Sunday, 28 August 2011

Essay: On the Kindle

Ebook readers have been around for a few years now, but Amazon's Kindle is the one that broke the mould, and became the VHS to everyone else's Betamax. Why? Because it does everything right. It is small, light and astonishingly slim; it reads just like a book, with no built-in backlight; it holds 3,500 books, which is more than most people would ever need; it reads pdfs as well; it has more ebooks available than any other model; and, best of all, it downloads books directly by wifi, so no need to connect to your computer. You can be sitting in your favourite cyber cafe, or at work, or on the train, or in bed at home, you click the 'Buy' button, and the book simply arrives on your Kindle within seconds. Of course, you can access books by connecting directly as well, but it's more complicated.

It is also an advantage that it is an Amazon product. You can order your Kindle from the website, and it arrives the next day, already pre-registered to your account and neatly labelled as 'Bob's Kindle' (or whatever). As soon as you connect it to your home wifi setup (which is easy), it downloads any ebooks you have already bought.

One other big advantage - you can get Kindle apps for your PC, iPhone and iPad which allow you to read the same books on those devices too. You can read a book on your Kindle over your breakfast, read a bit more on your iPhone on the train to work, another on your office computer in your lunch break, and back to the Kindle in the evening - and all the apps sync with each other, so each time you pick up exactly where you left off. You don't even have to buy a Kindle at all - many people with iPads are quite happy to read their ebooks on that.

What doesn't it do? Well, no back light means that you need an external light source to read by at night. It's not touch screen, which feels strangely retro when everyone has touchscreen phones these days. There are limited means of organising your books - you can put them into collections, but with hundreds or possibly thousands of items to deal with, it soon becomes unwieldy, so it really needs a proper filing system.
One big disadvantage is that, unlike a physical book, you can't pass an ebook on to a friend, or give it to a charity shop, or sell it to a second-hand bookshop. It's not even clear whether you actually own the digital copy of the book, or just the right to read it.

A complete inventory of everything you've bought is kept on your Amazon account. You can download each book unlimited times after purchase, so if you want to read on an iPad as well as your Kindle, or if you drop your Kindle in the bath and have to replace it, or just upgrade to a newer model, you can simply download your books to the new device, but there are limits on the number of devices you can do this with (and an iPhone is one device, an iPad is another, and so on). And there is absolutely no knowing what might happen if Amazon ever vanishes into a black cyber-hole. There are ways of backing up your ebooks but it's not easy and you may have to mess with the digital protection mechanism (DRM). 

Books and subscription content (such as newspapers and magazines) for the Kindle are primarily available from Amazon, but some content is available elsewhere. There is a large catalogue of free items, mainly classics which are out of copyright, and many others which cost less than £1, usually a nominal charge for digitising the book. Some publishers charge a nominal fee for complete works by classic authors, such as Dickens or Jane Austen. Digitising print books is carried out by some form of optical character recognition, which results in numerous mistranscriptions and errors, unless the work is meticulously proof-read. On the other hand, recent works may already be in digital form prior to printing, so errors are minimal.
The pricing policy of ebooks is rather bizarre, to put it mildly. For reasons lost in history, an ebook is subject to VAT whereas printed books are not, which creates an anomaly straight away. But even when allowance is made for that, there is little rhyme or reason to it - some ebooks cost next to nothing, while others are more expensive than the hardback version. Update: in the four months since I acquired my Kindle, not only are many more books appearing in digital form, but the prices are stabilising too, and for books available in paperback the ebook usually costs £4-5. New books are more expensive, sometimes £10+, comparable to hardback prices.

But Kindle owners are reluctant to pay top dollar for their ebooks. Of the top 100 selling ebooks (excluding free editions) at the time I sampled the list, 39 were less than £1, and all but 11 were less than £5. The average cost was £2.60, and the most expensive by quite a margin was £12.99. Only 3 were over £7. Recent bestsellers tended to be £4+, much the same price as the paperback version. Update: nine months on, and the number of books under £1 was up to 54 and all but 8 were less than £5 (and that number was pushed higher than it might otherwise be, having all five of George R R Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' volumes in the list at regular prices).

One interesting factor is that it is very easy for an author to self-publish an ebook. There is no need to print any copies at all, simply convert your digital manuscript to Kindle format (which is very easy to do), and away you go. Many of the very cheap ebooks fall into this category. A sample of every book (usually about the first 5% or so) is available for free download, so readers can try your work out and buy it if they want to finish it.
In the last quarter of 2010, sales of ebooks on Amazon outsold sales of printed paperbacks for the first time. Given the sheer number of Kindles being sold, and the number of people reading on iPads and other non-Kindle devices, the book world is changing before our eyes. People who have Kindles will be reluctant to buy a printed book, so there is now a solid market for ebooks. Within a very short time, every newly published book will also be available on the Kindle, and gradually the number of printed editions will dwindle. Hardbacks may go first, and then the different paperback formats, so that eventually there will only be a mass-market paperback, an audiobook and the Kindle edition.

What is it like to read a book on a Kindle? Well, physically, it's much easier - a Kindle is thinner and lighter than the average paperback, and there is no struggle to keep the book open at the page. The buttons to flip pages backwards and forwards are exactly where the thumbs rest, and it takes no time at all to forget that you are reading on an electronic device. The font size can be increased or decreased very readily, and because it's not backlit, it's easy to read in bright sunlight. The downside of no backlight is that you can't read in the dark without an external light (although you can buy a case with an attached light). There is a built-in dictionary and search function, too, and you can make notes as you read, and keep multiple bookmarks. And (for those who like to read books they might not want anyone to know about), every book looks the same, so no one knows whether you're reading 'Anna Karenina' or 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' or a Mills and Boon.

On the downside, you can't see so easily how far through the book you are (although there is a percentage bar at the bottom), and you can't quickly flick back and forth to check a previous chapter, the contents page or the index or appendices. Maps and illustrations may be too small to see clearly (and are sometimes omitted altogether). There's no colour, so recipe books are out.

Kindle users tend to read more than before, and they also are more likely to dip in and out, reading several books at once. A Kindle holds up to 3,500 books, so you can have your entire library on hand (although the limited filing system makes this less than easy to manage). For a long trip, or for those who regularly work away from home, having all your reading material in one small device is a boon.

But it's not just the readers who are adapting to the Kindle. Authors, too, will undoubtedly respond to the very different approach. The free sample of the first 5-10% of the book, combined with no cover art or publisher's blurb, means that potential readers will depend on that short sample to judge the book, so inevitably there will be a temptation to put all the punch into that section. Then there is the difficulty of judging the length of an ebook - books may get shorter, so that a lower price looks like a better deal than it is, and genres that regularly have multi-volume series of books (eg fantasy), will tend to split into more volumes than with the printed version, or to offer the first volume at a knock-down price.

But no matter what, Kindle owners tend to be fiercely loyal - "I love my Kindle", they say - and there's no doubt that the world of books has changed, and will never be the same again.

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