Saturday, June 18, 2011
In May, Amazon.com announced that it was selling more e-books for its Kindle device than books printed on paper. I'm part of that.
Last year, I spent some time on Twitter musing about whether or not I should buy a Kindle to accompany me on a cross-country plane trip. In the end, I decided that it was just too pricey (this was before the smaller, lower-priced ones came out) and opted for audio-book downloads instead.
That worked fine, but when I came back, a kind pal gave me a Kindle DX -- that's the big one -- as a gift.
I now read books. Old books. New books. Lots of books.
Don't get me wrong, it's not that I didn't read books before. I have always been a voracious reader and, in my time, have plopped down untold amounts of cash in bookstores and on Amazon.com.
But the way I read books is different now.
I tried getting books from the library. One was on a list, but when I finally got it, it proved to be a dense tome and had to be read slowly. I couldn't finish it in time, and since it was on a list, the library wouldn't let me renew it.
That's the last time I went to the library. I put this book on my Kindle for a very low price (it wasn't a new release), so nobody can tell me how fast I have to read it.
Facing a long train ride but not wanting to spend a whole pile of money, I took advantage of the many free books available for Kindle download. I went the American-history route and got "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," "The Federalist Papers (Optimized for Kindle)," Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America, Volume 1 & Volume 2."
Then, for fun, I threw on "Pride & Prejudice" and the complete works of William Shakespeare.
For very nominal fees, I've added a couple of Bibles, a pile of Oscar Wilde and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."
And that's only a fraction of the classic works available for Kindle (and, one assumes, for Barnes & Noble's Nook, the iPad and other devices) at low or no cost.
The biggest change is that I also now read new books -- when they're new. I seldom wanted to fork over $25-$30 dollars for a new hardcover. And I didn't especially like lugging around hardcovers, particularly while traveling. So, I'd usually wait months or a year for the smaller, lighter trade paperback, which cost about $12 or $15.
Now, that's what I pay for new books, and I buy them as soon as they come out or sometimes with minutes of hearing about them. I can also read them on my computer, phone and tablet.
All of this is terrible, devastating even, for bookstores like Borders, which has been passing through bankruptcy. I feel sad for the people losing their jobs -- especially in this dismal economy, and most especially in California -- but these stores are going the way of video stores before them.
The way we consume media is changing fast, and not every business will survive.
But then, small bookstores decried the existence of the big-box ones like Borders. Oddly enough, these small stores may revive, perhaps bolstered by a trade in older and used books not available for e-readers or catering in a personal way to people who still prefer paper books and the company of fellow bookworms.
Like every other media enterprise, the publishing industry is convulsing, trying to deal with new technology and economic realities. Authors worry that the low price on e-books will diminish their ability to make a living; publishers have to revamp their strategies, once built entirely around the production and distribution of paper books.
On a positive note, while I simply avoided new mass-market hardcovers in the past, at least they're making some money from me now.
Will paper books disappear? I doubt it, not so long as there is a sufficient market for them. But they will diminish, and jobs that depend on the production of books will suffer as well -- from paper merchants to printers to delivery trucks.
One major underpinning of the business model in all types of media is the cost of the production of that media, and the cost of delivering it to the consumer.
The production costs in visual media -- movies and TV shows -- remain relatively high, though digital filmmaking is lowering it somewhat. But, the cost of delivering this material digitally is going down rapidly.
People still go to theaters to see movies, because on the opening weekend and for a short while after, they have no other option to see them (and home TVs are still not quite as big as movie screens).
People still watch TV shows on commercial TV (again, they're not often given an option, at least for a day or so).
But the market in DVDs is sinking fast. Fox Home Entertainment recently had layoffs, because the lower cost and greater ease of digital delivery and On Demand are eroding the DVD market.
Publishers have already lost the exclusivity war. Many new books are available for e-readers as soon as they come out on paper, and those resisting that trend may simply see many consumers pass them by for books available by easier and cheaper routes.
In the end, the pressure of the marketplace may force almost all publishers to go out digitally at the same time as the traditional release, unless they believe their readers are so dedicated that they'll buy the book no matter what -- and that's a risk many may not be willing to take.
On the other hand, while Kindle does allow limited lending of its e-books to other Kindle owners, e-books generally can't be easily passed around. So, while one purchased book might go through several hands, someone raving about a book they have on their Kindle may instead inspire friends and relatives to get it themselves.
Some markets and revenue streams will disappear, and it will be painful. But as the market has shown over and over again, new ones will emerge (just look at the thriving trade in iPad and Kindle covers and accessories).
If my Kindle fell off a cliff tomorrow, I wouldn't go back to buying new mass-market hardcovers. I'd buy one of the smaller, cheaper Kindles -- which, as with all electronics, becomes better and less costly as it becomes more popular -- reload all my existing Kindle books from my account and move on from there.
Had it been within my means to afford a Model T when they came out, I don't think I would have passed on it just to save the jobs of blacksmiths, farriers and carriage makers.
What about those who can't afford Kindles or other e-readers? They do without, as I did for a long time, and as many do today. There will never be a new technology that is immediately affordable for all people.
But things change, as I realize when I see teenage kids wielding cellphones with capabilities that would have been beyond the means of all but the very wealthy a few years ago.
And some schools are using Kindles in the classroom (which may save the spines of a lot of kids now straining under book-laden backpacks).
In the end, I don't care if a book is on paper, an e-reader, sheepskin parchment or a stone tablet. It's not the form of the book that matters, but the information it contains. People want that information, and at least they're not expecting to get new e-books for free (unlike the pirating tsunami that hit the music industry).
I just want people to read. And from the looks of the writing I see on the Internet, any way to get noses into good books is a good thing.
UPDATE: Apparently someone sees this coming and is saving paper books.
UPDATE ON THE UPDATE: A man saw the future way back when ... click here.