the publisher decided not to continue supporting their ebook version of Orwell’s 1984. And so, the electronic copies already “sold” to Kindle readers where stuffed down the memory hole. And it was perfectly legal and acceptable for Amazon to do this. They did not steal these people’s books, because these people did not own them.

Anyone who thinks they own an ebook is fooling themselves, for all the reasons Horst at the Aardvark Speaks points out:

An e-book is a virtual book over which the publisher retains full control at all times. When you licence an e-book, you do not buy a physical copy that remains in your possession, you are merely granted the temporary right to access data on a server that is beyond your sphere of influence. When the conditions that regulate the access to the data change, the publisher can easily disconnect you from the book.

Actually, the same principle also applies to printed books, it simply cannot be brought about as easily. Only the copies in the bookstores can be recalled by the publisher; the copies already sold to customers may now be illegal, but tracking them down and removing them is impossible. This is one of the most important differences between access to a data service and possessing a physical object.

To illustrate the point that the Amazon case is anything other than an exception, here are some things that happened at The Library in conjunctions with e-books and e-journals:

  • Due to an oversight, a bill for an e-book servive was paid one day after the due date. As a result, access to about 1000 titles was denied for the entire calendar month.
  • The Library subscribed to an e-journal for a few years, then cancelled the subscription. The publisher removed access to the entire journal; the Library could no longer access even the volumes that it had paid for.
  • An e-book publisher went out of business; the Library lost access to hundreds of titles at once.
  • Sometimes, technical/connection problems occur that make hundreds of titles (they are usually bought in packages) temporary unavailable.

Libraries have been dealing with problems like these for quite a while, and are as a result now taking extremely great care to check what the licence agreements and contracts say to avoid situations like these. After all, denied access can have dramatic repercussions for their users (10,000 journals gone over night — that’s about as dramatic as a library burning to the ground, and it only requires that somebody flicks a switch somewhere).

I know all about this madness first hand. My job at the library (one of them anyway) is making sure we’ve verified that we aren’t going to loose all our ebooks on a whim, or because of some paperwork snafu.

Back int he early days, librarians were skeptical about ebooks and electronic journals, for fear that their impermanence would result in loss of access to information that our patrons need. Their wasn’t much to be done about it at the time, as not many people knew enough about the technology to explain why this access issue was important or devise ways to prevent it form being a problem. Instead, publishers were busy rigging the ebook and ejournal system to benefit them. Publishers sell access rights to material that doesn’t exist anywhere but on their servers. when you buy an ebook, it’s not at all like when you buy a physical copy. No one’s going to come in and repossess your physical copy form your shelves. But if you miss a payment or the publisher goes under (a problem happening more and more often these days) or they sell their catalog to someone else, you may loose access rights to that material, sometimes permanently. And as the recent business with the Kindle illustrates, most people are completely in the dark about the ebooks they buy for their own use. The silly rabbits think they actually own something they’ve paid for!

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* There’s also the problem of the Kindle not supporting footnotes. And why would it? I mean, that typographical innovation has only been around for a few centuries, who knows if it will catch on? As a reminder, I do offer free PDF versions of my book, which you can download, share with anyone you like, print out and remix. And if you loose it or misplace it due to some computer crash or portable reading device failure, you can come back and get it for free, as long as this website is running. It’s not a perfect ebook solution but a hell of a better End User License Agreement than you’ll get from Amazon, that’s for sure.

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