The Kindle at BEA: “She moved through the fair…”

I just returned from Book Expo America, a confab of 25,000 book publishers, sellers and authors, which wrapped up Sunday in LA. One of the highlights was an address by Amazon’s chief, Jeff Bezos. If Bezos was to choose a song to describe the Kindle’s debut at BEA, he might adapt the lyrics of the traditional Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair”:

She stepp’d away from me and she moved through the fair,
And fondly I watched her go here and go there,
Then she went her way homeward with one star awake,
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake
.

Few tech gadgets have had such a low signal to noise ratio as the Kindle at Book Expo. The debate surrounding global warming is like a playground tiff compared to the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) swirling around the Kindle and the effect that e-books are predicted to have on the publishing business. “They’ve only sold 10,000 – no, they’ve sold 100,000 – No, it’s going to be a $2 billion business by 2010.” “They’re losing money on every e-book they sell, but in five years, there’ll be no more books – no, actually nobody really wants to read anything on a screen”. (Of course, to Steve Jobs, it’s all much ado about nothing, since “nobody reads anymore anyway.”)

The NY Times summarized it nicely yesterday:

But excitement about the Kindle, which was introduced in November, also worries some publishing executives, who fear Amazon’s still-growing power as a bookseller. Those executives note that Amazon currently sells most of its Kindle books to customers for a price well below what it pays publishers, and they anticipate that it will not be long before Amazon begins using the Kindle’s popularity as a lever to demand that publishers cut prices. Amazon sells most Kindle books for $9.99 or less. Publishers say that they generally sell electronic books to Amazon for the same price as physical books, or about 45 percent to 50 percent of the cover price. For a hardcover best seller like Scott McClellan’s “What Happened,” the former press secretary’s account of his years in the Bush White House, that would mean that Amazon appears to be selling the selling the book for about 25 percent below its cost.
Yet, in a textbook case of clinical denial, the publishers are circling the wagons to protect their margins at all costs. The Times article continues:

 Electronic readers have nevertheless gained many fans in the publishing industry. Random House and Penguin, among others, have equipped their entire sales force with electronic-book readers, allowing them to avoid having to lug around as many preview editions of books. Editors at many of the larger publishing houses also use the devices to read manuscripts submitted by agents and authors.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/02/books/02bea.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5087&em&en=16d43579fc53efb0&ex=1212638400

Now I doubt that i’m the only one that sees the cruel irony here. But this development strikes me as strangely similar to the case in the early 1960s of the Gestetner company using Xerox machines for its own internal correspondence, all the while heralding the virtues of the stencil duplicator to its customers, because that’s what they sold. When was the last time a stencil duplicator has been seen, outside a museum of office automation? 

Let me see if I can get this straight. The publishers feel they are entitled to the same margin on a product that consists entirely of digital bits, with no costs incurred for printing, shipping, warehousing or retail display. And their own employees see the benefits of the electronic versions over their dead tree counterparts. Have they tried to find a door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica sales person in the last five years? That’s because there aren’t any. The only customers remaining for the hard-bound version of EB are libraries. That’s why EB is about one tenth the size it was before Wikipedia came along. Maybe Simon & Shuster’s CEO should send out a memo to her employees accompanying her triumphant announcement of 5000 more titles available on the Kindle this year. It would suggest they take their blinders off and read the writing on the wall. Maybe it should be mimeographed for more effect.

For another example of resistance to new technology, one need look no further back than the inventor of the modern printing press Johannes Gutenberg, and what he had to deal with. According to his Wikipedia entry:

In the decades after Gutenberg, many conservative patrons looked down on cheap printed books; books produced by hand were considered more desirable. At one point the papal court debated a policy of requiring printing presses to obtain a license, but this could not be decreed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg

So to close on a somewhat sombre note, I quote from the very text that Gutenberg first produced for “mass consumption”. While I doubt the author was referring to the book publishing industry, it somehow seems befitting, if just a tad dysphoric:

The mountains will be overturned, the cliffs will crumble and every wall will fall to the ground.

Ezekiel 38:20

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