So it looks like the Kindle is making people in the book industry a bit uneasy. You’ve got hand-wringing and even ol’ Ray Bradbury himself declaring that e-books smell like burned fuel. Yup, that’s what he said.
There’s always a bit of a disconnect when a technology introduces itself in a threatening way. The problem is that most of the time people are looking at the wrong things. Movies took a hit when television was introduced and there was much hand-wringing in Hollywood, but ultimately they came through by delivering the type of spectacle television couldn’t. The reality was that television wiped out radio. And I remember when pocket calculators becomes small enough and cheap enough that everyone could own one, but the math classes resisted because there was a fear that it would make students lazy and they wouldn’t learn the processes. Turns out that the calculator liberated students to accelerate their studies and focus more on complex processes. If there was a downside to calculators in schools I haven’t heard it.
The fear of the e-book replacing regular books seems absurd to me. You can drop and step on a book with no fear of ruining the contents. I have dropped books in massive puddles in the rain and, with the exception of page bloating, still been able to access what’s inside. A book doesn’t require batteries, recharging, a clear wi-fi signal, blah blah blah. Can you imagine a picture book on a Kindle? Are libraries and classrooms going to install large screens for storytime, with their artificial page-turns complete with sound effects to mimic books? Does anything feel as satisfying as the heft (or portability) of a book?
No, what the e-book readers represent, however, is an opportunity for smart publishers to figure out how to best manage this new technology. Rather than worrying about how Amazon’s going to use their sales figures to leverage against their profits, how about biting back and finding a way to undercut the Kindle? If the device is proprietary then maybe the publishing industry should use its muscle to fight for universal access devices. Amazon is only trying to back a market into their servitude, why should the publishers allow that to happen to their product? Does anyone really want Amazon to control access to content (and why does this sound so much like Microsoft to me)?
What Amazon is attempting to do, as I see it, is create the iPod of books. The idea of the e-book isn’t new, just as MP3 players existed before Apple jumped in the market. And the idea that you can take music you already own and upload it to the iPod became a huge jump in the way we listen to music. The technology of the MP3 made it portable, iPod makes it cool, and the music industry eventually came around. I say eventually because Steve Jobs had a difficult time getting some music company heads to understand that “ripping” didn’t mean “stealing” and they’d still get money from these downloads at iTunes.
But the reason it worked out so well for the iPod is because of how it addressed the experience of the end user. If there was a way for me to upload the books I already own without having to buy new, or even trade them in for digital versions, then maybe we’ve got something. But what the Kindle and other readers want me to do is buy their device and pay for the privilege of loading something I can get for free at the library in printed form? See, that’s the problem. The flexibility between media doesn’t work and all Amazon wants me to do is give them money, not enhance my experience as a reader.
Let’s assume that books will always be around, but that down the road there will be two formats side by side, the book and the e-book. Publishing houses could continue to make and distribute books as they always have, but why not set up distribution of e-book direct from their own sites, available in an open-source format that undercuts Amazon and sends the money directly to them? If an industry can unify on just this much then there’s no need for them to ever have to deal with Amazon again. Instead of worrying about how the e-book is going to eat their profits why aren’t they secretly meeting to figure out how to eat Amazon? Stop letting the tail wag the dog.
If publishers are worried, and if they still possess any of the good sense they occasionally display in providing quality content, then they need to move extremely fast if they wish to stay in business.
Growing up, my dad used to tell me that computers were the future and that one day everyone would own one. Seeing as a computer back then took up the entire floor of an office building and required thousands of programming cards to execute a simple calendar with Snoopy on it, I was doubtful.
I’ve never been a big fan of early, unquestioned adoption of technology without fully understanding the ramifications; televisions and computers in the classrooms I don’t think have ever been studied for true efficacy, and in fact our schools appear to be performing worse than ever. So for me the jury is still out on the e-book.
Although if someone wanted to give me a Kindle with free content…