Kindle’s Achilles heel is hard to find

Books’ migration to digital is utterly dominated by Amazon and its e-reader – but its lack of community may be its undoing

Achilles (Brad Pitt)

Achilles, here played by Brad Pitt, proved to have one fatal weakness – can Amazon’s rivals ever find the Kindle’s? Photograph: Warner Bros/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Sing, O muse, of the wrath of the publishers, as Homer might have said if he was trying eke a living from his stylus in the digital age. Beset by pirates, ravished by Amazons; it’s stormy on the wine-dark sea right now.

Still, good stories will find readers, whatever the medium. The Orange prize was won last week by Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles, her outstanding retelling of Achilles’ story from the point of view of his lover, Patroclus. Bloomsbury, her publisher, immediately ordered a 35,000-copy reprint. It jumped to No 14 in the Amazon Kindle store’s chart the day after the prize was awarded, up from 557 the day before.

I went searching for a pirate version for the Kindle on the internet, expecting, given the dire predictions bandied about, to find it with ease. After an hour of searching, I had acquired one immovable new home page that masquerades as Google, an exhortation continually popping up to play bingo, various proposals from hot girls who want me and a very bug-infested, irritated computer. Plus one ripped-off audio clip of the first five minutes of The Song of Achilles – the bit when the book feels familiar and derivative, and before Patroclus’ sad strangeness becomes evident.

Perhaps I am to cyber-theft what Miller’s Patroclus is to cheeriness. So I rootled about elsewhere and found reams of pirated stuff that could stock my Kindle for years. Huge packages of hundreds of titles are just waiting to be downloaded – many of them populated by dead and out-of-copyright authors, but by no means all. In one package I found all of Bernard Cornwell’s 24 Sharpe novels. All the research, all the painstaking ferreting out of historical detail and the careful plotting; just so some immoral muppet masquerading as a free speech warrior can upload the lot and another immoral muppet can download it with a cheery “Thankz mate” in the comments box.

It’s difficult to get any accurate picture of the scale of pirating. Clearly it exists, but perhaps so far the books industry has evaded the problems that beset the music industry. By engaging with digital, however sulkily, publishers are not pushing readers into the arms of the pirates as the music moguls did to their cost. Once people are used to free, it’s hard to woo them back.

Some piracy is inevitable. But on The Pirate Bay, and some of the other bit-torrent sites I visited, the popular ripped-off books tend to be porn-based, or technical manuals, rather than Orange prize types beloved of the voracious readers targeted by publishers.

While the pirates are the bogeyman, the real threat comes from Amazon. The migration to digital is utterly dominated by one company. The Kindle is becoming the “Hoover of e-readers“, the chair of the Society of Authors, Lindsey Davis, told the Bookseller. In the US, the publishers facing a lawsuit for fixing e-book pricing lashed out last week, with Penguin accusing Amazon of “predatory” and “monopolist” behaviour. The company’s alleged avoidance of paying corporation taxin the UK is also raising hackles.

But the persistence of digital rights management (DRM) technology to limit sharing of digital books across platforms is entrenching Amazon’s position. As more people buy Kindles, heavy book-buyers such as me end up with a Kindle stuffed with books I like toting around with me, making it hard to move to another platform no matter how queasy I feel about dancing to Amazon’s tune.

Two subsidiaries of the publisher Pan Macmillan are experimenting with dropping DRM – Tor UK, a sci-fi publisher, and Momentum Books, an Australian digital-only imprint. Others are nervous about following suit, largely over fears about making it even easier for the pirates.

Meanwhile, Waterstones’ decision to jump into bed with Amazon, andencourage shoppers to buy e-books via Amazon in its stores, has caused ructions in the book trade. Despite all the criticism of Waterstones’ managing director, James Daunt, for the move, there is an idea there that could work. He plans to expand the Café W concept, making the bookshops the centre of a community that reads digitally as well as traditionally. It’s about the book-buying experience as much as the books.

Loitering on gamers’ forums I found former freebie-hunters happy to pay to download paid-for games from Steam, an online gaming site. They were willing to pay because it was easy to use and they engaged with the community aspect, the chatting to other gamers. This concept ought to translate to books; online as well as in cafes. Remember book clubs, after all.

At the moment, no e-reader on the market matches the Kindle, but its store is uninspiring, and its algorithm-led attempts to chum up to users are terrible. Anyone who can produce a good e-reader and back it up with an engaging community for book lovers could take on both Amazon and the pirates, if publishers are bold about ditching DRM technology.

Yet whingeing and hoping for a miracle are the twin strategies likely to dominate this week’s literary festival in Hay-on-Wye, where local booksellers are calling for a ban on Kindles. As Homer really did say: “By their own folly they perished, the fools.”