Why I love — and hate — the Kindle

I recently purchased a Kindle for Her Ladyship. Stop sniggering in the back, you — it wasn’t a trade! I picked up a third-Gen Wi-Fi+3G Kindle from a seller on Craigslist for $75 as a surprise for her.

I am no stranger to e-books; I have been reading them since 1991; first on a variety of Psion PDAs, then on a collection of Palm machines, and more recently on Her Ladyship’s iPod and my new Android phone. On the last two machines I have been able to install Kindle Apps. Both work well, but the screens are too small for extended reading, and she, understandably, never really got into them.

The Kindle, however, is another matter. It is the first dedicated e-book reader that I have ever bought. She loves it; she says that the display is easier on the eyes than paper. She takes it with her when she goes out if she thinks that she will waiting around for any length of time. The sight of her sitting up in bed wearing her cute li’l “librarian” glasses and reading on her Kindle has become a common one.

We have downloaded plenty of free classics, that she is wading through at an accelerated rate of knots; she is currently in the middle of Paul Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”; the original version written in seventeenth-century English; just one of the many free books that I have downloaded from the Kindle store.

What we have not done, however, is purchase any full-priced e-books from the Kindle store. Nor do I plan to. And this the underbelly of the Kindle. The e-books are too damned expensive.

Those who work in the publishing industry will no doubt disagree with me, saying that e-books represent a great value proposition, giving me convenience and portability at a reasonable price. I cannot agree; to my mind, they are charging me more while offering me less.

To understand why I feel this way, you need to examine the publishing industry; how it has worked in the past, how it is changing and where it is headed. Just like the music industry, the publishing industry has become so fixated on the medium that it has been left flat-footed when that medium changed beneath its feet. As a result, it is now trying to make the new model fit into the old one that they know and love.

Historically, the book publishing industry has had the Writer at one end, the Reader at the other, and the Publisher in the middle. Scattered elsewhere along this continuum are various other parties, including a printer, a seller and various wholesalers and a bunch of other folks whose livelihood revolves around moving the product between the major players and marketing them to the consumer.

Then along came outfits like Amazon with their e-readers and their e-books, their websites and their networks. This represents the Trump of doom to the publishers. And so began the battle for the middle ground. Amazon and their ilk represent a serious threat to the publishing industry; a writer who self-publishes on Amazon can sidestep the publisher entirely and go straight to e-publishing.

Last year’s very public spat betweeen Amazon and MacMillan shows how serious this battle has become. The real issue here is about who sets the price of the books; Amazon, whose focus is selling more Kindles, wants cheap books — while the publishers, who represent the established way of doing things — want higher prices, particularly for the new “hot” titles.

What we are seeing is a battle between the old bosses (the publishers) and the new ones (the web distributors). The former are used to selling lovingly-crafted books, while the latter pass around blobs of data. That battle will not be pretty.

My fundamental problem is this: When I buy a physical book, I can read it, resell it. lend it out, give away or use it as a firelighter. When I buy an e-book, I am acquiring a blob of data whose ownership is always in doubt —  in the past, Amazon can, and has, remotely removed books from Kindles, which renders the entire concept of “ownership” moot. For me that outweighs the convenience of electronic publication. This has a strong influence on the value proposition.

To me, an e-book that costs more than about $5 is overpriced. By way of proof, I point to games. A simple PC game typically costs $10-50. But a typical game on an iPhone or Android phone ranges from $1 to $3. The reason that they can do this is in the numbers; a phone game sells millions. As books move towards massive distribution, prices must come down. Like their cousins in the music and movie industries, the book publishing industry will oppose such measures tooth-and-mail.

Bottom line: Until they price ebooks at less than the cost of a paperback, they will get very little money out of me.

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