Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is the Kindle the Wave of the Future?

It seems like it’s the only thing book people talk about, the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, and how they’ve changed their lives. From editors, authors, and agents we hear about the revolution of ebooks and how paper books are coming to an end. But is that really the case?

I have jumped on the Kindle bandwagon and I’ll admit that so far, so good. It’s not perfect and you can tell it’s not made by Apple (of which I’m a huge fan), it’s just not that fancy. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles that an Apple "ibook" would probably have. But it works and it works remarkably well. I haven’t yet used mine to read a purchased book, but I have used it to read a number of manuscripts and it’s made my life so much easier. Just imagine traveling with one small book containing four manuscripts rather than shipping the manuscripts to my destination (which is what I used to do).

What has been really interesting to me is the reaction of others when I tell them about my Kindle. One friend, a real techie (he waited in line for hours for his iPhone the day it was released) immediately asked me my thoughts and wanted to know details. He is not much of a book reader, although he did have one remarkable year when his goal was to read a book for every letter of the alphabet. He started with an author whose last name began with “A” and went through the alphabet until he hit “Z.”

Another friend, a former publishing colleague, and someone I consider incredibly well read, had no idea what I was talking about. He’d never heard of the Kindle and knew nothing about ereaders.

My mother, who is an avid online shopper, including Amazon, and a huge reader, had never heard of it.

My assistant had never heard of the Kindle until she started working here and saw the one Kim purchased. Obviously she loves books and is an avid reader.

Now of course all of these people had these reactions before Oprah made her recent announcement (and devoted a half hour of her show) that the Kindle is one of her favorite things. However, if you watched the reactions of those receiving their free Oprah gift you might also notice that for every person who was overjoyed there were two who were confused and a fourth looking for her car.

So what does this say about the future of ebooks? It says that I have a very, very small sampling, but it also says that the future is a lot farther off than many are predicting. Even with Oprah’s powerful stamp of approval? you ask. Yes, because I remember very clearly just a few short years ago when the Sony Ereader was one of Oprah’s favorite things.

While true publishing professionals and Oprah have quickly latched on to the idea of an ebook, there are still many, many people out there who have no idea what we’re talking about. Will ereaders be the end to books in the same way mp3s have been the end of CDs? I can’t think that way. It sounds so negative and dour and I just don’t believe that if it happens it will happen anytime soon. For one thing, mp3s have a different music quality. Ereaders are unlikely to change the quality of the written word and I have yet to see an ereader that will make reading a children’s picture book as enjoyable as a “real” book. The graphics just are not going to translate. Yes, it’s clear changes to the publishing industry need to be made and will be made, but let’s not think of it as an end to anything, but as a fun new addition, the same way mass market paperbacks were once new.



Christina said...

I've been reading e-books for years, just on a hand-held PDA-type thing, using Microsoft Reader.

Love, love, love the ability to read wherever and whenever I want, and take 20 books on vacation with me without the weight of 20 books.

Instant gratification is a plus for me, too. I can go online, buy books and have them immediately.

This hasn't changed my purchase of my favorite authors - I still buy them as a hard copy, and keep them forever. I just have far fewer stacks of books around my house now!

Whether it's the wave of the future or not, I don't know. If more young people read these days, Harry Potter and Twilight etc. notwithstanding, I could be fairly positive that that would be the case.

My handheld is smaller than the Kindle, it fits in my back pocket so it's always handy. It's capable of viewing Word and Excel documents. I'm very happy with it, and really wouldn't consider using anything else.

Satima Flavell said...

It scares me a little that with Amazon being so powerful it would be easy for them to make Kindle the industry standard and to ensure that it only read books in their own format. Monopoly? Ubetcha, if they can swing it.

Kimber Li said...

"Is the Kindle the Wave of the Future?"

Yes, of course it is. Haven't you ever watched Star Trek?

Bonnie R. Paulson said...

I'm sure it is the wave future,and is super cool and probably very convenient.

BUT! There is nothing like the smell of a brand new book just off the shelf whose spine hasn't yet been cracked, the feel of unturned pages and the rustle of pages turning as you read. I would worry about spilling my cocoa on a gadget but never on a book. I can cuddle with a book on a stormy day or crawl into the tub wtih one.

I would be leery of taking such an expensive reader in the bathroom with me period.

But on the other hand, I don't carry around more than one or two at a time, like ya'll do in the industry. And it is easy to understand how it could help you out with work and such. It is very cool then.

But me, I would rather get my bag of Oreos, grab that book that I have read so many times the pages are crinkled and worn and climb into bed. With or without Oprah's approval.

Janet Reid said...

This is a really good point. I'm always surprised to find myself ahead of the pack cause I don't think of myself as an early adapter of anything.

I've had a lot of people ask me about my Kindle when they've seen me reading it, but now that I think about it no one has said "oh wow I have to get one" which was my exact reaction when I saw Kristin Nelson's: MUST HAVE!

Anonymous said...

I will never stop loving the smell of a new book. I may eventually break down and get a kindle, but I still love the crispness of page..maybe I'm just an old soul, but I'd take a paperback over an ebook any day of the week.

Anonymous said...

I can see it now: the ereader pop-up book for kids, with 3-D holograms that spring right off the display.

Hmm... It sort of has a Star Wars feel to it, doesn't it? "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you're my only hope."


Mark Terry said...

Well, I don't have a Kindle and have no plans to get one, but....

It's clear that my storage capacity in my house for books is getting full. And I think more interestingly is that I get about 4 magazines, 6 or 7 newsletters, and I'm WAAAAYYYY behind on those, and I think having them all on a reader I could just carry with me and when I'm waiting for one of my kids (yes, Dad Chauffeur), instead of working on the USA Today crossword puzzle on my iPhone, I might read an article or two in one of these publications I have with me might work out rather nicely.

I don't know about the books thing. I just love the feel of a book in my hands. And what happens if you lose your Kindle? Is your whole library toast?

Anonymous said...

There are going to be several market segments for books (and e-books in the future):

1. e-books for Kindle (& similar devices)
2. PDF-based e-books for those who prefer notebooks and PCs as well as for those books that graphically don't translate well to an reflow e-book format.
3. Print-on-demand for paperbacks that are mostly text.
4. Printed books (offset) will become a premium product featuring superb book design for those people who really love books.

Maybe there will be more segments, but at least those 4. Ignore predictions that there is one e-book solution for all of publishing.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

The Kindle is a long way from arriving in South Africa yet, but I've been aware of it almost since its inception and have been following people's reactions to it.

Jessica's final words are a realistic and positive prediction.

There's no getting away from the fact that we're living in a technological age. The Kindle and its relatives are here to stay.

Not, however, at the expense of print books. The market will shift and alter as it always has and the market share of e-books versus print books will too. Ultimately, though, there is room in the world for both.

That has to be good news for writers.

Anna Claire said...

I hate to pull the old "things are different in big cities" but I live in an average-sized city (filled with rocket scientists and engineers, actually) and most people I've talked to have never heard of it. It's just not catching on in the rest of the country yet.

Plus shelling out $359 for an e-reader just seems kind of ridiculous for the average person right now. I bet everyone will have e-readers eventually, but I think you're right: it's a much longer way off than we'd think.

Julie Weathers said...

I doubt I will be getting one. When I want to relax. I want to curl up on the couch with a real book in my hand. I love the feel of them. I love the substance and I detest reading on a screen.

Solidus said...

I'm an avid ebook reader - for at least 5 years on my old Palm and now on my iPod Touch. I doubt I'd buy a device specifically as an ebook reader, though!

I did want to pick up on your comment that mp3s had killed off CD-based music. Because, of course, they haven't. CDs still sell pretty well (if not quite as well as they did a few years ago). What has happened is that mp3s and ringtones (which no one predicted a huge market for) have hugely increased the number of times people actually buy music - even if they pay much less per transaction.

People are willing to pay for etunes, and for ewriting. But they serve a different (more disposable) need than hard-copy music or books.

Personally, I can see ebooks becoming prevalent in the same way as mp3s, once the devices to read them become as affordable, and as easy to use and carry round as mp3 players have become. But they will never supplant "real" books totally.

Anonymous said...

Just a glimpse from the publishing house side...my company is beginning to start distributing Sony e-readers to all of the editorial staff and i believe to other departments as well, along with providing a training class. Although not useful yet for editing purposes, it will be great for reading submissions. I can't wait to get mine!

Anonymous said...

I think the Kindle (and Sony Reader et al.) era is about where the Web era was in, oh, say, 1997-98. There are too many good reasons (and a few stupid ones) for making the switch, and too many bad/immaterial/personal-foible reasons (and a couple good ones) for NOT making the switch. Publishers are almost certainly headed in the same direction as the Christian Science Monitor; the economics just, can't, WORK for much longer.

Get that sucker down to a hundred bucks and Amazon (Sony, etc.) won't be able to keep 'em in stock. But that price point (and the right consumer economy, now) is still a couple-three years off, I think.

I *love* that friend's A-to-Z mission!

ryan field said...

I think I was one of the last writers in the world to go electronic. Up until 2003, I was still submitting hard copy to editors. And I only did it because I was forced...when an editor told me, get e-mail or don't bother.

I don't think it's generational either. I'm 37 and clutched my typewriter until the very end. And I think that's what many people are going to do with books. But I also think choices are going to dwindle and eventually everyone will be forced to go electronic.

Unknown said...

When I compared the e sales for my last book, it was clear that Kindle was in the lead--way ahead of the rest of them. Which is why I chose to have one of my out-of-print books uploaded to Amazon. Now to see if anyone finds it.

Kate Douglas said...

The Kindle faces the same problems now that the Rocket E-book reader faced in 1998 when I bought one--the high cost. You can buy a LOT of paper books for $360, the price of the reader. I bought a Rocket, which was larger and very expensive, but really comfortable to hold, and discovered that, once the novelty wore off, I only used it on camping trips when I wanted to read in the dark, because it had a great battery and was backlit. I think that ebooks are the wave of the future, especially with the rising cost of producing print books, but I imagine that future is still a ways off. I still see digital books as an alternative, not the only choice--unless, of course, you prefer the small, indie epubs that only publish electronically. There are some wonderful books at the small publishers that you can't find in print. Then a dedicated ebook reader (PDA, Kindle, etc.) is more comfortable than reading off your computer.

Anonymous said...

I don't think ebooks will replace paper books BUT I do believe there's a huge future for them.
Just like computers haven't replaced human contact, there are a whole bunch of us that do both.
I read ebooks AND print books. So, I intend to stay in epublishing and still want to make it in New York.
There's a huge future in ebooks. It's just a matter of offering both.

ChristaCarol Jones said...

I'll be honest, I didn't know anything about the Kindle until you brought it up some time ago in one of your blogs. I'm broke as anything though, so the only chance of me ever getting my hands on a Kindle is if the library starts renting them out, or something similar through Amazon. But I still prefer to have the book in my hands. There's just something about curling up on my couch with the lamp and a cozy book between my fingers that no computer-like device will ever compare to.

Marilynn Byerly said...

Paper books and bookstores are fading fast so it won't be a question of if we get most of our books as ebooks but when. Indie bookstores are dying every day, many of the chains have died, Border is now on life support with the plug pulled, and B&N struggles along. Meanwhile, the box stores are only buying bestsellers and list leaders, and the shelf space is getting smaller and smaller because more people buy Oreos than books.

Meanwhile, the conglomerate publishers are giving away most of the profit of ebooks to Amazon/Kindle which receives 66% of the sale price for little more than storage space and computer transactions, and they are sitting on their hands while a few small publishers are fighting Amazon over POD distribution and a their grab for most of the profit as well as control over the books themselves.

Fortunately, an incredible number of people have downloaded other ebook reader software to their cell phones, iPods, iTouches, etc., and new ebook hardware is being announced. Places like indie distributor Fictionwise are also flourishing.

We can hope all those folks with book paper fetishes will be willing to move to ebooks when they can no longer find what they want to read in paper.

If anyone is interested in a bigger overview of the situation, check out my Monday blog on what publishing needs to do to survive the massive changes we are undergoing and my article on the current state of publishing on my website.

Geoffrey Long said...

People should probably take my opinion with a grain of salt, since I'm a recent graduate of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT and have been studying the collision of old and new media for years – which means that I'm both an idealist and a little wobbly from drinking the Kool-Aid for so long.

That said, I've always been struck by how easy it would be for Amazon (or someone similar) to dominate the e-book market by simply making e-book versions of any book you already own available through either an ISBN lookup system or a 'buy the book, get the e-book for free' business model. If I knew that my entire library would be accessible on a Kindle the same way that my entire existing music library was made available on my iPod through simple CD ripping, that would be a huge tipping point for me. I want both – the physical object to read at home and to have on my shelf, and the digital version that I can carry with me while traveling and be able to search for quick notations while doing research. Getting the e-book for free when buying a new book would be great, but being able to convert my entire existing library into e-books without having to buy everything all over again really would be a tipping point for me.

An ISBN number is probably way too easily pirated for this approach, but something like embedded RFID tags might go a long way towards solving the problem for new books. Older books might require being 'unlocked' by scanning a random requested page from the edition in question on a flatbed scanner and then using OCR to 'authenticate' the scan. Just a thought...

About Me said...

The Kindle is just too darn expensive for the average joe, and yet many averages joes found money to buy the new Iphone. I'm slow on technology myself because if you wait a bit, the price always goes down. With that being said, when I heard about how much profit Amazon was making on e-books on the Kindle, and how little authors were making from those e-book purchases, I was turned off by the idea of buying one. Unless I see some signficant changes in the market, I won't be buying one. Too bad to because I was one of the Trekkie who saw Jean-Luc Picard reading an e-book all those years ago, and I envied him because it was just so cool.

Anonymous said...

Oprah's endorsement certainly will boost customer awareness of Kindle. BTW, there's a flow to the customer purchase process (I'm in marketing): Awareness, Consideration, and Preference. As of now, the Kindle probably has a growing Niche Market among Early Adopters(past the Innovator stage). To move into Early Majority, lowering the price point is essential.

Having played with a friend's Kindle, I can attest to its ease of use, an important factor with adoption. The big question is does Kindle fulfill a consumer need or want? I can see the advantage for students not having to cart around heavy books (Having a flashback to college days and those huge anthologies in my backpack). I suspect students would find it a dull product (more about that below). And I suppose a few folks would find it handy while traveling. Having done a great deal of flying in the past 3 years, I can tell you one HUGE disadvantage to an e-reader is having to turn it off during take-off and landing (If you've ever sat on the runway at LaGuardia with 40 jets ahead of your plane, you know exactly why a paperback comes in handy).

While I think e-readers are the wave of the future, I suspect a sexier product with perhaps interactive graphics or even music (both?) will send Kindle the way of the BetaMax. The underlying Emotional appeal of a product is often the key to its success. Think about those early iPOD commercials with the rock music and dancing silhouettes. The subtext is: Cool people buy iPOD. iPOD isn't necessarily a better mp3 player than other models, but it's got the sexy factor.

Just some thoughts....

Precise Edit said...

IMHO: Kindles will not replace books the way CDs replaced tapes.

CDs provide a better listening experience than tapes. E-readers are trying to be as good as books.

They do offer some unique advantages, but, perhaps, none that are likely to push printed books into oblivion.

On the other hand, e-readers and e-books do offer some new possibilities for authors. We are considering publishing (Kindling?) our "Precise Edit Training Manual" and our "Writing Tips for a Year" series on the Kindle, which, at this time, are only available through our website.

Precise Edit said...

IMHO: Kindles will not replace books the way CDs replaced tapes.

CDs provide a better listening experience than tapes. E-readers are trying to be as good as books.

They do offer some unique advantages, but, perhaps, none that are likely to push printed books into oblivion.

On the other hand, e-readers and e-books do offer some new possibilities for authors. We are considering publishing (Kindling?) our Precise Edit Training Manual and our Writing Tips for a Year series on the Kindle, which, at this time, are only available through our website.

Mark Terry said...

I would also add to the tumult, that I have NEVER seen a Kindle in the wild. Granted, that may be because I'm a freelance writer who doesn't get out of the house enough.

MahoneyMusings said...

I'm curious about how the print looks on the Kindle's screen. Does it have the harsh look of print on a computer screen? I hate reading books on my computer. I find it very hard on my eyes (I'm not that old....39).

Janet said...

I think you're absolutely right. E-books will not put an end to paper books, any more than TV put an end to movies. Habits and market shares will shift around, but the change is likely to be relatively gradual.

Except in the textbook world. There is a potential for a major upheaval there. Students would joyfully welcome not having to lug around stacks of overweight, over-priced textbooks. Any visionary publisher who can get its foot into this door before everybody else would certainly benefit. If I were on the Kindle's marketing staff, I'd be trying to negotiate some kind of agreement with a major university and a publishing company or three. The potential is enormous.

Spy Scribbler said...

I think it is, much like the iPod. I think, though, that it will be the younger generation taking it up.

I'm as fond and nostalgic of paper as the next person, but once I had 300 books in my purse, there was no going back. Ever.

Granted, we're working towards living in an RV full-time, so owning lots of books is no longer an option.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jeff that, rather than resulting in all books simply converting to ebook format, it's likely that people will simply buy books in multiple formats. I do think that the advent of digital formats for books will make cutting edge design of printed books more necessary, considering there will probably be some need for added incentive to buy them, but, as others have said, I think that even super computer-savvy people often value the feeling of the physical object that is a book. If anything, the ebook will be a great tool to decide what you actually want in print when you don't have the patience to keep straining your eyes with an electronic device.

kris said...

I still prefer reading a real paper book, but I do love my Kindle. To answer a few questions: it's much gentler on the eyes than reading off a computer screen. And you can adjust the font size, which is a nice convenience. If you lose it, or it does, or whatever, you do not lose your whole library; they're also stored on Amazon somehow. (Haven't looked into that part too closely yet.)

In some ways (primarily, the whole "200 books in the space of one"), it has regular books beat. In so many others, real books hold the edge. It's very nice to be able to have both and get the best of both worlds.

Though there's one drawback I have yet to hear anyone else mention: when you fall asleep in bed while reading off your Kindle, and it falls from your slack hands onto your face, it hurts a LOT more than a paperback.

Elissa M said...

A book does not require a power source.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I only know about the Kindle because agent blogs. I've discussed it with friends (all well-read), and most of them have never heard of it. After explaining it, all of them have stated that they have no interest in owning one. We all love libraries and bookstores... reading a book is an experience. It's not just reading the words. It's turning the pages...

Solidus said...

Janet said:
"Except in the textbook world. There is a potential for a major upheaval there. Students would joyfully welcome not having to lug around stacks of overweight, over-priced textbooks. Any visionary publisher who can get its foot into this door before everybody else would certainly benefit."

Speaking as an editor at an educational publisher, most of us already are. Indeed, electronic versions of textbooks have been around for years.

What's changing at the moment is that the _student_ books are starting to acquire CDs at the back, containing the text in electronic form. Some publishers are going with bespoke applications running on normal PCs, which seems to be the wrong tack. Others (like my own employer) are using standard formats like PDF.

It's an interesting time in publishing, for sure.

Janet said...

Solidus, I'm not surprised to hear it. But I was thinking of something more than just creating electronic editions. The college that my husband teaches at issues each freshman a new laptop. There is a campus-wide program that is used for submission of assignments, posting of grades and probably a lot more. My husband prepares his lectures in PowerPoint format and doesn't even need to take his laptop with him; he can access his files from any classroom on campus.

What I was thinking of would be along the lines of issuing Kindles or Sony readers to students and making sure that most if not all of their textbooks would be available in electronic format. A publisher that could broker that kind of deal with universities or a network of high schools, committing to have all the necessary texts available... This goes way beyond tucking a CD in the back of a text.

Lots of parents are very concerned by the ridiculous weight of our children's backpacks. Textbooks are the major culprit. A "bigger is better" mentality has pervaded the publishing world and the kids pay the price with back problems. That has to end and electronic books seem like a really good way to end it. I doubt if it would be hard to bring parents on board at the high school level. And I think most university students would be thrilled, with the possible exception of literature students who are looking to build a permanent library.

Anonymous said...

I think the Kindle is a good idea and good investment for an avid reader who travels a great deal.

However, for me, at this point in my life, I probably wouldn't purchase one. The main reason is because it's electronic, and there's that constant fear that it might crash on me and then what happens to the dozens of books I've purchased?

Also, I'm not too keen on having to charge the battery on something in order to read a book. :P

True, my house could catch on fire or be blown away by a tornado and all of my paperback and hardback books will be lost. Still, I think I am more comfortable with my old fashioned books.

Anonymous said...

Also agree with a elissa--a book shouldn't need a power source :P

Mel Hiers said...

I hope not! I read both electronic and dead tree formats and enjoy both for different reasons. But I don't see the sense in paying that much for piece of equipment that only does one thing. Why not just buy the paper version?

I just paid $100 for my Palm Centro. It functions as my phone, my MP3 player, my e-book reader (Adobe, Palm, and Mobipocket), and my calendar. It has removable storage. I don't have to carry around four different devices. AND the thing has a backlight so I can read in the dark without having to purchase a separate light. It fits in my pocket, I have three different charging options, and I can replace the battery when it starts to go.

And, no, I don't work for Palm.:-P

If the Kindle or Sony reader evolves into something that could compete with my Centro, I would probably jump on that bandwagon. But as they exist now, they're just not practical for me. Oh, and Geoffrey, I LOVE the idea of getting the e-book version for free when you buy the paper.

Solidus said...

What you're asking for sounds very like a VLE or CMS (buzzword city - Virtual Learning Environment, and Content Management System). There are already several big players in these markets. Again, they're often aimed primarily at teachers at the moment, but VLEs in particular are specifically designed so that teachers can assign work to students in electronic format. And VLEs are designed to swallow any electronic format, so if publishers provide their books in VLE-compatible form (which most are doing now), the schools and colleges can use them.

The main problem is cost - buying, installing and maintaining the IT systems takes money. And buying the electronic resources takes money, too. Most schools and colleges keep their paper textbooks for years. Replacing them all with electronic at the same time would again take too much money. But the change is coming already!

"Lots of parents are very concerned by the ridiculous weight of our children's backpacks. Textbooks are the major culprit."

Couldn't agree more. And, you'll be glad to hear, most publishers are well aware of the problem. The latest tranche of textbooks we published (for 11-14 year olds' science in the UK) were around half the thickness of what used to be published. Of course, the issue then is what you miss out! But that's a question for another day. :-)