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.

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.

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

Reading the fine print: “Amsterdam” on a Blackberry?

An interesting commentary on how e-books are infiltrating all sorts of gadgets appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal Portals column. Lee Gomes, in remarking that he was actually reading Ian McEwan’s novel “Amsterdam” on his Blackberry, observed: Contrary to all of my previous expectations, not only was I reading the novel on my cellphone, I was enjoying it, too.I had heard reports that Japanese commuters were using cellphones to read books. But I figured that was sort of the thing only Japanese commuters would ever see fit to do.

As a matter of fact, they’re not only reading them on cellphones, they’re writing them on cellphones as well. Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels in Japan, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging by subway commuters tapping away on their phones. Some critics dismiss these works as nothing more than electronic drivel, that will only hasten the decline of literary standards (although it could be regarded as a step up from that other infamous  Japanese genre – manga).

The point is that as technology evolves, so will the ways that  content is generated and consumed.  More  technology  invariably results in more content – or at least more efficient distribution of it. Witness the effect of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, and its effect on the distribution of information compared to the ancient tradition of handwritten manuscripts. Few would question the printing press’s influence on the spread of knowledge and scholarship.

So, if novels are written and read on screens the size of credit cards what’s the problem if it leads to a rise in the number of consumers of the content? I’d be willing to bet that this format is not siphoning off a huge number of readers of Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Uncertainty.

As a certain social commentator once observed: a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself. (Marshall Mcluhan, The Medium is the Messge, 1964)

One Million Books available for Kindle??

Since many readers are under the impression that the only content that can be obtained in Kindle format is that which is purchased from Amazon, the thread from the Kindle discussion board below sheds some light on the subject. The original post was made on Dec 20, and there’s been a fair number of replies since then, but the basic premise remains: Amazon is only one source for content, and the majority of non-Amazon content is free, or close to it. Link to original post:

T. Beck says:  
Some have expressed a lack of content for the Kindle, here is what I have tried, and works (make sure you check the footnotes at the bottom): 95,000 or so titles, instant download, easy. 20,000 or so titles – mostly classics or things that no longer have copywrite. Multiple languages. Three are links to other sites that boast a total of 100k titles. ***, **** 400,000 titles – classics, modern, government, multiple languages, all the ones I tried were free. Requires $8.95 yearly subscription fee, consider it the cost of a library card.*, ***, **** offers both unencrypted and encrypted .mobi files. Full range of reading and many free books as well. *, **, **** lots of titles, most you can find on in the Kindle section for less. This is Baen books and mostly SiFi. None are encrypted, many are free, and can be transferred directly to your Kindle. Choose Kindle compatible for the download. **** uses .pdf format. **, You will need to register and can download up to three books a day, free. Only available to people in the US, due to copyright and licensing restrictions. 900,000 Mostly original works, as in unknown, normally unpublished authors. Some good, some not, take your chances, you may discover the next JK Rowling. Displays in text. Cut, paste and email to yourself, or save in .txt file and upload. 20,000 titles or so. Has a Kindle format. ***, **** – an extension of Manybooks above, but if you access it through the basic WebBrowser in Kindle, you can download directly to your Kindle, the way you would an Amazon book. Choose the Mobipocket format. Share books, self published books and a make it yourself newspaper. With a little manipulation of the tools below, you can get your own newspaper, you could probably even directly email it to your Kindle in the morning if you allow that site to send you stuff. You will need to register, but there is no cost. There is now a “Kindle Download Guide” from includes links to many classics, including many in foreign languages. Christian centered works. Available in pdf, word, and text, all readily transferable to your Kindle.

* They save as .pdf files that you can email to your Kindle. It sees the .pdf as a file of words, not pictures of words, so it can be resized and adjusted just as any other ebook. Download the book to your PC, and email that file to your Kendle, or freekendle@kendle and load through the USB cable if you want to save the 10 cent conversion charge.

** For the encrypted ones in .mobi, a tool can be used to allow the kindle to see it. This tool does not make a copy of the book, merely adds a flag so that the Kendle can display it (it would be hard to call this a violation of copywrite or use conditions since both formats are amazon’s). The tool and directions on how to use it are at:

*** Site runs on donations

**** Can be downloaded directly to your Kindle when it is plugged in as an external storeage device, simply specify the Kindle folder when selecting where to put your book.