The Power Broker Is Still Not Available As an E-Book. Except … It Is.

“A myth,” says Robert Caro’s publisher. Yet, somehow, I just bought the Kindle edition.

8/3/2021 6:10:00 AM

'The Power Broker' isn't available as an e-book. But for a little while last month, it somehow was

“A myth,” says Robert Caro’s publisher. Yet, somehow, I just bought the Kindle edition.

Neither Caro nor Knopf has said why not, but the best guess is that it’s about money. Nobody negotiated digital rights in 1974, when The Power Broker was published, and Caro got a decent deal from Knopf but hardly a fortune (after two other very small advances from other houses ran out) back then. One would certainly not begrudge the author and his agent, Lynn Nesbit, if they asked for a significant sum to amend that old contract; similarly, one can understand how Knopf might say “we forecast that we’ll sell only X number of copies each year; we can’t overpay for this.” So: no e-book.

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Until yesterday, when my colleague Joe DeLessio messaged me to say that The Power Broker had quietly become available for downloading. I checked the Amazon page, and there it was: buy now with 1-click, for Kindle, $7.99. I emailed to ask what was up, and got a prompt response from Paul Bogaards, the longtime publicity chief at Knopf. “The Caro ebook is the literary equivalent of Bigfoot,” he wrote. ”A myth! Does not exist, is not forthcoming,” But, I then asked, what’s that Amazon button? “Historically, sites have put up the availability of this title in ebook form to drive traffic.” It was, he was saying, a phantom unauthorized listing. Given that I’ve encountered a lot of weird Amazon pages in the past, that seemed plausible. “Try and buy it and see what happens! Your Kindle will explode!” he told me, jokingly.

Whereupon I did try. And at least for now, all 1,296 pages, from the dedication (“For Ina,” of course; God bless Ina) to that epic howl of a final line (“Why weren’t they grateful?”), reside on my phone. Now, this is a little weird. Many e-books, of course, can be found lurking around the internet in pirate editions. Someone gets hold of the book once it’s published and cracks its digital-rights-management cage so it can be freely downloaded. (Same thing happens for albums and movies.) But this is a little different, because it is not through some torrenting site but on Amazon, the biggest bookseller in the world, and one whose e-books exist in the relatively closed environment of the Kindle. If you buy a major publisher’s e-book from Amazon, you are getting an edition that ostensibly came through some kind of authorized channel — one that, in this case, Knopf tells me does not exist.

Whatever it is that I bought, it’s clearly a real e-book, not some amateur scan of the paper edition. It has the right cover, and the full text, and the occasionally awkward flow of type that I recognize from many other e-books I’ve read. It is, however, a slightly glitchy product: the links from the table of contents to a few of the chapters don’t work, and the photographs are not-so-great scans of the published pages. There is, for some reason, an image of the hardcover dust jacket, yellowed and crinkly, at the end of the e-book, just before the endpaper maps appear. My colleague Joe also bought the book, and he noticed that the text seems to have been poorly transferred via OCR from the original: Some commas have accidentally been turned into periods, and there are extra paragraph breaks. It also, perhaps tellingly, lacks a copyright page.

Where did it come from? In the early days of e-book production, most titles were outsourced and sometimes shoddy, but today they’re typically made by the publishers themselves, in the same process of copy flow that produces printed books. I spoke to a couple of publishing-industry people about this curious release, and both posited that Knopf had, at some point, probably prepared the e-book for future publication. But they were surprised to hear that it had made its way all the way into public view, because e-book files are so closely held: “We don’t give the e-pub files out to anyone,” one insider told me, explaining that they’re kept under tight control because of concerns about piracy. This person suggested that, just maybe, a deal had been struck, the digital book had was being prepared, a publication date had been set but not announced, and then somehow a switch had been accidentally thrown ahead of schedule. Judging by those typos and glitches, which contrast with Knopf’s customary level of polish, this wasn’t finished.

Read more: New York Magazine »

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