Lost in the Amazon

I have written often in this space about Barnes and Noble and their boneheaded, customer-unfriendly policies in the past. And I’ve joined the growing masses that have moved their purchases to Amazon.com, and boldly predicted their demise in the next few years. And Amazon has taken advantage of that with bold marketing of their Kindle hardware and software, and have become the leader in the eBook space, ahead of B&N’s Nook, and Apple’s iBooks. But the market leader isn’t infallible; sometimes they make some big missteps. This is one of them.

I’ve been a Kindle guy for years now. It started with my iPad purchase, where I quickly adopted the Kindle app over the built-in iBooks app. I fell in love with the app, spending hundreds of dollars on Amazon e-books. Even though I wasn’t necessarily won over by the Kindle hardware, having the option to have my books on both my iPad and a smaller dedicated Kindle device was still an option I didn’t have with Apple. 

I’ve also been an Amazon guy for a while, having a Amazon Prime account for over five years now. Even though it’s not cheap at $79 a year, it more than paid for itself as I built my business, purchasing most of my hardware with the nifty free two-day shipping. Also, One-Click is seriously dangerous. So when it came time to purchase Melissa’s first tablet, picking up a Kindle Fire-despite the spotty reviews-was a no brainer. Benefits such as the Kindle Lending Library [link] and free Amazon Video streaming for Prime members was icing on the cake. I figured between Melissa’s Fire, and my Kindle iPad app, we had the best of all Amazon worlds. Or so we thought. 

When Melissa registered her Kindle, it automatically gave her a free month of Amazon Prime. Obviously, we didn’t need it, on account of already having a Prime account and being married, but we figured it didn’t matter. She quickly dove into the free video streaming, and the lending library, and fell in love with her Fire, despite having some small issues with the device. She started reading religiously on the bus to and from work, and had been exposed to books through Amazon’s Lending Library, and purchased new books based on that experience. On Christmas, Melissa surprised me with a dedicated Kindle Touch of my own. We figured we’d be a Kindle buying family for life. 

The problems started when her free month of Prime ended. She lost access to her videos, and her Lending Library. We figured there was an issue with her registered email address, but we were well into the holiday season, and it wasn’t a mission critical task, so I put it off until after the holidays. When I finally started researching the problem, I was troubled by what I found. 

Amazon ties one Prime account to each device. What that means, is, my email was the primary Amazon email, so all of the Kindle Prime benefits went to me. Melissa’s is a secondary email, so she gets nothing, on the device that really needs the Kindle Prime benefits. That wouldn’t be a problem, I assumed. Just a quick call to Amazon’s legendary customer service, we’d get the emails switched, and continue on in our married Kindle bliss. 

I should note here, that I’ve never actually experienced this “legendary” customer service everyone claims Amazon provides. Every single time I’ve had to call, I’ve never gotten anything close to satisfying service. From getting price matched, to getting my proper items shipped, to buying an item four hours before they changed the price, only for them to refuse to give me the new price without returning it and reordering it, talking to Amazon’s customer experience has been like banging my head on a brick wall. I’ve had better customer service experiences with Comcast. COMCAST.

Anyway, I called, and got a lovely, friendly woman on the other line. I can’t remember her name, so I’ll just call her Sue. After explaining my admittedly strange situation, I asked if she could help.

“Unfortunately,” Sue said, “we can’t change the primary emails on your Prime account. What I’d recommend is for you to cancel your Prime account, and have your wife open a new Prime account. Then she’ll get all of the Prime benefits, and you’ll be a secondary on her account.”

“Okay, that sounds fine. Will I get a credit for my unused Prime?” I ask. 

Sue informs me that no, I would not get a credit, as Amazon has determined that I’ve “received sufficient Amazon Prime benefits”. 

“So you’re asking me to pay for two Prime accounts. That makes no sense-we have the same address, because we’re married.”

“Well, no, you’d have the one Prime account, since yours would be cancelled. I understand your frustration, and it’s really a rare situation that you’re in, but that’s the best we can do,” Sue offers. I should note, at this point, this was a pretty calm conversation. I wasn’t ticked off at Sue, because none of this was her fault, and she was genuinely sympathetic to our situation, and admitted it was pretty lousy policy. But it seems like Amazon’s solution to the not-entirely-rare situation of multiple Kindle devices in the home was to buy and maintain two Amazon Prime accounts. At $79 a pop. Per year.

I asked her if we could just share the main email. She said that we could, but Melissa would lose all of the books she’d purchased, and she’d get copies of all of the books I purchased, and vice versa. Our options were:

  1. Share my main email account and share all of our purchases. Melissa would lose access to all of the purchases she’s already made on her Kindle.
  2. Cancel my Prime account, have Melissa create new Prime account. We’d be paying for two accounts at least for the first year, which is nonsense considering we share an address, so the majority of the Prime benefits would be wasted.
  3. Bitch about it on my blog.

I quickly realized we were running into a DRM problem. 

DRM is the “necessary evil” of digital distribution. The thinking goes, by publishers and content providers anyway, that if you put restrictions on digital purchases, it will curb piracy. It, of course, does nothing of the sort. In fact, while I was on the phone with Sue, I Google searched a method to remove the DRM off of my Kindle books and change the format so that I could put the ebooks on any device I chose. That took me .29 seconds and gave me over 900,000 results. And a quick search led me to pirated versions of every single Kindle book I’ve ever purchased. So it doesn’t hamper piracy, and the methods to strip DRM are found in a quick Google search. So what exactly, does DRM help again? Steve Jobs had it right. “DRMs [hasn’t] worked, and may never work, to halt piracy.” He may have been talking about music at the time, but the same idea holds true with music, video, and yes, books. 

Of course, none of this would be an issue if Amazon had a policy in place to manage the clearly unforeseeable situation of a multiple Kindle household. We weren’t even asking for anything crazy, or so I thought. Hell, all I want is for Melissa to get the full benefits of a device she clearly enjoys. We’ll continue to shop at Amazon, and I’ll continue to purchase Amazon books in the future once we get this Prime thing squared away. We both just wish Amazon didn’t have to make it so difficult for us to continue to give them money.

So here’s what I wound up doing to solve this problem:

  1. Strip the DRM from Melissa’s Kindle books using a nifty program called Calibre
  2. Unlink Melissa’s email from her Kindle Fire.
  3. Add my main Prime account to Melissa’s account, and add her “clean” Kindle books back onto her Fire. We’ll have to share the account for a while, but at least she’ll get to use the full benefits of her Fire. 
  4. When it’s time for my Prime to renew, I’ll cancel that, and start a new Prime under Melissa’s email. I’ll then become a secondary email on her account. I will miss out on the awesome Lending Library feature on my Kindle Touch, but she’ll get the Lending Library and the free Amazon Prime streaming videos.

All of this is legal, but a colossal pain in the ass. I hope Amazon takes a good look at their Amazon Prime/Kindle policy, and adjusts it to be more household-friendly. We’ll be ready and waiting for them when they do.