Why It’s Crazy for Authors to Keep Their Books Off the Kindle
In June, I wrote a column about the problem of “On Demand Disorder“—my name for the narrowing of vision that can occur when people get addicted to the instant experiences available over the Internet and other digital media. If you only listen to the music you can find on iTunes or Pandora or Last.fm, if you only watch movies from Netflix, if you only buy books listed at Amazon, or if you only go to restaurants included on Yelp or UrbanSpoon or OpenTable, I argued, you’re probably suffering from ODD—and missing out on a lot of great non-digital culture.
So it was a little hypocritical of me to get into a snit one weekend in July, when I discovered that a new book I wanted to read, Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, was not available for download on my Amazon Kindle 2 e-book device. In frustration, I banged out the following Twitter post:
It’s come to this: I want to read Ellen Ruppel Shell’s ‘Cheap,’ but there is no Kindle edition. Wait 3-5 days? Buy at store? Fail.
More or less instantly, one of my Twitter followers, Siva Vaidhyanathan, called me on it. Vaidhyanathan is a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia who has written two books about copyright, and is working on another called The Googlization of Everything: How One Company Is Disrupting Commerce, Culture, and Community…And Why We Should Worry. He replied:
@sivavaid to @wroush: wow. That’s sure disrespectful to people who spend years writing books and oppose DRM. I hope impatience is working for you.
Over the course of the next few hours, Vaidhyanathan and I engaged in the following Twitter conversation:
@wroush to @sivavaid: No disrespect intended to authors. When books are print-only, it impedes the flow of ideas. How does that help anyone?
@sivavaid to @wroush: yet somehow we got monotheism, reformation, scientific revolution — all without Kindle! Amazing!
@sivavaid to @wroush: besides, only rich old people have Kindles.
@wroush to @sivavaid: It’s bad business. Publishers who bypass Kindle are turning away sales & opting not to engage with their most valuable readers.
@sivavaid to @wroush: How do you know how many sales are lost? Amazon won’t say. Do you think publishers are dumb? Negotiations with Amazon are brutal.
@wroush to @sivavaid: But Amazon *does* say: When a book is available on Kindle, 35% of buyers choose that format. I think publishers are scared, not dumb
@sivavaid to @wroush: stat says nothing about mkt penetration of Kindle. Secret because inconveniently small. BTW, not 35% of every book. Sly.
@sivavaid to @wroush: publishers not scared of Kindle. Pubs can’t get a good deal from Amazon. Scared NOT to bow to Amazon strong-arm tactics. Talk 2 them
At that point, I began to sense that neither of us was having much luck winning the other around to his position. We wound down with:
@wroush to @sivavaid: Clearly we won’t agree on this. I will expect to see a chapter in your book on the Amazonization of everything.
@sivavaid to @wroush: I guarantee no one will ever write a book exposing Amazon’s machinations!
Now, I’m willing to admit that my original tweet was glib. My use of “Fail,” in particular, implied more derision than I really felt. (The New York Times published a great column two weeks ago about the etymology of this peculiar interjection). And it probably wasn’t fair to pick on Shell’s book; Ellen is actually an old acquaintance, and I have no idea why her book wasn’t initially available for the Kindle. In any case, it is now.
But many books still aren’t. And if Vaidhyanathan really thought I was being disrespectful toward authors, he had me all wrong. If anything, I was trying to help authors by pointing out that there is now a population of prospective readers, myself included, who are conditioned to look for the digital version of a book first, and who are far more likely to buy it if it is available at the moment they need it—and, conversely, far less likely to buy it if they have to drive to a bookstore or a library or wait for the postal service to deliver it. Indeed, as I’ve said before, the genius of the Kindle is not its e-paper screen (although that’s cool, and is the product of some serious technical innovation)—it’s the ability to download books and newspapers almost instantaneously via Amazon’s Whispernet wireless network. The Kindle is making it far easier to indulge my reading habit, and I know I’m buying more books now than I did before I got it.
Nonetheless, there are some understandable reasons why authors and publishers might be wary of the Kindle. One, as Vaidhyanathan mentioned, is Amazon’s approach to digital rights management (DRM). Following Apple’s lead with the iPod, Amazon has chosen to use a proprietary file format for the Kindle, meaning that Kindle editions can’t be read on other devices—the exception being the iPhone, for which Amazon has released a Kindle app. Nor can e-books formatted using popular open standards like epub be read on the Kindle without tortuous manual preparation. Also like Apple, Amazon makes sure that it is the sole conduit to the device: you can only buy Kindle editions through Amazon, and while it’s possible to transfer your own Word, PDF, or HTML files to the Kindle, you have to do so by e-mailing them to Amazon’s servers, which encode them for the Kindle and transmit them back to you via e-mail or directly to the device over Whispernet for $0.15 per megabyte.
Then there’s the pricing issue. Most Kindle books cost $9.99, which is often $3 to $8 below Amazon’s already heavily discounted prices. Vaidhyanathan is correct that Amazon doesn’t share information about how e-books are priced or how many are sold—so it’s actually hard to tell how much of the Kindle discount is coming out of the pockets of authors and publishers, and how much is being absorbed by Amazon in the form of lower profits (or even losses) on Kindle editions.
But I have a hard time buying Vaidhyanathan’s contention that publishers are “scared not to bow to Amazon’s strong-arm tactics.” When authors and publishers demanded that Amazon give them the option to turn off the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle 2, Amazon folded virtually overnight. (Don’t even get me started about the monumental foolishness of the Authors Guild’s contention that readers should not be allowed to hear their books read aloud by a computer voice unless authors get a cut. The inanity of this idea has almost caused me to part company with the otherwise entertaining Roy Blount Jr., president of the guild.)
If Vaidhyanathan and I were having our little Twitter debate now, instead of early July, he would probably also mention the now-famous 1984 incident, in which Amazon remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from customers’ Kindles after it discovered that the publisher did not have the rights to the titles. I don’t think the episode is worth harping on, given that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has apologized profusely for what he called the company’s “stupid” and “thoughtless” decision to handle the problem by meddling with books people had already purchased. But that hasn’t stopped the Free Software Foundation from adding Amazon to its Defective By Design campaign, which targets media companies that use DRM, and calling for Bezos’s “impeachment.”
Authors and publishers are free to take a stand on any of the issues above by excluding their books from the Kindle platform. What I’m saying is, doing so can solidly be classified as cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Sure, you can quibble with the details of the Kindle publishing system. But if you are an author and your book is not available for the Kindle or the other existing and emerging e-book platforms, you are in effect telling your readers that their convenience is of no import to you; that you would rather your book not be read at all than that you should have to suffer at the greedy hands of the e-retailers.
You’re also foregoing real earnings for the sake of—what, exactly? Perhaps you are waiting for someone else to build a convenient, scalable, affordable system for getting e-books to hundreds of thousands of readers, and then offer you a larger cut of the proceeds. Who’s going to do that—Google? Microsoft? Hearst? Rupert Murdoch? I don’t think so.
It’s important to keep up the pressure on Amazon to make the Kindle as open as possible. But I think it’s also important to be realistic about the economic implications of the larger digital revolution that the Kindle embodies. There is no reason for a digital book to cost as much as a print book. (Even the $9.99 level is unsustainably high, in my opinion.) And as Chris Anderson and others have been pointing out for years now, the old pricing and distribution models are breaking down across the world of consumer goods and services; novelists, journalists, musicians, and other creators can’t expect to be compensated in the same old ways they’re accustomed to. The way forward is not to withdraw your work from circulation. It’s to figure out what people want and need, and then decide how you can uniquely meet that need.
P.S. Closely related to the Kindle question is the debate over the proposed legal settlement between Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers over the Google Book Search project, and in particular, whether authors should participate in the settlement or withdraw while they still can. Amazon, Microsoft, the Internet Archive, and other organizations have come out against the settlement, which I’ve also criticized in the past. I will revisit that subject in a future column.