ABA tells DoJ that PDFs “…cannot be displayed on a Kindle”

ABA tells DoJ that PDFs “…cannot be displayed on a Kindle”

Yesterday, Authors United reportedly sent a letter to the United States of America’s Department of Justice, presenting reasons why the DoJ should investigate Amazon’s action with regards to bookselling.

You can read that letter, and what is presented as a supporting letter from the American Booksellers Association, here:

American Booksellers Association article by Dave Grogan

While my personal feeling as a reader, writer, micro-publisher (just my own works), and a former manager of a brick-and-mortar bookstore, is that Amazon has been good for consumers of books, I’m not a lawyer. It may be that they have done things worthy of investigation. Oh, I can offer my opinion on that, as can you (and anyone), but I can’t be an “expert witness” on the law.

However, I can reasonably provide guidance on a technical statement about the Kindle’s capabilities. I’ve been writing this blog for close to six years, and it is one of the top selling blogs of any kind in the Amazon Kindle store. I’ve written and published books about the Kindle. Amazon made me oen of their “Kindle Forum Pros”. While it could be argued that I am aligned with Amazon (I have gotten money from them, for example, in royalties), and I would expect that to be the case if I was testifying in court, I think my credentials to comment on a general statement of Kindle capabilities are valid.

The ABA letter, as shown in the above article, says in this short excerpt:

“3. Closed Kindle E-book System: Unlike other e-readers, Kindle e-readers and the Kindle app are configured to allow readers to only read books sold by Amazon and using its proprietary format. E-pub and PDF formats, which are industry standard formats widely read on other devices, cannot be displayed on a Kindle, further enhancing and perpetuating the retailer’s 65 percent e-book market share. – See more at: http://www.bookweb.org/news/authors-aba-doj-investigate-amazon%E2%80%99s-abuse-its-dominance-book-market#Authors United Letter”

Since the Kindle 2 in 2009, Kindles have been able to display PDFs.

If I were writing a letter to the Department of Justice, I’d be very careful and precise in my assertion of facts.

In terms of the rest of the content of the letters, I think my biggest skepticism is with the suggestion that Amazon has been a net negative for the “…free flow of ideas in our society…” (as the Authors United letter has it).

Was it really easier to get your ideas into society before Amazon greatly grew the e-book market with the introduction of the Kindle?

Let’s say that someone believes that, oh, kittens telepathically control the volume level  of the commercials you watch on TV.

I’m deliberately creating something that I’ve never heard anybody say, and that I think would be unlikely to appeal to a wide swath of the book-buying public. Popular ideas, which can be projected to sell large amounts, are never going to have the barrier to publication that unpopular ideas are going to have…there is money to be made.

In the primarily p-book (paperbook) world, it would have been very difficult to make a book about the  KTCH (Kitten Telepathy Commercials Hypothesis) easily available to people. A mainstream publisher would be unlikely to publish it. Without a mainstream publisher, it would have been very hard to get the book into bookstores (believe me, when I managed a store, people would occasionally try to get me to carry a self-published book…wasn’t going to happen, primarily for a number of logistical reasons).

Now, the book can be made available with the same distribution options as the latest blockbuster from a brand name author.

Not only that, the book will be available more inexpensively. Many people will have the ability to read it with paying no additional cost over their Prime membership, or as part of their

Kindle Unlimited (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)


The author/publisher can even make it available for free on at least a few days in certain programs.

I don’t see how that doesn’t make ideas flow more freely.

Yes, it’s possible that Amazon’s publishing guidelines may keep some books out of availability through the Kindle store. Those platform guidelines don’t exclude a whole lot, although some types of books may be excluded. If Amazon chooses not to have them, though, my guess is that they are the same sorts of books that most brick-and-mortar bookstores would not have carried. “Underground” distribution options still exist…just as they did before the Kindle.

Importantly, the book could be distributed as a text file…and that could be read on most Kindle devices/apps, with the same technology as Kindle store books. An author might not make money on a book without Amazon, but the idea could get out there. Could one argue that people will be less likely to put their ideas out into the market if they have  to use one distributor (and whatever terms that distributor uses) to make a living? That’s possible…but in terms of the sorts of society-benefiting ideas being implied by the letters, I think authors would distribute them even if they couldn’t make a living doing just that.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I’d be okay with an investigation of Amazon in terms of bookselling. I think there wouldn’t be any broad negative findings. It could be possible that certain policies might need to change (some of their exclusivity/most favored nation** clauses, perhaps), but establishing the legality of their efforts which have made it easier for authors to make books available, and for readers to obtain those books, would be valuable.

What do you think? Should the DoJ investigate Amazon? Are the authors and publishers working together a case of “odd bedfellows”? Do you think Amazon has been good or bad…or both…for readers/consumers? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

** A “most favored nation” (MFN) clause basically requires that a supplier not offer a better deal to a distributor’s competitors than it does to the distributor. For example, it could be that a publisher can’t give a book away for free while it charges Amazon for it. While many companies do that, it always feels like restraint of trade to me…I think it’s reasonable to pay a supplier extra money for exclusive distribution, I don’t think one distributor should set the contract requirements between a supplier and another distributor.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


6 Responses to “ABA tells DoJ that PDFs “…cannot be displayed on a Kindle””

  1. Malcolm Northrup Says:

    Thanks for the review of another effort to slow down the demise of the legacy publishers. The assault on Amazon’s closed system neglects to show the massive increased number of books that Amazon now makes available to readers.

    But the authors and publishers also ignore the massive increase in books available from independent authors. As a large volume reader I know that I now have many more books on a much broader group of genres on my Kindle since starting with ebooks in 2008. My rather sheltered opinion is that I have greatly benefited from Amazon’s methods and even today I now see I am paying higher prices when once again the publisher sets the prices.

    Finally, it also astounds me that well known authors think that making 10-15% on a book selling at $12 ($1.80) is better than making 70% on a $4 book ($2.80). They may be great authors but they aren’t math savants. It is also possible that they may sell 500,000 books at $12 or 1,000,000 at $4. While the volume numbers are just an example, I think the point is valid.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Malcolm!

      I appreciate you making the comment! 🙂

      I think we have somewhat different perceptions, though…which is a good thing. I don’t think the big publishers are doomed…I do think that some of them will adapt. It will be a different market for them, but some of them have been adapting for over 100 years.

      While brand name authors may not be math savants, they have people (agents) working for them who are. 😉 It’s interesting to me, as a former brick-and-mortar bookstore manager, that lower prices mean many more sales. That’s not the case with luxury items, where higher prices can actually result in more sales. A brand name author’s book may become a luxury item (as books largely were for centuries).

      I’ve been suggesting a scenario where brand name authors’ new novels routinely sell for $50. They would be printed on much better materials than we see now, and buying them would be a more upscale experience. In that world, tradpubs (traditional publishers) can survive…although it would mean that they would be unlikely to take chances on unknown authors any more.

  2. jjhitt Says:

    I’ll agree that EPUBs should be supported. I don’t see why I can’t read my Kobo books on a Kindle and my Amazon books on my Kobo. If I had to buy or rent an encryption key to make that happen, I’d be willing to do that for a reasonable price.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, jjhitt!

      It would be nice if EPUB was supported, but it’s not really the industry standard some people want to suggest, in my opinion.

  3. Mary Perkins Says:

    I can’t believe that the DOJ has been brought into this. For crying out loud! Let us read our e-readers and books and tell the truth! Yes, I think the world of books and reading has gotten better, even with the growing pains, since the advent of the Kindle. I can’t believe that they actually seem to think that those of us who own these devices don’t also go to book stores and have paper books in our homes. Long live Kindles, Amazon and p-books.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Mary!

      I agree with your last statement! The DoJ does get..asked to get involved in these things, and it can make a difference. It broke the first publisher go round on the Agency Model for books…

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