August 16, 2023

The Bitter Reality of Ebooks and the Kindle Model

A few years back, I jumped into the world of ebooks to broaden my reading without stacking so many physical books. I went with the ever-popular Kindle; yet the full weight of “owning” ebooks, particularly from Amazon, was not something I understood.

…Until I decided to break up with Amazon, despite its convenience. You know the drill: Amazon exploits workers, aggressively avoids taxes, dominates markets, and I was just itching to explore alternative bookstores. The hiccup? My Kindle was firmly rooted and entangled in Amazon’s ecosystem. Without Amazon, I could no longer conveniently or legally read books on my Kindle, and without Kindle, I could not legally read books I once purchased on Amazon.

Here’s what I’ve learned while attempting to part ways.

It all begins with “DRM”

Digital Rights Management (“DRM”) might not be a household term, yet its fingerprints are everywhere. Ever wondered how we consume content via proprietary software, rather than owning the content?

Think Spotify (you never own the music), Netflix (you never own the film), Adobe Creative Cloud (you never own the software), Steam (you never own the game), and Amazon Kindle (you never own the ebook). You download those proprietary software on your device, not the content itself. While you may have a license to the content, but it’s not truly yours.

The use and distribution of the copyrighted content provided by those services (and many others) are restricted by DRM (“Digital Rights Management”) technologies, implemented in various ways, increasingly restrictive and controversial. While DRM aims to address the legitimate need of copyright protection, it fundamentally reshapes the landscape of intellectual consumption, often at the expense of user privacy and freedom. For example:

  • Content Sharing: DRM often limits, or restricts altogether, the ability to share, lend and gift content outside of the same ecosystem.

  • Content Portability: DRM can authorise content to only a specific set of devices or apps, and restrict the supported file formats (even to a proprietary format). That limits content migration across platforms, technologies and devices that better suit you.

The points above reveal an alarming side-effect: dependency on the ecosystem, or "vendor lock-in", which is detrimental to individual freedom and market competition. When content is tightly bound to the platform, disengaging becomes challenging. And when you're limited to sharing only within an ecosystem, your social circle gets roped in too. Kinda seem like cute digital mutualism until it's a toxic relationship you can't leave.

  • Content Perpetuity: DRM cannot guarantee perpetual access to content. If a service or platform discontinues the content or themselves entirely, you may simply lose what you purchased. In fact, that has already happened, more than once or twice.

  • Content Geographical Restrictions: DRM can prevent access to certain content based on location. With the internet alone, we could technically provide equal access to cultural and educational resources – DRM kills that.

  • Content Offline Access: DRM often requires online authentication or periodic online checks. Not very nice in low connectivity areas or during travel.

  • Personal Identification: DRM requires authentication to consume content. By withholding identifiable information, DRM systems may also monitor behavior and consumption patterns and then profile you. You’ve got nothing to hide? Well, perhaps it at least bothers you to have to login? (And if that keeps going on we might soon have login on physical books too?! And there will be no refresh token cookie irl?!?????)

All those “side-effects” (given they are actually unintended 😉) of copyright protection through DRM conveniences corporations. Corporations may not only protect their profit but also actively profit through DRM, charging high customer cost while delivering zero customer value.

Finally, because DRM implementations vary so much, it’s nearly impossible to determine your rights without diving into lengthy terms of use agreements. The restrictions are rather obscured by clever marketing – you’ll soon see.

Leaving Amazon, and failing

Do you still remember I was trying to break up with Kindle? I get too hung up sometimes but let’s not forget why we’re both here, right!!?!

First things first, let me make it clear – I did not want to give up ebooks. It’d been a pleasure to be able to dive into new literature and keep only the gems in my bedroom bookshelf. And I could also carry a multitude of stories effortlessly during my travels.

Secondly, I had no intention of trashing my Kindle. It was a fully functional piece of hardware, and it worked well.

So here was my grand plan: I’d log out of my Amazon account on the Kindle, and source my ebooks somewhere else. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But the hurdles kicked in right from the very first step.

FuN fACt: Kindle sales are not very profitable to Amazon, as they hope to make up for it with e-book and app sales.

As it turns out, signing out of my Amazon account meant every single piece of content I’d ever acquired through Kindle would vanish into thin air. On Kindle, your books are tied to your Amazon account.

That was an unforeseen repercussion. I naïvely expected to hold rights over books I’d purchased regardless of whether they were digitally or physically distributed. So I was disappointed and surprised – with myself, the state of things; both. And yes, I clearly had not read Kindle terms of use back when I got into the ecosystem (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this! 😉).

FINALLY reading Kindle Terms of Use

The latest Kindle Store Terms of Use (Last updated: November 30, 2022), determines a set of restrictions you buy into when you decide to buy Kindle and Kindle content, DRM-protected or not. The “Use of Kindle Content” section states a couple of DRM-ish things:

  1. ebooks are meant to be consumed only on Kindle, or Kindle apps.

Upon your download or access of Kindle Content and payment of any applicable fees (including applicable taxes), the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Kindle Content an unlimited number of times (for Subscription Content, only as long as you remain an active member of the underlying membership or subscription program), solely through a Kindle Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Supported Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. [...]

  1. when you click “Buy Now”1, you are actually buying a license i.e. renting.

Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider. [...]

Coming from DRM-based services like Spotify or Netflix, where you subscribe for access to a collection of music or film, the Kindle model might be a surprise.

Within the Kindle ecosystem, you are able to buy individual content, which does evoke a stronger sense of direct ownership. Yet, when you do so, you’re essentially obtaining a license: every ebook is an one-off payment to a mini-subscription. And that was absolutely not straightforward or intuitive to me.

  1. you may not lend or sell your ebooks.

Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party [...]

  1. your books might disappear anytime.

We may change, suspend, or discontinue the Service, in whole or in part, including adding or removing Subscription Content from a Service, at any time without notice.

(Funny enough, I checked Wayback Machine and noticed that one was amended around March 2015, after reports of disappearing ebooks years before. 🤷)

…And embracing the sacrifice

Delving into the Kindle’s terms brought the truth crashing down on me: I never really had a choice to transition away from Amazon while retaining my content. Severing ties with Kindle came at a cost I hadn’t anticipated, and I felt very exploited for it.

Some might argue I actually had the “choice” to enter Kindle’s ecosystem. And sure, it’s true – I did it willingly, no one coerced me into becoming a Kindle user. But, hey, there’s a nuanced reality here you can’t brush aside: we make our individual choices within systems. There’s an entire environment lying behind the notion of individual choice.

Systems can be designed to subtly exert control or exploit personal choice in ways that aren’t always apparent. You can’t look at individual choice alone overseeing the environment in which those decisions are made. In no defensiveness, blaming on individual choice is, I dare to say, exactly how exploitative systems maintain their facade of legitimacy. And I don’t think being exploited or not should be a choice to be made.

Yeah, a bitter pill to swallow, but a new plan has to emerge out of my anger: to log out of my Amazon account, and therefore leave books I’ve purchased behind, and use Kindle only as an e-reader, not a shop.

Leaving Amazon, and failing less

After logging out of my Amazon account, I’m left with an anonymised Kindle (I hope). At this point I wonder if I even have the right to keep the hardware I’ve purchased, but so far nobody hasn’t taken it away from me. 😉 So, how can I rebuild my e-book library?

Using Kindle with other bookstores

Before buying ebooks elsewhere, one needs to understand what file formats are supported by Kindle. The file formats supported by Kindle are MOBI, PRC, PDF, and primarily the proprietary AZW, and the files may or may not be DRM-protected depending on the publisher. Only Amazon sells AZW books2. So my options are:

  • MOBI. But no bookstores sell them these days.
  • PDF. But formatting sucks for reading books.
  • PRC. I don’t know what that is.

So I have no options. \😎/ Bookstores sell EPUB books, an open standard well supported by all e-readers in the market but Kindle. Fortunately, you can manually convert EPUB books into one of the Kindle-compatible formats above. Unfortunately, if the book is DRM-protected (very likely!), you would need to strip out DRM before conversion which is downright illegal LMAOOOOOO!!!!! This drives me CRAZY, but let’s move on.

For ebook format conversions, Amazon fortunately offers Kindle Previewer, a publishing software, but it’s just a little too bloated for my goal. So I went with Calibre, a free and open source e-book manager that does it all. It works wonders!

If you keep your Amazon account, importing EPUB into is easier with Send to Kindle. It's a more convenient option but it often messes up with the book formatting.

Ultimately, using non-Amazon ebooks on a Kindle device can involve various technical and legal considerations, especially when dealing with DRM-protected content. DRM-free book shopping is also limited – DRM is an industry standard! So using a Kindle without Amazon is not just very inconvenient, it’s barely legal. 😉

The most promising plan seems to be tossing Kindle altogether, and choose an open standard e-reader with less hostile DRM platforms, but that’s for another time.

Amazon caters for publishers, not consumers

It all makes sense when you put it all together. When traditional publishing giants contemplated the world of e-readers and online stores, they had to be a bit careful about it. With physical distribution, they already had a model that offered a clear sense of ownership and control. Then, remember the music industry’s digital transformation, marked by piracy and revenue decline3? Obviously publishers would be wary of a similar fate.

But in comes a compelling offer from Amazon: a tight grip on digital ownership of books, and a shortcut into an already profitable book marketplace. All or nothing. A captivating promise of control and access which publishers, late to digital transformation, did not pass up. And so seamlessly, Amazon paved the way towards market dominance. 👏

Today, Amazon also positions itself as a platform for emerging writers and attracts independent publishers. So does Spotify for musicians, and Steam for game developers. For both publishers and consumers, content discovery is what’s great about such platforms, despite their license model.

Alternatives like Bandcamp (music) and GOG.com (games) also promote publishers’ content. In contrast, their DRM-free4 model ethically caters to both consumers and publishers: the consumer has direct ownership to content, and publishers get their content secured, even earning more5. How does that work? Fingerprinting content files (i.e. watermarks), but above all, cultivating consumer trust and transparency, and a sense of community and support for artists.

Final words

While writing this, an analogy came to mind.

Picture when you buy a physical book from a store. You know that book will patiently await you right where you left it and not vanish into thin air, whether you frequent the store or it eventually shuts down. That store is unaware of your identity. It doesn’t know when you open or close the book, nor does it know which passages you’ve highlighted. You can even lend the book to a friend, regardless of whether they shop at the same store or if the store recognizes them. And that both of you can go buy books elsewhere later with no strings attached.

But I know that’s kinda corny. It’s an oversimplification. Digital content IS different, and copying files is far easier technically than producing physical copies. We do have new challenges.

Yet, while the analogy might not outright invalidate DRM as a solution, it can serve as a reminder of the current asymmetry of our digital rights today. A nudge to the way our essential rights are exploited within the current framework of digital copyright protection. And, ultimately, it extends an invitation to reimagine it from the ground up. Perhaps looking at how other platforms like Bandcamp have already done so brilliantly, perhaps radically starting at copyright itself.

Keep reading

…on how despite massive technical effort and corporate interest, DRM is a flawed security model.


As of 16/08/2023, Amazon’s checkout button for Kindle ebooks is labeled “Buy Now”.


In comparison to Spotify, whose profit margin for publishers is often questioned. See Ben Sinano: Musicians Say Streaming Doesn’t Pay. Can the Industry Change?.