A retooled Kindle could catch fire in the literary world

[11 March 2009]

By Steve Paul

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

There was some good news recently in a report from the National Endowment for the Arts, which showed an increase in reading among adults. Or at least among those who confessed to having read one book or more of fiction or nonfiction in the prior year.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO and chairman of Amazon, has, so far as I know, stopped short of crediting the Kindle, his company’s much-hyped electronic reading device, for the rebound of the written word.

But in his hourlong infomercial on a recent edition of PBS’ “Charlie Rose,” Bezos breezily held out the nifty object as something like the savior of the literate world.

“It’s not written anywhere,” Bezos declaimed, “that books shall forever be printed on dead trees.”

And, indeed, the notices sparked by the just-released second generation Kindle seem to indicate a formidable future for the electronic reader.

Newsweek called it “the iPod of reading.” Walt Mossberg, the much-followed tech columnist of The Wall Street Journal, pronounced Kindle 2 a vast improvement over the inaugural device, which Amazon flung on the market 14 months ago.

The readability. The handling and controls. The speed.

As Bezos explained to the fawning Rose, someone could be propped up in bed watching the late-night host discuss a new novel with its author and in the middle of the show turn on her handy new Kindle 2 and download the book within 60 seconds.

Amazon has been characteristically silent about how many units it has shipped to the market. Bezos made much of the supply shortfall Amazon experienced two Christmas seasons in a row. One analyst has estimated the online store has sold 500,000 Kindles, but who trusts stock analysts these days?

After his coy evasions, Bezos told Rose that no matter how many units are out there, revenue from downloaded Kindle books (generally $9.99 a title) now amount to 10 percent of all of Amazon’s books sales. That’s impressive.

I have not played with a Kindle. I have not shelled out $359 for the device. And I’ve not yet encountered a single person using one on an airplane or in a coffee shop.

When it comes to reading, I am not a Luddite. I am platform neutral - I often read newspaper articles on my phone. And I can imagine the pleasures and efficiencies of using a Kindle and especially having the ability to download a book to a handheld gadget quickly and (relatively) inexpensively. (The Kindle application for iPhone launched last week.)

The device works independently of your laptop or PC and hooks up to a wireless Sprint network for book and periodical transmissions. Once you’ve paid for the Kindle, there are no monthly connection fees or subscriptions. You pay for only what you download.

The attractions are enormous: bookmarking, note-taking, reading on a black-on-white “E-Ink” screen, which pleasantly simulates paper and eliminates the eye strain associated with computers and other digital devices. You can store 1,500 titles and choose from a current selection of 240,000 books.

A new feature: Kindle 2 can read to you as you drive or laze away, eyes closed, on the beach. And it keeps track of where you are, as you go back and forth reading a book or listening to it. Mossberg was unoffended by the Kindle’s machine-generated voice; I heard a sample online and agree, it’s no big deal.

Amazon did, however, step on its own fast-moving feet, as it discovered the Authors Guild and some publishers were none too pleased over the release of a digital book-reading product with audio capabilities. The argument goes that subsidiary rights need to be negotiated; Amazon countered that a robotic reader is not a fully performed audio book, but it backtracked and now gives publishers the option to turn off the audio reader for individual titles.

Oh, well. Technology marches on.

Have you looked at Google Books lately?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/71482-a-retooled-kindle-could-catch-fire-in-the-literary-world/