Book and Reading News

Kindle download limits are the publisher’s prerogative?

Dan Cohen posts a well-documented proof that Amazon limits the number of downloads of Kindle titles on some, but not all, books in the Kindle store. He found this after attempting to load a reference book on several devices before the weekend, at which time he was told that the publisher, not Amazon, had set a limit on the number of downloads.

This sounds plausible, because Amazon is particularly sensitive about its relationships with publishers. Yet it is a grave mistake by Amazon, because the one feature of the e-book buying experience they should be enforcing is ongoing availability. Once purchased, a book should be accessible to the buyer for download forever, which is the advertised offer (“Automatic Library Backup: Download Your Books Anytime for Free”), otherwise the e-book becomes less reliable than a paper book and its primary value, its re-usability, is defeated. For example, my family has three Kindles, and if I wanted to share a book with all those Kindles, a book I’ve paid for, but the publisher thinks I should only be able to download the book twice, that’s an inconvenience I would not have with one of the thousands of paper books around the house. Hence, paper becomes the more attractive and flexible option and Amazon has shot itself in the foot by catering to the publisher’s wims on copy limits.

Because Amazon factors in the cost of delivery via its Whispernet service, there should be no limit on downloading imposed by publishers, since those fees are not passed along to them. Amazon, as the distributor and the seller of the Kindle reader, is taking on the cost of providing ongoing access. This form of curation, as I wrote at ZD Net a couple months back, is essential to growth of e-book adoption. Customers do not want to have to repurchase books for different devices, nor to keep up with changes in e-book formats.

A bookseller needs to provide ongoing access to the book, including upgrades to formats needed to support new devices, just as the music industry has had to do when offering downloadable music—it is common for a music rights holder to pay $1 million or more to convert a library into a new format it wants to sell. Only Apple has managed to get away with fees for upgrading music to its DRM-free iTunes-Plus format, but those fees are the least popular decision Apple has made in recent memory, one it ultimately had to change from a bulk upgrade-only model to one that allows customers to choose individual tracks and albums to upgrade.

As Dan Cohen writes, the problem becomes one of a seller obviously misleading the buyer if the terms, including the number of downloads one is purchasing, is not explicitly described with the pricing. It cannot be buried in fine print, because it makes every purchase potentially unreliable, eroding customers’ confidence in the books and the company from which they are buying.

I’ve queried Amazon PR about this but received no response. Will post an update when I hear from them or one of my Amazon contacts.