Amazon Kindle: One Very Small Step for E-Books

An “electronic paper” screen created by Cambridge’s E Ink is the heart of the new Amazon Kindle e-book reading device, introduced yesterday amidst grand pronouncements about the beginning of a new era of electronic book publishing and reading. “This is the future of reading. It will be everywhere,” said business writer Michael Lewis, who ought to know; he’s famous for writing The New New Thing, about the creation of the first commercial Web browser. No less a personage than Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, calls the Kindle “ideal” for the traveling reader. Which is hard to argue with; the device can hold 200 books in its memory, yet thanks to the light and power-efficient E Ink screen, it weighs less than a paperback and can be used for at least 30 hours before needing to be recharged.

Kindle, three years in the making (and already sold out, according to Amazon’s product page), is a project with great personal significance to CEO Jeff Bezos, who emceed a ceremony launching the device in New York City yesterday and admits on Amazon’s front page that he is “infatuated with the idea of electronic books.” I feel the same way: I would be truly delighted if someone introduced an electronic reading system with the magic combination of usability and price needed to finally pry the reading public away from printed books, which, while highly evolved and quite wonderful in their way, are part of a criminally wasteful publishing economy in which 25 percent of books are pulped each year without ever having been opened. Alas, Kindle is not it.

The electronic paper technology created by E Ink, which I profiled at length on November 1, does go a long way toward solving the usability part of the problem. The 6-inch Kindle screen—which is identical to the screen used in a competing e-book device, the Sony PRS-505 Reader—uses E Ink’s proprietary “VizPlex” film, in which transparent sheets of electrodes create patterns by attracting or repelling magnetically charged black and white particles that float inside tiny microcapsules. Like paper itself, the display uses reflected rather than transmitted light, and is therefore much easier on the eyes than conventional LCD screens. Dave Jackson, E Ink’s director of marketing and planning, says the version of VizPlex that E Ink created for the Amazon and Sony devices reflects 40 percent of the light it receives—up from 32 percent in the company’s previous generation of e-paper, and approaching the reflectance of newsprint.

Amazon KindleBut I’m sorry to say—at the risk of repeating myself, since I also wrote a downbeat review of the Sony Reader for Technology Review in January—that E Ink’s technology isn’t enough to make Kindle the breakthrough e-reading device that I and thousands of other e-book fans have been waiting for. For one thing, and I won’t belabor the point (because others have been making it repeatedly), it’s ugly. It’s all angles and corners and buttons and wheels. If the iPhone were a sleek black-and-chrome swan, Kindle would be its geeky gosling cousin. Even the dot-com-era Rocket eBook, a much heavier, bulkier, LCD-based e-book device made by NuvoMedia (where—disclosure time—I worked for about 18 months from late 1999 to 2001), was more elegant.

But even if the Kindle were beautiful, there would still be the problem of price. Price, meaning both the $399 cost of the device itself—a very steep admission ticket to the world of electronic reading—as well as the $9.99 that Amazon is charging for New York Times bestsellers and other new releases. Yes, $9.99 is a big markdown compared to the typical $25 cover price for a new hardcover (and even compared to the $13 to $18 you’ll pay for a hardcover at Amazon). But it’s not nearly big enough. For better or worse, consumers have gotten used to paying low-single-digit dollar amounts for electronic content. A song on iTunes still goes for $0.99, a TV show for $1.99. Netflix rentals will run you $1 or $2 per DVD, depending on how many you go through in a month. It may be a travesty that undermines all the great traditions of literature and authorship, but my bet is that people simply won’t pay $10 for access to the electronic version of a novel, which is, after all, just a few hundred kilobytes of 1s and 0s (and with an e-book you don’t even get the paper this information is usually written on).

The habit of reading among the English-speaking public—I’m talking about the mass public here, not the educated elite—has gone through at least two great flowerings. One was the era of the penny dreadfuls and dime novels, which ran from about 1840 to 1885. The second followed the invention of the mass-market paperback in the mid-1930s. Both revolutions in reading hinged on revolutions in printing technology and price; it simply became much cheaper to make and buy a book, and readers responded to the new plenty with savage appetites.

Something similar has happened on the Web, where virtually all written content is free, and which, thanks to the Internet terminals in public libraries and programs like One Laptop Per Child (where Amazon could have looked for some design lessons), is spreading beyond the middle- and upper-class homes that can afford computers. But no e-book reading or publishing system, and certainly not Kindle, has taken on the price challenge. In fact, Amazon’s system makes reading more expensive than before (unless you’re the sort who buys lots of hardcover books, in which case you’d still have to buy about 100 Kindle Editions before the discounts would cover the cost of the Kindle device).

I don’t know when, if ever, the economics of publishing will tilt in favor of e-books. It’s true, of course, that electronic gadgets always decline in cost over time—and if the Kindle dropped to around $199, I would probably buy one myself. (On that point, though, it’s not clear how quickly Amazon will be able to cut the Kindle’s price, since the VizPlex film in the screen, as I noted in my story about E Ink, remains a high-priced specialty item.) But the prices of Kindle Editions are probably even more critical to the overall success of the new publishing model Amazon is trying to create. For the Kindle system to catch on as a real alternative to print books, I think prices for new releases would need to drop to the $5 level or below.

And that’s just not going to happen—not as long as the New York publishers have anything to do with it. So for now, the Kindle and its remarkable e-paper screen will remain a curiosity—a toy for early adopters—and lots of real paper books will continue to be pulped every year as the same publishers struggle (and fail) to predict exactly how many copies of Lemony Snicket parents will buy for their children this Christmas. The future of reading is still safely in the future.

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