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May 2011
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Is Amazon’s Kindle Destroying the Publishing Industry?

This isn’t a new topic, but it also doesn’t seem to be going away.  There are some very loud people convinced that the Kindle spells the end of the book and they’re quite willing to say so.  In a very, very limited way, they’re right.  The problem is that they’re missing the point.

You see, books have come a long way already over the years.  It doesn’t matter if you decide to cite oral tradition, serialized texts, or pretty much anything else as the origination point for the modern concept of the book, it’s not possible to deny that the book as we know it is an evolution from something else.  The transition to the medium we know and love today, which is itself distinct from the books produced prior to the printing press for example, has allowed for more variety and enjoyment to emerge than ever before.  The Kindle, and other eReaders like it, is simply the next stage in the ongoing progression.  It takes the established situation and makes it more efficient to deliver, less restrictive in terms of publication, and more generally accessible overall.

In a way, this is the heart of the problem.  The publishing industry isn’t built around the text.  In the end, it doesn’t matter if they are selling the most amazing piece of literature ever written or the latest exploitation of the vampire romance novel phenomenon so long as people are buying.  The industry makes its money by selling the book as a physical object and offering the person or people who produced the information inside a cut of the profit.  If you take away the paper, their model seems less sustainable.

If anybody sitting at home can do the work to get a novel written, polished, and put up for sale with no need for a middle-man and at a higher percentage than the publishing houses are prone to offering, then what is the point of courting them?  What we need to see now is some initiative on the part of these companies.  What are they bringing to the table?  It isn’t enough to cite history and what they’ve done before.  If the Kindle is supposed to be single-handedly destroying publishing as we know it, you have to assume that it has more to do with what the public considers to be worth their money than it does with Jeff Bezos being an evil genius bent on taking over the world.

If they are going to stay afloat, people need to be informed about what advantages there are in going with a publisher.  The doors need to open up a bit.  If this isn’t enough, then it isn’t a sign that somebody is out to get them, it’s a sign that publishers simply aren’t providing authors with decent value anymore. The industry isn’t changing on a whim, it’s changing because things like the Kindle platform are making it possible for authors and readers to avoid the red tape and pointless markups that are left over from a time when successful publishing was literally impossible without an impressive backer.  We’re moving on.

28 comments to Is Amazon’s Kindle Destroying the Publishing Industry?

  • Dave D

    Seems to me that if the Publishing Industry is being destroyed, it is more because of its own ability to respond to a changing environment than the Kindle. Throughout the course of history, business or natural, those who could not change with changing environments became extinct, those who could, thrived. Consider the Wooly Mastadon (extinct) and the cockroach (thriving)

  • If you look at all the different things involved in the publishing industry you’ll realize that only a part of it is directly related with the book as a physical object. The role of editors, proof readers, cover designers, marketing specialists, beta readers, and so on, do deal directly with the contents of the book, and many publishing houses have already gotten wise to this fact and are distributing e-reader versions of their books, albeit at higher prices than others.

    One thing though is that I as reader prefer a book that has the backing of a big publisher, even in Kindle format, because I know that it is going to be at least a well edited and proof read book, while I have had some very unpleasant experiences with self publish books every now and then some thing extraordinary comes along, but that is the exception not the rule, therefore if a publishing house disappears it will not be due to the Kindle and other e-readers, but because of their inability to adapt to the new technology, as has happened with Borders, and so many other book stores.

  • Mathew,
    I enjoyed your thoughtful essay. In most details I agree. Things are changing. A sea change in how business is done. My concerns are the loss of the editor and the salesman. The editor polishes the prose. Something few authors can do on their own. The salesman gets the word out about the work. Few authors can figure that out either. It is a wonderful time to be a reader. My IPad2 is a wonder with the Kindle App. I still need good advisers to get the best literature.
    Keep up the fine work.
    Magically,
    Dana Law
    San Diego

  • Apostol Apostolov

    What is the point of publishing houses other than an entity that pays upfront for rights on publishing?

    If a writer wants an editor, he can hire one. If writer wants money upfront to live while writing, he can take a loan or use Kickstarter. If writer wants to be a celebrity, well, he can make blog or vlog on YouTube. If writer wants to make millions, he can, and faster, on Kindle and similar platforms. If writer wants to kill trees, he can kill trees with Lala…

    Basically, we have no reason to support Publishing Houses anymore for anything but an entity willing to sponsor authors for the rights on their work, and only if a writer is willing to lose control to get the money… it sounds worse than a loan, if you come to think about it – Banks do not want control on your works, just their money back with interest.

  • No, I don’t believe Kindle is “destroying” the industry, but rather developing another adaptation. If the industry is to survive, then it needs to adapt with the world’s technology.

  • There are a number of gatekeepers and a good deal of thoughtful curation that gets bypassed when people think anyone can write a book and get it ‘published.’
    I for one prefer not to have to sort through a bazillion bad ‘books’ to find one that is beautifully conceived, brilliantly edited and thoughtfully packaged.

    As for the Kindle, the idea that one’s ebooks must then be purchased through Amazon, which uses books as loss leaders to get us to buy big screen tvs and big ticket items, it indeed hurts all of us. As more publishing companies use the ‘agency model’ and a fair price is achieved for consumers and creators alike, this will allow more choice for everyone.

    Another issue with Amazon is the fact that they seem to bully their way into getting by without sales tax in many an unenlightened state. A more even playing field where states and consumers benefit from collected sales tax also benefits all the players involved.

    And too, those of us who love ‘real books,’ the weight and feel of them, the physical beauty, the quieting act of turning pages as opposed to yet more screen time, will continue to do so.

    Choice is good, progress is good, but no need to throw out babies with bathwater.

  • Roger Knights

    “There are some very loud people convinced that the Kindle spells the end of the book and they’re quite willing to say so.”

    They’re circling the bowl, so they’re climbing the walls.

  • Rick

    What’s destroying the publishing industry is their inability to adapt to new realities. Witness the fact that a number of the books available in Kindle format that have their prices set by the publisher are actualy less expensive in hardback. There’s clearly a weak grasp of reality. While there are arguments for a price higher than Amazon’s original $9.99, it’s not believable that it actually costs more to produce a Kindle version than it does to bring out the hardback. The only thing that will change this is data and money: Data that shows how people are buying their books, and saving our money until it is felt books are within a reasonable price range. Those two things will drive change.

  • I don’t know if the publishing industry will be _destroyed_ by the Kindle. Completely transformed maybe, but not destroyed. I _do_ know (in 100% surety) however, that I love the Kindle to death! I resisted it at first, but now I don’t want to buy another physical book ever again. GO KINDLE! :-)

  • John Grimes

    I think more appropriately the question should substitute e-book for Kindle. I personally will never own a Kindle. The reason is simple. I will not own any device a third party can arbitrarily delete data from – especially material I have bought and paid for. Amazon have shown that they can and will do that, as have Apple on iPods and iPhones, and to a lesser extent Google on Android devices.

    I’ll stick for preference with a good solid book I can read anywhere (except total darkness) that needs no batteries and can’t be “reclaimed” after I buy it by the bookstore. That said e-books, and readers have a place – but as a supplement to printed books, not as a replacement.

  • Brit McGinnis

    The real thing destroying the publishing industry is the lack of communication between authors, publishers, and their customers. Authors aren’t aware of the many forms and outlets for their work (changing so fast that the publishers hardly know themselves), and the customers aren’t being made aware of all the works out there. The role of multimedia, both in marketing and in publishing methods, is changing rapidly. Everyone needs to be aware of their options, both in terms of consuming literature and in terms of marketing their works to the general public. That way, everyone will be aware when a truly great work comes along.

  • Scott

    Well said Rick..

  • I don’t think so. I do believe the Kindle, iPad, software and all new electronic formats are killing all the leeches acting as the publishers that were needed before this.

  • Donna

    I don’t have anything against technology and/or Kindle – my reluctance to give up my physical books is rooted in the inability to “loan” someone my copy of a “virtual” book. And even if you tell me that technology will catch up and allow me to somehow share my copy with my family or friends – won’t they have to make the initial investment in their own kindle in order for me to share with them (or is that the goal anyway)? As it stands right now, all my people need is an interest in what I’m reading in order to enjoy it for themselves.

  • Amy Roberts

    But my kindle is full of books… I can understand publishing houses feeling threatened, but what can you do? Adapt or die.

  • eric oyen

    the publishing industry also has a new problem. they have been trying to limit a blind person’s accessibility (audiobooks) because they think they can charge more for the audio version. ina way, they can (if they use the old cd media and mail methods). if they are forced to carry electronic versions online (audio file or accessible text( then they cannot charge more without having to justify to the market why.

    I know this seems like an old story, but I cannot read any books, even with the accessible kindle, because theauthor’s guild prevents it (claiming that reading aloud constitutes a “public performance”(. the interesting point is the autor’s guild doesn’t really represent any authors in the US as they are wholey owned by the publishing industry.

    the point is, I am eliminated from being able to read anything from amazon on their kindle right now. as an aside, less than 4% of all published works are available to the blind.

  • Miles Kehoe

    This issue will fade away soon.

    Consider: I buy a book, and read it. Maybe I loan it to a friend or two. When (if?) I get it back, I need to make a decision: do I keep the book on my bookshelf, donate it to my local library, or toss it in the recycle bin?

    If I keep it or toss it, neither the publisher nor the author are impacted: they neither gain nor lose potential future royalties.

    If I give to to a library – and it decides to keep it for lending- my actions may lead to a loss of future revenue. So far no one seems to be too very much up in arms about helping public and/or school libraries; if they were *really* worried about eBooks, we’d be hearing about a push to make donating ‘physical’ books to libraries illegal.

    However, when you buy (or rent) an eBook, the publisher and author make their money. However, no one at the library is going to read my copy; if the library wants it, the library staff has to buy a copy. And given that publishers are now moving towards limiting the number of times an eBook can be ‘checked out’, it seems they are insuring that eBooks will make them MUCH more money than conventional paper books over time.

    So how, exactly, is this going to put them out of business?

    Finally, an issue I can see going either way: are books or eBooks more likely to be read/studied/enjoyed by humans hundreds of years in the future? We have books (or at least book fragments) from thousands of years ago. yet many companies have no way to recover corporate data from 25 years ago. If eBooks become a standard; AND if the publishers do a good job in updating their electronic media, then there is some chance that books from 2011 will be available in 3011. Heck, this thread might still online then! Heck, by then we should know if publishers really went broke because of technology they were unwilling to adopt.
    /s/Miles

  • David Lang

    there’s a writer who has an interesting series of articles about the problems with the publishing industry

    http://kriswrites.com/category/on-writing/

    there are a _lot_ of problems right now in publishing.

  • Right on! Especially your last paragraph…”If they are going to stay afloat, people need to be informed about what advantages there are in going with a publisher. The doors need to open up a bit. If this isn’t enough, then it isn’t a sign that somebody is out to get them, it’s a sign that publishers simply aren’t providing authors with decent value anymore…”

    This is what publishing (agents, publishers, even some traditional authors) don’t get: The reading public is changing. They want to read their books now, not eighteen months from now when ABC Publisher decides to put it out there. It’s called time to market and no middle man. Yes! “We’re moving on.”

  • Dtrain

    Keep printing!! My bookshelves need to be filled and it isn’t very cool to have one kindle sitting on my built-in shelves.
    The one thing I think should be done is college books get converted to Kindle type formats. The expense of books you will never look at again in your life is obnoxious and the cost of school is high enough already.

  • Dave

    well, while moving the way of ereading and epublishing is the correct move from a sustainability standpoint. We should all keep in mind that there still should be written copies made, after all, there are a mumber of situations that could cause power to go out for an extremely long tme across the entire of society and there is much we wouldn’t want to have to relearn just because we couldn’t power up our ereaders.

  • Tony Carson

    Rick, there is another thing that will change this: all readers refusing to pay above the $9.99 mark set by Amazon. Publishers, like every other business, will continue to charge whatever they can get away with. If consumers draw the line, as Amazon has apparently tried to do, then the message to the publishers will be clear: no gouging.

  • Rich Weatherly

    Kindle will not destroy the publishing industry any more than Gutenburg printing presses did.
    Making books available within 30 seconds to 60 seconds only encourages purchases especially at rates 40-60% lower than conventional printing.

    I am more likely to ‘test read’ a new author in Kindle format than with a printed copy. Considering I can carry a sizable library in the palm of my hand with print quality comparable to high quality clay coat paper, why not?

    I still purchase printed books, especially if I want a favorite authors first addition. Kindle is to printing what HD Television is to Radio. If you haven’t already, check it out.

    Digital media lowers publishing costs for authors and the publishing company. The winners are consumers avid readers and publishers

  • epobirs

    The old publishing industry is destroying itself. The Kindle is merely laying the ground for what will be the new publishing industry. One that brings the creators in much closer contact with the consumers. Some niceties will be lost but the ability of writers to make a decent living is improving greatly. Infinite shelf space means your backlist never goes out of print. Massively lower costs mean lower prices and greater sales volume while authors enjoy a far better margin per item sold.

    For the authors and consumers, things are getting better. For the other roles in publishing, well, they need to adjust and find what value they can offer or find a new field of employment. Such is life.

  • I think the publishers need to find a mirror, have a long hard look and find out how thy are going to get out the knee deep pile of crap they are in.

  • There will always be a place for traditional paper books. But that doesn’t mean the publishing industry should sit on their laurels and complain. There is so much opportunity out there not least because those people who never used to read are now picking up eReaders and downloading books!

    What a great opportunity for authors and publishers alike!

  • Mark

    It’s up to the publishing industry to finally admit that books are basically just content delivery devices and therefore not really all that different from ereaders. If publishers would admit to selling content rather than books, this whole debate would disappear and people would be free to buy the delivery device of their choice each time they chose to purchase content. Instead, to may publishers are still hung up on being in the book business which leads to the boring and ultimately unproductive debate as to whether a printed book will survive. The market will dictate that as it does most similar matters

  • Peter Turner

    The Kindle isn’t killing publishing (which is morphing dramatically as we speak). What’s happening is that consumers are moving away from buying books and “content” from “traditional publishers” and their industry allies, physical booksellers, are buying online where the dynamics of shopping are fundamentally different. Here’s an excerpt from a recent “Publishers Weekly” report on impulse buying: “According to the “2010–2011 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review,” only 11% of book buyers who bought a book online said they did so as an impulse purchase, while 44% said the book they bought online was the one they intended to buy. The results were significantly different at physical bookstores, where the ability to browse through the shelves resulted in 26% of book buyers saying they bought a book on impulse, compared to 28% who bought the specific book they had intended to buy. Browsing also helped buyers choose a title, with 30% of shoppers at stores reporting that they bought a book that they had not planned on buying compared to only 17% of online shoppers.” Here’s the link.

    http://publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/47383-acting-on-impulse.html?fb_comment_id=fbc_10150193179784284_16618702_10150193636889284#f2db0129a4

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