Back in 1998, I was attending college at Southwest Missouri State University for the second time. (It’s since dropped the “Southwest,” leaving me constantly unsure whether to use the old or new name on job applications.) I was intrigued by the promise afforded by the new Palm PDAs and decided to buy one—a Palm IIIe. (And then a Visor Deluxe, but that came later.)
But after I’d ordered the PDA, and while I was still waiting for it to arrive, I noticed one of my all-time favorite e-books was available on Peanut Press—Vernor Vinge’s classic novel of a far-future Usenet-analog, A Fire Upon the Deep. I’d read the book in dead-tree format and loved it, and here it was electronically for just a few bucks. So I grabbed it before I even had anything to read it on yet, just so I would have a book to read when the Palm at last arrived. When I finally had the chance, I did enjoy it electronically—the first of many titles I would buy from eReader and Fictionwise. I would later buy the annotated edition of the e-book, and review it for Slashdot.
Fast-forward 14 years, to 2012. Barnes & Noble had bought eReader and Fictionwise, and was now shutting them down in the wake of agency pricing killing their business. It offered to transfer what titles it could from customers’ libraries to Barnes & Noble’s Nook library, but warned that “A few Fictionwise titles may not transfer due to discontinued publishing programs” and recommended customers download those and save them and a copy of the current eReader app for reading them in the future. (Of course, there were other ways of backing them up even then, one of which I took advantage of. Given that B&N wasn’t going to be able to move over at least $200 worth of my e-books, it would have been dumb not to.)
Over the last couple of years, ever since B&N made it more difficult to access titles I bought there, I’ve stopped buying e-books from Barnes & Noble altogether. I haven’t even looked at my Nook bookshelf in ages. But I was moved to glance at it again yesterday, while considering whether to fill out the EFF’s DRM horror story form. I was curious whether the annotated edition of the e-book was still there, or just the original version.
The annotated version wasn’t there, which didn’t really surprise me. There were a lot of titles B&N hadn’t been able to move over, and it didn’t seem implausible that book would be one of them.
But imagine my surprise when I found that, rather than the original version, I had the BookRags A Fire Upon the Deep study guide in my library—an off-brand Cliff’s Notes on the book—instead. I never bought said study guide, because I don’t buy study guides. Apparently somewhere along the way Barnes & Noble got confused over titles and substituted it. The original book itself was nowhere to be found.
I wasn’t too concerned—I still have both editions safely in my Calibre library on Dropbox—but I was bemused. I decided to contact Barnes & Noble chat support and see what they could do for me. After I explained the problem, the representative told me that I could go ahead and purchase A Fire Upon the Deep if I wanted, and offered to give me the link.
It wasn’t on my account, therefore, I must not have purchased it. When I explained I had originally bought it from Peanut Press in 1998, he nonetheless asked me for an order number, and when I couldn’t provide one (honestly, I don’t even have my email from that far back!) suggested I should call their 800 number and inquire about it in person. Yeah, like that’s going to happen before Satan goes around on ice skates.
I’m just glad I had the technological savvy necessary to rescue the book and save it when I needed it. What recourse would the average e-book customer have had, who might not have known such things were possible and could only watch the titles they’d paid good money for vanish into the aether?
The story has been much on my mind given Barnes & Noble’s recent decision to do the same thing all over again with its Nook UK store, handing off its customers to Sainsbury’s instead. As Nate notes at The Digital Reader, there’s no guarantee that new Nook hardware will have any use at all in the UK going forward, and there’s certainly no guarantee Nook UK customers will be able to take all their titles with them any more than I could take all my eReader and Fictionwise titles.
Trying to prognosticate which companies have a future is a guessing game, of course—who could have predicted a couple of decades ago that Borders and Blockbuster, two of the biggest media store chains in the US, would one day go belly up? But all the same, Amazon appears to be in no immediate danger of collapse, while Barnes & Noble has been decidedly shaky for a while. I feel for all the UK customers who didn’t want to support Amazon for one reason or another and settled on Barnes & Noble’s Nook as a reasonable alternative—if they’d gone with a Kindle instead, they’d still have their e-books now, without the hassle of moving titles over and the uncertainty of being able to use their devices in the future.
As I said before, Barnes & Noble effectively trashed at least $200 worth of e-books from my Fictionwise and eReader libraries when it moved them over. Now I’ve found that, adding insult to injury, Barnes & Noble has also trashed—or outright stolen—the first e-book I ever bought.
More than ever, I’m glad I don’t have anything to do with Nook anymore—and that when Apple’s antitrust settlement finally comes through, I can pick something else to buy from Barnes & Noble instead of more e-books.
UPDATE: They gave it back!