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Technology & Innovation

The War Over Ebooks: Update

Now that Amazon has shown it can and will cut off access to its stock of books whenever it pleases, the Authors Guild has created this tool for writers. Register at whomovedmybuybutton?.com and you’ll be alerted when Amazon abruptly stops selling your work. It’s a clever move, which shows the Authors Guild has learned a thing or two about asymmetrical warfare since its public shoving match with Amazon eight years ago.

Then, Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, stirred up a mob of pitchfork-and-torch wielding book buyers, who crashed the Guild’s servers with their angry emails. They believed Amazon’s claim that it’s the reader’s champion, fighting greedy obstructionists who want people to pay too much for books (the argument was over Amazon selling used copies of books even when authors were still trying to sell new ones). This month, the author’s group played a better game (full disclosure: I’m not involved in any way with the Guild’s policies or tactics, but I am a member). It has managed to avoid being framed as the guy sues the neighbors because their baseball landed on his lawn. Now it’s positioned itself as the neighbor who wants to help you stop Bezos from bulldozing your house.

Of course, it helps that last week Amazon took thuggish tactics to a new low, when it yanked all Macmillan books’ “Buy” buttons because the publisher wants to renegotiate ebook sales. Macmillan authors have no control or say in this fight, so Amazon’s willingness to block their sales didn’t play well. Though some seemingly smart people drank the company Kool-Aid, many others have seen through the “reader’s Robin Hood” pose.

Robin Hood, after all, took from the rich and gave to the poor. Full stop. He didn’t come around the next week to take back the family cow and the new stewpot. But Amazon, as Tobias Buckell points out, sells its eBooks with Digital Rights Management protection that gives it total control over the text.

You think you own a copy of 1984 or Animal Farm, but Amazon can (and has) locked people out of the books they paid for (yes, the books were 1984 and Animal Farm–you cannot make this stuff up). The ePub format Apple uses for its ebooks permits publishers to use DRM, but it doesn’t require it. So which company would you trust to safeguard access to your books? The one that declares it can make the text go pfffft at any time? Or the one that is at least willing to sell books without keeping that power?

Nobody should blame Amazon for trying to protect its own interests. But when it talks like Gandalf (“Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission“) it’s asserting that its interests align with the Good and the Right. Which, if true, would be a compelling reason to pick up a flaming torch and go crash some bad guy’s server. That’s why Amazon can be blamed for talking like Gandalf while acting like Sauron: A phrase like “fundamental good” will stir up the mob against your opponents (the enemies of the good! Get them!) but the cost to society is high.

First, there are those flaming torches and waving pitchforks in the public square, where people ought to be having a calm and rather technical conversation about managing the interests of creators, publishers, sellers and buyers in a time of technological change. Second, the more things are described as “fundamentally good,” the less the phrase means, and the less helpful it is in situations where good and bad are really at stake.

So it’s fair to call out for trying to introduce the language of good and evil into a business negotiation, and for dressing up like the authors’ champion even as it chokes off some authors’ income and reserves the right to do the same to others tomorrow. The Authors Guild’s new site is light on loaded words, preferring to stick to the bald facts: Either a “Buy” button is on a page, or it isn’t. That’s good for the book industry. And it’s smart tactics.


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