[10 February 2009]
Amazon has released a new Kindle. It costs $359. I don’t know why anyone would buy that piece of crippleware when you can buy a netbook for the same price or cheaper and get unlimited functionality. (I suppose if I had experienced the magic of the Kindle’s no-backlight technology, I wouldn’t dismiss it so glibly.) Even in his effort to champion the device, Joel Johnson reveals its inherent limitations: “While the new model now has 2 gigabytes of memory onboard, seven times as much as the old Kindle in storage terms, it no longer has the SD flash memory card slot that made it possible to keep a library of tens of thousands of books on the device at once. While my library never really grew that big (having even a few hundred books began to make getting around in the menus somewhat awkward), knowing it could went a long way towards tickling my desire for the world’s entire written history to be in my pocket at all times.” The Kindle is not apparently meant to be the book that subsumes all books; it appears to become clumsier to use the more you load onto it. In practice, it seems a novelty gadget for travelers who want respite from their laptops, but are too indecisive to settle on what book to bring on the plane.
Everyone’s looking at the pattern they’ve seen in music and video - an old medium changed radically by technology - and waiting for it to hit the book world. But the chances of that happening right now are very small indeed. Why? It’s fairly straightforward.
The real reason that the music industry came around to the idea of downloads wasn’t because they had a startling insight into the future, or even because Apple forced the issue by building a clever ecosystem around the iPod (it didn’t launch the iTunes store until 2003). It was because customers were choosing to pirate instead.
That seems right to me. And the reason people aren’t pirating books isn’t because the opportunity isn’t there—you can probably find torrents for pdfs of Harry Potter and those Twilight books if you wanted them. It’s that people have other more convenient ways to share books. As Johnson explains, “the average book reader isn’t turning to legally dubious sources for their novels, or meeting up with book dealers on street corners to pick up copies of the latest bestseller. If they want to share files, they can get somebody to lend them a copy, or go to a place for sharing this information that’s wholly supported by the industry (you might know them as libraries).”
Basically publishers have no incentive to encourage people to read books on screens and every incentive to get them to enjoy the fetish of the object. The preference consumers have shown for digitized music and iPods doesn’t seem to translate to books. The usefulness of the iPod derives from its ability to shuffle songs that many people enjoy as background, more or less passively. On the subway I hear about a dozen songs each morning, and it pleases me that they are randomly selected from a list of several thousand. But I wouldn’t want my reading material served up that way. Generally I’m reading one thing at a time, and I benefit from the finality of that decision, when I leave home with one book. Books have the great built-in advantage of preventing me from surfing away elsewhere when the reading becomes arduous or requires an effort of concentration.