Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Amazon has come out with an ebook reader called Kindle. On the purely technical side, they seem to have gotten a lot right. Kindle's display is made out of some kind of electronic ink that mimics the quality of print. I haven't seen it, but the text is apparently sharp and clear. That has been a failing of previous ebook readers. Kindle also has a text-search capability and it has a built-in dictionary. Those are pluses as well.

Kindle is costly though. It's 400 bucks. The books aren't especially cheap either. To cite an example from a review that I read, the paperback version of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" is sold on Amazon for $10.17. The Kindle version is $7.99. (I know it seems unlikely, but it's purely a coincidence that I cited another Gladwell book in my previous post.) That's approximately 80% of the paperback price, and it's too much in my opinion. A large part of a publisher's costs comes from the fact that a book is a physical object. The publisher has to have presses or, what amounts to the same thing, contract for the actual printing. He has to have warehouses. There are shipping costs. There's the clerical work force to keep track of all those books. All of that goes away with an ebook, so it seems to me that they should cost a good deal less than they do.

Be that as it may, I read a lot and I would love to have something like Kindle. I'm not one of those people who have a fetish for books. If I could do away with all of those bulky tomes in favor of electronic files, I would do it. That said, Kindle scares me, not because of what it is, but because of what is implicit in the business plan. The idea is to make you pay for a book if you want to read it. Though family members and the like can register together and share Kindle ebooks, you cannot loan them to others and you cannot resell them. If Kindle or some other ebook reader were to catch on in a big way, think of the implications of that. Public libraries would go away. That would discourage reading and impact literacy, particularly among those who couldn't afford the reader and the books.

Of course, in the long run, ebooks are a threat to publishers as well, just as devices like iPod are a threat to the music industry. If publishers don't have to manufacture the books anymore, why are they even there? In an ebook world, they would just be middle men skimming off their cut. At some point, writers would start offering ebook copies of their books directly to the public. That's one reason why Amazon's ebooks are in a proprietary format, to forego such possibilities. Another, of course, is to prevent others from offering their own files for Kindle.

The only way that an ebook reader would redound to the benefit of the public at large is if it used an open file format. I realize that there would be problems with such a scheme as well. One of the big ones would be author payment. Someone could acquire a copy of an ebook and post it on a web site for anyone to download free. Such scenarios would have to be dealt with. In the end though, it would be a better way of doing things. Books and their contents are part of our cultural heritage and everyone should have access to them contents at a nomimal cost.

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