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The Suicide of the Kindle

2010-04-20 5 min read Electronics Anonymous marco

Who remembers the time when Amazon deleted a bunch of books from Kindles? It was the dark ages of e-ink, Amazon was the undisputed master of ebooks, its marketplace was teeming with “publishers” that sold books in the public domain. One of those publishers offered a book whose copyrights had not expired. Understandable, given the absurd length of copyright extensions.

In any case, what Amazon did next was completely horrifying to any book lover. They used the Whispernet connection with which the Kindle communicates to the “mothership” and instructed Kindles with this particular copy of the book to delete them. There you are, reading your purchased copy of Orwell’s 1984, and then on the next morning, it’s gone.

Now, electronic gadgets usually start as analogies to analog ones. The Kindle is in analogy to a book. The idea is that of replacing hundreds of books on your shelves for a single book in your lap. Advantages: it’s lighter than many books, and when you are bored, you can get a new book without going to the book store. Disadvantages: you need to charge it, it is much more expensive, and – apparently – Amazon can delete books as it sees fit.

To a non-book lover, the problem will seem minor. To a book lover, though, the idea of someone reaching into my bookcase and stealing one of my books is traumatic. So Amazon already got a really, really bad head start with this event. It will have to convince me to buy one of its books against the odds it might want to delete it.

I was perusing the Amazon store this morning. Looking for books. I love books. And I started noticing something disquieting: the Kindle version of a book is become more expensive than the paperback edition. It used to be that you could get used copies of a book cheaper than the ebook. Now you can get new paperbacks cheaper. You can get hardcover cheaper, when you don’t buy from Amazon!

I am sorry, but that is the death of the Kindle. Who on earth is going to buy a $250 gadget to read books that you could get cheaper in paper, when you have the impression that your books could disappear in a flash if Amazon decided it doesn’t like you any more?

Let’s look at a few examples, chosen at semi-random on this day, April 20th 2010:

Title $Kindle $HC $PB $New $Used
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo $5.50 $16.47 $5.50 $4.38 $2.77
The Second Life of Bree Tanner $9.99 $7.69 N/A $7.69 N/A
The Girl Who Played with Fire $7.99 $17.55 $7.99 $4.28 $4.60
Random Category: Children’s Books
The Last Olympian $9.49 $9.49 N/A $9.44 $9.79
Best Books of the Month
The Imperfectionist $9.99 $15.00 N/A $14.42 $16.89
The Hand that First Held Mine $9.99 $15.00 $10.17 $10.17 $10.35
Eaarth $10.99 $14.04 N/A $12.81 $12.81
Most Gifted
The Help $9.99 $13.72 $10.20 $10.20 $15.44
The Daily Carrot Principle $9.99 $13.59 N/A $10.75 $10.75
Search for “Random Keyword”
An Intro…IDL $31.46 N/A $34.95 $34.95 $27.00
VB6 in Plain English $34.02 $63.55 $37.80 $5.98 $0.01
Practical OCaml $41.59 $50.69 N/A $15.11 $15.07
Books I Was Looking For ™
The Case for God $15.37 $18.45 $11.43 $11.43 $17.17
Tweak $8.99 $11.55 $9.99 $4.18 $0.68
1491 $9.99 $23.10 $10.88 $7.91 $2.88
Trouble with Physics $9.99 $17.16 $10.85 $7.91 $3.50

What does this table teach us? First of all, the price of the Kindle edition for those books that have it is hovering close to the most expensive paperback option. Second, Amazon is aware of the issue: notice that the “Best Books of the Month,” which are a selection made by Amazon, are the only group that doesn’t conform to this pattern. These are the only books that are cheapest on the Kindle, as if that was a prerequisite to being made a Best Book.

What’s the big deal? You see, the way things are developing, ebooks are simply more convenient than paper books. They weigh less and you can buy them without going to the book store. On the downside, they are black and white, their formatting is typically an afterthought, and you have to buy a $250 gadget to read them. Plus, they have DRM on them, which is the kiss of death for anything.

You see, even if Amazon hadn’t deleted books from people’s Kindles, it would still have DRM on the books. Which means you cannot give your books to your child, you cannot resell them, and the day that Amazon decides it doesn’t like this particular form of DRM, or that the Kindle is not worth it, you are dead in the water. All the books you bought are as good as your Kindle, and the moment that thing dies, you lose your books.

Now to the other question: What should Amazon do?

First of all, it needs to state a clear policy, readable by everyone that buys a Kindle book. In it, Amazon has to protect the purchase and guarantee it will refund the money or give you an alternate edition of a book you purchased should it decide to discontinue your Kindle edition. It should also make it possible for you to do the things you usually do with books: resell them, loan them, etc.

Second, Amazon needs to implement a firm policy that books for the Kindle must always have the lowest price (including shipping). This price may match the price for a paperback, but it cannot be higher. That’s just because you bought an expensive gadget up-front so that you could save money on the books.

Third, Amazon needs to convince its publishers to get rid of DRM. If it worked in music, it will work in books. Nobody in their right mind would buy a song with DRM any more, and yet the market is still enormous. Books need to get used to the same notions as music. They need to survive on less, expand the markets, cut down on the middle man – or just learn to find better middle people.

If these things don’t happen, ebooks can’t have a future. As simple as that. They will always be stuck in the crazy netherworld of MP3 players before the iPod.