February 28, 2009
The Future of the E-Book Marketplace
Farhad Manjoo’s jeremiad about the dangers of the Kindle is, um, weird. Give him points for originality, though — for Manjoo, the Kindle isn’t a joke that nobody will read, or an electronic interloper that will kill the book.
Instead, the Kindle is too good — which means that Amazon will dominate the market and control book publishing the way iTunes controls the music industry.
The Kindle isn’t the first electronic device to impose unpalatable restrictions on users. Until recently, if you wanted to (legally) download a broad range of major-label music for your iPod, you had to buy it from Apple.* (Ironically, it was Amazon that launched the first big online store that sold music without restrictions.) The same goes for video games. You can’t play just any game on your Xbox. You can play only the games that have been approved and licensed by Microsoft. Then there’s the iPhone, a veritable electronic Attica. The iPhone lets you buy music wirelessly — as long as you buy it from Apple. The iPhone lets you add new programs to your device — though only the programs that Apple approves of. Other than that, you’re free to do what you like!
But the Kindle’s restrictions are more worrying than those associated with the iPhone, the iPod, and other gizmos. For one thing, if you objected to the iTunes Store’s policies, there was always another way to legally buy music for your iPod — you could buy CDs (from Amazon, perhaps) and rip the tracks to MP3. That’s not an option for books; there’s no easy way to turn dead trees into electrons. Moreover, books are important. As a culture, we’ve somehow determined that it’s OK for a video-game console maker to demand licensing fees and exercise complete control over the titles that get on to their systems. Sure, this restricts creativity and free expression, but if that’s the business model that keeps the game business alive, so be it.
But we’ve come to a different cultural consensus on books. First, we’ve decided that books should be sharable — when you buy a book, you can pass it along to others freely. In fact, governments and large institutions actively encourage the practice; we build huge, beautiful buildings devoted to lending books to perfect strangers. We’ve also decided that there should be an aftermarket for books: When you buy a book, you’re also buying the right to sell that book when you’re done with it. This not only helps people who can’t afford new books, it also encourages those who can afford them to buy more — it’s much less risky to buy a $30 hardcover if you know you can sell it for $15 in six months. (Amazon is one of the biggest players in the used-book market.) And we’d certainly balk at a world in which your books were somehow locked to the store where you bought them. Say Barnes & Noble signed a deal to sell the next Twilight book at a huge discount. But with a catch — the book would be published in invisible ink, and in order to read it you’d need to buy a special Barnes & Noble black light. This is ludicrous, of course, and no bookstore would ever attempt such a deal. But what’s the Kindle other than a fancy digital decoder ring?
I don’t understand how Manjoo can move so effortlessly from totally legitimate comparisons — the answer to this last rhetorical question is that the Kindle is very much like a video game console, and that’s a powerfully suggestive way to look at it — to “ludicrous” ruminations about invisible ink and digital decoders, usw.
We didn’t “decide” that books were especially important for our culture and deserved a special status under the law, anymore than we decided that shoes or clothes deserved the same — we trade and lend those secondhand, too. That’s one of the intrinsic benefits (or, if you’re a content owner, a drawback) of the technology. And we have, at different points in our history, placed pretty serious restrictions on what can be published, printed, and sold. We fought that out, politically and economically — and if the Kindle starts to bring unnecessary weight, we’ll fight that out too. As, if you haven’t noticed, we are everywhere these days — not least because industrious people are turning dead trees into electrons every day. (It may not be as easy as ripping a CD — but it can be done.)