I got an Amazon Kindle DX (the large-size one) before leaving on this last 6-week European tour leg. I thought that I could afford to be a guinea pig (it’s almost $500!) and try this way of reading. I loaded up a bunch of books ($10 for most, many just out) and some New Yorker magazines before I left, and as a result saved some space in my luggage, which usually gets filled with books I brought or purchased on the road. My luggage, as you can imagine, still got pretty full — mainly CDs and DVDs I was given — but a pile of books and magazines would have put it over the top. You can therefore “carry” more books than you might read, and if one is boring you can easily just dip into another.
Here’s my report.
The screen contrast approximates reading a newspaper — the background is off-white, rather than the ivory or white of most books. So it’s not super contrasty, but for me it’s OK — I didn’t feel eye strain. The device is heavier than a small paperback, but lighter than a hardback, so that part was no problem — and it’s MUCH thinner than any physical book, so it slips in a bag easily. The B&W screen isn’t so good with photos, though they’re often no worse than a B&W newspaper image. But, since most of what I was reading wasn’t photo- or chart-heavy, that was OK too. Reading The New Yorker, for example, was pretty great — no ads, you can skip around to various sections of the magazine, and the new issues download via a cellular network automatically.
There are a few websites that offer thousands of public domain books — Jane Austen, Dickens, Melville, Joyce and lots of wacky, forgotten, orphaned volumes as well. I got one by PT Barnum. So, if you wanted, you could have hundreds of books in this thing and not pay for any of them.
One of Amazon’s selling points is instant gratification. You want a book (at least in the US — there’s no coverage in Europe or elsewhere) and you can have it in about a minute — if there’s a Kindle version — and… you can shop only at Amazon (or through certain other Kindle content providers).
Here’s where the rub is. This machine only reads Kindle files and PDFs. And nothing else out there reads Kindle files. It can read other types of files — Word DOCs, MOBI, TXT etc. — but you have to go through Amazon via email, where they’re converted for a small charge, then sent directly to your Kindle. And, you can’t share a book with your friends, even if they too have a Kindle. No doubt, as with MP3 and iTunes, book publishers would only agree to this system if people couldn’t share their purchases. As we know, Apple has relented on this, and has taken DRM off many of their music files. But which ones? How do you know? Years from now, having gone through a few computers, your music collection is unplayable except for the files without DRM. Well, same with these books — if you migrate to a different tablet (the forthcoming Apple one we hear so much about, for example), you are fucked. All the unread books in your Kindle library are stuck on what will eventually become antiquated technology.
There are other e-book formats out there (EPub is being touted as a cross-platform format, but still, ugh, with DRM). I saw a guy at a bar reading a Kindle book on his iPhone, as the files are available for those and for the iPod Touch through an Amazon app, but it looked kinda tiny, and the backlit screen will drain a battery in a couple of hours of constant use. The slightly strange electronic ink system in the Kindle (and in the Sony Reader) has no backlight — so, like a book, you can’t read it in bed at night without a nightlight. This was an understandable tradeoff, as the battery life is unbelievable. With the wi-fi switched off (you only need it running to retrieve orders or magazine subscriptions), the thing stays charged for weeks.
Do I miss the “physical experience”? I will certainly miss being able to read books from my personal library, but if the title I want to read is all text it doesn’t make much difference to me. The smell will be a bit of nostalgia, as will fading and water damage. The Kindle only uses about two fonts at present, so some may miss type layout and design. But I suspect additional fonts will be added soon. On the e-book file I can still highlight sections to refer to later, and there’s a built-in dictionary! I forgot that! You put the cursor next to a word, and a little definition appears at the bottom of the page! Students will love that. I do.
I hear that the Apple tablet will use a format that is more cross-platform, but will that mean I can share a book with my friend? It’s surely a way we make friends sometimes: “I just finished this GREAT book, do you want to read it? I’ll pass you my copy.” As with music, sharing things is a way of getting to know one another and a form of reciprocal debt — if I “lend” you my book, you sort of owe me… a book, or something. We’re linked now, which is how we use these things that represent our inner selves — as social connectors. Take that ability away, the ability to exchange stuff that represents us, and I’ll bet some of the “value” of these kinds of e-books goes too… the social interconnectedness value, not the dollar value.
The Apple tablet looks to have illumination, which will drain battery life really quickly in book-reading time (many, many hours on a train, plane, bus, back porch, bed) — but sometimes the color, photo quality and ability to read in low light that Apple promises (and the touch screen!) might win out. We’ll see. I do think, based on my limited experience, that if some of these bugs and proprietary issues can be worked out in any of these reader things, then yes, the future of reading (and of selling books) will be very different, whether it’s this device or another one.
The bookselling and publishing worlds will be shaken with repercussions. Imagine the hundreds of pounds of textbooks a lot of college students are expected to lug around every year — and pay hundreds of dollars for as well. And the resulting medical bills. If those textbooks can be sold as weightless $10 downloads the students and their parents will cheer, and the chiropractors will cry. A LOT of publishers count textbook sales as their bread and butter, because the poor students HAVE to buy them — which is why they are so damn overpriced. If the income from those textbooks shrinks by 90%, they’ll be hurtin’.
Likewise, if, as Amazon hopes, all books will be priced around $10, then publishers who regularly charge $25 for a new hardback (cheaper than a textbook) will also be crying. Or going out of business unless they jump on the wagon.
The upside for publishers is that with digital files there is a much lower distribution cost. There is still the expense of setting up and maintaining the e-commerce situation — which is not nothing, but it is mainly front-loaded. The ever-recurring printing costs, trucks, warehouses or even, ulp, percentages to bookstores go away. (“Hello, Tower Records, meet Barnes and Noble.”) So the printing and distribution costs will be significantly less — though there are still the costs and skills involved in marketing. As things move in that direction, it seems obvious that writers will begin to realize that the percentages and royalties they normally give up for those services — well, why should they pay them? Kinda like the music biz.
Another parallel to the music biz is that writers will be able to self-publish and distribute. Who knows what they’ll live on, but there won’t be any printing costs or distribution percentages to subtract from book sales. Just like the musicians (like me) who sell downloads from their own websites, writers will sometimes bypass publishers. Would Tom Clancy or Steven King need their publishers to print and distribute their latest? Hardly. Their fans, like Radiohead’s or those of NIN, will just buy directly from the author’s website. Amazon has already launched a test platform called Digital Text, which enables anyone to upload their work, suggest a retail price, and pocket 35% of sales.
Lastly, and scariest for publishers I guess, is that inevitably someone will hack the Kindle (or other formats) — and the books will become shareable… and copiable and infinitely reproducible, just like MP3s. People laughed at the record companies, with their reputations as money squanderers and for their waste and extravagance — but music hasn’t suffered, and writing and magazines might not either, especially if both writers and publishers can learn from the record companies and not pretend that publishing is any different.