With the launch of a new competitor and a public relations disaster, Amazon has endured one of the most difficult seven days in the e-books business since it launched its first Kindle in 2007. Amazon's removal on July 17 of 1984 and Animal Farm from customers who had downloaded the titles to their Kindle continued to be a hot topic in the book industry and blogosphere last week. Amazon's explanation—that the two books were illegal copies added to its catalogue by a third party that didn't have the rights—was not enough to end the discussion on the long-term ramifications of its action. As one poster wrote in the Kindle Community forum last week. “Well, legal or not it showed a capability on the part of Amazon that I don't wish to participate in. Amazon, I really, really wish you hadn't demonstrated your willingness to act in this manner—I will never be able to trust the Kindle now.” Amazon said it was working on ways to change the system so it will not remove books from customers' devices under similar circumstances, but it is not entirely clear what the change is.
Richard Curtis, agent and founder of ereads.com, said the manner in which Amazon removed the books called for an apology to customers, and last Thursday that is just what CEO Jeff Bezos did in the Kindle forum: “This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle,” Bezos wrote. “Our 'solution' to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.”
For rights holders, the event highlighted the precarious nature of rights in a digital world. “Anyone using IT today has to make sure all the rights have been cleared for use in new formats and those yet to be invented. Especially since we are living in a world where everything is moving at breakneck pace,” said Trident Media Group head Robert Gottlieb.
While the 1984 event was unfolding, Barnes & Noble announced on Monday its long anticipated return to the e-book market after leaving the field in 2001. With approximately 700,000 e-books available and high brand awareness among readers, B&N represents the most serious competitor to Amazon in the e-book space. B&N is clearly positioning itself as the anti-Amazon, specifically adopting an “every device strategy,” in the words of BN.com president William Lynch, by selling e-books compatible with a variety of e-readers rather than the proprietary approach of the Kindle. At launch, the B&N eBook Store offered titles that could be used on the iPhone and iPod Touch, Blackberrys and most Windows and Mac computers. Lynch said that BN.com will be adding more devices over the next few months.
Publishers were glad to have a competitor to Amazon, but not happy that BN.com, like Amazon, will be selling e-books for $9.99. (Lynch said “many” of its e-books, including bestsellers and new releases, will be sold at $9.99). Lynch said BN.com will be working with publishers to find new ways to deliver content. One question left unanswered is just what kind of relationship B&N will have with Plastic Logic, whose e-reader device is due out early next year. The retailer said it will power the e-bookstore for Plastic Logic, but declined to say whether it will sell the device.