Want to kill e-publishing?

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I read stories like this one, where Amazon has gone onto their subscribers’ Kindles and removed books (refunding the purchase price, but still) because the publisher decided they didn’t want to make the books available electronically anymore, and I wonder what the company is thinking.

The calculus might work this way–Kindle subscribers are a small part of Amazon’s business model right now, and the people who had purchased those books (George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984) are an even smaller part, so the relationship with the publisher is more important than the one with that small subset of subscribers. After all, even the ones who are pissed off at Amazon’s actions aren’t likely to dump their subscriptions after plunking down serious bucks for the hardware. In the short term, Amazon’s move makes sense.

In the long term, though, if this practice continues and if more people find their Kindles invaded and books removed (even if the purchase price is refunded), Amazon is going to have problems holding on to subscribers and pushing their hardware, and they’ll also have an even bigger problem with piracy.

Part of the problem comes from the different ways that users and providers look at the e-content. This became clear to me back during the Sony rootkit scandal, where Sony, in an attempt to protect their intellectual property, invaded the desktops of people who had purchased their CDs and ripped them to their hard drives. The music industry’s justification was based on the idea that when consumers purchased a CD, they only licensed the music, and therefore were limited in their uses of it. Legally speaking, that’s accurate, but it doesn’t seem logical to the person who just dropped twenty bucks at the store, because most users don’t differentiate between the physical CD and the data on it.

This Amazon issue has gone a bit farther. Now Amazon is saying that they’ll sell you the data, but that it’s a conditional sale, and that they can take it back from you at any time, and that you don’t have anything to say about it (unless you have the ability to hack the system, presumably). So what are you buying? According to Amazon, it seems you’re buying conditional access to data. But I, as a consumer, say I’m buying a book, just in a different format. I’ve already conceded, by purchasing it electronically, that I won’t be able to resell it or donate it to a used bookstore (or even to a student in a class), but I still feel like I’ve bought it, which means I get to decide how long I own it.

And that’s the danger that Amazon really faces. It’s hard enough to convince people that they’re actually buying something when they agree to pay money for data, because you’ve jumped the physical-ethereal divide. But if you then start telling your consumers that they haven’t actually purchased anything, and that you can snatch it back without warning, well, why should your consumers buy anything from you in the first place? They’ll find other, less expensive ways of accessing the same data.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is Senior Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →