Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The E-Book Revolution Will Not Be Kindled

Amazon's new e-book reader, Kindle, is the talk of the blogosphere this week. The Oxford University Press blog dramatically states that the fate of Kindle will determine the fate of all e-books for ALL TIME (the comments in that post are worth reading, especially the ones bringing up the generation issue, which I think is a critical one--more below). Guy Kawasaki rhapsodizes about it, as you might expect from the eternal tech-optimist. On the other side, we have Bethanne Patrick at Publisher's Weekly, who comments on the OUP blog and rhapsodizes about paper books.

Speaking only from the position of someone who grew up reading books and now works and lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, I don't think this is "the last gasp" of e-books. I don't think it's the perfect solution. Even Guy Kawasaki admits that reading novels isn't the best use of the Kindle--he likes that it can pull down blogs, news, and other ephemera from the net. But more reading is probably done electronically than on paper, at least in the U.S., and so this is the way things are headed. If the Kindle fails, someone else will come up with a better solution, and eventually, there will be one that is sufficiently usable that making the switch from paper won't be an issue.

The most frequent comparison is to the iPod, but that's not really a valid comparison for a lot of reasons. Namely:

* Type of consumable: music vs. books. I might listen to three albums in a day. I might listen to fifty songs from fifty different albums, if I made a couple mix CDs. Rarely will I read more than one book in a day, and almost never more than two. The iPod allowed me to vary my music in three-to-five minute intervals. The Kindle will replace a single book. Why would I just not carry around the one book I'm reading? Even on vacation, I usually don't bring a stack of books, and it's an expensive toy to be just a "vacation reader."

* Backwards compatibility. I was able to load my entire CD collection onto my iPod. Can I get my whole library onto a Kindle? Even if it had the room to store several hundred books, there's no exchange program available to load electronic copies. I go back and re-read from time to time, and actually, I would love to be able to just call up passages from my favorite books. I may be unusual in that sense, but I think that people who love books and love to read rarely finish a book and leave it behind forever.

* Availability of material. Here, at least, Amazon has good inroads, and I could see them building up their title library to the point where most new stuff is available for the Kindle. The problem, again, is that there's no easy conversion process, so they have to do the conversion on their end before a title can be available.

One of my friends is thrilled, because he hates lugging books around and having them all over his apartment. I admit, I hate moving books, but I love having them. I think this is what bothered some audiophiles when they had to give up their LPs for CDs, and eventually for iPods: the thing itself is a link to your memory of reading it.

I can see why people loved albums: the smell of cardboard and vinyl, holding onto the sleeve as you listened to the record play, burning the cover image into your mind, reading the liner notes. But I own no albums with which I've spent as much time as the shortest book in my library (not true of the music, but we're distinguishing packaging from content here). CDs overtook LPs in a matter of years, accomplishing what eight-tracks and cassettes could not, because they were such a markedly superior format and took so little away from the essential experience. Can we say that about the Kindle?

I know certain books by the shape and color of their spine. I love the variations in cover art between different editions, some of the amazing paintings that were done to promote books. In creating our own books, we've tried to re-create that feel of a book you can really love (at the recent convention, I saw people carrying around some well-worn copies of our books, and it made me happy).

I think that I am on the cusp, though, of a generation that loves books. My parents brought me up to love books, and I still have a strong memory of just the spines of some of the books in their library, though I never read them. Recent surveys continue to show reading on the decline (one showed that 25% of adults in the U.S. did not read a single book in 2006). The "new reading" is quick hits: blogs, web pages, ten-minute digestible doses of words. Harry Potter is remarkable because it is the exception rather than the rule; it is remarkable not so much because it is popular with children, who after all are being forced to read books in school every day, but because it is also popular with adults, who cannot be forced to read anything besides the occasional 1040 form.

And so we come to the generational issue. The tech-savvy generation doesn't read; the generation that loves to read clings to paper-tech. How does the Kindle bridge the gap? It tries to make the e-reading experience as close as possible to the paper-reading experience. But without some of the conveniences the iPod offers, that's a losing strategy. If you make it similar, you remove people's incentive to switch. Yes, it allows you to look up things on the online dictionary while you're reading; yes, it has a built-in link to Wikipedia. These are steps forward. They don't make me want to stop reading paper, and they won't be enough to get a twenty-something to sit down with Tolstoy, or even Ishiguro. There are, I think, many more steps to go, some leap of insight that someone has yet to make.

[EDITED to add: when it comes to leaps of insight, you can always look over in Seth Godin's corner.]


John Nunnemacher said...

One problem with the Kindle is that its DRM is onerous in a very real-world way. Not only can you not transfer books from your existing library into the Kindle, but you can't print or export books from the Kindle into any non-Kindle file format or to any non-Kindle device. If Amazon should decide to pull the plug six months or five years down the line, there's a good chance your accumulated e-library is toast.

(Interesting to note, on the iPod, you can rip and transfer your existing CD library onto it; if you buy music from the music store, you can at worst burn it onto a CD and re-rip it in the future. The Kindle's closed-system DRM is basically exactly what all the anti-Apple pundits THINK the iPod is.)

One other unfortunate factor with the Kindle is the loss of true layout design. There are some books that rely on how the text is laid out on the page. Font choice can be particularly important in some reading experiences. As far as I can tell, the Kindle receives all its books as straight text files (possibly with markup) and can be viewed only with the fonts designed into the system.

Tim Susman said...

I thought I read that the Kindle could allow for different fonts. Regardless of that, I think you bring up a really good point about the layout. The majority of books probably don't need any special layout beyond what HTML can offer, but people have been getting more creative lately, and that kind of stuff is going to become more important. I think that what's needed is an e-reader that embraces the electronic aspect rather than trying to make it look more like the paper book. Because people read so much more online these days, that's what the next generation is used to. And maybe that means that books themselves have to change to accommodate that... but that's a whole other topic.