Kindle: No Thanks

Kindle FireSince Amazon has moved up the shipping dates of their new generation Kindle e-readers — the tablet-ish Kindle Fire ships today, with the new eInk Kindles following tomorrow — this seems like as good a time as any for me to explain why I refuse to buy one.

It’s not because I have anything against electronic books per se. I do not. I love and cherish physical books, but electronic books can bring important advantages over physical ones, like the ability to easily search the book’s full text, and to carry around a ton of books without wrenching your back out. There were tradeoffs in the shift from physical media like vinyl and CDs for music to electronic distribution too, but I think overall the shift was beneficial for listeners, and I don’t see any reason why electronic books can’t be a plus for readers too.

My problem isn’t with electronic books in general; it’s with Amazon’s Kindle specifically. Because with Kindle, Amazon has set things up so that in order to get the good things electronic books can offer, you have to accept a whole bunch of bad things too. Things that don’t benefit you at all — and that in some cases actually take away rights that owners of physical books have enjoyed for hundreds of years — but that benefit Amazon a whole bunch.

To wit:

  • You can’t buy Kindle books from anyone other than Amazon. This strikes me as a Huge Deal. For physical books, there is a competitive marketplace; you can buy them from Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or Powell’s, or lots of other sources. This competitive pressure keeps costs down and ensures that no one store — not even a mega-store like Amazon or B&N — can shut a book out of the marketplace on its own whim. For Kindle books, no such competitive marketplace exists; other than public-domain titles, Kindle books are available from one and only one source, Amazon. If Kindle ever became the world’s default platform for reading electronic books, Amazon would have a monopoly on the intellectual property marketplace unlike anything the world has ever seen.
  • You don’t buy Kindle books; you rent them. Amazon tells you that you’re buying them, of course, but Amazon has the technical capability to reach out over the network and delete books from your Kindle at any time, with no warning and no refund. If that sounds far-fetched, consider that they have already done it at least once, remotely deleting copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from customers’ devices.
  • You can’t lend your Kindle books to friends. Or rather, you can, but only if the publisher has decided to allow you that privilege, and then only if your friend is also a user of a Kindle device or the Kindle app for phones and other devices. If any of the above conditions do not apply — like, say, if your friend had the incredible gall to buy an e-reading device from some other company — forget it. Contrast this to the much more liberal lending restrictions on physical books, which are that (1) you must have a friend and (2) said friend must have at least one functional eye.
  • You can’t sell or give away your Kindle books when you’re done with them. Kindle books are tied to your Amazon account; they cannot be transferred to someone using a non-Kindle e-reader, or even to another Kindle user. This completely demolishes the used book marketplace, which is probably the idea; Amazon wants you to buy your books new from them, rather than used from your friends or Alibris or the bookshop down the street. It also makes it impossible to give your books to your local public library when you’re done with them; Amazon has a program through which public libraries can lend Kindle books, but unsurprisingly it involves the library buying the books new from Amazon rather than having them donated by patrons.

This is a lot to ask people to accept in order to get the benefits of electronic books. For me, it’s too much. So that’s why I have yet to pick up a Kindle. (Amazon’s major competitor in this space, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, is less objectionable; Nook books use the open EPUB format rather than a proprietary one like Kindle’s, so it’s possible for other vendors to sell books to Nook users beyond just B&N.)

I’m sure that some people will object that most of my complaints about Kindle are due to publishers’ paranoia about piracy, the way people said that Apple’s heavy-handed restrictions on music sold in the early days of the iTunes Music Store came from labels rather than from Apple. That may or may not be true; frankly, I don’t particularly care. I’m not looking to judge whether the soul of Jeff Bezos is good and true. I just want to buy electronic books without having to surrender the rights that I’ve always had when buying physical ones.

I’m confident that the day will come when that will be possible; for a long time people said you’d never be able to buy DRM-free music online, and now it’s available everywhere (including, ironically, from Amazon). The music business had to learn the hard way that content that comes freighted with a bunch of customer-unfriendly restrictions is less appealing than content that leaves all that baggage behind. Presumably the book business will get the message eventually too. But we’re not there yet, unfortunately.



November 18, 2011
10:59 am

Great post! I especially loved the lending restrictions on physical books.

Speaking of which, I believe I have a book that belongs to you, “Them” by Jon Ronson. How can I get it back to you?