Kindling Openness and Impact

With the launch of the Kindle, I have little desire here to add to criticisms (e.g., the lack of support for the IDPF’s epub standard, or PDF for that matter), or the whims of “service” designers who decided to charge for Kindle email services and blog subscriptions. Or even the size, shape, or aesthetics of it as an object (gee, does it come in black?).

However, this morning I was on a conference call with a few VPs from large publishing houses, and therein were a couple of comments that I thought particularly interesting. I’ll generously extrapolate from both of them.

The first is one that I feel most closely: The Kindle may be a terrific single-use device, but it works with a closed (Amazon) shop. While it is understandable that Amazon would want to privilege the Amazon Store buying experience, monopolizing ebook transactions to the home port sharply limits the attractiveness of the Kindle among institutions that I care a lot about, like libraries; higher ed; and heck, even independent bookstores, where one could imagine an interesting channel press against B&N. But most importantly, the inability of a large institution to control the distribution pipe, even a secondary one, means that Kindles are going to be a direct-to-consumer device for a while, and the reader will be consuming primarily through Amazon and its partners, not via the Berkeley Public Library. That’s a loss to the public, and I think to Amazon as well, which doesn’t grok the broader conversation it could be defining.

The second commentary is a matter of market penetration. From the publishers’ narrow but most fundamental perspective, the critical question of the moment is: “Will the Kindle sell books?” For it to be successful by this measure, at least one of two possible paths must find place:

  1. The Kindle will convert people who are not presently book readers into people who do, lo and behold, read books; or
  2. The Kindle will increase book reading due to the availability of titles in a more convenient format, coupled with spur of the moment purchasing capability.

When you consider (1), color me doubtful. It seems unlikely, in the overwhelming majority of reading markets, that the Kindle will turn people newly onto books in any significant degree. Arguably, (2) is more likely, and certainly I think everyone expects a mild up-tick in purchasing through spontaneous acquisition. But one of the problems with reading is that it is actually rather difficult: a lot of things have to be involved cognitively for a human to read, and driving is not one of the co-behaviors that anyone would encourage. Walking, much less navigating one’s way through the Lexington line IRT after a flash flood, are also rather difficult while reading (as opposed to, say, listening to music, which might just make the latter situation bearable enough to avoid screaming). In sum, the convenience of ebooks will have to be sufficient to justify carrying a dedicated device (at present), and for the consumer to want to acquire additional things to read.

And finally there are two other issues: first, as Booksquare (among others) notes, Apple’s iPhone is really, really close. It wouldn’t take much.

Second: It isn’t Amazon among publishers’ new challengers that has the largest collection of digital text. It’s Google. As Rex Hammock notes:

[…] Google is always the elephant in the room when it comes to digitized books. But if you think about such Google moves as Android and how it will affect mobile access to the web, it doesn’t take rocket scientists […] to conceive of how a more open platform than Amazon’s will be available to the market.

And that will indeed be an interesting chapter to read, which is only now, one suspects, being written.

Other useful commentary on the Kindle:

Dear Author: Amazon Kindle Purported to Debut Tomorrow
Rex Hammock: What I’d rather have than an eBook reader: the iPod Touchbook
Booktwo: The Kindle Has Landed
Print is Dead: Amazon’s Next of Kindle