When I’ll get a Kindle

The current Kindle debacle, in which Amazon deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from the devices of people who thought they bought the book, highlights one of the three main reasons that I haven’t bought a Kindle yet.

DRM is first. The 1984 scenario shows in a dramatic fashion that when you “buy” DRM’d product you don’t own it. DRM fragments the bundle of rights you have when you buy a paper book – you can lend it, sell it, read it outloud, take it wherever you go. DRM enables the provider to set the terms, for example restricting the use of an audio feature that reads the book outloud. DRM prevents one of the main reasons that I buy books to begin with – the ability to share books with friends. The 1984 example shows the limitation clearly. In a DRM world, users do not have rights to stuff that historical experience leads them to mistakenly think they own. I’m not at all fooling about staying away from DRM, I avoided digital music until the industry walked away from DRM as the norm.

The second reason is social. If I’m getting books online, I want to be able to choose to share them. The internet makes it possible to create wonderful social applications for reading books together, commenting, annotating, creating clubs and discussion groups, discovering other peoples’ collections. LibraryThing goes a little of the way there. The Kindle experience is isolated – it’s even less social than physical books that you can at least lend to a friend. It’s less social than the bookshelves that disclose the history of your reading interests to your friends. After (and only after) the DRM is gone, good social capabilities would make it much more compelling to use a Kindle-like device – paired with a service for sharing.

The third reason is inventory. One of the big benefits of digital music is that publishers have digitized a large portions of back catalog. This means that one can search and acquire a wide variety of music, ranging from the hyper-popular to the moderately obscure. Almost everything I want to listen to, with a small number of exceptions, is available digitally. This isn’t the case for books. Kindle inventory is clustered at two ends of the spectrum. New popular books are all on Kindle. Old, classic, public domain works are on Kindle. But there’s a large number of moderately obscure, somewhat older books that aren’t. And this sort of book represents a good portion of the books I buy. The last two books I bought: an biography of an author, published in the early 90s. A music tutorial (thanks Tracy for the recommendation). Turning around to look at my bookcase – “Merchants of Desire” – a superb history of retail and mass merchandising, published in 94. More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s brilliant classic on the history of household technology, published in the mid-80s. Not on Kindle. Until the large majority of books I want to buy are on Kindle, it’s not so helpful for me.

So can I see having a Kindle-like device. Eventually. After DRM is gone. And I believe it eventually will be, just as it’s gone for music. When the social experience is better than reading printed books. And when the majority of books I want to read, including a couple of decades of back catalog are online. These things will eventually and I can wait.

Update. A blogger who’s a library professional gives wonderful examples of losing access to digital content. But these examples conflate the issues with DRM and with Software as a Service content. I unpack these issues in a separate post.

Update 2. Same reasoning for when I’ll get an iPad. The iPad will have a greater variety of content for it. But I’m not much of a gamer. Seems like a nice platform for graphic novels but seems like an expensive investment to read comic books. I’m not as opposed to consumption devices as, say, Cory Doctorow – I’ll get one when DRM is gone and when the experience can be social.

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