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Amazon, Kindle, and Orwell: Horse, Meet the Barn Door

David Pogue, tech enthusiast for the New York Times, is shocked, shocked that Amazon yanked Orwell’s books from the Kindle. But as Tim Spalding pointed out over on Web4Lib, it’s naïve to focus on Amazon and the Kindle.

“People need to get over the idea that ebooks are ‘just’ books,” Tim wrote. “Just because you can read it, doesn’t mean it’s the same thing. Books are socially and legally situated. You can’t change the delivery and legal structure, and expect everything else to remain the same.”

E-books are disruptive in ways we can barely comprehend, and all the self-congratulatory nattering at conferences about trends and digital humanities and big-ass repositories doesn’t change that a bit. It’s easy to laugh off early efforts at e-books, but is there anyone who really thinks the future of publishing—if not five years, then ten or fifteen—is not primarily digital?

And none of the current big players —Amazon, Google, not even Pogue’s beloved Apple—are in it for the passion of connecting books and readers. No matter how much they posture otherwise, the bottom line for them is profit, pure and simple.

As an author and librarian, I am greatly ambivalent. The writer in me sees opportunities I don’t have in the paper world. I am considering publishing a chapbook of essays via the Kindle and seeing if Kindle-readers—a community who by definition read heavily—will buy what is essentially unpublishable in the paper-based publishing economy.

But the librarian in me is worried, both on behalf of libraries—the bulwark of free speech in an open society—and on behalf of readers everywhere. And the writer with her eye on the future of writing — not for the next year or two, but the next century or two — is bothered as well. I worry that post-paper reading will become an event as closely and expensively metered as parking in downtown San Francisco. It’s doubtful that writers, journalists, and the rest of us in the writing trenches will benefit.

And if you agree that publishing is moving to a digital mode, you are also tacitly agreeing that the traditional role of libraries will soon be made obsolete. The delivery of reading to the next generation will be managed by digital mammoths who will control what and how we read to a fare-thee-well.

Since Pogue’s article was published, the Times added an “Editor’s Note” that comforts me not a whit:

EDITOR’S NOTE | 8:41 p.m. The Times published an article explaining that the Orwell books were unauthorized editions that Amazon removed from its Kindle store. However, Amazon said it would not automatically remove purchased copies of Kindle books if a similar situation arose in the future.

But these books weren’t removed “automatically.” They were removed by humans, who were following orders — just as some human, somewhere, chose to alter Amazon’s search results to hide GLBT titles. Each time, a well-publicized kerfuffle reversed Amazon’s decision, but the point is that the decision was made at all.

What we are learning is that the same technology that makes a book conveniently available on your Kindle in a manner of minutes can easily change that content or entirely remove it. Barbara Fister commented on my Facebook page, “I’m waiting for a little libel tourism to lead to books edited before your very eyes. How efficient!” Sadly, I don’t think we have to wait very long. Like the e-gov-documents that magically morphed and vanished during the Bush administration, the unseen silent workforce at Amazon will obediently carry out the mandate of the company.

Perhaps—to shift from Orwell to Bradbury—the ending of Fahrenheit 451 is prescient in other ways. Once the digital world has taken over — perhaps with legislative support, the way that track-building and trains yielded to automobiles and highways through the influence of energy lobbies — there will be outliers hiding in forests who are the voices of freedom and reading, while the rest of the world follows the dictates of the blinking screen.

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14 Comments

  1. Batarang wrote:

    The more these types of decisions are made, the more people will flock to the illegal repositories where downloading your choices are so much easier.

    Saturday, July 18, 2009 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  2. gutta percha wrote:

    kindle editions are not owned by their ‘purchasers’ — they are essentially rentals. amazon appears to be the entity with right of first sale.

    this is not really a problem for me for the time being, because i only use my kindle for books i will *read*. print is just for books i have to have. the reality for me, is that once the content is in my skull, i don’t really need it again.

    bootleg copies of books have appeared in the kindle editions catalog from time to time; and amazon removes them. just like the cops can impound your ipod if it turns out you bought a hot one. the orwell situation hit the media in a big way because of the irony factor (and yeah – it’s a head-slapper); but prior to that the same thing happened with ‘the fountainhead’ and ‘atlas shrugged’. in any case, amazon does not remove anything from an actual kindle device. amazon removes bootleg, or defective material from the accounts of the purchasers (it has happened with bad formatting, too, i have heard)and credits the affected account for the purchase price. then when purchasers sync their devices with their accounts, the item disappears. anyone with a backup on their hard drive still has (possibly an illegal copy of) the book. my own device is loaded with free content that amazon doesn’t know about and can’t affect.

    i am not particularly upset by any of this. i don’t want the wrong person to be reaping the profits of something i’ve purchased; and amazon permits me unlimited downloads of my paid content, which keeps it safe, and allows me to have more purchased material than the device can store. this ‘cloud-storage’ feature also makes the device usable by people who don’t have computers.

    given the need for copyright protection, the only other imaginable scenario would be for me to have a single, copy-protected copy of each book, which would allow me to pass the file around to friends & family or device-to-device (meaning, it would leave my possession until returned); but once devices change to read a different format — or if the file becomes corrupted — i’m out of luck. frankly, i don’t mind not being able to lend books, because people tend not to return them.

    i did my homework before i purchased my device, and accepted amazon’s terms as a temporary state of the industry, and as a cost associated with being an ‘early adopter’. for me, for now, the benefits by far outweigh the costs. the most obvious of these, is that i have read more books since i got the device in february than i did in about the entire eight years preceding. this is a trend that i like very much in my own life. i won’t be here forever. if i can spend more of my time reading, and finally reach some kind of equilibrium with the amount of hard-copy in my house, it’s good. if publishers decide to think they can turn reading into a rollercoaster ride, and charge us a micropayment per page-turn or some fool thing (do publishers even *read*? sometimes i wonder), i’ll be the first to start screaming.

    Saturday, July 18, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  3. gutta percha wrote:

    bootleg copies of books have appeared in the kindle editions catalog from time to time; and amazon removes them. just like the cops can impound your ipod if it turns out you bought a hot one. the orwell situation hit the media in a big way because of the irony factor (and yeah – it’s a head-slapper); but prior to that the same thing happened with ‘the fountainhead’ and ‘atlas shrugged’. in any case, amazon does not remove anything from an actual kindle device. amazon removes bootleg, or defective material from the accounts of the purchasers (it has happened with bad formatting, too, i have heard) and credits the affected account for the purchase price. then when purchasers sync their devices with their accounts, the item disappears. anyone with a backup on their hard drive still has (possibly an illegal copy of) the book. my own device is loaded with free content that amazon doesn’t know about and can’t affect.

    i am not particularly upset by any of this. i don’t want the wrong person to be reaping the profits of something i’ve purchased; and amazon permits me unlimited downloads of my paid content, which keeps it safe, and allows me to have more purchased material than the device can store. this ‘cloud-storage’ feature also makes the device usable by people who don’t have computers.

    given the need for copyright protection, the only other imaginable scenario would be to have a single, copy-protected copy of each book, which would allow me to pass the file around to friends & family or device-to-device (meaning, it would leave my possession until returned); but once devices change to read a different format — or if the file becomes corrupted — i’m out of luck. frankly, i don’t mind not being able to lend books, because people tend not to return them.

    i did my homework before i purchased my own kindle, and accepted amazon’s terms as a temporary state of the industry, and as a cost associated with being an ‘early adopter’. for me, for now, the benefits by far outweigh the costs.

    Saturday, July 18, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  4. Charles Slater wrote:

    I use Kindle for Iphone, which doesn’t offer an option of creating a backup of purchased books. My copy of 1984 disappeared from my device without my consent or knowledge, except for receiving an email credit from Amazon. There was, at the time, no explanation of why this happened. The Kindle’s terms of agreement state pretty definitely that the customer may keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content.” Amazon may have a strictly legal case that they have the right to erase or alter customers’ previous purchases (and clearly they have the technical ability to do so), but they sure suggest quite the opposite.

    Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  5. Jon Gorman wrote:

    The issue of “pirated version” is an interesting one. If you “buy” a book on kindle that turns out to be pirated, what are the obligations of Amazon. I’d think in some respects that Amazon would almost be forced by the DMCA to immediately yank their providing access of the book. Otherwise they’d lose their safe harbor provisions, correct? And publishing is one of those areas where a lot of copyright laws actually do tend to fit.

    Of course, I’m not sure if that’s actually what happened in this case. Sounds more like a misunderstanding and the publishing company either didn’t realize the book was available as a kindle book or realized that they weren’t allowed to do that and started trying to backtrack.

    Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink
  6. lu wrote:

    this does conjure images of all copies world wide of a controversial book magically disappearing as the corporate entities of America bow down to political interest groups.

    We didn’t vote Amazon in, yet they control information.

    It would be sad if, what has happened to mainstream media, was to happen to fiction. You might say it couldn’t happen, that the human race has always sought a variety of sources for information, yet independent television news is all but gone.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  7. Larry Scritchfield wrote:

    Just to thumb my nose at Amazon, I went to Project Gutenberg Australia to download 1984 and Animal Farm. I saved the HTML files and emailed them to my Kindle account.

    The files are apparently on my Kindle, but when I attempt to view them, they are blank!

    This seems to be beyond what Amazon has a right to do.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  8. Larry Scritchfield wrote:

    Addendum to my earlier post.

    The Kindle display problem lay with incorrect HTML markup at Project Gutenberg Australia, not with any inappropriate filtering on the part of Amazon.

    The moderator may choose not to post either this post and the earlier one. Actually, that would be my preference.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  9. lu wrote:

    just rereading the comments, Jon Gorman makes a good point:

    “Of course, I’m not sure if that’s actually what happened in this case. Sounds more like a misunderstanding and the publishing company either didn’t realize the book was available as a kindle book or realized that they weren’t allowed to do that and started trying to backtrack.”

    If these books are available at Project Gutenberg, chances are the Publisher had no right to be making money off the title in the way they were (i know nothing about this side of things), perhaps they were charging too much or… who knows, and they were required not to make money from selling something they didn’t own – hence the refunds.

    It makes more sense than “it was a pirate copy” since it is a title that is freely available as Larry Scritchfield points out.

    Friday, July 24, 2009 at 12:44 am | Permalink
  10. Miriam B. wrote:

    The title of this post is one of my all-time favorite titles. So I don’t mind seeing it on top every time I stop in to see if there’s a new post… (I don’t use RSS feeds, that’s a bit of communication awareness that just didn’t stick on me.)(Now tweets work a treat…)

    Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  11. Beth Gray wrote:

    Yes, the world is going digital at a very pace. The future of the library system is going to be interesting in following. I enjoy following mobipocket that allows you to download directly to you pc or to a PDA. My latest novella is listed there and it is doing well.
    I just found this site and have added it to my bloglist on my site.
    Beth Gray

    Friday, July 31, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  12. Maia wrote:

    I really appreciated this piece. I cannot (or will not) read from electronica; I need to feel paper between my fingers, to dog ear the pages and scribble in the margins. But more important is the threat I perceive to the value and stewardship of our literature in future generations. It’s not enough to waive one’s hands and say “the future is electronic, and that’s the way it is;” we must stop and consider the consequences of lost heritage, culture and wisdom from lost volumes.
    Keep up the great work, Karen.

    Monday, August 17, 2009 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  13. c. burns wrote:

    Hi Karen. I’ve talked with you on the phone once in 2009 when I was a library student at FSU and the Goldstein Library.
    (I’m now in South Florida — unfort. not employed in a library, but I do volunteer in one, Lantana Public Library.)

    I just came across this post of yours. I just had a conversation with the Library Director where I volunteer. So, I thought I’d share some of my conversation with him here with you!

    We talked, sure enough, about how publishers are seldom comfortable with a cornerstone mission of libraries, which is for readers/the public to be able to access to books and materials at no or minimal cost. Publishers are uneasy with accessible e-books to library patrons, thinking that patrons/people then won’t go out and buy books as a result. Publishers are profit driven.
    My Library Director and I also talked about the inevitable increase in prices on e-books as capitalism pure and simple. The Director thought Apple and more likely Amazon will monopolize the e-book industry and even books to such an extent that they will eventually set prices. He wondered if people in the future will be paying prices for e-books that aren’t all that significantly cheaper in price than monograph books.

    Moreover, he reminded me again that people forget that with e-books, readers do not own the book as they would, say, a paper/hardback book purchased in a bookstore. People may not realize that the e-book version of a book may be quite different than the published monograph hard copy one — the e-book is often stripped down without illustration, unique fonts, and so forth.
    Also my Library Director reminded me that people can’t turn around and sell an e-book or mark it up, or even donate it. Sure, they can borrow an e-book perhaps at a library, but unless they loan their entire Kindle or IPAD reader to someone else, they simply can’t “loan” the e-book on its own.
    Is it possible e-book reading really shares a kind of use that is more akin to watching TV (or perhaps watching a TIVO recorded show)? I’m beginning to think so.

    Which brings me to those interesting quotes in your blog: that “Books are socially and legally situated.” Yes indeed — I’m beginning to see how.

    And your quote: “E-books are disruptive in ways we can barely comprehend.” How very true! Thanks for your interesting blog post, Karen!

    Thursday, April 12, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  14. Hey there, I remember you! I am just catching up. Thanks for your comments about ebooks. That director sounds like a good person.

    Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

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