An Open Letter to E-Book Retailers: Let’s have a return to common sense

Dear E-Book Retailers:

I’ve read so many wacky news stories this week that my head is spinning.

There was the Random House thing—the idea that a publisher actually had to explain to its paying customers whether they owned their bought books or not just boggles my mind. Then there was the Norwegian lady who had all her books deleted, then un-deleted, by Amazon. And the assertion by a Kobo tech support person that accounts belong not to households but the one sole individual whose name is on the credit card …

Please, can we have a return to common sense sometime soon? I am not advocating piracy. I am not advocating some kind of content free-for-all where it’s the high seas and people swoon about with swords and treasure maps and stomp over rightful owners in their quest for gold. I buy my books (except when I read library books, which I pay for via taxes). I reward content creators for their labors, which I make use of. But in return, I am asking—pleading—to be treated in return like a real person, and given the trust to use my purchased content sensibly, and with some allowance for real life.

For instance:


On this issue, I think it should be clear. If the button said ‘buy now’ and I clicked on it and I paid anything remotely resembling full retail price, I should own the book. And therefore, I should be free to read it on any device I choose, with no limits—no ‘only five devices,’ or ‘only Amazon devices,’ or any such nonsense. Do away with DRM, or make it a non-interfering social DRM like a watermark or something. But it should be mine. If you don’t want me to own it, then call it a rental instead, charge me a rental-level price, and I will stop complaining about DRM, I promise. My library books expire after a set number of days. DRM enables that. I am perfectly fine with that system. I am not fine with DRM limiting my fair use on books I pay full price for.


We need to get realistic, too, on the whole ‘registered user’ issue. If retailers are saying that only the user who owns the account can read the books, then isn’t it a contradiction that they’re also selling picture books intended for little children who don’t have credit cards with which to purchase those books? The idea that I am committing piracy if I buy a picture book from Amazon and load it onto a device to read with a little child (who gets to read the book, therefore, without paying) is simply absurd. People are not criminals if they want to purchase a book to read with their mate or their child.  There is a difference between ‘loading it onto a BitTorrent network for all the world to see,’ and ‘I am the household tech person so everyone uses my account and my computer to load their stuff.’


We also need to get over this idea of the ‘lost sale.’ Just having the book doesn’t mean you’re going to read it. Consider again the example of my household—we currently have two e-book readers, one for me and one for him, both registered to my account. We could potentially get more devices later, for ourselves or for the future children or whomever. And odds are, they will treat it the same way he does: They’ll hand it off to me, tell me what books they want and wait for me to get them. The strict letter of the rules would tell you this is not permitted because if we all share an account, we’re buying only one copy, whereas if we all have separate accounts, we’d buy more than one.

But how true is that? Of the 15 or so books he’s read on his Kobo so far, I can think of only one that even remotely interested me. Just because I have his books on my account doesn’t mean I’d care to read them, and it doesn’t mean I would buy a second copy for myself if he got to the point where he cared to download his own stuff. Similarly, people get books for their kids all the time, and maybe they glance through a book to make sure it’s appropriate before they give it to the kids, but clearly, it doesn’t mean they would buy another copy for themselves if the kids were getting their books some other way.

Let’s be real here. Parents buy for kids. Couples share computers, but not necessarily reading tastes. It doesn’t mean they are ‘pirates.’

– – –

Please, retailers: Let’s have a return to common sense. If you want people to buy, let them buy. But then be reasonable about how you let them use their purchases. If you don’t want to be reasonable, and you want to control every eyeball, don’t let people buy. Turn the whole thing into a rental system and adjust your prices accordingly. But you can’t have it both ways—you can’t charge people buying prices and then treat them like renters. If you do, they will simply revolt and take their entertainment dollars elsewhere.

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35 Comments on An Open Letter to E-Book Retailers: Let’s have a return to common sense




    You’re my hero for today (at least; probably longer!)

  4. I’m standing, my legs ache. I’m applauding, my hands are sore.

  5. Excellent post on the whole “license vs. sale” thing that I think most readers don’t understand well enough — and when people don’t understand something well enough, companies usually find a way to use that lack of knowledge to their benefit and your detriment.

    I wrote a post about this a while back that echoes much of what you’re saying:

    “…if I own the e-book file, I should be able to convert it and read it on some new device 5 or 10 years from now. And, if I can’t, if this isn’t an e-book sale, but just a strictly-controlled rental that will expire in a few years, then forget $9.99 — people aren’t going to be willing to pay anywhere near print book prices for e-books, nor should they, if they’ll just have to keep re-buying them every few years. And I think the publishers are intentionally refusing to clarify the issue, because they don’t want customers to think about that possibility.”

    (The full post is here if you’re interested.)

  6. Great post. Some of your points are not the choice of the retailer, but of the publisher. I think we’ll move closer to a common platform after a while, but if publishers don’t have the rights, or don’t wish to make a book available in a certain format, or a specific country, the retailer can’t do anything about it.

  7. Thanks. Enjoyed this article. You make a ton of sense.

  8. Fine post, but why would anyone think that Amazon or Apple or Microsoft or any tech company would give a fig about what readers want? These companies aren’t in business to make reading a better or more convenient experience; they’re in business to make as much money as they can. And books, or what used to be known as books, are just a means to that end. I won’t pretend to know how it all ends, but I’m reasonably sure that readers like Joanna Cabot will be left holding the bag.

  9. Per a twitter post from Carolyn Kellogg

    “Apparently Norwegian customer’s Kindle NOT wiped; it was broken & then the account was closed.

    [Simon Phipps talked to Linn and got Linn’s story:]
    “She told me she’d read 30 or 40 books on it.
    “Sadly, the device developed a fault (actually a second time, it was also replaced in 2011 for the same reason) and started to display black lines on the screen (something I’ve heard from other friends as it happens). She called Amazon customer service, and they agreed to replace it if she returned it, although they insisted on shipping the replacement to a UK address rather to her in Norway.”

    [It was already broken but she lost access to her server files. ]

    The Computerworld article below.
    “Where does that leave Linn? The old Kindle no longer works, so although she presumes her purchased books are still on it she can’t read on that.”

    (“presumes her purchased books are still on it”)

  10. Some common sense on pricing more generally would be good. I regularly see Kindle editions that cost MORE than the paperback edition of the same book. How on earth do justify that other than with, “… because we can.”?

  11. Incidentally, the whole thing would be a lot simpler if the lady had been permitted to purchase a Kindle (and Kindle books) in Norway. Unfortunately, due to Norway’s government regulations on the sale of media (and taxation of those sales) Amazon hasn’t been able to make that happen.

  12. I agree, but why stop with books? Why am I only “licensing” software that *I* have to *buy* (and that can run you north of $500); am “permitted” to load on only one computer, unless I buy ADDITIONAL copies so I can use the same software on my laptop; have to click “Agree” on a 12+ page EULA that it takes a lawyer to decipher and explains in ten different ways all the ways you can and cannot use what you *purchased* BEFORE said software will even install; and then said software company has the nerve to state in writing there’s no merchant of warrantability. In other words, they won’t even stand by their product, do not have to guarantee their merchandise, which you might have paid north of $500 for, will actually WORK or be compatible with your other software? You cannot return it for a refund if it does not work on your computer if it has been opened (though the only way you know if it will work is to OPEN and install it). Who also will charge you for calling tech support–because you aren’t a programmer yourself–because the software you bought won’t run or work properly. And any help documentation is available in digital format only (which is inaccessible if you can’t access the online skimpy users manual or worse, the software directs you to a *website* for the documentation–that used to be provided as a booklet–where YOU print out the 100 or so pages of the users manual for software you do not even have the right to SELL to someone else if you no longer use it/switched to other software by another company.

    And that is not counting the ringtones you have to buy for your cell phone, though you may already own the whole song itself and could easily MAKE your own ringtones (as the commercial ones usually pick some arbitrary, boring part of the song). Adding insult to injury, you do not *own* that ringtone either. And in fact many times those ringtones you paid for work only for a year and then mysteriously disappear from your phone, forcing you to again re-download a ringtone you could make yourself, for free, from a CD or digital download you have already paid for.

    Or even take credit cards. Remember when you once had an actual month, a full 30 days before the bill came? Now most have a 21-day cycle–taking away a entire week (which very often could make the difference between being able to pay off a month’s statement in full or not being able to and getting socked with the interest, the credit card company’s best friend. Remember when you could simply switch cards/companies that offered a lower APR and you could transfer balances for free? Now there’s a charge for the privilege, a percentage often far exceeding the overhead required from your now-previous card to transfer the account, given it is all done electronically and no physically money actually switches HANDS.

    It seems increasingly companies do more and more to “trap” you, keep you as their customer by making it financially harder to sever the relationship by way of this or that penalty. All the while the quality of your merchandise is half what it used to be. It is pretty sad when you put down a 100K on a new television or washing machine and then the company tries to sell you an extended warranty. Implying they know they have made a crap product (perhaps because said merchandise is made by someone working 18 hours a day in a sweatshop-like environment for $1.00 a day?).

    So yes, it stinks the restrictions on books. Just as much as it stinks that you increasingly do not OWN what you buy, and you do not even have the right to sell it when you no longer want it. Viva capitalism? Sometimes capitalism emits a pretty foul stench.

  13. Alas, the DRM situation for music files didn’t change because people made reasonable requests to music distributors (and legislators). It changed because people were copying and downloading billions of music files for nothing, and the distributors realised their only hope of holding on to any market share whatsoever was to treat their customers like decent human beings. Maybe book publishers are smart enough to learn by example, rather than bitter experience, but nothing I’ve seen so far makes me confident of that.

  14. And then people wonder why I still read real books. At least with them, I know what is and isn’t mine.

  15. I completely agree. This is something that all content providers need to address, not just book Sellers. If I purchase something and my wife purchases something then we need to be able to share it. With each other and with our kids, as we choose, across platforms and devices. Without hassle. And still remain independent as users for the sake of setting permissions, determining preferences, and generally tracking usage.

    We are individuals, but we are connected. Our content should be too. Our physical libraries work this way.

  16. I understand why people like e-books, but this is one reason I stick to the ink and paper version.

  17. I think e-tailers should be required to change their verbiage to “Licence Now” instead of “Buy Now!”, along with a summary of the terms and conditions, and a link to the full terms and conditions.

    Yes, their sales would plummet. But they’d also plummet if people realized what they’re really getting (or not getting) when they purchase DRM limited media.

    I do think it’s odd that there’s usually a [used] print edition for cheaper than the DRM’d copy. And I’m not worried about the paper edition expiring, “disappearing”, sharing the book, etc.

  18. I think there is a terrible misconception among many consumers that the retailers have some choice in how freely the content is being shared (also in the pricing of the ebooks). My understanding is that the publishers are really the ones who are being greedy here, limiting sharing irrationally and pricing things ridiculously. It worries me that an article like this is going to perpetuate the myth that booksellers are just being jerks, when really, they’re readers just like their customers, and would like to see more freedom in the realm of ebooks as well.

  19. “The idea that I am committing piracy if I buy a picture book from Amazon and load it onto a device to read with a little child (who gets to read the book, therefore, without paying) is simply absurd. ”

    To be fair to Amazon, I asked the same question of them that I asked of Kobo, and got back the answer that the copy of the book was mine, and that I could let anyone read it, so long as it was on a device registered with my Amazon account.

    Don’t assume that all ebook retailers are taking the same stance.

  20. If I must pay $10.00-$20.00 per e-book from, the publisher should spend some time actually editing the book. The last three books that I bought (two of which were supposedly best sellers) contained passages that were incomprehensible because of grammatical mistakes, run-on and incomplete sentences, misspelled and misused words, and other errors. Part of a publisher’s responsibility (and others in the publishing chain) is to edit and proofread the manuscript. The importance of editing seems to be lost on the producers of some e-books.

    Since producing an ebook eliminates much of the cost of publishing, why not give a greater percentage of the take to the author? At present, receives 68% of the profit.

    Present policies, lack of clear ownership, and low payoff to the author will eventually kill the publishing industry as we know it today.

  21. …and “device” in the Kindle Terms of service doesn’t have to be a Kindle but rather a PC, Mac, phone, or whatever with a Kindle App. (Even a browser will do.)
    Since you can have up to six “devices” (or apps) active *at one time* you can activate and deactivate devices so that you can even lend your entire Kindle *library* to a relative or close friend (somebody you trust with access to your Amazon account, knowing they won’t go on a spree spending your money 😉 ).
    Us hobbyists and techies might be acutely aware of the boundaries of the Kindle walled garden but for Amazon’s typical customer those boundaries are more than open enough. And they *are* broader and better defined than most of their competitors’ boundaries.

  22. All that and… if I buy a physical book and other members of my family want to read it, they don’t buy separate copies. It is normal use of a book to share it. Kindle does have a never-promoted provision for lending books but it has to be turned on, book-by-book, by the publisher and it almost never is.

  23. I would also very much like publishers to adopt a triple play model – charge me once for the title, and a nominal extra for the various formats – I don’t mind paying a premium to get a book on release day, but I almost never want a hardback. I also don’t want to pay twice if I get given a hardcopy as a christmas present, but have the rest of the series as eBook.
    I fully accept that there is an overhead that makes ebooks “not free” despite being negligible distribution costs. But I think it insane that I – as a paying customer – would have a better consumer experience with a pirate copy.

  24. Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you!

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