Rethinking the Kindle

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I've been an unabashed Kindle booster.  So you can imagine my shock when I saw this:


The customer rep asked me to send every one of the books in my Amazon library to my iPhone. Most of them gave the message that they were sent but a number of them returned the message "Cannot be sent to selected device".

"Oh that's the problem," he said "if some of the books will download and the others won't it means that you've reached the maximum number of times you can download the book."

I asked him what that meant since the books I needed to download weren't currently on any device because I had wiped those devices clean and simply wanted to reinstall. He proceeded to tell me that there is always a limit to the number of times you can download a given book. Sometimes, he said, it's five or six times but at other times it may only be once or twice. And, here's the kicker folks, once you reach the cap you need to repurchase the book if you want to download it again.

Quick aside -- all of the books that are in my Fictionwise bookshelf having been downloaded numerous times and although I have to go through the pain of unlocking them each and every time, I'm able to download them to any iPhone or iPod touch I'm using without a problem. It's the reason that I've been using Stanza,  now owned by Amazon, a fair bit these days as I read through some of the books remaining in my account.

It gets worse.

I asked the customer representative where this information was available and he told me that it's in the fine print of the legalese agreement documentation. "It's not right that they are in bold print when you buy a book?" I asked. "No, I don't believe so. You can have to look for it."

We're not done- it gets even worse.

"How do I find out how many times I can download any given book?" I asked. He replied, "I don't think you can. That's entirely up to the publisher and I don't think we always know."

I pressed -- "You mean when you go to buy the book it doesn't say 'this book can be downloaded this number of times' even though that limitation is there?" To which he replied, "No, I'm very sorry it doesn't."

Here is the major problem with this scenario.

First, it's not clear that this is the policy.

Second, there's no way to find out in advance how many times a book is able to be downloaded. You can buy a book and it can only be downloaded numerous times or you can buy a book and only then discover that it can be downloaded only once. (The rep even put it this way!) There is no way to know.

In the meantime, Amazon wants us to upgrade our Kindles every year or two. Apple wants us to upgrade our iPhone or iPod touch every year or two. This means that although the books remain in your Kindle library online you may not be able to download them once you upgrade your hardware. And there is no way to know -- at least according to what the customer service rep told me.

We were thinking of becoming a two-Kindle family.  Now I'm rethinking the one I've got.  I'm a total supporter of hard DRM.  But if I have to wipe my Kindle, or upgrade to a new one, I don't want to find out I have to buy all my books again.

Then I saw the update.  Apparently, the limits are on simultaneous devices, not downloads.  Except, apparently, Amazon customer service reps didn't know that.

This is why customer service matters. It's often the first thing to be cut by companies, because bad customer service doesn't show up anywhere on the bottom line.  Not until much later, and not very clearly even then.  But I'm willing to bet they'll lose substantial sales to people who see the first post, but not the second.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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