Amazon: not a shiny happy face today

There's a great deal of shouting going on.

[Edit: for the latest on this story, look at the bottom of the post - I'm updating as and when.]

Amazon, in case you don't know yet, has been accused of closing a customer's account and deleting the contents of her Kindle without explanation. The story started here. It's a cracking read, and it inspires a profound fury, in me at least, not because it's particularly bad corporate behaviour - no one has been murdered, no rainforests have been burned to make room for golf courses - but because in the field of the natural justice of consumer and supplier, it is marked out by a high-handed and aggressive obscurantism which is almost perfectly calibrated to produce rage.

We have found your account is directly related to another which has been previously closed for abuse of our policies. As such, your Amazon.co.uk account has been closed and any open orders have been cancelled.

Per our Conditions of Use which state in part: Amazon.co.uk and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.

Please know that any attempt to open a new account will meet with the same action.

It has all the makings of a perfect reputational storm. Amazon has run afoul of its own authoritarian instincts before, notably in removing copies of 1984 from customers' Kindles back in 2009 - a blunder in self-presentation which raised eyebrows and provoked wry comments registering the apositeness of the book in question. This is different. It's not a donnish irony, but a flat out conflict between a user and the company supplying a service which calls into question the reliability and usability of that service. In other words, digital poison. It's what Neal Stephenson called 'mediapathic' - a hugely appealing story which has already started to appear on reddit, BoingBoing and the rest.

Something I don't understand is the speed with which this is being called a DRM issue. DRM facilitates this, of course, and it turns out that a lot of the more switched-on Amazon customers routinely strip DRM from their purchases in order to immunise themselves from this sort of incident (demonstrating once again just how futile DRM is in the first place, and how increasing protections and centralised control drives legitimate purchasers to seek out and adopt tools many publishers prefer to think of as the tools of piracy) but the issue is more profound than a single technology. It brings up the question of who owns ebooks, what exactly is being sold when you buy one, and ultimately what the price of an ebook buys you. Bluntly: if you're buying a limited-time licence which can be revoked at any moment, most people will feel that their money is not well-spent. And that is, presently, what you're buying when you purchase a digital product, something Amazon, Apple, and others should be wary of causing the customer base to realise. Not because the punters will stop buying, but because they will simply refuse - understandably enough - to accept it when the remedy is a download away.

I'm fascinated to see where this goes, but right now it's a pleasingly deranged and bewildering situation which shines a light into a lot of awkward corners. Bring on Act II.

[Edit @ 18:44, Monday: a lot of people are asking whether I/we know that the story is accurate, and of course the answer is "no". It is possible that Amazon has a genuine beef, although even in that case the handling is less than ideal. The authoritarian feel plays directly to the idea of the company as an artbitrary dictator. The key point, irrespective of the truth of this particular story which I obviously cannot judge right now, is that the issues thrown up by it are real whether or not the case in question turns out to be as it presently appears. Unless the story is resolved fast and with considerable energy and care by Amazon, the truth of the specific case won't matter. On the other hand, if it ultimately turns out that Linn - whoever she is - is the victim of a miscarriage of the company's algorithms, the general approach will look extremely unsympathetic. With this coming on top of the ebook VAT story this morning, I'm assuming that the PR department at Amazon is getting some serious grey hair today.]

[Edit @ 18:54, Monday: it appears the 'deletion' may be inaccurate. Off to have a life now, see you tomorrow for more thrilling installments, no doubt.]

[Edit @ 08:21, Tuesday: Wired have the story, and have managed to get a response of sorts from Amazon -

"Account status should not affect any customer’s ability to access their library.

If any customer has trouble accessing their content, he or she should contact customer service for help.

Thank you for your interest in Kindle."

Which, by virtue of being an oblique semi-denial of the 'wipe' part of the story - though obviously it doesn't actually say that they couldn't or wouldn't wipe a Kindle, just that it isn't automatic if your account is terminated - seems to confirm to some extent or other the rest of it, or at least to say that Amazon is content to be represented in this way. I know it's not news that the tech behemoths mostly don't do people stuff well, but I still find the grumpy, monosyllabic legal/corporate communication here staggering. An opportunity? It's something the publishing industry would do well, if it could ever be bothered to try.]

[Edit @ 13:52, Tuesday: It seems that Amazon has re-opened the account, though once again without explanation. An actual phonecall was placed to Linn Nygaard to tell her she'd been reaccepted into the Amazon fold. The joy of complete bewilderment continues, though - this latest news would seem to propose that Nygaard's Kindle was locked and/or wiped. (Google Translated post here, original here.) And it also seems that Amazon specified that no explanation would be forthcoming for what has happened. My bogglement at this apparently needlessly aggressive approach continues, though a few correspondents on Twitter etc have taken the line that of course, big companies are rude and opaque, and it's just what one should expect. Maybe I'm just turning into an old fart.]

Comments

Amazon: not a shiny happy face today

This is nothing new. Authors who publish to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) service have been complaining for months that their sales have dropped off over 63% on average, and that they are despairing of ever getting paid for their sales. There are whole threads comprising 25 pages or more in the KDP forums decrying the sudden loses of sales or very few sales since September, when KDP amended its service agreement; which is rather one-sided in favor of KDP. Authors and small publishers posting their ebooks there are given no recourse and KDP's decisions are final. The same for Amazon. In the face of this rather boorish behavior on the part of what is supposed to be a professional corporation, there is no evidence that anyone working with Amazon and its subsidiaries will ever be satisfied that their participation will be valued or treated with any respect. After having engaged in a fight over my publishing rights with CreateSpace, I have since relocated my publishing to Lightning Source and Ingram to free up my titles from CS's anti-sales policies. In a similar move, I unpublished all my ebooks from KDP and closed my account. But just when you think you are free, they pull you back in. I was contacted by the executive customer relations manager by phone only after I sent an email to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos outlining my deep dissatisfaction with both Amazon's and KDP's practices and that I would be closing my accounts. What would it take for me to republish? he asked. I said a working sales reporting system which is up to date and more detailed than it is now. Now, 5 days after I republished, the sales system is just as dysfunctional as ever. Will I stay on past Christmas? No, because I have not had any sales since the beginning of the month. That is how bad it is.

 

Customers will be sadly disappointed to learn that not only are their ebooks bought are only on loan, there will be less of them to choose from in the future. I am not surprised that Amazon's draconian philosophy has extended to its customers. The best thing to do is to avoid Amazon altogether. I have an open account but don't plan on buying books there anytime soon. I would rather people visit their local bookstores and support the local economy.

chink in the armour

mikemurphy1979's picture

Unless the story is resolved fast and with considerable energy and care by Amazon, the truth of the specific case won't matter.

Think that this is the key point here, at a time when Amazon aren't covering themselves in glory (certainly not in the UK) it builds a picture of a company who don't deal in 'correspondence'. Coupled with publishing professionals getting out below the line on various sites to bat back some of the less accurate perceptions of just how evil we all are, and readers waking up to the 'loan not own' implications of Amazon/Kindle it's an interesting window, of which others maybe able to take advantage... or not.

Agreed this is more of a licensing issue than a DRM one

jwikert's picture

I came to the same conclusion you did. DRM is bad but not the cause of this problem. This is really about the fact that we don't own the ebooks we buy from Amazon. We're simply issued a license for them. The more people start to realize that the more they'll want to crack the DRM and create a backup copy of their purchases so this doesn't happen to them.

Here's a bit more of what I had to say about the situation: http://oreil.ly/WEc1uZ

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