Amazon’s Kindle Mistakes

STEVE MURPHY: Amazon had a terrific idea with the Kindle:  make books as portable as music.  Make a single device to buy, store and read all the books you could ever want to own.  A hand-held paradise for those who like to both read and travel at the same time.

But… they’re doing it wrong.  They’ve taken this great idea and, with the help of publishers, tarnished it so badly it will not be easy to clean.

First there was the drama over text-to-speech, which I’ve written about at Perpetual Post in the past.  Book publishers thought this robotic voice would eat into audiobook sales, which is an absurd proposition to anyone who, like me, has tried the text-to-speech feature and knows the hell that would be using this emotionless function regularly.  But the publishers whined and Amazon folded; they were willing to get rid of text-to-speech at any publisher’s request.

And that’s when the real trouble started with Amazon, the first time it became clear that what I thought I purchased and what Amazon thought I purchased did not align.  When this text-to-speech decision was announced, I (like all Kindle owners) had already purchased some books.  When I purchased them, I understood they came with text-to-speech.  But then all of the sudden, text-to-speech no longer worked, on books I’d already purchased.  Which means Amazon remotely disabled functionality of something I’d already paid for.

And so the rift was exposed.  I had not bought the text-to-speech of that book.  I thought I had, but now it was taken away.  As an analogy, if was as if Amazon stopped by my house, took a DVD I purchased, and scratched it so none of the special features worked, then left.  Without asking my permission.

But you know what?  Text-to-speech on the Kindle is terrible.  Worthless.  I don’t really miss it.

But then came Round Two of Amazon vs. its Customers.  It was revealed (the hard way, of course) that books you purchase for the Kindle can only be downloaded a certain number of times.  Oh, and that limited number is set on a per-publisher basis and is not published anywhere.

This became a problem once the Kindle iPhone app was released.  Here’s how it happens:  I buy a book on my Kindle.  It downloads.  That’s one time.  I then open up my Kindle app on the iPhone, and tell it to download that book.   That’s two times.  I decide to take that app off my phone for a vacation to save space.  When I put it back on, the book has to re-download from Amazon.  That’s three times.  Then I upgrade or replace my iPhone or Kindle, and when I get my new device I try to download the book…. and I’m denied.  Why?  Because you can only download the book you paid for a certain, undisclosed number of times.

And of course, that could be ten times, but it could also be two times.  There’s no way to know, and it could be different for every book.  And the only solution is to buy the book again.  So now, as it turns out, I didn’t buy the content of the book.  I bought the right to download the book some unknown number of times.  That’s not what I was told.  I don’t recall that being brought up at the Kindle press events.

And then this week came Round Three.

Amazon accidentally sold illegally published Kindle copies of 1984 and several other novels. A publisher without the rights to the book had put the book up for sale, and Amazon allowed people to buy it.  This, it seems, should be Amazon’s problem.  I didn’t illegally purchase 1984, they illegally sold it to me.  If this were a real book… well, there wouldn’t be anything they could do about it.  But because it’s digital and because they can… Amazon logged into every account that purchased this book which Amazon should not have sold in the first place, and deleted it, crediting the purchaser’s account.

So now Amazon’s position is that this is their device, and you are essentially renting the content.  You can’t put the content on any other device except those licensed by Amazon, and even adding it to those authorized devices begins a countdown to your inability to download it again.  They advertise lots of cool Kindle features… but at any time they are willing to turn them off, even for books you’ve already purchased.  And now, if Amazon screws up and violates a company’s copyright by selling pirated content… they just ‘correct’ it by taking that legally-purchased content away from paying customers.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, wrote a very nice apology after this 1984 fiasco blew up, saying this was a huge and unacceptable mistake and they’re very sorry… but that doesn’t really change anything for me.  I bought an expensive device so that I could buy content for it.  I don’t want that content subject to the whims of publishers after I’ve purchased it.  I don’t want features remotely disabled.  It’s my content, I paid for it.  I want to own it, keep it, download it as many times as I want, and use it on as many devices as I need to.  I don’t even care that they have to be Amazon devices, the DRM is a whole other argument.  But once I buy content from Amazon, that content should not be altered without my express permission.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Steve is right, of course. And it gets at the heart of the beauty of books- one talks about them, shares th, and they remain, just as you experienced them, on your bookshelf to either be enjoyed again or passed on to another. But not with the Kindle. And this is a problem.

The Kindle does replicate the reading experience, if not build upon it. The portability of a device that allows me to feel sucked into a given work is a tremendous development. Furthermore, getting newspapers and magazines delivered straight to my Kindle has been a fantastic experience. Reading the New York Times by the pool, or Newsweek while I work out, has never been such a low-maintenance experience.

But my big fear, what kept me from racing out to buy the Kindle on the day it became available, was the elimination of both the permance and portability of books. The idea that someone can take my purchased book away from me extends beyond what should be my rights as a consumer, as detailed by Steve. It’s the idea that, at any given point, the book I am reading on the Kindle can change in form or disappear entirely. As a bibliophile, this fills me with despair.

Lately, I’ve found two opposing forces taking hold of me. On the one hand, new books I am reading on the Kindle are an unfettered pleasure. I am seldom anywhere without my Kindle, and waiting in line for one product or another is now just a chance to get some extra reading in-something that in our multitasking but Kindle-free world, I often found difficult to accomplish.

I’ve also been stocking up on 50 cent books from my local library’s donated books sale. I’ve enjoyed getting not-so-new books that once belonged to someone else, in building the collection of ideas represented throughout my house. I watched as my fiction shelves fill up in one room, my history books added to in another room. I enjoy stepping back from the shelf, taking in the range of creations before me.

And a few times, I’ve awakened in the middle of the night. I don’t have chocolate cravings at that time, but word cravings. I make my way into the library, reach for a book, and just as it was when I first read it, the same experience is there. Or I’ll take on something new, knowing what I am experiencing for the first time is the same as the previous owner, and aware of a time in the future when the same book will be experienced by another.

Kindle has yet to find a way to replicante this experience; indeed, their recent “rent, not own” steps take us further from this very ideal.

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2 Responses to Amazon’s Kindle Mistakes

  1. thetank540 says:

    I work for Amazon and I feel I need to correct some of your mistakes. There is no “limit” per se on the number of times you can download a book. However, there IS a limit on the number of devices you can put each book on (3), similar to the limit Apple puts on the number of computers you can have your DRM-protected music on. In fact, the policy for Kindle books is essentially parallel to every DRM-protected piece of information. (I’ve never had someone who owned more than 3 at once call in anyway) If somehow you got an error limiting your downloads, gimme a call and I’ll be happy to send it to your Kindle or iPhone. I’ve had customers delete their items 3 times ON THE PHONE and still find it sitting there in their archived items. Also, because of the outrage caused by this 1984 fiasco, Jeff Bezos has stated that this will not happen again, and that will be reflected in the future, no books will be deleted post-purchase. Bringing up corrected mistakes after an apology and a proactive policy fix is like turning your back on your friend AFTER they’ve fixed your problem, you gain nothing but seeming desperate to find a reason to hate them. You say that Amazon “logged in” to every account, as if we have the ability to hijack your account and look at all your private information (OH NOEZ!), when in reality, it can be done quite simply, utilized generally in the case of a stolen Kindle but also utilized in this situation as well. (Rest assured, your encrypted information that not even you can see remains just that, encrypted) You also act like the Kindle text-to-speech is disable on most or all books, when that is a poor argument based on no fact. I generally have to look through a dozen books just to FIND a book with text-to-speech disabled if a customer wants to know how to find out where it’s labeled, and to be honest with you, I forget every time where it says it, not because it’s not obvious and right in front of me, but because I so rarely see it. You really have some sort of sorry grudge against a device that most find joy with, and that’s really too bad because it’s a) a very new concept which is still developing and being fleshed out to its potential and b) supported by much less bothersome and interruptive software and policies in relation to your grudges and arguments against it. Cheers, enjoy your Kindle, excited that I’ll be receiving my first Kindle (outside of my iPod) next week.

  2. Steve Murphy says:

    @thetank540 – First of all, thanks for commenting, we love dissenting viewpoints here at Perpetual Post, it’s what we’re all about. And in case it wasn’t clear above, I love love love my Kindle. I also am an enormous fan of, I have their credit card and shop there more than any other store… which is why their recent trio of big-brother-esque moves have thrown me for a loop.

    As to the limit on downloads, the problem here is not that there is a limit, the problem is this limit is not announced, hinted at, or even understood by anyone. The problem here is one of customer service, where at first articles like this one had customer service reps saying things like “Oh that’s the problem… if some of the books will download and the others won’t it means that you’ve reached the maximum number of times you can download the book.” As it turns out, this was incorrect information. Customer service reps just weren’t taught how these restrictions work. This in itself is a problem, because how can the customer know what’s going on if even the customer service reps don’t?

    This post on details the very confusing calls for help one Kindle user made and the odd, contradictory information he received from different reps at Amazon by phone and email. Notable is that while you say the number of simultaneous devices allowed is three, this guy is told it’s six, and then that it’s up to the publisher so six might not be accurate.

    At to the 1984 issue, I saw Jeff Bezos’ apology, and I really appreciated it, I thought it was heartfelt. I’m glad they don’t intend to do this again. But that doesn’t erase the implications of this mistake. It highlights, along with the limit on the number of downloads and the loss of the text-to-speech function on some books, that what I bought is not the content of a book, but some restricted version of ownership that I don’t understand. Books can be remotely removed from my device. Features that were heavily advertised (text-to-speech) can be removed at a publisher’s or Amazon’s discretion, whether it affected me this time or not. If I upgrade my gadgets frequently, I may at some point have to re-purchase all of my books because I’ve reached my download limits.

    It’s this restricted definition of content ownership that scares me, and as Amazon is poised to be a major distributor of digital content (movies, music, books and whatever’s next), it’s troubling to me that they have repeatedly fallen on the anti-consumer side of this divide. I really do hope that this 1984 situation was the finale of this drama. Amazon has the chance to set an amazing standard here for digital distribution, and as an Amazon customer and a consumer in general I hope this apology from Jeff Bezos helps them change course and make all the right decisions moving forward.

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