Reading Pynchon on a Kindle

September 24th, 2008 · 17 Comments
by Kirk Biglione

Not long ago I was lamenting the fact that it was literally impossible to read Thomas Pynchon on a Kindle. It’s not because the Kindle isn’t suited to reading long and complex novels, but rather the fact that there are no Pynchon novels to be found in the Kindle store.

In fact, there are no Pynchon novels available in any ebook store. At least not in any of the ones I’ve checked. That includes the Kindle store, Sony Connect, Fictionwise, the Palm eBook store, and

I understand that most of Pynchon’s novels qualify as extreme backlist, and, as a result, are not exactly a high priority for digitization. That makes perfect sense to me. And it doesn’t really matter that much because my search ultimately lead me to a source of free Pynchon ebooks that work perfectly on the Kindle.

Not only that, this same source has well over 1,000 titles of similar backlist fiction, all available for free download.

I’ll leave the exercise of finding this so-called digital lending library to the curious reader. If it takes you longer than two minutes you might want to pick up a copy of Google for Dummies — a title which, fortunately, is available in the Kindle store.

For the record, I would have happily paid for the Kindle edition of any of Pynchon’s books. I’ve purchased print editions of each multiple times. Unfortunately, buying an official ebook edition is currently not an option.

While I could use this experience as an excuse to rant about any number of issues, including the slow pace of book digitization and the sorry mixed-up state of the ebook market, with its multiple competing and incompatible formats, I would like to focus on one particular issue that, so far, seems to be off the radar for nearly everyone in the publishing industry — the analog hole.

As the television, recording, and motion picture industries have discovered, it doesn’t really matter what system you put in place to protect your digital media products. As long as long as a physical copy exists, your product can and will be copied.

The process of digitizing a printed book is trivial. Sometimes it seems like the only people who have a problem with book digitization are the ones running publishing houses.

So, why aren’t publishers more concerned about the analog hole and bootleg ebooks?

My theory is that many publishers still don’t believe that ebooks and ebook readers will ever be mainstream. They see ebooks as a niche market that adds up to a very small slice of their overall revenue.

That may be true — for now. But, what happens in a few years when off-brand eInk reading devices are available for $99? By then digitization will be even easier and books will be fair game for the very same file sharing networks that are being used to distribute every other form of entertainment. Suddenly, book piracy ad hoc digital lending libraries could be a very real problem.

Publishers need to start taking digital content distribution seriously, or they risk falling into the same traps that other content industries have fallen into. They can start by ramping up the supply of backlist content. If we learned one thing from the early days of digital music piracy, it’s that consumers can’t buy a product that isn’t for sale.

In the near future, consumers who are looking for content to load onto their $99 ebook readers will find that content wherever they can. If the digital marketplace for ebooks fails to provide consumers with the titles they’re looking for — or provides those titles in an incompatible format, or at an unreasonable price given the limitations of the digital format — then those very same consumers will find their reading material online through rouge sources.

In many ways, the publishing industry’s challenge may be even greater than that faced by the recording industry. Everyone knows you can read books for free by checking them out of the local library. If you happen to find a digital version of the local library — and it’s offering books you want to read, but can’t find anywhere else — what could possibly be wrong with that?

Yes, piracy is wrong. That should go without saying. But, another thing we’ve learned from digital music piracy is that taking the moral high ground doesn’t get you very far. Sometimes it’s easier (and more profitable) to give consumers what they want.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

17 responses so far ↓

  • Dee // Sep 24, 2008 at 7:02 am

    Sometimes it’s not that simple though. Publishers need digital rights in order to make an eBook of an author’s titles, and if the author or estate won’t grant that, then there’s not much the publisher is legally able to do. Larry McMurtry and J.K Rowling are both very adamant about keeping their titles in print only, meaning the publishers’ hands are tied. This may or may not be the case with Pynchon, but it’s worth considering as another explanation.

  • Kirk Biglione // Sep 24, 2008 at 7:22 am

    You’re right Dee.

    I knew that about JK Rowling, and I sort of feared that might be true of Pynchon.

    It doesn’t change the fact that this could be a serious problem for publishers and authors alike.

    The tangled mess of re-negotiating rights on backlist titles is probably better addressed in a separate post — and by Kassia, not me.

    Moving forward, publishers need to do their part to educate authors, agents, and themselves about the risks and rewards of the digital marketplace. I frequently hear publishers say they use DRM for ebooks because authors and agents demand it. That’s sad, if true, because DRM obviously does nothing to stop piracy and only inhibits the development of a robust and diverse marketplace.

    Given the prospect of having their work stolen and seeing absolutely no compensation in return, something tells me authors might be more open to digital editions in the future.

  • Kirk Biglione // Sep 24, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Dee’s comment just reminded me of Terry Goodkind’s recent decision to grant ebook rights. There’s clearly some monetary incentive for authors to get the best deal possible. Publishers need to be reasonable in the terms they offer their authors for these rights, or risk losing digital rights to upstarts like Rosetta.

    Looking at Rosetta’s catalog it’s obvious that there’s a real opportunity here for digital savvy publishers.

  • Pete Tzinski // Sep 24, 2008 at 9:07 am

    It IS up to the author, sure enough, and some authors like Rowling will continue to say Absolutely Not.

    But I suspect that it would take you only another two minutes more of Google time to find a complete set of Harry Potter e-books. And while you can wrestle with some authors about it, sooner or later, sure, it’s up to them. But I’m afraid that either way, the eBooks WILL exist.

    It’s really interesting, in that I dislike the Kindle, and, increasingly. Not because of any hostility toward eBooks, and not out of a desperate love of the publishing industry (which has its own issues aplenty) but because I don’t like Amazon’s attitude, something that veers between casual hostility and condescension towards books. I always get the impression that they’re moving in on the Fuddy-Duddy Ol’ Book Industry, because they can. I don’t see them trying to go into video games against Sony and Microsoft, for example.

    But regardless of that…the more eBooks I am aware of (and there are so many) and the more I generally think about the Kindle, and the Sony Reader…the more I realize that I actually would quite like an eBook reader. I adore my library full of dead-tree-printed books, and that’s not going away. But in the above article, when Kirk mentions a $99 eBook reader, I suddenly realize that, yeah, I’d shell out for that without hesitation.

    So it’s interesting. I really hope the publishers start playing ball and catching up with the digital world, because it’s a bit like an already-moving train, and you only have so much time before it’s gotten going too fast for you to run alongside and jump on (hello, music industry).

  • bowerbird // Sep 24, 2008 at 10:04 am

    > Sometimes it seems like
    > the only people who
    > have a problem
    > with book digitization
    > are the ones
    > running publishing houses.

    you funny… :+)


  • CircleReader // Sep 26, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Heh–maybe I should get a copy of Google for Dummies. My search for Pynchon ebooks turned up Victoria Pynchon’s blog about intellectual property disputes. 😉

  • Clive Warner // Sep 26, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Good. That’s appropriate for Pynchon, possibly the worst author I have ever tried to read. Gravity’s Rainbow, bahaha, absolute tripe.

  • Pete Tzinski // Sep 27, 2008 at 10:23 am

    I think you have to have the right toolset to get into, and appreciate, Pynchon. Particularly Gravity’s Rainbow (someone, on Amazon, suggests reading “V” first, and I think that’s good advice).

    Reading Pynchon out loud is a blast.

  • Kirk Biglione // Sep 28, 2008 at 11:13 am

    “The Crying of Lot 49” is the gateway for a lot of people.

    I’m not sure Clive is learning the right lesson from my experience.

  • Austin // Sep 29, 2008 at 8:59 am

    A thoughtful argument – thanks Kassia (and commenters). We wrote a riposte here:

    Enjoy! – The Abbeville kids

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  • Julia // Sep 30, 2008 at 6:50 am

    I didn’t think I wanted a Kindle — but just the suggestion of an e-book reader at less than $100 made me salivate. Read a book review on line with a link for instant download/gratification? I could do that.

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  • Joe // May 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Kindle edition of Crying of Lot 49 is available on Amazon UK site, but no other Pynchon titles. Let’s hope the rest will follow…