Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Something mysterious happens with Amazon. Internet freaks out. Media follows with hysterical articles about apocalyptic implications of mysterious machinations of Amazon.
A week later, everyone wonders: what was it we were freaking out about again?
It’s deja vu all over again this week: earlier in the year you may remember “#Amazonfail”, which turned out later to be “#seemingly innocuous Amazon systems glitch.” If you recall, items had incorrectly been flagged as “adult material” on Amazon, the Twittersphere in particular went ballistic, ominous articles were written, Amazon fixed the problem, everyone moved on.
Well, as I’m sure you’ve heard, this week books by George Orwell mysteriously disappeared from Kindles. Cue Internet freakout. Next came the media with articles about The Dire Implications: even normally mild-mannered fellows David Pogue and Farhad Manjoo were not immune to apocalyptic warnings. The subtitle of Manjoo’s article says it all: “How Amazon’s remote deletion of e-books from the Kindle paves the way for book-banning’s digital future.”
Let’s start from the beginning with this whole Orwell thing. What really happened is that a third party illegally uploaded copies of Orwell’s books to the Kindle Store. Amazon was notified by the rightsholder (presumably either Orwell’s publisher or literary estate or both), after investigation they discovered that the copies were illegal, and then they both refunded customers’ money and then digitally recalled the e-books.
Now, I don’t doubt that it feels a little intrusive to have a book removed from one’s device without consent, and Amazon later announced that it would no longer do so in the future. Where I think they really erred was that they didn’t recognize that it would be unsettling to consumers (and rich with irony given this is Orwell), and didn’t sufficiently lay the groundwork for a forced recall.
But imagine you’re a writer (not hard, since 99.9% of the people reading this blog are writers and the other person is my mom). Someone illegally uploads your book. 10,000 people download it and you don’t see a dime. Would you want these people/lost customers to continue to read their illegal versions or would you want them properly refunded and the illegal copies removed so they can buy the real version instead? Or better yet have a legal version substituted at the right price? I know there are some “I just want my book read” freevangelists out there, but I still think most people would want the problem rectified if it were possible to do so.
I mean, it’s not as if the police says, “Sorry, sir, your house was broken into and then the burgler sold it to another couple for $10. But that couple bought it fair and square so you’re just going to have to find a new house, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The other tack that analysts have taken is that this reminds people that they don’t really own their e-books, and buying books on the Kindle is more akin to a rental. Which, as a Kindle consumer, let me just say: I already know this. Sure, I hope someday that e-books will be truly device agnostic (as opposed to fake device agnostic), so that, much like my music collection, I can move my e-books to a new device when a better e-reader comes along.
But honestly, as a rabid e-book consumer, this isn’t something I worry about a great deal. I don’t buy e-books for permanence, I buy them for convenience.
If you’re reading e-books you’ve already made the break from the book as a permanent fixture in your home. And then you realize that most people only re-read a fraction of the books they own. I don’t worry about keeping every single e-book on my virtual shelf in perpetuity. I’m not really going to re-read them, and if I do want to re-read something again and again I’ll either figure out a way to migrate the electronic version I do own, or I’ll buy it again in a new format to support the author, or I’ll just buy the paper version. And people who are creeped out about the impermanence of digital content tend to stick to paper books to begin with.
So yeah. Amazon can effectively delete your books and e-books are more akin to rentals. Got it.
But it’s a pretty fantastical leap from there to assume that they or the government are going to start using these these nefarious devices to control what people read. Sheesh, people, we’re not living in a police state (resist political jab). Also: Kindle sales represent at the very most 1-3% of total book sales. Not exactly totalitarian control of the book world. And even if you assume Amazon is bent on world domination they really don’t have any incentive to mess with your legally bought Nora Roberts novel, nor do they have or will they have the monopolistic power that people are imagining for such an apocalyptic scenario to come to pass in the future.
What is it about Amazon that causes such hysteria? I mean, I’m in contact with Amazon a lot, and let me tell you: it’s a company populated by extremely nice, extremely smart people.
Well, aside from some unforced errors, I do think the suspicion comes down to the fact that Amazon is the 5,000 pound gorilla in the book world and people are worried they are going to eventually possess some sort of book monopoly. Obviously Amazon is having a huge impact on brick and mortar bookstores, people are worried about their power, but perhaps most importantly, because they so firmly represent the new world of books they’re basically the receptacle for our anxieties about the future.
I personally think a lot of the fears of Amazon’s coming world domination are seriously overblown. Amazon may well emerge from this period of transition in the publishing industry as a dominant player, but it’s not as if they’re going to be the only player. If Apple and the iPod have taught us anything, killer devices drive where and how people buy digital content, not habituation to retailers such as Amazon. (The Kindle: love it, but not so much a killer device). And if anything, the buying possibilities will be more dispersed and decentralized in the e-book era. Yeah, iTunes is the dominant player in music, but how many places are there on the Internet to buy digital music? A bazillion.
Ultimately, I just can’t get too worked up about all of this. If there’s anything we should fear from Amazon it’s that the mere sight of their logo apparently turns normal people into conspiracy theorists.