Monday, January 28, 2008

Ethics of the Kindle

There's a lot of discussion going on about the Kindle. Some of it here.

I'm enjoying my Kindle and can see many benefits to it, personally and otherwise.

Generally I'm giving it a provisional thumb's up. Provisional because I haven't lived with it long enough to be certain how much I'm going to use it.

I have a few problems with the design, as I've said earlier. Some of those problems I've found work-arounds for. The issue of holding it without unintentionally paging forward or backward has been almost resolved. It still happens, however, and it's a bit annoying.

Imagine buying a book and finding that some imaginary wind is dogging you, blowing the pages out of your grip at unexpected moments, forcing you to relocate your place again. This too may pass, but it hasn't yet. Not entirely.

The design doesn't really stir passion and lust as the iPod does. Or the iPhone. Those are simply beautiful creations. Compared to the Mac designs, the Kindle is clunky and unlovely and about as sleek as a Nash Rambler.

Then there are the uber-questions I keep circling back to.

As a writer I have one set of questions and as a book lover I have another set. They overlap a little and generally have to do with the ethics of owning such a device and encouraging others to join the Kindle revolution. For it does feel revolutionary in several ways.

The following questions assume the growing use of the Kindle.

1) What is the long term effect on libraries? Would libaries become places where the Kindle units are loaned? A tricky problem, to trust the return of a 300 dollar item. Could libraries make a deal with Amazon that they'd supply Kindles to public libraries around the country? Libraries could cut their own book budgets significantly by wirelessly downloading only the books their customers wanted. And trim shelf space as well. The wait for new books might also be shortened by having more copies available. More copies could be available because the cost of each copy would be so dramatically reduced. If unexpected demand for a particular title was high, downloading multiple times could solve that on the spot.

2) Bookstores seem the most threatened by a growth in Kindling. I assume that the current number of regular online book-buyers would grow just as the online music buyers grew as the iPod took hold. Buying music online simplifies the shopping process and allows for easy purchase of single tracks, and easy sampling of music. Kindle provides this too with simple downloads of sample chapters. (several short chapters in many cases) So whatever threat online bookselling already poses to conventional brick and mortar stores would inevitably grow.

3) Bookstores (2) I love my local bookstores (Books and Books in Coral Gables is legendary, and a mecca for book lovers. A gorgeous location as well, and great staff.) I feel disloyal in my fling with the Kindle. But I've been imagining and anticipating such a device for so long that I feel it's my duty to sample it.

But the impact on booksellers has fairly dire implications. With the cost of new hardbacks downloaded to the Kindle running about ten dollars, it's a far better deal than the 18 you'd pay at a discounted chain. And less than half of the price you'd pay at a non-discounted Independent.

Sure, the older set will resist such a change in book buying habits. But I can see all kinds of reasons why wirelessly shopping for books will be attractive to the younger generation (that fraction that reads), and to some older readers who don't want to fight traffic or navigate the malls or aisles of Borders or BN.

How can the bookstore fight back against this? They fought back against the coffee shop/mega bookstore by getting bigger and adding their own coffee shops. That's worked to an extent, I suppose. But this is a new front in the war on bookstores, and I'm not sure how it'll play out.

4) Green issues: Printing, packing, shipping, then returning unsold books. All that is avoided with the Kindle. The storage costs, the labor of opening boxes and shelving books is saved. Trees, wood, paper, ink. On the green side, there may be a downside to the Kindle I don't see. But I doubt there's a downside as deep as the upside.

5) Economics Pirating ebooks seems inevitable once a unit such as this grows in popularity. Hackers will find a way to make books available to multiple Kindle users--(an irritating handicap now--there's no way to loan to a friend a bought-and-paid-for Kindle book)

What are the publishers charging Amazon for ebooks? I'll be in New York next week visiting my publisher, agent, and others and plan to research this side of things.

I can't help think as I said in an earlier post that the Kindle will act as a further downward pressure on profit margins for publishers and inevitably for writers.

Sometimes I get a wave of doomsday sensation ala Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and think maybe I should haul out my typewriter, toss all the electronics, and hunker down in a cave somewhere and wait this out.

But the truth is, I'm enjoying my first reading experience on the Kindle and have solved most of the little logistical problems of using it. I think it's going to eventually play a larger and larger role in my reading habits. And I'm convinced that it will play that same increasing role in the book business.

Here's a personal note: Magic City, which comes out in paperback next week, will be selling for 6.99 in paperback, and 9.99 in Kindle edition. The sales of paperbacks have already dropped dramatically in the last few years as the price of hardbacks have dipped and the cost of paperbacks has climbed. Why wait for the paperback if it's not going to be that much cheaper than the hardback? (goes the logic) But if people start Kindling hardbacks, that would seem to suggest a rise in early purchase of a book, and even a steeper decline in paperback sales.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My thoughts, however scattered.

I like a paperback because .... it's small. I can buy one for a quarter at a library. They pack well for vacation. They bend, fold and spindle well. Overall, they are cheaper than hardback. Downfalls: I end up with plenty of them sitting around, already read, collecting dust and taking space I could otherwise use for ... more books (to be bought).

I like a hardback because ....
They are collectible (1st editions and autographed by favorite authors). Beautiful dustcovers that draw one into the pages themselves. I feel like it will last decades and it looks very good on my shelf where friends look up and say, "Oh, you like that author?", which starts a conversation about our likes and dislikes of various other things. Downfalls: Heavy. Harder to hold up while reading in bed (book hits me on head, wakes me up. Trivial, I know. Who sleeps with the latest story from a favorite author?). More expensive than paperbacks.

I have no experience with the eBook "thing." I'll probably be one of the last people to ever buy one ... just like the DVD Player when it came out. Now? Can't do without it. I have no iPod or iPhone. I still haven't found the need for those either. Not yet.