Book lovers may be ambivalent about the various e-readers on the market, but distribution giant Amazon is very passionate about its own offering, Kindle, and how it will make your life easier. Just try badmouthing Kindle to an Amazon employee. I did recently, and I got an earful of invective. I had cited an article that claimed that Kindle wouldn’t allow any format of e-books other than the one that Amazon has designed. Pretty evil, right?
Wrong! he exclaimed. You can download books in the most open format there is (PDF, owned by Adobe, Inc.) to a Kindle. It’s the publishers, he continued, that are the villains of the piece. They don’t want to release versions of books in truly open formats like PDF, but find it convenient to blame Kindle instead.
Google and the Author’s Guild, who have arranged themselves on the other side of the fence from Amazon, claim that’s a straw man argument. Nobody is going to use the PDF format to publish books because it is too open. Anyone can read PDF files on their laptop using (Adobe’s) Acrobat Reader. In fact, you can even read it on your cell phone and then pass it along to your friends. Why would anyone pay for books any more, if they can email each other copies of their favorite potboilers? We know the sorry state the newspaper industry is in, after Google made it passé to pay for content.
Let’s first look at what are very compelling arguments for e-books. The amount of paper saved of course would be immense; consider all those paperbacks that are bought solely to entertain one on a plane ride and then allowed to gather dust until the next garage sale. How about that mountain of New Yorker back issues that you always subscribe to with the very best intentions, but never get around to reading?
If you had an e-reader like the Kindle, you could house it all on one simple device that fits in your purse. No more shipping costs for each book you buy because they will all come down the wire—so your carbon footprint is lower. Your reading experience is better because you can instantly search for sections you’ve read but only remember a few phrases from. Or if a word’s meaning escapes you, the dictionary comes for free so that writers who use abstruse argot are no longer mysterious to you. It won’t be long before the devices are wired to tell you instantly which of your friends are reading the books you have in your e-library, and what they think of them.
Luddite critics may carp that electronic devices don’t have that old-book smell, or that you can’t take it with you for reading while in the bathroom, but the real problem, of course, is not to do with convenience but with control. The kicker with e-readers like Kindle is that you can’t share your library the way you can your books. Each paper book you buy exists separate from all the others. When you lend from your personal library to your friends, as long as they aren’t the type that obsessively underline half the sentences they read, or dog-ear every alternate page, you aren’t any the poorer for having given your books away for a while.
An e-reader on the other hand is an all-or-nothing deal. If you lend your Kindle to a friend, that friend just got their hands on your entire library. The only way you can both read books is for each of you to buy your own Kindle and your own electronic copy of the books.
The arguments against Kindle’s proprietary technology notwithstanding, it should be pretty obvious that what Google wants is simply a share of the pie. With Amazon having obtained patents on a clearly superior book-reading device, Google is afraid it would corner the distribution market on reading material and make unbounded profits, unlike any publisher has done before. Google has also been pursuing its own project for digitizing books, and would naturally like a clear path to hawking its digital versions of books.
But who’s really on your side here? Does anyone have the interests of readers at heart? Both sides claim they do, but what gets me seeing red is that the consumer will clearly be the biggest loser, as we cede control over our reading habits to big Internet companies. Amazon has made two major stumbles this summer alone that exposed the draconian level of control it is beginning to have on our readings habits.
First, in April, it “mistakenly” classified all queer literature as pornographic, making it impossible to find those books in searches on Amazon. Then in August it deleted, once again “mistakenly,” legitimately purchased copies of George Orwell’s classic, 1984. If all our books were only available in digitized form, it would be easy to wink a tome out of existence with just a mouse click.
At the heart of the debate is the proposition held by all Internet companies, be it Amazon, Google, Yahoo or others, that our reading activities are “monetizable.” All these companies would love to slap a price sticker on every second of your reading and learning activities. If you picked up a book on the history of food, maybe you should think of buying a recipe book. Once you buy the recipe book, how about a new blender at a discount? Wait, are you checking out the biography of a football star now? How about tickets to the next NFL game, or better still, would you like to watch it pay-per-view, with a simple click on your e-book?
When Amazon announced the Kindle, it made a battleground of the page. That page has so far been completely in the reader’s control. Large scale digitization threatens to make it a channel for publishers to find new ways to capture our eyeballs instead.
When we strike a balance between the interests of readers, authors, and the brokers between these two groups—the publishers and Internet companies—the primary goal should be to ease access to information, without placing a tax on our privacy and restricting our freedom to share pieces of our culture and learning with people in our social circles. This ease of access is a public good, and an essential component of creating an active and educated citizenry. Much as we regulate access to essential utilities, like electricity and water, we should also think about ways to prevent the information plumbing from being sold simply to the highest bidder, so that we are left dry at the taps, thirsting for a good read.
The author is a software consultant who has made a home in the United States for over a decade.