The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro’s second-biggest project after the four (and, soon, five) volumes of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” is a very large book. The definitive Robert Moses biography — indispensable reading for anyone who cares about cities or politics — is 1,296 pages long, in hard- or softcover. It is a status symbol on Room Rater, and it requires a significant time commitment. New York has craftily advised people to slice up the paperback to avoid lugging a three-and-a-half-pound tome around for weeks’ worth of subway reading. For years, readers have been asking for an e-book, principally for its weightlessness. You can buy Caro’s LBJ books and his excellent brief memoir in official digital form, but not the Robert Moses book.
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.
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.
I suspect that, soon after this story is published, the book will disappear from both Amazon and my Kindle app. The nature of digital-rights management, and of Amazon’s proprietary system, means that access can be revoked after the fact. (Will I get my $7.99 back from Mr. Bezos? Maybe! Gotta read the terms of service.) But it is also true that it’s hard to yank back a digital product once it’s out there, even briefly. Nine years ago, a book I wrote had its jacket redesigned a few months before publication, and the early cover — similar to, but not the same as the finished one — was briefly posted on the Amazon page. That version lingers on some book-selling sites to this day, and it shows up all the time on secondhand-book sites and eBay when copies are resold, a pervasive ghost in the machine. Once a digital pipeline is laid, it is very hard to rip it out entirely and start over. As is true of, say, Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway.