On a recent long jaunt around the Aegean, I realized something important about the Kindle: it’s the ultimate travel gadget.
I honestly didn’t expect this. I just brought mine so I’d have something to read! But here’s the deal:
- The Kindle has a web browser. It’s simple and slow, but solid enough to check Gmail and mobile.twitter.com. In fact, it works beautifully with the mobile versions of most sites.
- It’s almost miraculously connected. The browser wouldn’t mean much if Whispernet—Amazon’s set of carriage agreements with cell networks around the world—didn’t work everywhere. It does, and it’s also free. I was using Edge and 3G Whispernet reliably in remote-ish provinces and on sleepy islands. In fact, my Kindle generally got a stronger signal than my iPhone.
- It’s light and durable. There’s a big difference between older Kindles (which I’m toting) and newer ones in this regard; I’m considering snagging one of the latest simply because they’re so much smaller, slimmer and lighter. But any Kindle is more portable than any iPad, and I also felt a lot more comfortable tossing the Kindle into a bag or dragging it across the beach. (I had my iPad on this trip, too, but barely used it.)
- The Kindle works in direct sunlight. Especially when you’re traveling, this is a big deal. Standing on a busy corner or sitting on the beach, the Kindle is always totally usable. And this provides another contrast to the iPad, which always sends me scurrying to the shadows. (It really is a resolutely indoors device, isn’t it?)
- The battery lasts forever. You know this already. My Kindle was on a once-a-week charging schedule, and that’s with lots of reading and regular internet checks.
- Your Kindle is your itinerary. Using the Kindle as a virtual folder for travel documents was perhaps the biggest aha; it was my traveling companion who figured this out first. We got into the habit of forwarding tickets and reservations straight to our kindle.com addresses, which all Kindle owners have. (Oddly, this is the one part of international service that’s not free, but the price is negligible: $0.99 per megabyte for documents delivered this way.) It feels so good to have all of your information right there, in a format that’s so legible—not just to you, but to others. Once, in Turkey, I simply passed my Kindle to a ticket agent to help her understand where we were trying to go.
- Travel guides on the Kindle work great. I was a little skeptical about this—I think of the Kindle as being bad at random-access material, and a travel guide is definitely one of those books you want to be able to flip through freely. But as it turns out, we got a ton of use out of a Lonely Planet Kindle edition—purchased mid-trip, natch—and by the end of the trip, I felt like a dope for having bothered with a physical guide (which weighed in at about five Kindles).
Honestly, even if you are not ever going to read an e-book, but want a device to help you stay connected and organized while traveling—especially if you’re going a bit off the beaten track—the investment in a Kindle (barely more than a hundred bucks at this point) can’t be beat.
In case you didn’t see me tweet about it: I made a little page that compares the e-book and hardcover best seller lists from the New York Times. There’s a lot of variance, and a lot of different reasons for the variance. In fact, every difference seems to tell its own unique little tale. For instance, an informant told me via email:
Consider Phlebas is knocking it out of the park [on the e-book list] because the book just got listed at 99 cents. It wouldn’t suprise me if every sci-fi reader with Kindle access bought a copy of it. I know I did.
That’s interesting in at least two ways:
- It implies that the Kindle Store moves the market. Or maybe: that the Kindle Store is the market. I haven’t seen stats for the total e-book universe—have you?—but this seems intuitively correct to me.
- It augurs a new kind of book market in which prices can be super-dynamic. How about a special Game of Thrones intro weekend where the first book in the series is $0.99? How about selling a book for half-price while its author is out on tour, talking it up? What’s new is that you can make these price changes instantly and universally. No more declaring a new MSRP and hoping for the best from all the book sellers.
I’m going to keep updating the comparison page. Next up: paperback best seller lists.
As somebody who uses his Kindle (and Kindle apps) approximately 100X more often than his iPad, I’m excited at the hazy prospect of some tablet competition from Amazon.
You know, it’s funny—I feel a real rooting interest for this company, and I think it’s largely based on spillover sentiment from two services:
- Amazon Prime, which continues to make random everyday purchases feel basically like magic.
- Amazon EC2 and the rest of the Amazon Web Services family, which have become such an amazing engine of growth and experimentation. You might not realize it, but half the new-ish web services you use and enjoy are running on EC2. Apple has nothing like it; they’re not participating in the modern internet ecosystem in any remotely comparable way.
Amazon displays the most-highlighted passages from Kindle readers. I love it! Although I wish there was a way to slice-and-dice by genre, or look at one book or author specifically.
Counterintuitive hypothesis: The most significant thing that Amazon and now Barnes & Noble have done for e-books hasn’t been the creation and updating of their dedicated reading machines. It’s the creation of a genuine marketplace for e-books, where consumers can pick up titles easily, publishers can offer them and make at least a little money, and [in Amazon’s case] even little guys can get their stuff out there. You might have needed the reading machines to push the marketplace, but the marketplace will continue to be relevant even if everyone decides tomorrow that they don’t actually want a Kindle anymore. You can already read e-books on computers, smartphones, and pretty soon video game consoles. Amazon sold the razors, sure, but they can sell you the blades even if you don’t buy a razor at all. That’s big.
But creating a marketplace isn’t just about syncing to a device and matching readers’ eyeballs to content. You also have to establish, respond to, and eventually stabilize readers’ and publishers’ expectations about sales, especially about price.
This is harder than it sounds. How much should an e-book cost? How much should publishers have to share with the retailer? Just what are you buying? For hardcovers and paperbacks, these expectations have built up over a long time. This tweaked a bit when online sellers and big-box retailers started offering moderate-to-steep discounts over cover. None of this makes establishing norms for digital sales any easier.
For music, Apple pulled this beautifully in the early days of iTunes. At the time, CDs sold between 10 and 18 dollars for a typical album. This was actually really frustrating, because percentage-wise, it’s a huge variation. It was also an uptick from cassettes, which had rarely cost over $10.
Apple just perched on the low end: every track is 99 cents, every album is $9.99. They were competing with the free (P2P or friend copies) and the physical (real discs with better sound quality that you could play in your car), and they found a way out. Round numbers (good retail numbers for any product), close to what we were used to paying (but still offering competitive advantage). And they held it there, even when big media companies huffed and puffed because they wanted to charge more for high-demand (or high-cost) products. Apple’s establishment of trust with the music-buying public won out. And held out. Singles still cost a single. Which makes the digital music marketplace oddly pure.
At Booksquare, Kassia Krozser argues that the same price-stabilization is beginning to happen with e-books:
At Digital Book World, I’m going to do a brief presentation called “The Case for the $75 eBook”, because there is a marketplace for high-priced ebooks. In fact, I think there’s a robust marketplace for higher priced digital books, and I believe I can make a strong case for these price points.
That being said (ha!), I don’t believe the publishing industry can make a valid, solid, logical case for pricing most narrative fiction (and some non-fiction) ebooks above $9.99. Not only is this price point being cemented in the minds of readers by retailers, but, let’s be blunt, publishers have done a lousy job of making the value argument. The near-cynical approach of publishers to producing and selling ebooks has backfired. The process, the pricing, the product has been weighed by consumers and they are not amused. They like the $9.99 and below price point. It makes sense to them.
So, yep, I’m predicting publishers will have no choice but to swallow this one and figure out how to make their business work with ebooks priced below $10. It’s better to initiate this change rather than scramble when the retailers start demanding better terms. You can do it, publishing industry, you can do it!
It’s true! Maybe it’s just because we’re already primed by iTunes albums, or because $10 is the low-end price of a good trade paperback, or that $9.99 is one of those psychologically great retail numbers (Just dollars and cents! Not tens of dollars!), but it’s got real power.
For instance, I priced Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon. The book lists in hardcover at $27.95. At Amazon, it sells for $18.45 in hardcover and $14.76 for the Kindle. At Barnes and Noble, it’s $20.12 (huh?), or — yes — $9.99 for the e-book.
Now this was easier because I like the B&N app for the Mac and I preordered the Nook. But if B&N sells its e-book for $18, I either buy the hardcover from Amazon or pass altogether. At $9.99, I bought it right away. I did the same thing for China Mieville’s The City and the City: Kindle $13.73, B&N $9.99. On the other hand, I sprung for The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for almost $18 and still feel like I got hosed.
Now, digital books also offer the possibility that books, like CDs, can be split and sold separately. Maybe I just want to buy a copy of “The Undefeated” and “In Another Country” — a taste of Hemingway, not the whole short-form corpus. Big publishers haven’t really done this yet. But among independents and self-publishers, the other price point that seems to be emerging — the symmetry with iTunes is astonishing — is the 99 cent short story. And again — this feels just about right, especially appealing to folks reading these things on their iPhones, who don’t want to leaf through a whole novel or anthology, right around the same price as a cheap iPhone app or a single song.
hypothetical $75 e-book suggests that there are still plenty of other price points and formats to be hammered out. Maybe $25-$40 is the perfect price for an e-textbook. Maybe a short, indie nonfiction pamphlet — 2011’s version of New Liberal Arts — could sell well for $3.99. Maybe digital copies of new books will be free for readers who buy the hardcover (factored into the sale price). It’s still wide open. But with competition between sellers and tug-of-war between customers and publishers, we’re bound to figure it out.
(P.S. I’ve been reading with the Kindle/iPhone swap more and more lately. That is, read a couple pages on the iPhone Kindle app… pick up the Kindle, keep reading where from you left off… back to the iPhone the next day, and so on. Your bookmark’s in the cloud. Pretty neat.)
When it came out that NASA was going to shoot some rockets into the moon so they could see what would happen, I immediately thought of this classic sketch from Mr Show with Bob and David:
The obvious climax of the sketch is when Galileo the monkey wisely asks the scientists who plan to destroy the moon, “Why? Why do you want to blow up the moon?” Of course, NASA quickly replaces Galileo with a circus monkey who doesn’t know sign language, “who will do the job, no questions asked.”
Why am I reminded of the fat people in the movie Wall E when I read about this electronic book stuff??? Is there some thing wrong with an actual book? Other than that nasty paper wasting thing, and the toxic ink, oh yeah.…the list goes on. But isn’t a Kindle or a Nook going to end up in a landfill too when the newest, latest and greatest gadget hits the scene???? So I guess turning into a blob staring at a TV screen is our future.….nevermind!!!
“Is there something wrong with an actual book?” This is a serious question, and deserves a serious response.
For my part, obviously, the answer is no. As I wrote in my reply comment:
Hey, look: here at Snarkmarket, we love printed books so much, we made one our selves. We love them so much, we write love let ters to 16th-century Venetian print ers. I love books so much that when I broke my arm and couldn’t hold onto a heavy paperback with two hands, I cried.
I’ll expand: I’m a PhD in Comparative Literature and a postdoctoral fellow who teaches freshman how to write about literature, philosophy, and science. I teach a class called “From Scroll to Screen: The History and Theory of Writing.” I insist for this class that my students BUY THE BOOKS, and bristle at any suggestion that the books cost too much or pose too much of a physical burden. I study the history of the book (and of other material texts) and write papers and attend conferences on the same. I wrote my dissertation on something I call “Paper Modernism.”
But books just aren’t my professional life; they’re my life. As I say routinely, books are my drug of choice. I can’t imagine living without them.
But I don’t feel entirely like Galileo the monkey. I’m full-on into new media too; I teach cinema and media studies ALONG WITH books and newspapers — part of my thesis argues that we actually can’t entirely separate these media streams from one another, because they’re created and circulated and especially EXPERIENCED together, not identically, but as part of a total media system. And I have become, somewhat surprisingly, a computer person: a blogger and blogreader who totes around a laptop and smartphone. Just as I can’t imagine my life without books, I can’t imagine it without screens either.
Part of what we do at Snarkmarket — as screen people talking largely to other screen people — is to chart and celebrate and critique screen culture, and above all, to try to figure out where it’s going. I think we do this in a way that’s reflective and ethical, understanding that every technological change is in turn an anthropological change, one that both says something about and directly informs our fundamental values.
And yet — on something like electronic readers, where it’s so easy to ooh and aah at the new tech, or to snipe on janky designs or “old-media” people who “don’t get it” — I don’t want to be Koko the monkey either, mindlessly cheering the scientists on as they blow up the moon! Let me say that I don’t think we will ever totally lose books, or print — but even the loss of influence that the printed word that we’ve seen over the last century has been a genuine loss.
More precisely: there are people, and industries, and experiences, that HAVE LOST; that will CONTINUE TO LOSE; and this will be because digital media will gain in influence, partly at print’s expense. Anyone doubting this, or expecting otherwise, is like Mitt Romney telling voters in Michigan that if they keep working hard enough, the industrial jobs will come back. An era is passing. We have to treat it accordingly.
So. Why reading machines?
1. Because readers are already there. We are already reading more on electronic devices, on screens ranging from TV to computer to cellular phone. What’s more, while book-reading and newspaper and magazine subscriptions are down across the country (and across the world), electronic reading is GROWING. It’s growing in share, it’s growing in readers, and it’s growing in influence. If you are in a reading-intensive business, you want to get your content on a screen, because that’s where the readers are, and will be in the future.
Dedicated e-book readers have emerged because booksellers couldn’t get into that market, onto those screens. First and foremost, there was no real marketplace. And, there are several things about both computers (in any form factor) and smartphones that make them less than ideal for long-form reading. Readers needed a device, and they needed a store; Amazon wasn’t the first to offer both, but like the iPod before it, the Kindle was the first such device and store to be taken seriously, even as its total numbers haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Barnes and Noble saw a different way to approach the same market, and created a device and a software and store model to take advantage of it. But essentially, even as they’re inticing old readers in, booksellers and publishers are playing catch-up to the rest of the reading market.
2. Because otherwise publishers may not survive. It’s ironic that booksellers, especially online booksellers, have done so much to push e-reading, because they’ve already solved the problems of storage and circulation of material, discovering the long tail of content, etc. Electronic books are just one more step in Amazon’s reconstruction of retail — but they would have been okay anyways.
Really, it’s publishers who are screwed. Paper and printing costs, plus the expense of storage and transfer and delivery, are killing publishers — in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers. They can either raise prices or cut standards or go completely exclusive, high-end, luxury — and watch their market shrink even further — or turn to electronic delivery as the last best way to cut that knot. If we want to continue to have inexpensive books, news, commentary, and entertainment, we as readers and producers of media have to embrace digital delivery. The status quo is unsustainable.
3. This one is a little more metaphysical, but: Something has to be next. Our current forms of media, and our current interfaces for them, are exhausting themselves. Much of this is purely economic. But it’s also ideological and cultural. If books and newspapers and magazines and movies and television and radio and even blogs and web pages have slowly but inexorably calcified — and I think the signs are good to suggest that they have — then something has to happen next. Or, we resign ourselves to it, playing out the string, until elderly people die off, and the kids forget that there was such a thing as vitality in culture.
That’s when you wind up in the Wall-E universe, Ami Marie; when we forget that we can change things, when we stop exploring.
Let me return to something I wrote a few months ago, about the surprising rekindling (no pun intended) of literacy in the digital age:
As recently as 2000, it seemed inevitable that any minute now, we were going to be able to turn in our quaint keyboards and start controlling computers with our voice. Our computers were going to become just like our telephones, or even better, like our secretaries. But while voice and speech recognition and commands have gotten a lot better, generally the trend has been in the other direction — instead of talking to our computers, we’re typing on our phones…
The return to speech, in all of its immediacy, after centuries of the technological dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. Film, radio, television, and the phonograph all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communication technologies where writing and reading played an increasingly diminished role. I think the most important development, though, was probably the telephone. Ordinary speech, conversation, in real-time, where space itself appeared to vanish. It created a paradigm not just for media theorists and imaginative futurists but for ordinary people to imagine tomorrow…
This is where most of the futurists got it wrong — the impact of radio, television, and the telephone weren’t going to be solely or even primarily on more and more speech, but, for technical or cultural or who-knows-exactly-what reasons, on writing! We didn’t give up writing — we put it in our pockets, took it out side, blended it with sound, pictures, and video, and sent it over radio waves so we could “talk” to our friends in real-time. And we used those same radio waves to download books and newspapers and everything else to our screens so we would have something to talk about.
This is the thing about literacy today, that needs above all not to be misunderstood. Both the people who say that reading/writing have declined and that reading/writing are stronger than ever are right, and wrong. It’s not a return to the word, unchanged. It’s a literacy transformed by the existence of the electronic media that it initially has nothing in common with. It’s also transformed by all the textual forms — mail, the newspaper, the book, the bulletin board, etc. It’s not purely one thing or another.
The word is transforming, and being transformed. If you wanted to stick your hand in the dike, to stop what is happening to the book, you need to go back a century or more.
For my part, I find myself continually grateful for and delighted by what is happening, because while reading in some individual media is falling off, reading as such is actually flourishing. As I tweeted a week ago:
The revelation of the present isn’t that the printed word is in decline; it’s that reading and writing haven’t been destroyed along with it.
It is to keep reading and writing alive, and to keep them innovative, reflective, and exploratory, that I do everything — let me say it again, EVERYTHING — that I do.
To every reader of Snarkmarket, let me say: thank you for letting me do it here; and above all, for doing it with me.
Jason Kottke wrote a nice concurring post (at least I think it was concurring!) to my look at single-use and call for integrated-use reading devices. Then in a follow-up, he expanded on his position that the correct single use [for an e-reader] isn’t buying and reading books, but READING, in all its forms:
I do a *ton* of reading, upwards of 100–150 pages a day when I’m working full-time. About 0.5% of those pages are from books. But the Kindle? I tried it and didn’t like it. The screen is still great…the rest of it didn’t work at all for me. And this is what is frustrating for me…the Kindle seemed right for buying books but not for what I want it for: reading all that other stuff. I know the functionality exists on these devices to read blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc., but they’re marketed as book readers (Arment even calls them “ebook readers” instead of “e-readers”), the user experience is optimized for book reading, and the companies (esp. Amazon and B&N) view them as portable bookstores.
Like Jason, any kind of single-use reading machine is pretty far from MY ideal solution. But I can imagine that it can be an ideal solution for some people. I don’t really need a dedicated digital camera anymore, but that’s partly because I’m at best an occasional photographer. The first (and last) person I recommended the Kindle to was my grandmother, whose reading of blogs and comic books is (ahem) light. I’d also recommend a Jitterbug cell phone to her. Me, I’ve got an iPhone.
Like Jason, too, a big chunk of what I read are blogs. If you add other online periodicals (whether web-only like Slate or web versions of mags like the Atlantic), we’re probably talking 60–70% of my total page count. I read a lot more books than Jason, because I’m a freaking literature professor — and still, books don’t begin to dominate, let alone exhaust, my reading.
But when I think about test cases for the mythical integrated-media reading machine of the future, I almost never think of blogs. Children’s books, comic books (and strips), textbooks, maps, pamphlets, restaurant menus, grocery store coupons — these are the text/image hybrids that I think 1) push the limits of what the Kindle can do and 2) are actually more central to the everyday experience of “reading” than full-length books. And I can start to think about how reading machines and reading software can best be designed and employed to perform those acts of reading.
But blogs? Is there a device, a software setup, a purchasing and subscription system, or delivery and commenting and reposting mechanisms, that are optimized for reading blogs — above and beyond what current exists for our PCs, laptops, and smart phones?
To approach the books vs. blogs problem from the other side:
- What would a reading machine designed and optimized for blog reading look like?
- What would be the key differences between an electronic blog-reader and an electronic book-reader?
- Likewise, how would the “marketplace” functions — purchases, subscriptions, advertising — differ on a blog-oriented reading machine?
- How successfully would such a machine function as a general-purpose electronic reader? That is, how well could a blog-reading machine handle traditional books (and book sales), comics, newspapers, textbooks, etc.…
- Since I’ve talked about this recently — could a blog reader have a different kind of relationship to places and spaces — maybe coffee shops and internet cafés instead of bookstores? — or are we back to the Kindle’s view from nowhere?
It’s worth exploring the possibility! I mean, unless you’re sinking capital into these things, what do we have to lose?