Nov 19

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

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

tags: publishing  | comments: 9   | Sphere It

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» &078/ Why would I need a Kindle? from Harald Felgner & the Red Fez

Musing about my personal list of needs/ uses concerning media portability: I need an audio-carrying device, as I fill a 4-hour train commute or a 15-minute walk with MANY snippets of music and spoken-word podcasts (iPod). I need a syncing... Read More

Comments: 9

  Bob Warfield [11.19.07 04:38 PM]

To succeed, eBooks need not follow either of the two paths you mention:

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.

I think #2 is likely simply because we've all had the experience of being in a bookstore and not quite remembering all the things we needed to check on: Did I get all my favorite authors? Did I remember which of their books I have or not?

Despite that potential, simply replacing the wood pulp and attendant costs of shipping it around with bits represents a potential to increase margins for both Amazon and Publishers. Splitting those increased margins is valuable all by itself.

Amazon and publishers are not the only ones inconvenienced by wood pulp. Saving me the trouble of carrying a bunch of books on a trip is all the motive I need to try one too.

More on my blog:

  Bryan [11.19.07 06:29 PM]

Kindle isn't really closed. It supports non-DRM'd .mobi files, also does text, html, .doc, etc. So, with a little converter magic, you can put a lot of content on it.

Keep in mind also that Amazon easily serves as the storefront for a lot of other vendors. So, this isn't quite as closed as today's first looks have been insinuating.

I think I'll buy one. Amazon have kicked the e-reader ball pretty far downfield with this device!

  Peter Brantley [11.19.07 07:17 PM]

Hmm. Wired has an explicit comparison between the Kindle and the Sony. And it makes me think: is the Kindle the best marketing that ever happened for Sony? Maybe the Kindle really demonstrates all that is truly excellent about the Sony 505.

Will a more open architecture and an elegant design (Sony) trump a nearly closed-shop store, but with connectivity and fuller content (Amazon)?

Will Sony (or iRex) get the message and add connectivity to the 505 and make something much closer to a niche killer?

Time will tell ...

  Chris Vail [11.19.07 08:09 PM]

Does the Kindle (or any other ebook) have audio capability? I can think of two ways to go here: hearing the text read rather than reading it (I know someone whose first language is not English who preferes hearing news articles to reading them); and hearing music of your choice while reading visually (making the device like a portable living room).

Maybe we should think of podcasts as the new books.

  Leo Klein [11.19.07 08:21 PM]

Brantley: "Maybe the Kindle really demonstrates all that is truly excellent about the Sony 505."

Here's the bit of stenography that Steve Levy did on the huge success of the Sony eReader:

"Sony won't divulge sales figures, but business director Bob Nell says the Reader has exceeded the company's expectations..."

That settles it! It's the equivalent of the iPod. The days of the traditional book are counted.

  Michael H [11.20.07 05:49 AM]

The price of the device outweighs any convenience for me, and I'm a grad student who usually needs access to lots of books.

I think Bezos must have a Reality Distortion Field around him that's almost as powerful as the one surrounding Steve Jobs. The only question is whether Kindle will be an iPod or a iCube.

  Peter Kingsley [11.21.07 05:07 AM]

The Kindle, of course, will go the way of the buggy whip within say 2 or 3 years. Nothing, repeat,nothing can ever replace THE FEEL of a well bound book, the pride of possession, the history and the look of the item itself.
Convenient? yes. An heirloom to pass down to your children? Don't make me laugh.

  mxt [11.23.07 12:55 PM]

Maybe Amazon should do "razor and blades" marketing. Give the reader away for free, make the money on the content.

  potential [12.01.07 02:09 AM]

The potential is there. When there are three mfrs doing this, it'll be great and cost $200. Maybe it will be a Google,, but kudos to Bezos for tying. I wish him well.

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