Indie Bookseller Weighs in on the Kindle

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In San Francisco there’s a great little indie bookstore called Borderlands Books, which sells science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles. In a recent newsletter, store founder Alan Beatts offered his perspective on the Kindle and Amazon’s power to unpublish titles on the devices.

The Rumpus obtained permission to publish an edited version of that portion of the newsletter especially for you. Aside from my note at the end, all text following the jump is by Beatts; all links were chosen by him except for those pointing to Rumpus articles.

After catching his readers up on the incident, Beatts begins:


Strangely for a bookseller, I don’t have a problem with ebooks. Don’t get me wrong; I think they’re going to put most bookstores out of business eventually (how soon, I’m not sure) but overall as a reader I don’t think that they are awful or a sign of the end-times for literature or reading. But I have a huge problem with ebooks business models like Amazon’s, which build an unbreakable two-way connection between the reading device and the company providing content. A good ebook is one that is purchased and can then be read on a number of devices (e.g., a computer, a cell phone, a dedicated reader or other personal electronic devices) without requiring contact or permission from the company that sold the ebook. For my money, Amazon’s model is broken on a very basic level.

Other ebook readers like the Sony eReader are stand-alone devices that can be used for any sort of content that the user chooses. You can load them with books bought from Sony, other ebook publishers like Baen or Harper Collins, or free public-domain content from places like Project Gutenberg or Feedbooks (a side note about free content from these sites — many books that Amazon is happy to sell for the Kindle are available for free. But Amazon not only won’t tell you that, they set things up with the Kindle so that you have to jump through a few hoops and pay to get that content on their device). If Sony goes out of business (not likely) or decides to get out of the ereader-and-book business (more likely), the only ebooks that you might lose the use of are the ones you bought directly from Sony, and the ereader will keep working for as long as it can still function. Conversely, if Amazon folds or decides to stop supporting the Kindle (which might happen — Amazon isn’t an electronics manufacturer and their reason for creating the Kindle is more about building a market for eBooks than being a electronics manufacturer), books bought for the Kindle are liable to be unusable and completely worthless. You could have spent a ton of money buying books that someday may be just as outdated and useless as an 8 track tape.

As someone who has seen music formats change from LPs to CDs and then to MP3s, and video go from VHS to DVD, I can accept that you have to re-buy things as formats change. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to go through that with my books too. Especially when there is no reason for it other than Amazon’s greed and desire to make their customers dependent on them indefinitely.

And all the foregoing was a problem before Amazon demonstrated that they were willing to do the virtual equivalent of breaking into people’s houses and taking books off their shelves. But the recent incident demonstrated yet another problem with Amazon’s model. What else can happen due to the connection between the Kindle and Amazon and the power that it provides? How about:

  • A tell-all account of the Bush or Clinton presidency is published. One of the subjects of the account sues for Defamation of Character and wins (FYI — that’s a civil action which means that all you need to do to win is convince seven out of twelve people that you’re right). As part of the judgment the court orders that the offending chapters be rewritten and, without the consent of the Kindle owner (and possibly even without their knowledge), remotely substituted for the original chapters.
  • A controversial book, such as The Turner Diaries or The Autobiography of Malcolm X is tied to a criminal act and as part of the investigation, Amazon (while under a gag order so they can’t tell anyone) is compelled to provide, not only purchase information about anyone who bought it for the Kindle, but also information about how many times it’s been read, as well as any notes or bookmarks that the individual reader may have added.
  • A violation of the contract that you have to sign when purchasing a Kindle gives Amazon the right to not only terminate your use of the Kindle, but also delete all your books, lock the device, and lock you out of your Amazon account. All this without legal recourse or appeal, and to correct it you, the user, have to take Amazon to court with the associated costs and headache.

So, if you want to buy ebooks and use a reader, please do so. There are some great reasons for it and some huge advantages. But don’t get a Kindle. The Sony reader is better designed and so very much smarter. Or wait ’til fall and get one of the Apple Tablets. Sure, it’s more expensive and uses a LCD screen instead of eInk, but it’s going to be super-slick and will do much more than any ebook reader out there.

[Note: As you may recall, Sony doesn't seem to be getting out of the eReader business at all.]

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →