Is Amazon Letting Publishers Ruin The Kindle (Updated)

Update 2: Last week, and throughout yesterday, I was unable to download 1Q84 on multiple devices, or share public notes and highlights. I can now, but largely thanks to this article. Amazon customer service initially identified this as an issue specific to the title. In fact, it now appears to have been an Amazon problem.

I tried downloading the books to my devices when I hit the errors shown below. I attempted manually sending the book to my devices via the Kindle online management software, also without success. Amazon customer service attempted unsuccessfully to help me resolve this.

After being escalated, a customer service rep told me that the device limit can vary from title to title. He looked at my purchase, and told me that 1Q84 had a one book device limit. He went on to note that some books, especially textbooks and scientific volumes, have similar limits.

However, the book's publisher says that's not the case. Paul Bogaards of Random House notes that 1Q84, and all its titles, support a six device limit. "Random House policy hews to the six simultaneous device access that is common across the industry, and that policy applies to 1Q84."

Also today, Amazon public relations responded to my previous query, contradicting what its customer service department told me, and noting that "There is no one-book limit on this title, there was an error that affected very few readers that has since been corrected. We apologize for the inconvenience."

Indeed, I can now read 1Q84 on multiple devices and share public notes and highlights. That's great! And I'm glad of it. I've made corrections below where appropriate via strikethrough and emphasis.

Update: While I've experienced DRM issues with my copy of 1Q84 for Kindle, other people are reporting they are not having the same problems. However, Amazon customer service tells me that the device limit for 1Q84 is indeed one copy. It also notes that device limits do vary by publisher.

I'm reading 1Q84, Haruki Murakami's long-awaited new book. In hardback, it's 944 pages and weighs several pounds. I am a pasty blogger with weak arms and soft hands, so the Kindle version seemed like a no-brainer.

Except the Kindle version is hobbled. Extensively hobbled, in fact. It lops off two of Amazon's best features, public highlights and, far worse, the ability to read on all my devices. WHAT?!

One of the best things about the Kindle ecosystem is that you can read your books anywhere. Start reading on a Kindle at night, pick it up on your Nexus One on your way into work, polish off the chapter over your lunchbreak in your Web browser, browse a little bit during the three o'clock food coma on the Kindle app, and then dive in on your iPad during the commute home. No matter which device you fire up, the content stays synced, letting you jump into the book exactly where you last left off.

Amazon has worked really, really hard on this ability to let a book follow you everywhere. That was smart. It's one of Kindle's best features. It was what helped Kindle break out when previous e-book formats and readers had not. It's a promise by Amazon that this won't be a DRM nightmare that locks you into one device. Yes, there will be copy protection, but it's going to be reasonable and readable. Except when it's not.

When I tried to share a highlighted passage on Amazon's new social sharing service, Kindle.Amazon.com, I realized that I couldn't. Which was not a huge deal, but was certainly annoying. And then I tried to read 1Q84 on my iPhone. That's when I got an error message that told me if I had exceeded my number of permitted devices for 1Q84.

According to Amazon, the device limit for 1Q84 is one. (Amazon customer service told me that the device limit was one, this now does not appear to be the case.)

Is Amazon Letting Publishers Ruin The Kindle (Updated)

No note sharing was annoying. And it seemed bone-headed—if anything driving a discussion about a book online seems like it would help sell copies while stifling it just means people won't find out about it. But that's not nearly as bad as not being able to read it on multiple devices.

Now, I get it. This was mostly likely a publisher restriction. Amazon has been working so hard to push features into the Kindle, it would be foolish to kill that added value. But shame on you, Amazon, for going along with this. And double super secret shame on you for not better warning me that you were quashing my ability to easily read this book on multiple devices when I bought it. Look, Amazon, if some idiot at Knopf (and make no mistake: this is idiotic) wants to shit on your customers, you have a duty to tell us there is a turd on the way. Again, this was an Amazon problem.

The thing is, authors and publishers should be excited about electronic books. Not just as a revenue stream, but as an entirely new way to think about pushing the boundaries of publishing. That's especially true of an author like Murakami, whose books often have unique narrative structures and bleed with external references.

Is Amazon Letting Publishers Ruin The Kindle (Updated)

Contrast this with, what I think has been the most successful example of a Kindle formatted book yet: Jay-Z's Decoded. Jay-Z talks about Basquait's art, and then there's a color image of it in the next frame. He discusses a song, and an embedded video of it plays as you read the lyrics, which have linked footnotes that you can click on to get additional expository context. Instead of crippling the book, Jay-Z gives us more. And so here I am, recommending it to you.

Jay-Z extended the book in a way that made sense. But there's so much more you could do. Especially if you wanted to really push the boundaries of narrative. I can imagine literary titles going much further.

Imagine a book forcing you to pause after reading a passage. Or playing a song at an extemely low volume just as you encounter it in the text. Or cutting up the narrative flow and restructuring it at random—like some sort of A.I. William S. Burroughs. All those things and more are possible with ebooks, which will redefine the flow of a narrative just as surely as it was redefined when we moved from scroll to codex. And yet the internal restructuring is just the beginning.

Is Amazon Letting Publishers Ruin The Kindle (Updated)

Over on Rdio, I've been building a collaborative playlist of all the music that appears in 1Q84 in the order that it appears. It was only after I started doing this that I learned about Small Demons, which basically scrapes the objects from books—places, music, characters. You can then appreciate them across multiple titles. Not only does it help you understand the context in which they are used, but it can even clue you into homages of earlier works. Meanwhile Steven Johnson's new collaborative community, Findings, lets readers share their favorite passages from various books (which was precisely how I discovered that 1Q84 doesn't support public notes)

As ebooks mature, they are going to increasingly jump the boundaries and escape the confines of the original publication. Books will be remixed, just as film and music has (for example, I've encountered several people who have read George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books on a character by character basis, rather than in the order they appear. Imagine if readers could completely restructure the order of an ebook.)

Smart publishers will not just allow, but encourage this. They will want readers to participate with the book. They will try to open the gates, rather than wall them off.

But limiting our experience of the book, especially taking away those things that we've already grown accustomed to, is just plain dumb.