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.
Jeff Bezos apologizes
Posted today on the Kindle Community page at Amazon.com:
This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.
With deep apology to our customers,
Founder & CEO
Jenn Johansson says
You may have stumbled upon yet another conspiracy! Tread lightly, THEY are all around you.
Off topic a little bit – but you know what I heard, that Jeff's wife (Mrs. Bezos?) desperately wanted to be a published novelist, and that she actually did succeed in finishing a novel and getting it published.
What I heard though was that the novel was pretty bad, and probably wouldn't have gotten published if her name had been anything other than Mrs. Bezos.
So what do we think about?
I bought a book once on how to get published, and honestly, I never saw any of that in there.
Bookish Cook says
I completely agree with you, Nathan. Finally, a level-headed view on this. I couldn't figure out why everyone was freaking out.
sex scenes at starbucks says
and rich with irony given this is Orwell
First thing I thought. I love it!
I do think #amazonfail was never really properly explained (at least not to my satisfaction). I do believe it was an algorithm problem but at the heart of algorithms are people. So that kinda worried me at the time.
Marilyn Peake says
Apparently, Jeff Bezos apologized to Kindle customers today, right before Amazon announced its earnings .
Yesterday, announcement was made that Amazon had purchased Zappos for $880 million .
Today, Amazon announced its earnings .
Marilyn Peake says
Looks like Amazon purchased Zappos for more like $928 million, rather than $800 million … Also, really interesting video at this link featuring Jeff Bezos speaking about Amazon, including how he started Amazon.
Marilyn – thanks, those are great links. I like Amazon. I think that's a classy statement.
Angela, that was really well-said, I thought.
Goose, I don't know what you're talking about. You don't have a picture, but you are obviously the most dashing writer here.
Oh. Or is Goose feminine? Gander? Well, then, the loveliest.
It must be difficult being an ice cold beverage with a slice of lemon in it.
I'll bet that people are constantly trying to pick you up.
Oh man, Goose, I just choked on my Coke.
Mira – Thanks! I've admired your thoughts from afar for a while, not to sound totally creepy or anything, so I'm really glad you thought so.
…Rereading my earlier comment, second to last sentence should be **censorship, not censhorship. That's what I get for doing a lousy proofread, apparently.
Lol. All the time! I am rather sweet and refreshing. But Goose, sometimes I'm not sure people look beyond my deliciousness to see the real me. It's like they just want to gulp me up and leave me empty.
But then, I'm sure you have your own problems with being too….tasty.
Angela – thanks. I was impressed with how clearly you laid that out.
Oh, and Angela – thanks again, that was really nice of you – but as someone who posts alot, I can assure you, misspelling comes with the territory.
Maybe someday we'll be able to recall our posts…
Comment deleted says
This post has been removed by Amazon.com.
No problem, Mira. And thanks for the heads-up – I agree with the recall thing. Well. In future posts, I'll simply have my minions ready to dispatch the typos that might come slinking by.
It's been a pleasure meeting you. Officially, that is.
Marilyn Peake says
Aren't you actually a shape-shifter? I mean, one day you're iced tea, another day an ice cream cone … and all your other assorted pics. 🙂
Eric Blair says
What are you talking about conspiracy theory? Just to clear things up: conspiracy: a secret agreement between two or more people to commit a crime.
Theory: abstract reasoning; speculation. An assumption; conjecture.
Napolean is always right! I will work harder!
Laura Martone says
Yes, Marilyn, very fickle of that Mira girl. She's rarely the same thing long. 🙂
I'm sure I am repeating what has already been said, but how cool that it happened to an Orwell book. Second, what a shame that Orwell's publicist (if he had one) isn't alive to see this. What great pr!
Comment Deleted: LOL!!!
Clearly Haliburton, Garmin, the Feds, and Amazon are all working together to mold our collective consciousness and make sure we are all subject to their whim. Oh, I forgot the Christian Right. Them, too. Yep, pretty soon we won't be able to buy anything on Kindle except the Bible and that will be minus the Song of Solomon. Because there will be no other choice out there…not the library, not print, not the Sony eReader, and certainly not Google because they'll be in on the whole conspiracy before they throw their hat in the ring.
Marilyn Peake says
I was thinking something along the same lines. Too bad Orwell isn't alive. I would love to hear his own personal take on all this.
Nice to meet you too, Angela. 🙂
Comment deleted, Laurel – Lol!
Marilyn and Laura – My new goal in life is to beat Nathan on profile viewing. He's at 48,000, and I'm sure they're not ALL his mom. So, I have a few more to go. If I change my picture, I figure people will forget who I am, and check my profile again.
Besides I need a creative outlet, and constantly changing my profile pic is the only one that occurs to me.
So, Mr. Goose. No come back. Did I 'cook' you? Ha ha ha ha.
Simon Haynes says
The irony for me is that both Orwell books are out of copyright in Australia, so we can download them. What we can't do is buy or use a Kindle.
Laura Martone says
Ah, but, Mira, to beat Nathan's profile views, you have to be a seemingly accessible agent-type like him! Offer folks the possibility of an amazing career, and the count will go up and up and up!
Being silly and clever and refreshingly cool like a Southern glass of sweet tea… is admirable, but simply not enough, I'm afraid.
Thank God. A voice of reason in a sea of knuckleheads.
The first wind of the debaucle was on a news site for me. Then I proceeded to come across black helicopter post after black helicopter post on twitter and stumble and the like.
Thank you for setting the record straight.
Hat Man says
I would say that, unfortunately or unfortunately, exteme reactions to insignificant events or other imputs are a fact of life in our 24/7 world.
Laura – yes, I know. My life goal of beating Nathan at profile views is probably an impossible dream, and – let's face it – completely meaningless, but it's my goal and I'm sticking to it.
And Nathan may offer you access, but it's your writing that gives you the amazing career. 🙂
Chuck H. says
Well, Goose, I can't speak for others who comment here but you will notice that I am represented by a really cool lookin' motorcycle.
I'm confused. If you upload a book to your Kindle, Amazon can pull it off your Kindle?
How is a Kindle any different than a personal computer? I thought that would be illegal to search someone's computer and remove information? What if they had purchased the book on hardcover (another analogy) and it was in their bag/purse/home? I can't see the store b&e to get it back?? I agree with the notification process but I think it was inappropriate to remove without approval.
Maybe it would be better that it was a voluntary removal and anyone not complying would be fined?
I think that given what just happened in the Iran protests, with the government trying to lock down internet access, and people using Twitter to get news out to their family (and the media), and the censorship that already happens in many countries (China being the first one that comes to mind, but surely not the last) it's not a huge leap in logic to see governments using technology like the Kindle or other ereaders to monitor what their people are reading.
Our government? No. I don't see that happening anytime soon. But other governments around the world? I'd be surprised if it wasn't already happening.
Though for the record, I think Amazon did the right thing in pulling the books and refunding the cost to the customers. Youtube would have done the same thing (well, not the refund, since the videos are free, but in pulling the content.)
I just don't see it as a huge leap in logic that this sort of thing could be used for censorship in countries where that's already rampant.
Oh just wait until books can be stored in our brain chips allowing us to store in our memory and then see what happens when deletions happen by accident. This is nothing yet.
Leigh KC says
Perfectly put, Mr Branford. I love my Kindle/ebooks. If anyone should try to take it/them away from me, I can't say what I might do.
Tiffany Maxwell says
I am so glad to see this post. A friend of mine mentioned to me the other day that Amazon had done something big, scary, and evil. I eagerly asked her what, but just at that moment, she had to take off for work. I impatiently whiled away the hours until she came home, then said, "So, Amazon?"
I was terribly disappointed when she told me. God knows I love righteous anger. But this?
Call me when they start luring children into a house made of candy.
Jens Porup says
My other blog is Schneier on Security. Take a gander at this post.
He isn't talking about Amazon, but you wouldn't know it when he writes, "It's bad civic hygiene to build technologies that could someday be used to facilitate a police state."
As writers I highly recommend that all of us conquer the art of correct spelling. It is possess not posses.