Strike a …

Beginning next month, Amazon will be rolling out a program called “Amazon Matchbook*”. Put simply, Amazon will let you purchase a discounted ebook of any physical book you’ve bought through Amazon since 1995. Some limitations apply; the main one is that publishers need to sign on. (Amazon promises that at least 10,000 titles will be available when the program begins.) Prices for the discounted ebooks will range from free to $3.00.

* What is it with Amazon naming its book-related hardware and programs after things related to burning? “Kindle” and “Kindle Fire”. “Matchbook”. Was Jeff Bezos traumatized by “Farenheit 451” as a child? (I hope Urban Dictionary’s definition of “burning amazon” isn’t relevant here…) Not only does it not make sense in relation to books (which was, as you may recall, where Amazon’s business started), but it shows a great insensitivity to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest via slash and burn agriculture.

What do I think? I think it’s a great idea: anything that reduces the price of ebooks and makes it easier to buy them will reduce piracy (as we’ve seen with music, we’ll never eliminate piracy, but we can cut it back). We’ve seen over and over that cheap or free availability of ebooks actually increases sales of physical books for backlist titles. That’s all good for authors.

I’d like to see the publishers take the next step and make this kind of plan common across the industry. Not everyone has–or wants–a Kindle. If I could get a similar plan for ebooks in non-DRMed epub format so I can move them freely among all the devices and programs I use to read ebooks, I’d certainly be willing to pay a couple of bucks a piece.

I’m not blind to the potential problems here. If publishers jack up the price of physical books to “cover the cost” of making ebooks available, I’m going to resent it every time I buy a book when I don’t want an ebook edition. (Note to publishers: Raising the price of the physical book and charging a fee for the ebook would be just plain greedy. Don’t do it.) Given that the cost to create the ebook edition is fixed, I would hope that the fee would be the same regardless of the format of the physical edition: I shouldn’t have to pay more (or less!) for the ebook bundled with the paperback edition than with the hardback.

There are also some oddities in Amazon’s plan. Most notably, I don’t see anything that requires a customer to show that they still own the physical book in order to get the ebook. If someone bought the book and then sold it to a used book store or gave it away, should they still be entitled to a discount on the ebook? Even if I still own the physical book, do I have a legal or moral obligation to dispose of the ebook if I dispose of the physical book later? Can I sell the physical book and give the ebook away? (My take: right of first sale should apply. I should be able to sell, give away, or destroy either or both editions.)

Interestingly, it looks like it’s steamship time: a company called BitLit is preparing to launch a discounted ebook service for books purchased anywhere just about the same time that Amazon Matchbook launches. Since they don’t have purchase records, their model requires that you demonstrate your ownership of the book by uploading a picture of your signature on the copyright page. An interesting approach. I see some significant problems with it: can they detect if you’ve signed a slip of paper and laid it on the book? Is there an alternative if you don’t want to write in your book? BitLit’s model would presumably let you purchase the discounted ebook even if you bought the physical book used — though the requirement to sign the book may cause problems: if the model catches on, there are going to be issues when books start showing up with multiple signatures on the copyright page. I suspect that just the possibility of using a used book to get the ebook will scare off more than a few publishers.

So in short: there are technical problems and unanswered questions, but on the whole I regard Matchbook, BitLit, and their siblings as steps in the right direction.


Are you familiar with the Internet Wayback Machine? It’s a service run by the Internet Archive project with the goal of backing up the entire web, and providing access to multiple generations of those backups. As of this writing, they have a database of over 240 billion web pages going back as far as 1996. I’ve used it many times when a site I’ve bookmarked goes away.

The Wayback Machine is the IA’s best-known service, but it’s actually only a portion of their overall mission, which is to build “a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts”. It’s a great research source, but it’s also a fabulous way to entertain yourself.

How do you like the idea of access to 1.2 million videos, 1.6 million audio recordings (including more than 100,000 live concert recordings), and 4.5 million books and other textual works? All there, all free, and all legal. Let’s browse around a bit, shall we?

The video collection includes shorts and full-length features, historical and modern. Remember “Manos: The Hands of Fate” from Mystery Science Theater 3000? Want to see the original without Joel and the ‘bots getting in the way? You can! Need a fix of the original Star Wars? The IA doesn’t have that, but it does have an hour-long remake done entirely in Lego stop motion animation. Not quite your speed? How about a treasure trove of Betty Boop? Felix the Cat? Or if TV is more your speed, how about classic shows including “What’s My Line”, “Queen for a Day” (widely regarded as one of the worst game shows ever made – worth watching just of the sheer horror value), and “Ozzie and Harriet”. There’s newer stuff too, especially if your tastes run to news – but I’m trying to focus on cheerful subjects this week, so let’s skip the news.

In my opinion, the Audio Archive has the most entertainment value. I mentioned the Live Music Archive earlier. Almost 6,000 groups are included; sure, you’ve probably never heard of most of them, but there are some well-known names too. Blues Traveler. Maroon5. Smashing Pumpkins. And, of course, the Grateful Dead. Oh, and let’s not forget Vinyl Soup. Wait, you’ve probably only heard of them if you hang out at the Soulshine Pizza Factory in Nashville. Not a bad ProgRock/Folk/Jam band. Worth a listen, certainly. Need some help in finding music to your tastes? Take a look at
Netlabels, a set of “virtual record labels”

Not in a music mood? How about some “Old-Time Radio“? I could run on for pages listing classic shows, but I’ll just throw out a semi-random sampling – all of these shows have dozens of episodes available; some have hundreds: “Dragnet”, “Gunsmoke”, “X Minus 1”, “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, “The Jack Benny Show”, “Bob and Ray”, “Duffy’s Tavern”, “The Spike Jones Show”.

Spike Jones too light-hearted for you? Want to get serious? There’s a collection of Audio Books and Poetry, one of “alternative independent radio news“, and a set of curated collections of interviews, conferences, and podcasts related to computers, science, and technology.

Oh, and speaking of computers, the IA also holds a Software Archive that includes shareware, freeware, game-related previews and promos, and documentation. My favorite part? The DEMU collection of DOS and early Windows games. Remember the days when a whole game would fit on a single floppy disk? Here’s one of my favorites to get you started: The Incredible Machine.

Finally, let’s not forget those books and text works. The core of the archive is the rather ambitious Open Library project which aims to, as they put it in their FAQ, “list every book — whether in-print or out-of-print, available at a bookstore or a library, scanned or typed in as text.” The OL works with WorldCat, (a shared catalog intended primarily for libraries) to provide links to library copies of books, as well as links to online booksellers. Books that are available in electronic format are also linked – many are freely available and may be downloaded or read online, many more can be “borrowed” (downloaded in a time-limited fashion).