Learning from Kindlegate and Amazonfail

I ran across this article at Podcasting News which reference this original article about trying to get multiple copies of purchased eBooks on multiple Kindle readers. This is being dubbed “Kindlegate” apparently. At first I was confused as to how this was a DRM issue because it sounded like an access to download issue, until I realized the core of the problem was trying to get the same book served out encrypted to various Kindle IDs.

Both “Kindlegate” and “Amazonfail” have one big commonality. Both original raisers of these issues cite the initial response from front line customer support as if it were gospel and then take umbrage when later on company policy is stated to be different from that first response. I am shocked, shocked I say, that Skip from Mumbai or Chad from Guangzhou may not be clued in to the exact ins and outs of company policy. To think, the people whose primary advice is to reboot and reinstall the OS may lack critical information? The mind boggles.

I want to stress that I am not a Kindle or Amazon apologist. I think they are screwing up some basic things but a lot of this issue is pure expectation. It does not seem unreasonable to me that there is a limit to DRM serving out of a single purchased download to different IDs. If there is not, then one person can effectively buy one copy and then serve as an unauthorized middleman for an infinite number of other users if he is willing to take the effort and be a scumbag.

However, in a world where MobiDeDRM exists, I don’t think this is such a huge issue. I would have thought much harder about buying a Kindle had this tool not existed. In the cases where it matters to me, I do not strip the DRM and store it away because that would be wrong. For others who might want to have access to their purchased documents under any circumstance, I’d strongly recommend not seeking out that tool.

I’ll admit that I have a certain lack of empathy for this issue. Those affected tend to be the ones with multiple Kindles and/or multiple iPhones, aka people who are already gizmo loving spazmos with more money than sense and kind of up the curve from mainline users. If there is a standard procedure ala iTunes to say to Amazon “I know longer have device with ID XYZ, please remove it from my authorized list and increment my allowed downloads by one” then that seems like it would be reasonable for 99% of users. It certainly seems reasonable for me and my usage patterns.

And for the record, I’m sick of people saying the Kindle is a “closed system” just like I was sick about them saying the same for an iPod. Devices that allow you to put arbitrary files on them in variety of unprotected formats and use them at will cannot possibly be closed. At least 50% of the documents on my Kindle are ones that I downloaded for free from Project Gutenburg or got emailed as review copies or otherwise did not pay Amazon for. That doesn’t fit with my definition of “closed”. You can buy unencrypted books at Fictionwise or other places. In fact its reasonable to do as much shopping in places that sell unencrypted books as possible so you register with the business that a marketplace exists for such things. You are voting with your dollars, kids.

The Kindle Criticism I Reject Out Of Hand

Shortly I’m going to post my review of the Kindle. I had held off because I wanted to have actually read some books to completion on it. I’ve done all the major functions at this point. I’ve read books I’ve purchased from Amazon – both from the web page and directly from the device. I’ve read my own documents, I’ve read review copies I got in AZW format, ones that I’ve had to convert, etc. At this point, I’ve done most of what you can do.

Prior to writing that, I want to head off one criticism that I read or hear at least once in any discussion of the device. In any Kindle conversation that goes any length, in person or online, you are guaranteed to hear the statement “The Kindle doesn’t appeal to me. I just love paper books.” That’s an admirable outlook. Paper books need people to love them. I love books too, I have a house full of them and no intention of getting rid of them. However that’s a statement about you, not about the device and it is completely irrelevant.

I love horses. They are fine, majestic animals. However, I’m going to keep driving my car to work. I love vinyl albums but I’m going to keep my CDs and my MP3 player, and despite the fact that vinyl sounds superior I’ll keep buying MP3s from the Amazon music store. I think a pork butt that is smoked over mesquite for 24 hours is about as good as food gets, but I’m keeping my microwave.

Unless your bibliophilia is driven by pure collector mania, you are reading some of these books. The Kindle is a fine, convenient device for reading. It’s not something that will subsume all reading ever under any circumstance. It has its uses and affordances and strong points and weak points, just like anything.

If your big opening salvo against the Kindle is “I love paper books” don’t be surprised if I ignore you and your input. If your big criticism of eating hamburgers is that you love sushi, you’ll get the same reaction from me. If you can’t understand different things have different usage patterns and that one pattern doesn’t negate the others, we’re unlikely to have a basis for this conversation.

PS – As I am composing this post, I just heard Pat Conroy on TV saying very similar things to those I reject. He doesn’t understand why anyone would want to read on the Kindle. Simmer down Pat, it’s a lower friction way for people to pay you. Be magnanimous enough to let them pay you for your writing. I have no doubt that if you were saying this in 1939, you’d be decrying the uncivilized form factor of the paperback book because you just love your hardcovers.

What Do I Do Next?

This morning I listened to episode #98 of Skepticality which was a follow-on discussion to the whole “Where Do We Go From Here?” talk of a few years ago. They referenced a PDF document with 100 points of action that people can take as a skeptic. I don’t really identify as a skeptic even though my sentiments are pretty much aligned with theirs. I took the PDF of “What Do I Do Next?” and ran it through the converter and put it on my Kindle. I’ll give it a read and see how I feel after that. I may yet tick over to the skeptic (TM) camp in full force one day.

Savory on the Kindle

My friend Rob sent me a link to Jesse Vincent’s Massively Parallel Procrastination blog, where the author is doing a lot of cool Kindle hacking. He’s created software called Savory that will do on the fly conversion of PDFs to Kindle’s AZW format on the device itself. I think that’s really an interesting and useful thing to do, but I’m not going to install it any time soon, if it all. I don’t have a huge need for PDF conversions and it isn’t worth the small risk of bricking my brand new device at this point.

I think I might explore what he’s doing. I’d much rather do the same conversions on my MacBook and move the files over myself. I don’t mind the overhead and would prefer to lower my risk. It’s really rare for me to buy a device like this at this point in its lifecycle. Translation: I’m usually too cheap a bastard to pay full price for optional gizmos. It’s cool that someone is doing it and I hope people are getting use from it. I’ll hang back on this one, though.

However, one interesting fact that I was not previously aware of was just an aside in one of Jesse’s posts. The Kindle natively supports the .cbz format that the comics digitizing folks use? That was a “holy crap!” type revelation to me. Now I have to find some just to see it work.

Kindle Edition of Fans, Friends and Followers

It’s “credit where credit is due” time. A few days I blogged about what seemed odd to me, that Scott Kirsner’s book Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age was not available in a Kindle edition. I emailed him and asked in so many words “What’s with this, bro?” We had an exchange to the effect that he would work on it. Well, he emailed me today to let me know that the book is now available in a Kindle edition. Even sweeter, that version is only $7.99, a few bucks cheaper than even the direct download from him.

In order to be as good as my word, I bought it immediately. It’s the second book I bought and for this I decided to try out purchasing from the device itself. It was a very easy and satisfying process. It only took a few seconds to find it (the unique last name didn’t hurt), a few seconds to make the purchase and the book was already downloaded as soon as I went to look for it in my shelf. All good. Now I’m looking forward to reading the thing. Thanks, Scott Kirsner and thanks Dave Kellett for originally bringing this to my attention.

Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for April 6, 2009 – “Starting is Easy, Finishing is Hard”

Here is the direct MP3 download for the EGC clambake for April 6, 2009. I play a song from Glass Eye; I talk about CREATE South and Balticon and Dragon*Con, about organizing a conference and what we are trying to do with CREATE South in Myrtle Beach; I play a solo song by Kathy McCarty, talk about my Kindle and my social media timeout; I close out with another Glass Eye song.

You can subscribe to this podcast feed via RSS. To sponsor the show, contact BackBeat Media. Don’t forget, you can fly your EGC flag by buying the stuff package. This show as a whole is Creative Commons licensed Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5. Bandwidth for this episode is provided by Cachefly.

Links mentioned in this episode:

My First Kindle Purchase

I’ve had my Kindle for a week now, and I am truly digging it. Because of my busy schedule I haven’t had time to sit down and just read a book but with what little time I’ve had to play with it I have been impressed with the quality of the device, the ease of use and the easiness on the eyes of reading on it.

I put a lot of my Fictionwise books on there first, which got me 100 short stories and novels to read almost from the very beginning. I converted a few more review copy books that I had in soft copy. Yesterday I made my first actual purchase from the Amazon website, and I’m deliriously happy with it. The book was Gus Hansen’s Every Hand Revealed, which I started reading today at lunch. It’s a fun and breezy read. When Gus won the Aussie Millions tournament in 2007, he had a little voice recorder with him and after every hand he captured the details. This book covers every hand he actually played all the way from the first round to the last hand. It covers what he had, what he thought his opponent had, why he called, raised, shoved or folded at every point. In some cases it breaks down the math for his calculations of expected value of different plays.

On top of all this, which sounds like it could be heavy, it is written in a compulsively readable, breezy style. Gus is a character, and reading this book I can hear his voice in my head with his Danish accent. There are all kinds of jokes here and it is downright fun to read it. Interesting to me is the number of mid suited connectors that Gus plays. He seems happier playing 89h than a pair of 7s. I know it is a leak in my game that I fold too many of these strong drawing hands, particularly when I’m in position. With Gus as my tour guide, maybe I’ll try to open up this part of my game.

All in all, I recommend the Kindle highly as a device (full review to come after I’ve read a whole book with it) and I recommend Gus’ book from just reading the first 20 hands.

Medium, Meet Message; Message, Medium

Yesterday I saw Dave Kellett post about a brand new book he was interviewed for: Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age by Scott Kirsner. “Interesting sounding”, I thought to myself. Bearing in mind the subject matter and given that I have a brand new Kindle burning a hole in my backpack, I figured this book would be my first electronic impulse buy for the reader. Guess what, no Kindle edition! I was set to drop $8-$15 on this book right then and there and see the first book magically appear on my device. No dice.

Maybe I’m giving Scott Kirsner too hard of a time. This book seems to be self-published and maybe he didn’t have the resources for doing this. However, he does have a PDF version for sale from his site for $12. I ran his downloadable sample through the Kindle converter and it came out pretty bad. Lines were broken in funny ways that split up words. It was not totally unreadable but it was bad enough to make it tough sledding to read.

I emailed Kirsner about this, and I’ll see if and what he replies. But folks, the Mobipocket Creator program is a free download (if Windows only) and even if you are vending this yourself, you can take your own HTML source and run it through the program to create a .mobi file that is natively readable on the Kindle. If you are writing books about the online world and digital culture, failing to put the hour or two into this process throws your credibility into question on the topic.

Kindling

I have ordered a Kindle 2. The dude who has the Stallman-esque belief that buying books for the Kindle is in itself an immoral act, get your negative commenting finger ready.

Update: it is here. I started to post “My Kindle is on the UPS truck for delivery” but I got paranoid about the infinitesimal but non-zero probability of the post being seen by someone who knows where I live and would be willing to swipe it. It’s charging right now. I’ll post my reactions to it shortly.

Update 2: My first reaction was “Whoa nellie, this is cool!” My second reaction was “Do I really need bifocals at age 41?”

A Decade of Ebook Arguments

In 1998, I left my job at Intel for a job with an ebook startup called JStream. It was in many ways my dream job, and of every one I’ve held it was the one I’d get excited on Sunday night because I got to go back in on Monday morning. It was a good fit for me because I’m a software developer and also a very avid bibliophile. At the time I took that job, I was in the final few months of producing the original Reality Break radio show. It was also at the point where a number of science fiction publishers were sending me every book they published every month, which sounds fantastic at first until you have to find a place to put them all. Ultimately, I realized there was no way to possibly keep them all, so a number of them were sold back to the Powells Books in Beaverton OR. It was around this time that I noticed that the arguments were confused by conflating two points – the love of reading and the fetishization of physical books. I split the difference in that I loved the reading but I also really love having and touching and owning physical books. Remember that point, we’ll come back to it.

Early on in my JStream days, I had to have the argument over and over and over about how impossible ebooks were to read. If you think back to the state of the art then in handheld devices, were were in the first few years of Palm dominance. The primary argument was screen size and resolution. Back then, I argued against that even when we were talking about 160X160 pixel 2.5″ screens. I read a number of full novels on my Handspring Visor and I found the experience completely pleasant. That was a full decade ago.

Now, I’m in the market for a Kindle in the near future. I’ve been reading up on reviews and criticisms of the device and it’s amusing to me how much of the pushback on the device is basically a retread on all the arguments that weren’t correct 10 years ago and are far less compelling today. “The screen is too small”, for a device with a viewable window that is about the size of a paperback book. “I can’t read it in the bathtub”, which was perhaps the single most common counter argument I heard in the 90s while also being the most nonsensical. You’d think from the fervor this came up that there was no dry reading happening in America. I can’t understand the bathtub use case that would ruin an electronic device but not ruin a paper book. Do people regularly dunk their paperbacks in the bath water?

I ran across this article with the advertising manager of DC Comics warning dire consequences for comcis if mindshare shifts to reading on the Kindle. What amuses me about that is that it’s cast in a “threat or menace” style fear-mongering way with zero mention of getting out in front of this parade. I see no downside in any comics company offering black and white versions of their comics to the Kindle for a reduced price. For any comic that is already in black and white (these tend to be indie books) there is no problem whatsoever. DC could easily take every book they currently publish, create an electronic copy from the inked pages before they are colored and just publish them. Of course they will not be as good an experience as buying the paper copies, but for some audience that is enough. You’d make money from a market that currently does not exist and which you already fear will eat away at sales. Modern day comic sales are already off 50% from mid 90’s. Did it occur to anyone that this might actually be a mechanism for rebuilding the audience that has mostly drifted away? Consider the electronic versions loss leaders in getting kids reading comics once again, and maybe they’ll come back again. Either way, it would cost a few hours of some staffers time per published issue to create an electronic version. The costs of this gamble are so freakishly low, I see no reason why any sensible business wouldn’t just go for it.

As I said up top, I’m a reading lover and I’m a book lover. I have far more books in my house than anyone needs and I’m willing to admit that I’ll probably go to my grave with some of these unread. And yet, I still want a Kindle. I have no problem reconciling the notion of “reading copies” with “collecting copies”, and realizing this Venn diagram is of two non-identical sets. I have hardback copies of all of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” novels. No way am I buying the final volume in the series in Kindle only. This is clearly a book that I want to own going forward.

However, any book that I would read and then consider releasing via BookCrossing or giving away to my local library sale, that’s a book I could have easily read via the Kindle without a paper copy to deal with later. I enjoy reading Max Allan Collins’ mystery novels and I own many but in general I’m not a collector of them. I’d buy them for the Kindle. I picked up a copy of Mike Grell’s novelization of his Jon Sable character at a dollar store and read it as my beach reading last year. That could have been a Kindle book. At last year’s Dragon*Con, I had interviews for Reality Break scheduled with Mur Lafferty and Tobias Buckell and electronic copies of both of their books. That meant either carrying the laptop or printing them out, which is what I opted to do and was a very large pain in the butt. I’d much rather have had both on a Kindle.

I have over 150 different stories, novels and magazines that I’ve already purchased via Fictionwise, including several years where that’s how I subscribed to both Asimov’s and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Again, I found that an entirely pleasant experience. When I get my Kindle, one of my first actions will be to redownload that entire library of books I’ve bought in Mobipocket format, which can be read by the Kindle natively. Right out of the gate, I’ll have that library to draw on. Between those, the books I am going to download from Project Gutenberg and the electronic review copies people send me, I’ll have a lot of reading on there before I pay the first cent to Amazon to buy a book. I will not cease to buy paper copies of books, I’ll just refine the choices to the ones I know I want to keep continuing to own for a long time.

I love books and I always will. I love reading and I always will. I don’t understand why more people can’t understand the difference between the two and discuss the pros and cons of electronic books more sensibly. The Kindle is a reading device, not a collecting device, and if your counterarguments against it are from the book fetishization perspective, they are not applicable and will be ignored by me. Yes, I wish the Kindle was in color. Yes, I wish it was cheaper. I’m going to buy one as my vote of confidence in this direction. One day in the future I’d love to have the color e-ink device that can read comics and books comfortably. For now, I’m going with what we have and helping to underwrite the future I want.