vernor-vinges-a-fire-upon-the-deepSit right back and I’ll tell a tale—a tale of a fateful e-book.

Back in 1998, I was attending college at Southwest Missouri State University for the second time. (It’s since dropped the “Southwest,” leaving me constantly unsure whether to use the old or new name on job applications.) I was intrigued by the promise afforded by the new Palm PDAs and decided to buy one—a Palm IIIe. (And then a Visor Deluxe, but that came later.)

But after I’d ordered the PDA, and while I was still waiting for it to arrive, I noticed one of my all-time favorite e-books was available on Peanut Press—Vernor Vinge’s classic novel of a far-future Usenet-analog, A Fire Upon the Deep. I’d read the book in dead-tree format and loved it, and here it was electronically for just a few bucks. So I grabbed it before I even had anything to read it on yet, just so I would have a book to read when the Palm at last arrived. When I finally had the chance, I did enjoy it electronically—the first of many titles I would buy from eReader and Fictionwise. I would later buy the annotated edition of the e-book, and review it for Slashdot.

Fast-forward 14 years, to 2012. Barnes & Noble had bought eReader and Fictionwise, and was now shutting them down in the wake of agency pricing killing their business. It offered to transfer what titles it could from customers’ libraries to Barnes & Noble’s Nook library, but warned that “A few Fictionwise titles may not transfer due to discontinued publishing programs” and recommended customers download those and save them and a copy of the current eReader app for reading them in the future. (Of course, there were other ways of backing them up even then, one of which I took advantage of. Given that B&N wasn’t going to be able to move over at least $200 worth of my e-books, it would have been dumb not to.)

Over the last couple of years, ever since B&N made it more difficult to access titles I bought there, I’ve stopped buying e-books from Barnes & Noble altogether. I haven’t even looked at my Nook bookshelf in ages. But I was moved to glance at it again yesterday, while considering whether to fill out the EFF’s DRM horror story form. I was curious whether the annotated edition of the e-book was still there, or just the original version.

The annotated version wasn’t there, which didn’t really surprise me. There were a lot of titles B&N hadn’t been able to move over, and it didn’t seem implausible that book would be one of them.

bookragsBut imagine my surprise when I found that, rather than the original version, I had the BookRags A Fire Upon the Deep study guide in my library—an off-brand Cliff’s Notes on the book—instead. I never bought said study guide, because I don’t buy study guides. Apparently somewhere along the way Barnes & Noble got confused over titles and substituted it. The original book itself was nowhere to be found.

I wasn’t too concerned—I still have both editions safely in my Calibre library on Dropbox—but I was bemused. I decided to contact Barnes & Noble chat support and see what they could do for me. After I explained the problem, the representative told me that I could go ahead and purchase A Fire Upon the Deep if I wanted, and offered to give me the link.



It wasn’t on my account, therefore, I must not have purchased it. When I explained I had originally bought it from Peanut Press in 1998, he nonetheless asked me for an order number, and when I couldn’t provide one (honestly, I don’t even have my email from that far back!) suggested I should call their 800 number and inquire about it in person. Yeah, like that’s going to happen before Satan goes around on ice skates.

I’m just glad I had the technological savvy necessary to rescue the book and save it when I needed it. What recourse would the average e-book customer have had, who might not have known such things were possible and could only watch the titles they’d paid good money for vanish into the aether?

The story has been much on my mind given Barnes & Noble’s recent decision to do the same thing all over again with its Nook UK store, handing off its customers to Sainsbury’s instead. As Nate notes at The Digital Reader, there’s no guarantee that new Nook hardware will have any use at all in the UK going forward, and there’s certainly no guarantee Nook UK customers will be able to take all their titles with them any more than I could take all my eReader and Fictionwise titles.

Trying to prognosticate which companies have a future is a guessing game, of course—who could have predicted a couple of decades ago that Borders and Blockbuster, two of the biggest media store chains in the US, would one day go belly up? But all the same, Amazon appears to be in no immediate danger of collapse, while Barnes & Noble has been decidedly shaky for a while. I feel for all the UK customers who didn’t want to support Amazon for one reason or another and settled on Barnes & Noble’s Nook as a reasonable alternative—if they’d gone with a Kindle instead, they’d still have their e-books now, without the hassle of moving titles over and the uncertainty of being able to use their devices in the future.

As I said before, Barnes & Noble effectively trashed at least $200 worth of e-books from my Fictionwise and eReader libraries when it moved them over. Now I’ve found that, adding insult to injury, Barnes & Noble has also trashed—or outright stolen—the first e-book I ever bought.

More than ever, I’m glad I don’t have anything to do with Nook anymore—and that when Apple’s antitrust settlement finally comes through, I can pick something else to buy from Barnes & Noble instead of more e-books.

UPDATE: They gave it back!


  1. There is always a risk when buying something that runs on a device. When then the device goes away so does the stuff you bought for it. Think VHS and cassettes types. Way back when I purchased an unabridged audio of Lolita; fast forward ten years and my cassette players had been retired, so I had to purchase the book again for my iPod. Too much hassle to convert the tapes to digital.

    Now DRM isn’t quite the same thing as a physical device, but the principle hold true. Why should an ebook bought for a Palm work on a Kindle or something else?

    I’m not a fan of DRM and it would be great if things you bought could work on any device, but there are too many arguments that preach to the choir.

  2. So they offered you an escalation that might have solved your problem and you declined it because… something about ice skating? Honestly, I was with you up until that point. Your case is clearly an outlier, and everyone knows complex systems can be buggy when handling outliers. If you’d picked up the phone and explained you situation to someone other than a chatbot (possibly human but still) they might have comped you the book and you’d be out 0%. It’s not so much that the system failed you, it’s that you took umbrage at an inconvenience and walked away before it could succeed.

    • Dude, you need to brush up on your reading comprehension because what was offered that “might have solved” the problem was to buy the damned book again.

      On what planet is THAT a solution? Having experience with B&N customer support, I have NEVER had them “comp” me for my dissatisfied purchase. The ONLY relief that I’ve ever experienced is to switch to Amazon, which I’ve done.

      Apparently, I am not alone in my problems with B&N. This company deserves to die; screaming if possible.

  3. Scary! I too started my ebook journey on my Palm PDA with PeanutPress (later eReader), although in 2000. I bought “A Fire Upon the Deep” in 2001, and I bought the special annotated edition in 2008. At the time of the handover to B&N in 2012, I was quite pleased with the responsiveness of the B&N staff. There was a bit of a glitch with one book (they gave me Tolkein’s “The Two Towers” when they should have given me the entire three-volume set of “The Lord of the Rings”) and they fixed it right away; clearly at that time the reps had the ability and the skill to reach into users’ libraries and add books.

    After reading this and getting scared I checked my own B&N library, and fortunately my digital copy of “A Fire Upon the Deep” is just fine! I often re-read some of my 200+ books that got carried over from PeanutPress / eReader, although I have never bought a single Nook book from B&N.

    • I also had the problem where they gave me Tolkien’s “The Two Towers” instead of the entire three-volume set of “The Lord of the Rings”. They told me that they were aware of the problem and were looking into fixing it. I never received the correct book, but I already had it backed up anyway.

  4. They didn’t *steal* it, they are just so incompetent they can’t write an algorithm that differentiates between study guides and actual copies of the text.

    Which is scary in its own way, right? These are the vanguards of culture and they can’t bring themselves to care enough to learn how to properly organize their own inventory.

    Amazon has been around for twenty years. Those past twenty years were spent complaining about Amazon, who was teaching them how an online business can function and where their weak points are.

    So they spent the next 20 years…. not learning the tech, not bringing themselves up to speed. They spent the past 20 years burying their heads in the sand and wondering when it would all go back to the way it was.

    I wanted to work in publishing after graduating. I did work in publishing after graduating. I left after two years and will never look back. Shame on every insider reading this article wondering why the author had to be so mean. It’s because you deserve all of it. You failed. And now you will go out of business. Goodbye.

  5. I am really pleased that B&N keeps pulling these sort of stunts.

    Every now and then they show to us readers that the only way to be sure we can keep our books for ever is to strip DRM and store the ebooks in a secure place. All these articles about the possibility of losing ebooks from our libraries, encourage us to look at ways of protecting our purchases. We find ways to strip DRM and save our ebooks.

    Without B&N’s useless customer service, we would all get complacent and think that these companies would look after our purchases. Amazon is strong now and their customer service is great but I still strip the DRM of any books I get from them. Its just an automatic habit of mine, but I am reassured that those ebooks now belong to me.

  6. Chris, not only is asking you to re-buy the book you bought a ridiculous suggestion, but if you WERE to buy it again, they have made it more difficult to actually save it to anything that you own, since they stopped allowing customers to download the epub files to their computers. That blew my mind when I read about that. (probably here on TeleRead)

    And I also saved a transcript of a similarly hilarious exchange with B&N chat, because I think their ‘Chat’ responder is a computer. Or someone with a really twisted sense of humor. Either way, their purpose is to drive you into a dead end until you give up.

  7. I, too, lost my copy of The Lord of the Rings to a copy of The Two Towers, in the conversion from Fictionwise to B&N Nook, as well as The Kite Runner, which became an graphic novel of The Kite Runner, and Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered, which is now in pre-release status until 2037. I reported all of these to B&N customer service, who promised to take care of it, and never did. On the other hand, there were a couple of books that I thought I had downloaded years early but hadn’t, that fortunately became available again after the conversion. Even so, I probably lost a couple dozen (self-published?) ebooks that Fictionwise carried that were not available at B&N.

    Personally, the problem I have with DRM is that whenever a company with proprietary DRM goes out of business, and their proprietary viewer eventually dies, and they all eventually do, I have no recourse and no ability to copy & convert to another format. I can do that with a photograph, video tape or a LP, or cassette, or CD, but not with a DVD, Blu-Ray, the now defunct HD-DVD, or ebook. I have thousands of dollars of video and ebooks that eventually I will not be able to preserve and view (legally) because of DRM only because I picked the wrong technological platform.
    To a certain extant, I think people’s complaints about not being able to download Nook files to their computer are partially incorrect. I don’t know about Mac users, but Windows 8/10 users can still download their ebooks with the Nook windows app from the Windows app store, and if you can find it, you can still download the older Nook for PC and NookStudy apps and run them on Windows 7 (although it’s not supported). It can be hard to find where the Nook app puts the epubs, but they are regular epubs (with B&N DRM if the book is DRMd, or without DRM). From my perspective, this is really not much difference from downloading ebooks from Amazon with the Kindle for PC app. However, if you are running Linux or other Unix systems, you’ve lost the ability to read or download your ebooks directly from the B&N website.

  8. This is not a DRM issue, but it’s close. In 2004 I was an Audible member; two of the books I purchased back then disappeared from my library. One book was substituted for a book with the same title by a different author. The other was just gone. Audible had the books I bought available in different editions and/or different narrators. I have know about it for some time but didn’t do anything because neither book was on an immediate re-listen queue. Reading about the B&N customer service made me curious as to what could be done.

    In fact, I have back up copies that work just fine in my iTunes DRM and all. I used listen on an iPod. I’d download to my Mac then transfer via USB cable. But nowadays I listen on my iPhone, downloading directly, and the titles were not there. I could have used a USB cable with my iPhone – but the titles shouldn’t have been missing.

    So I called Audible this afternoon: their records show one book never purchased and that I did purchase the other book with the same title. At first I thought I’d get nowhere, but in the end the customer service rep – after placing me on hold a few times – give me credits to repurchase the new editions as the ones I’d originally bought were no longer available. I’ll call that good customer service. I would have been more than content to have the links the older editions reestablished. Maybe they thought I was just being pushy and decided not to stick to their guns.

    I do believe a glitch in the Audible system dropped one purchase and substituted the other. It’s a pause for concern that there may be other glitches. I’m database programmer and I’m more than aware of the glitches that can happen when transferring or upgrading systems.

    This time the problem was fixed. With other vendors and other circumstances – who knows.

  9. “Fast-forward 14 years” sorry to say, that’s well beyond the lifespan of purchased products that tie to a platform. Even though BN bought them, the platforms you bought the books on CEASED TO EXIST. That’s the crux of the problem, not BNs unwillingness to support those old purchases that nobody has records for. I am against platform lock-in too, but the solution is to shun any platform that holds control over your “purchases”. DRM on digital purchases means you’re doing little more than renting (which content publishers would prefer), but we have more options without DRM now.

  10. My response to the EFF survey was the same thing that Kate said, that I’ll never buy from B&N ever again since they suddenly stopped letting people download the books they supposedly purchased from them. If I can’t download it, I’m renting it, I don’t own it, and I shouldn’t have had to pay full price. Luckily I downloaded all of mine, and all of my Fictionwise books, before it was too late this time and that time. But I’m sure a lot of people got screwed and it will be way too late by the time B&N US goes out of the ebook business and they find out they can’t access any of their books.

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