Saturday, January 30, 2010

Amazon Scares Me

It has been reported that, because of a pricing dispute over e-books, Amazon US has removed Macmillan books from its website. It's not just the e-books that have been removed; all of the Macmillan US book imprints have been hit, including some of Macmillan's biggest cash cows.

It takes a while to see what has happened. For example, if you search on Robert Jordan (published by Macmillan subsidiary Tor), you are steered to plenty of titles--but they all turn out to be used copies from third-party sellers. This, of course, is even nastier than pulling the title entirely, since it encourages customers to buy only from sources that don't benefit the author or the publisher.

Amazon is not a monopoly, but its market share is so large that I think it ought to be treated like one. No matter what the provocation, this move is an abuse of power that is a slap in the face not only to publishers, but to customers.

Amazon has been worrying me for a while now. You probably recall the flap when Amazon "recalled" digital books from its Kindle devices last year, automatically erasing all copies of certain digital editions of books they had already sold and downloaded. (Ironically, as the NY Times article linked to notes, Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm were among the books that Amazon seized and destroyed.) Until then, most Kindle owners weren't aware that Amazon could reach out and destroy copies of books that readers had already bought.

Now, Amazon has said that they won't do this again; and it isn't clear from the Kindle contracts that they had the right to do this in the first place. But I find the fact that they have the power to do such a thing to be frightening--and the best argument that can be made against digital books.

It has always been hard for even the most devoted book-burners to eliminate all the copies of a book once it is printed. But with digital books on wireless readers, all copies could be obliterated at the touch of a single button in some central office. And even if Amazon claims they would never do such a thing, what would prevent a government from compelling them to do so? (In fact, what would prevent, say, the NSA or the government of China from hacking in to the Amazon computer and simply doing it themselves?)

It doesn't take much of a sci-fi magination to suggest that if Kindle-type devices become the sole medium of book distribution in the future that the whole of literature and written history would become deletable--or worse, rewritable--by whoever is in power. The Stalinists would have loved a Kindle-based library system; whenever they wanted to rewrite history, they had to send men to the libraries with razor blades, glue, and new pages, a process that was both cumbersome and also obvious even after the deed was done.

Side note: When we lived in Hawaii back in the early 1980s, a Soviet commercial vessel developed mechanical problems and was towed into Honolulu Harbor for repairs. As a goodwill gesture by the US government, the crew not needed onboard were issued temporary visas and allowed shore leave.

And we all know what sailors do when they get onshore, right? Well, not Soviet sailors. Instead of heading for the downtown brothels and bars, to our wonderment, they all piled onto public buses and rode up to the University of Hawaii, where they headed for the history section of the library. Those who knew English proceded to pore through history books and encyclopedias, and fielded questions from those who only spoke Russian.

At about this same time, I had a number of young Chinese researchers working with me at the East-West Center--some of the first Chinese who had been allowed to train in the West. In discussions, I found that some of what they accepted as historical fact was more than a bit surprising. For example, they had all been taught that the American Civil War wasn't between American states, but instead was a massive uprising of black slaves against the whites--a revolution where the blacks won their freedom. (Why the victorious former slaves then agreed to form a poverty-ridden underclass was left as a mystery.) For their part, they were shocked we all believed that astronauts had ever landed on the moon, since they had seen proof--positive, incontrovertible proof--that the moon landings were done in Hollywood studios. (It should be clear to anyone that if this were the case, the footage and special effects would have been far more impressive than the home-movies look the actual landings generated.) End of digression.

And, of course, it wasn't that long ago that a "glitch" caused Amazon to de-rank thousands of books--an overwhelmingly high proportion of which were Lesbian or Gay Themed Books (LGTBs, in the trade).

I've heard a lot lately about how digital communications, wireless connectivity, and the internet make it impossible for information to be controlled in today's world. Perhaps. But the Chinese and Iranians have both been quite successful in using the internet to spy on their own dissidents, and Amazon has now shown how it will someday be possible for governments or businesses--and, in the near future, the two will be indistinguishable--to engage in comprehensive and lasting censorship.

In the United States, anyone who makes a billion dollars in technology-related fields is praised as a "visionary," and Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, is one of those who is widely adulated and invited to speak at government gatherings. I used to be somewhat contemptuous of him, as I didn't see anything visionary or uplifting about what he has achieved. Yes, he has been very financially successful, but all he has done is carried retail sales onto a new platform, the achievement of an uber-techno sales clerk. If he hadn't done it first, someone else would have been right behind. And while Bill Gates has many annoying features, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing billions of praiseworthy work around the globe for the the neediest, Bezos' latest "visionary" scheme is space tourism for billionaires (estimates of the price tag for a trip into space are about $3 million per customer). Bezos' plan is a self-indulgent moneymaking scheme; Gates' foundation is the largest philanthropic effort ever undertaken. It hasn't been hard for me to decide which of these guys is the visionary.

So, while I used to think Bezos was just a glorified department-store owner, I've changed my view. The guy's a visionary after all. He's created a bullying, arrogant company that is leading the way to a future where businesses or governments will have total control over what we can and cannot read; and, best of all, retroactive control, so the past can be rewritten.

Think I'm overstating things? Just wait and see.

*Update: Amazon's delisting of Macmillan books is not limited simply to US subsidiaries. Amazon has also disappeared Macmillan New Writing books from its sales. As of this writing, Terence Morgan's Master of Bruges is available only from second-hand sellers on Amazon, but not as a new copy from Amazon itself.

I'm happy to report that Pan paperbacks have been spared this fate--but persumably only because no one at Amazon has worked out that they ar epart of Macmillan.

Second Update:

Ryan David Jahn has covered this fiasco in some detail on his blog, including multiple links and updates. Go check it out. I'm also grateful to him for pointing out John Scalzi's blistering response.

Ultimately, though, the question is why, if Macmillan and Amazon cannot come to terms on ebooks, Amazon's response wasn't simply to refuse to carry Macmillan's ebooks on terms they found objectionable. And the answer is simple: they are bullies who are trying to exert monopoly power. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden (an editor at Tor, last time I checked) notes in her comments on Cory Doctorow's post on the topic:

'Does anyone recall that Amazon has done this before? They pulled every POD title because they wanted POD publishers to print their books exclusively via Amazon's CreateSpace. This isn't a case of "If they do it once, they can do it again." They have done it before, and it's clear that they have no hesitation about doing it again.'


Anonymous said...

It should be pointed out that Amazon's removal of specific digital versions of 1984 and ANIMAL FARM happened because the entity that made them available for sale at the Kindle store was selling them in the US illegally. Amazon's error was in its handling. Legally, the company did the right thing. From a service and PR standpoint it royally screwed the pooch.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Rob--

I'm afraid I have to disagree.

If a department store is selling trademark knockoffs of, say, Gucci, then they may be conducting an illegal activity. But that doesn't give the department store the right to come into your house and seize the goods without your consent--and totally without notification on top of it.

It is questionable from any legal point of view if Amazon has the right to take back something it has already sold you. A court might have that right, but Amazon doesn't. And, according to lawyers, the Kindle user contract doesn't allow Amazon to do it, either.

In addition, in the process of "repossessing" the illegal property, they caused damage to the property of users. If you follow the link to the NY Times story, you'll see that someone's annotations an scholarly research were destroyed when Amazon vanished his copy of the text.

So, I don't only think it was a customer relatons and PR fiasco. I also think Amazon decided they had the right to act as judge, jury, and police force, and went ahead and seized and seized and destroyed property because it struck them as the right thing to do--and, irrespective of the legality, simply because they could.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure we can treat the department store example as the same as what's happened here, as "ownership" of the book isn't a factor. As I understand it, this sort of thing hasn't been defined by current case law when it comes to enforcing End User License Agreements -- which is what customers are agreeing to when they "purchase" a Kindle book. In other words, you get to use the content as long as you abide by the terms of the license. Laws, as such, define what's illegal rather than what's legal, so it may be true that Amazon can, in fact, repossess the software remotely.. that is, they can until the law says they cannot. The only lawyers I've read about who've said Amazon cannot do so are ones representing people suing Amazon. No surprise there.

Don't get me wrong: I think Amazon shouldn't have done it regardless of its had a legal, moral or ethical rights --- or lack thereof --- to do so. But I do give some credence to Amazon wanting to protect its liability. I'm more concerned with, now that this horse is out of the barn, what it means long term for such devices going forward.

Deborah Swift said...

I do find this scary. On a personal level, as a writer with a book due out (from Macmillan)in the US and with no track record,the sidelining of Macmillan books from Amazon could mean that my books profile will be considerably less.

The implications of it being so powerful that it has a stranglehold over the book market are worrying. But then we all use it. Perhaps we should start to take our trade elsewhere.

Jake Jesson said...

Well, shit. Welcome to the future.

Matt Curran said...

Two words... Bloody hell. Not good news for Pan Mac authors and pretty much what I expect from Amazon. From a reader's POV I think a more cynical shrug of the shoulders in order. But as a writer and rembering the Hachete Livre dispute, it's not good at all. For anyone.

Michael Stephen Fuchs said...


I appreciate your muscular thoughts. However, I'm not sure you have the right end of the book-burning stick. Under almost all scenarios, digital information is nearly impossible to quash. As Cory Doctorow points out, the principal thing that computers and networks do is MAKE COPIES. Every time you send or recieve an e-mail or view a web page, you're making a copy of a document. Digital dissemination - which is instant, seamless, and effectively free - is powerful mojo.

Except under just one scenario:

So called Digital Rights Management. It wasn't because the books were digital that Amazon was able to disappear them. It was because they were in a locked-down proprietary format that one company controls. This is anathema.

Get yourself to Brother Doctorow for the Good News:

Eliza Graham said...

This is extremely irritating, all right, but I'm not sure that Amazon sales represent quite as much of a chunk of our book sales as we might think.

Yes, wonder how long before 'they' realise that Pan Mac. is part of the same family. I'm whispering here, in case someone overhears us.

Neil said...

David, I've lots to say on this, but just haven't got round to saying it yet, but, for what it's worth, I side with Michael on this. I also think that, yes, Amazon deserves an amount of criticism, but more than anyone else, it's the publishers who deserve it. Good on Macmillan for standing up to Amazon, but I think they've taken an entirely wrong tack.

My opinion is that, given the question in hand, Amazon should have held out and refused to stock Macmillan ebooks, but not muddied the waters by taking all their print books down, which, much like the previous problems (1984 copyright issues and the de-listing of the mis-labeled books), Amazon did in full internet-giant bully-boy mode. I think DRM is a separate issue to the legitimacy of ebooks.

David Isaak said...

Hi again, Rob--

Certainly some of the comments I've heard questioning the legality of it are from lawyers who are not involved in the case...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Deborah--

Yes, I have to say that I'm beginning to wonder about the morality of doing business with them.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake--

Welcome to Tomorrowville.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

You've nailed it. Readers will hardly even notice. Most readers aren't really conscious of the idea of "publisher" in their choices.

Nor does it prevent them from getting our books, since second-party copies are out there on offer. There's a nice signed copy of SHOCK AND AWE out there for $75 on Amazon, for example, if somebody needs one and doesn't realize that I'll sign any copy for free.

So, yeah, this is laregly invisible.

David Isaak said...

Hi, MSF--

Good to hear from you.

I'm a fan of Doctorow's good works, and his notes on DRM are very interesting. But, as he points out, while almost any encryption is crackable by someone somewhere, that doesn't mean that everything encrypted will be cracked. So I picture a world where THE DA VINCI CODE and its ilk will be easy to snag off the web, but lesser and more controversial works won't.

As Doctorow points out, the anticircumvention laws are becoming ever-more draconian, and our government (pushed largely by Disney lobbyists) seems bent on ensuring that in the long term every other country in the world adopt our intellectual property laws.

What is needed is something that prevents people like Amazon from reaching into our devices remotely.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Eliza--

Amazon US in particular has been a lousy seller of our books, and I've recommended to anyone in North America that if they need my book and can't find it locally that they look to The Book Depository (which ships free to the US from the UK), or Amazon Canada (which tends to price the books better and also delivers them on schedule).

That said, though, this would drive me daffy even if MNW books were excluded from the ban. I don't like the principle. And from the business point of view, Amazon's response was wildly out of proportion; in international trade, this would be the equivalent of the US and China not being able to come to terms over US imports of Chinese children's toys, and the US responding by blocking imports of all Chinese goods.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Actually, the whole dispute is still largely behind closed doors, so we're still not really sure exactly what is on the table. But whatever it is, shutting down the entire sales line of any single large publisher is crazy.

It's a divide-and-conquer scenario. At this point, if the publishers banded together and refused to supply Amazon, they would still have a chance of maintaining some rights and power. But that's not going to happen.

I don't think this is simply the outcome of a dispute. I think Amazon is also testing exactly how far they can push the publishers before they act together.

And now they have their answer.