Why It’s Crazy for Authors to Keep Their Books Off the Kindle

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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.

Amazon Kindle 2Then 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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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6 responses to “Why It’s Crazy for Authors to Keep Their Books Off the Kindle”

  1. Wow, judging from your mellow persona and your thoughtful writing, I thought you were a patient guy Wade! This article shifts my prejudices a bit. Now I have images of you calculating the tax on your three item purchase at Whole Foods, while still three deep in the checkout line, and brandishing exact change to the cashier before the order is tallied. :)

  2. Jered says:

    I have to wonder if Siva is just having a knee-jerk reaction here… Amazon provides an open publishing platform and the rates are published. The people who have been particularly unreasonable here have actually been the publishers — several of them demand HARDCOVER prices for the digital editions, even for books in paperback. To counter this Amazon has chosen to take a loss on a number of bestsellers to stick with their $9.99 policy.

    Yes, DRM sucks, but the content providers (that’s you, authors, or at least the publishing representatives you have chosen to appoint) are on the wrong side here. The Authors’ Guild is the RIAA of the written word — they forced Amazon to remove on demand the text-to-speech from the Kindle 2. Amazon’s not the one pushing DRM; the person pushing DRM is Mr. Vaidhyanathan’s publisher. Maybe he should have a chat?

  3. Wade Roush says:

    Jules: I really am a mellow person, mostly. But certain things get my goat!

    Jered: Agree with you about DRM and the RIAA-Authors Guild comparison. But I also think Siva has good reasons for his concerns, and I plan to make sure he gets some more airtime here to explain them.