advice sought

Yesterday I got this email from Amazon:

We’re writing about your past Kindle purchase of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The version you received had missing content and typos that have been corrected. 

An updated version of The Lord of the Rings (ASIN:B0026REBFK) is now available. It’s important to note that when we send you the updated version, you will no longer be able to view any highlights, bookmarks, and notes made in your current version and your furthest reading location will be lost. 

If you wish to receive the updated version, please reply to this email with the word “Yes” in the first line of your response. Within 2 hours of receiving the e-mail any device that has the title currently downloaded will be updated automatically if the wireless is on.

Hmmmm. I’d certainly like to have the corrected edition. On the other hand, the copy I currently have has lots of underlined passages, and I have some notes keyed to the locations of those passages — I’d like to keep those. One possibility: I could go to the Your Reading page, and save all my annotations as a PDF, then update the book.

What a strange situation. Can you imagine buying a book at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, only to have the store manager call you six months later to apologize for errors in that book? And offering to bring you a brand-new corrected copy? But only on the condition that you return the first one to him? It’s all just too weird.

unpopular highlights

Virginia Heffernan:

Amazon is quick to point out that you can always disable the [Popular Highlights] feature. But there’s a genie-in-the-bottle problem here. As with many things on the Web, once you’ve glimpsed popular highlights, it’s hard to unglimpse them. You get curious about what other readers think, especially with a book like “Freedom,” which bookstore windows and airplane waiting lounges would have you believe everyone is thinking about. Reading, after all, is only superficially solitary; in fact, it’s a form of intensive participation in language and the building of common culture.

Well . . . I disabled it immediately and have never considered re-enabling it. I am not in the least bit curious about what other people underline. Does that make me arrogant? A misanthrope? Both? . . . Cool.

okay, let’s review

Jason Kottke seems to like it when Amazon reviewers give a book, or some other item, a low rating because of availability issues: “the early reviews for Michael Lewis’ The Big Short are dominated by one-star reviews from Kindle owners who are angry because the book is not available for the device.”

Compare this with traditional reviewers who focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. . . .Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There’s little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it’s better to wait until the director’s cut comes out. In the end, people don’t buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.

Interesting that Kottke thinks that “reviewing” and “giving buying advice” are the same thing; or, in other words, there’s no difference between the “review” that appears in a newspaper or magazine and the “review” that appears on Amazon.com. This is a classic case of false synonymity.When I review a book I don’t even think about whether the reader of my review is going to purchase the book — it never crosses my mind. I am trying to engage, intellectually, with what I am reviewing, to respond fairly and charitably to it, but also with proper critical acuity (which I think charity demands). I am trying to be a good reader, but to be one in public, as it were.This approach to reviewing is, first of all incompatible with handing out stars, which is an intrinsically stupid system anyway. But if we have to hand out stars, shouldn’t we make a distinction between what we think about the movie or book or game and what we think about its delivery system? Isn’t it possible that The Big Short is a terrific book that just doesn’t happen to be available on the Kindle at the moment? And if that is possible, does the one-star review capture that distinction? Maybe Amazon needs a new system to take such matters into account.

you do this, you do that

Rachel Cooke writes, “Amazon does not set the synapses crackling the way the sight of a pristine shelf of books does: it does not surprise you, nor does it fuel book hunger. You click on what you came for, and then you leave.”One of my most common frustrations in reading evaluations of recent technologies of reading/writing/information is the tendency of almost all parties — technophiles and Luddites alike — to assume that everyone responds to these technologies in the same way: precisely the way the writer does. When Cooke visits Amazon she clicks on what she came for, and then she leaves; but I don’t. Amazon doesn’t fuel her book hunger; but it fuels mine. (Almost everything does.) Maybe we can’t all just get along, but surely we can all stop universalizing our quite individual experiences.)

wait — where did it go?

David Pogue, from here:

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned. But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price. This is ugly for all kinds of reasons. Amazon says that this sort of thing is “rare,” but that it can happen at all is unsettling; we’ve been taught to believe that e-books are, you know, just like books, only better. Already, we’ve learned that they’re not really like books, in that once we’re finished reading them, we can’t resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final. As one of my readers noted, it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table. You want to know the best part? The juicy, plump, dripping irony? The author who was the victim of this Big Brotherish plot was none other than George Orwell. And the books were “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

the DRM debate

Over at The Digitalist, there are two posts by Michael Bhaskar — here and here — on DRM: Digital Rights Management. Bhaskar is in publishing, so his primary concern is with Amazon’s DRM model on its Kindle books, but he refers also to Apple’s restrictions on the music it sells through iTunes. The real interest here is in the comments, some of which come from people who have been banging this drum for a long time — Cory Doctorow, Clay Shirky — but they are really interesting nonetheless. The whole conversation gives a great image of the state of the current debate. Anyone interested in these matters should read it with care.

book buying

David Streitfeld has a curious essay in the NYT about bad times for the publishing industry — publishers not buying new books, bookstores closing — and his preferred explanation for the troubles:

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers. In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds.

Seriously? Are there that many people buying used books online? I suppose it’s possible, but my own experience wouldn’t suggest that that market is huge. But then, a lot of used book sales are done via Amazon, and no one really knows how well Amazon is doing. Maybe Streitfeld is right and used-books-via-Amazon-and-eBay constitute a major threat to the whole publishing industry. But I have my doubts. Something else in the essay that I find intriguing: Streitfeld’s claim that the ready availability of used books makes book-buying a morally-charged enterprise:

One consequence has been to change the calculations involved in buying a book. Given the price, do I really want to read this? Now it’s become both an economic and a moral issue? How much do I want to pay, and where do I want that money to go? To my local community via a bookstore? To the publisher? To the author? In theory, I want to support all of these fine folks. In practice, I decide to save a buck.

I’m sensing a whole brave new world of examples for writers of ethics texts.