Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Kindle

So Amazon.com's pushing their Kindle e-reader on us pretty hard, as anyone who regularly visits the site in the past few weeks has noticed. Now normally I associate "kindle" with some flammable pieces of garbage you use to start a fire, which seems to be the consensus about the device in general, only it costs more and is hard to burn.

To be fair, I have never seen a Kindle in real life or used it myself, so I'm not the most well-versed of judges here. The Amazon reviewers gave it a "mediocre" rating, which is I suppose not as bad as it could be, but in principle I never buy a new piece of technology/software first off the line. I wait until the second edition at least, when they've fixed all the bugs from the first edition and there's been a price drop. I also am not a fan of e-readers, as I do a lot of my reading on Shabbos, when electronic devices are forbidden because the rabbis who decreed that didn't have a Playstation (or that's my feeling on the matter).

I have to say, for a device that seems overpriced and ridden with obvious difficulties which would bother me as a customer (like not working in rural areas, or not reading .pdf files), they are pushing the hell out of it, and I have to admire them for that. Suddenly my account has a "Kindle orders" page (empty) and every book's profile makes sure to let publishers know they can have it in a Kindle edition. With all the timidity and confusion about the e-book market, they are going headfirst into it with the determination to at least attempt to temporarily corner the market. With all that effort, you'd think they would have designed a better reader, but they were probably rushing it a bit.

This all amuses me more than it annoys me because about a month ago, I may (or may not, future employers) have been at an AAR meeting with the heads of the big 6 publishing houses for a panel on digital publishing. In short:

CEOs: OH NOES, THE INTERNET HAS PUBLISHABLE WORDS AND NO ONE TOLD US!
Agents: Can our authors have 50% royalties on eBooks?
CEOs: No.

All of the major publishing houses are currently throwing millions of dollars into research and development for the digital revolution they know is coming, but can't predict the outcome of, since a book is not the same as a song or a movie. Fair enough. That didn't stop them from saying some things that I, as a Technocrat, was utterly baffled by.

"No, we don't see a reason why the author royalty rate should be significantly higher on an eBook than on the print version."

"I think eBooks should be priced at the same retail price as regular books, because it's essentially the same thing."

"Though it hasn't worked for the record or movie industry, we should definitely put a lot of money into investing in DRM technology."

(in response to a question about file sharing) "Why would someone do that?"

Amazon, as a website run by people who work on computers all day, is obviously ahead of the curve on this one, though for some reason one of the publishers felt that Amazon was no longer worth talking about because their book sale profits were on a downward slope, in a study that failed to take the blossoming used book market into account, from which Amazon reaps huge commission fees.

Amazon also thought of a way around file sharing, at least until someone cares enough about a Kindle to hack it, which is that the Kindle editions are in Kindle files that are sent straight to your Kindle reader, and you never really own them, and they don't go on your computer and you can't send them to other Kindle machines. Oh, and you can't upload non-Kindle files to the Kindle reader. I have good faith that my friends will hack the device sooner or later (if they haven't already) and find a way to get .pdf files on it, or they'll just buy a better eBook reader that actually lets them do that and lets them store more than 40 books at a time. (40? 40? Are fucking kidding me?)

Will Kindle dominate/topple publishing as we know it? No. Will a future, better device succeed where the Kindle will ultimately fail? No. Someday, I may buy a cheap e-reader, load my library into it, and use it for reference purposes while writing, but otherwise, it's books for me. Cheap, used books available on Amazon.

26 comments:

Don said...

I had thought that you could upload files to the kindle, although they had to be converted first (so no dice on protected PDFs, but you could use it for reading partials and fulls).

The key thing about any technology is, is it better than what it replaces? The iPod met that requirement. DVDs met that requirement. Downloaded movies haven't quite done it, but will eventually. Books are a pretty well-designed technology (they certainly beat scrolls), and for linear reading, they just don't beat paper. For reference works, on the other hand, yes they're great, but that doesn't mean that I want a $500 e-book reader.

Katy said...

You know, I agree with you that in a way, nothing can really replace books. I generally use my library rather than buying them used, but I agree that both of those options are probably easier and more practical than an e-book reader.

I was interested, however, in the Kindle's feature that allows you to subscribe to newspapers on it. I dislike handling newspapers, as they are bulky and inconvenient, and they get your hands all messy, but I cannot read more than a couple of articles on my computer screen at a time without my eyes getting tired (or distracting myself with something else). The idea of carrying around the day's newspaper in an electronic, environmentally friendly form on the Kindle, which is fairly small and apparently designed to be easy on the eyes, really appeals to me. The blog feature is neat too.

But then, that's not worth $400 to me at this point in my life. So that's another problem. Maybe if they could push the price down a little, the device would have a broader appeal, even for conventional book lovers like most of us who frequent this blog.

Travis Erwin said...

I really enjoyed getting an insider insight in on this. Got to say I agreed with just about every point you made.

I think the device that changes everything will have to do ... well just about everything.

Phone,mp3s, movies, television, and yes, books, magazines, newspapers and anything else with words. When technology brings all the entertainment options together in one place people will buy it. Think of it as the techno equivalent of Wal-Mart. Everything under one roof and open 24/7.

locusbooks said...

I think that, rather than replacing books, the Kindle will eventually open up a new market - people who 'don't read books'.

Richard said...

The Kindle is another evolutionary step on the road to ... wherever it is we're going. It's a big step, but we ain't there yet.

One of the major hurdles - readability - has been overcome with the Kindle's use of e-ink technology, though the page refresh rate sounds annoyingly slow.

I see a number of obstacles remaining that need to be taken care of before traditional printed media is in any real danger of becoming outmoded.

Like travis said, such a device has to do more than store books. We're an overly gadget-laden culture already. Do you really want to carry around a Kindle in addition to your cell phone, iPod, Blackberry, etc? I sure as hell don't.

People like to share books. I don't know the solution to this one but somebody will have to figure it out. Kindle's weren't made for sharing.

The display will have to look and function more like a paper page. That implies a scrollable screen. Development-wise, these appear to be in early stages yet. And there are a number of technologies besides e-ink vying to take over the world (or at least the LCD market).

Last but not least, the Kindle's too expensive. Nor is it the handsomest piece of electronics I've ever seen.

Rejecter-person, are the publishers really as clueless as your account suggests?

Ady said...

*groans* Haven't people been buzzing about the e-book revolution for decades now? I swear, did people declare that print books were dead when the audiobook was created? E-books will find their place, and it will probably be in the textbook and reference arena because, shock of shocks, that's where e-texts already make an impact.

And if those are actually quotes from CEOs, gods save us all. Speaking as a Technodabbler, even I know how stupid they sound, because I have some understanding of publishing and have not been under a rock for the past 20 years.

X said...

"...for some reason one of the publishers felt that Amazon was no longer worth talking about because their book sale profits were on a downward slope, in a study that failed to take the blossoming used book market into account, from which Amazon reaps huge commission fees."

How can I relax knowing that these are the gatekeepers to my future? What mantra should I use? Block it out, block it out. Or maybe, I'm already dead, I'm already dead. Immortality cannot be threatened. I'm already dead.

On a more conventionally rational point, what is the argument for why authors should receive higher royalties on e-books? Because they cost nothing to make? Which is also why they should be cheaper? I just want my indignation to be well-founded.

Anonymous said...

Sony, who gets dissed all the time, is ahead of the curve.

The Sony Reader (at least the new one, that I have) takes Word files and PDFs.

I use it for documents, not books, but I might use it for books if I were travelling, etc.

It is fabulous, feels good in the hand, and works well.

It is not a book, and I am a book person. It is a book accessory.

But for documents, you can't beat it.

Richard said...

Humans are notoriously inept at predicting the future. I've been involved in manufacturing and logistics systems since Moses got his first email on stone tablets. I remember how the great enterprise systems like SAP were supposed to usher in the age of the "paperless factory." Exactly the opposite happened.

The digital age has probably done more for the paper industry than the Gutenberg press. We predict one thing, something else happens. Devices like the Kindle are solutions in search of a problem. They just haven't found the right problems to overcome. As ady implied in another post, right now they're niche products at best.

Stephen said...

Ebook economics

Your basic book price is split three ways. The store takes a chunk, the distributors take a chunk, the publisher gets what's left. Sometimes the distributor and store are the same, but in that case they just take a bigger chunk. The publisher's portion is used for paying the author, editing & printing the books, and maybe a little profit.

In an ebook, the distributor/store is the same entity. There are no printing costs, and download costs are the store's problem. Editing costs are the same, but should already be covered if this is a paper and ebook release. So the publisher is getting a much bigger slice of the price, without having to make any upfront printing investment, having no worries about returns, no warehouse costs...

In short, instead of getting say 30-50%* of the price, and having to provide a physical book for each sale, they get say 60-70% and the only liability for each sale is the author's cut. They can reduce the price of the book, and still get the same amount they are used to, but if the author's percentage is not increased, the author can lose out.

Oh, and the Kindle was partially hacked by day 2, if I recall.

*exact percentages vary.

Anonymous said...

This might be a dumb question, but why would authors get a larger royalty cut from an e-book than from a physical book?

Anthony S. Policastro said...

Hey Rejecter,
I agree with you about the Kindle. I'll wait for a better e-reader to be developed or the next version. As for the price of Kindle books - $9.99 not bad for an e-book especially when you don't have to pay an access fee. If you downloaded a $9.99 book from the Internet in essence you really paid $54.99 for the book ($45.00 per month for high speed Internet access + the price of the book). Of course, you use your Internet access for a lot of other things, but let's say you just wanted Internet access to download e-books. It would be rather expensive compared to the Kindle.

BuffySquirrel said...

It's a question of overheads. Every physical book costs money to create, and money to print. So in theory we could slice the cost of a printed book up into the salaries of all the people who worked on it, a share for the author, the profit margin, costs of the paper and ink, depreciation and so on. Ebooks have fewer overheads--once they've been created, they're virtually free to provide to customers. Therefore, there's room to give the authors a bigger share of the receipts, which otherwise will go to...yes, the publishers.

Sadie said...

Thank you for the insider info on this device! I haven't been the slightest bit interested in purchasing it, but it's good to hear what some idustry insiders are thinking about it!!

The Rejecter said...

Buffysquirrel beat me to it. Congrats!

The overhead costs of book production are tremendous, as any P&L (profits and losses) sheet for a book will tell you. Most of them involve shipping (from the manufacturer to the company, from the company to individual bookstores, etc etc). The only real production costs for an eBook are copyediting, and as we all know, copyeditors aren't paid that much.

Marsupialis said...

A few things to note about Kindle. First, Amazon did a lot of work upfront to get a good many books available in the Kindle library. This is not like Blu-Ray or HD where the studios are lagging in their releases.

Second, on the technical side, a Kindle book is an HTML document. You don't get more formatting than that though you can combine graphics with it. All of the effort by book designers to get the physical artifact to look good, well, not really available on Kindle.

Amazon's biggest mistake in my opinion? The device itself should have been really really cheap with Amazon making it's money on the software -- those books you read.

As to the royalty question for authors, this is a similar battle to what's going on with the writers' strike. One of the limiting factors for royalty has always been that the publishers have to bear the costs of production and distribution, including warehousing and its associated taxes. With an ebook, there is very little production and distribution costs. Hard to justify keeping such a big slice of the pie under those circumstances.

karen wester newton said...

"... also am not a fan of e-readers, as I do a lot of my reading on Shabbos, when electronic devices are forbidden because the rabbis who decreed that didn't have a Playstation (or that's my feeling on the matter). "

I now have a vision of a Hasidic rabbi, prayer curls flying as he thumbs the controller, frantically trying to win at Grand Theft Auto before sundown!

On e-books, it does seem to me that Kindle is far from lighting a spark in the e-book reader market. The Sony or Iliad sounded much better designed, at least as this reviewer describes it.

WordVixen said...

I will forever be picturing high power business people as fuzzy cats in odd positions and clothing after the "OH NOES!". :)

Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous said...
This might be a dumb question, but why would authors get a larger royalty cut from an e-book than from a physical book?

7:48 AM

My response to this is--and I have no facts to back it--simply the cost factor. Authors get a small percent of the book sales because the cost of printing, distribution, etc. has to come off the top. With an e-book, there is virtually no overhead. Once the book is converted to a file for downloading, it can be sold over and over again with no more additional expense. Yes?

Madge Sinclair said...

Rejecter,

Do I set my hair on fire or simply laugh at these CEOs until I wet myself?

LouthMouth said...

When I saw the Kindle on the site, I thought it was kind of cool. That's when I figured i was about $90. Then I actually looked at the cost. $400? Are you kidding?

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Haven't people been buzzing about the e-book revolution for decades now? I swear, did people declare that print books were dead when the audiobook was created? -- Ady

Just like Old Economy Brick and Mortar Businesses were all hopelessly obsolete and The Future WILL BE Dot Coms Dot Coms Dot Coms...

Anonymous said...

In The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon characterizes the eruv--where you accept a boundary with string as the functional equivalent of walls so you're at home when you're carrying (othewise forbidden) a pack of gum to schul--as a "scam against God." I'm sure some Talmudist could solve the kindle Shabat problem.

I haven't looked at the Amazon readers' reviews on the Kindle, but most editorial reviews have been quite favorable. Unmentioned here, is the Kindle's ability to buy a book from wherever--no computer needed.

It is a huge step in the right direction. Alghough I'm a luddite too--like you, Miss Rejecter--the e-book is inevitable. When printing was invented, some folks were appalled at the idea that the unwashed masses (they were truly unwashed then) could get their hands on a book.

My author's contract covers royalties for e-books, so not an issue except the size.

The e-book is also a green book, which will save countless trees.

My children will be using them, and I will probably live long enough to see it.

writtenwyrdd said...

The kindle really puzzles me, because it's not giving you a book you can keep forever, you don't own the book you pay so much for, becasue you can only store the 40 books on the device. Waste of money if you read and buy as many books as I do.

Wayne said...

Damned well said. Why in God's name would I buy a kindle--that replaces my beautiful oak library and collection of over 1000 books, that steals from me the feeling of paper pages in my hands, that costs as much as forty books empty, that costs no less than a normal book to fill--to upload forty kindle format e-books I don't own? No damned reason at all, really.

Anonymous said...

Obviously all the commenters above, who admit they've never touched a Kindle, are pretty ignorant. Having used one for more than a year now, I never want to read another 'paper' book.

The device has virtually no shortcomings, and it is pathetically easy to get a file from ANY format onto your Kindle in readable fashion.

The cost? I paid for it several times over in the cost of books I didn't have to buy, or paid MUCH LESS for.

The laugh is on you guys. ROFL