Should we be worried that Jonah Lehrer’s ebook has melted into air, into thin air?

. . . and leaves not a rack behind?

Jonah Lehrer, you may recall, is the young author who made up some Dylan quotes in his book Imagine and was caught self-plagiarizing on his New Yorker blog and elsewhere.  See here and here.  It’s not a good time to be Jonah Lehrer.

Imagine, not surprisingly, has been withdrawn from the market, without any online explanation of what happened.  Now an Atlantic writer worries that the disappearance of the ebook from ebook shelves is a bad thing.

There are now links to used copies on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble; original links to the items are still inactive, and at the original time of writing, there were no links at all, used or no. Lehrer’s author site on Amazon still does not link to any of the marketplace vendors.

She connects this situation to the time Amazon disappeared copies of some editions of Orwell novels from readers’ Kindles because of copyright violations.

When Orwell pulled a Kindle disappearing act, David Pogue called Amazon’s actions, “ugly for all kinds of reasons.” Even though (as far as I know) no purchased copies of Imagine have disappeared off of electronic readers, the ugliness is just as strong in the current reaction to Lehrer’s missteps. It is worrisome that the book has virtually disappeared from the most prominent online retailers—and the publisher itself. A simple note saying that sales have been halted pending further verification, or something to that effect, would have been a much more honest, transparent solution. When contacted for comment on the specifics of the decision, Amazon stated simply that, “At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s request, we halted sales of ‘Imagine’ in all formats.” No reply was made to the specific issue of how the request was handled. HMH did not provide a response, nor did Barnes and Noble.

To me, this seems like much ado about nothing (to bring Shakespeare into the post again).  Imagine is still easily available as a used hardcover on the Internet.  No one has removed the existing ebooks from peoples e-devices.  So Imagine is certainly leaving a rack behind. (In this sense a rack, the Internet tells me, is a fast-moving cloud, a vapor.)

I suppose in some ways it’s easier to disappear ebooks than to destroy physical books, but as readers at Andrew Sullivan’s site point out, in other ways it’s much easier to save an ebook, if you think it’s worth saving:

Jonah Lehrer’s book was bought and downloaded by thousands of readers before it was recalled. The tools to remove an e-book’s DRM encryption are freely available and trivial to use, even for a low-tech buyer with a cheap PC. Once the book is decrypted, it’s just another file on a computer, as easy to copy and send around as any photo or Microsoft Word document. E-book files are tiny compared to other commonly-pirated media like movies and music; most are under 10 megabytes, which is small enough to send as an email attachment. And if they’re stripped of their fancy formatting and converted into plain text, they get even smaller. Project Gutenberg’s entire collection of over 40,000 public-domain titles would fit comfortably on an average iPod.

And then there are the increasing numbers of ebooks (like mine) that don’t even have DRM.  I’m basically trusting that most people aren’t jerks.

And here’s another angle: I wonder if Lehrer would have any difficulty getting the rights to Imagine back from the publisher.  If he did that, he could get rid of the made-up stuff, write a new introduction explaining that the devil made him do it, mistakes were made, or whatever, and sell the ebook for $2.98 or some other fraction of the publisher’s original ebook price.  I’m sure he’d sell a bunch of copies!  Step 1 in his rehabilitation.

When I started my ebook venture, I went looking for an unpublished novel of mine that I thought might be worth self-publishing as an ebook.  Couldn’t find the hardcopy.  Could only find softcopy of the first draft.  Yikes!  I vaguely remembered sending a copy to my friend Jeff, so I dashed off a desperate email.  Twenty minutes later I had my novel back.

Computers are our friends.

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