Something that most early adopters of the Kindle were eager to see was the impressive price drops that eBooks promised to bring. Compared to the expense of creating, transporting, and retailing a paper book, how could the eBook not make large libraries an inexpensive pursuit? To a certain extent, of course, we did see this for a while. Even now, during the reign of the Agency Model of eBook pricing, there are still impressive discounts to be found. That’s not even taking into consideration the impressive selection of indie authors who have sprung up thanks to the Kindle Store. Something I think many people miss when talking about this topic is that the price rebound, even if it does involve artificial inflation from the “Big 6″, could not succeed without consumer cooperation.
The easy comparison when talking about eBooks is the print book. It’s almost too obvious to be worth stating. Something that people often forget when making that comparison, however, is that comparing and equating are two different things. A Kindle is not meant to be a cheap substitute for print. It provides benefits beyond any potential savings that have a chance to provide value equal to the paper copies for many people. When you buy from the Kindle Store you get instant access to a selection greater than any single physical bookstore could offer in person, faster delivery than any online retailer of paper copies could hope to achieve, portability between all of your Kindle-equipped devices, and a number of other benefits. The question tends to become what you value in your purchase.
For some people, it makes sense to shop for the lowest price available. If the eBook is cheaper, as most people expect it to be, then there is little problem. When the paperback is actually cheaper than the eBook, however, we see problems. It is certainly true that the paper book provides certain benefits that the eBook doesn’t. We’ve all been over them before. It also has any number of shortcomings of its own. I, personally, would rather have an eBook because my mass market paperbacks keep wearing out on me. So far, nothing I’ve bought on the Kindle Store has fallen apart.
I am not trying to make the point that eBook prices are right where they should be. I think everybody is still trying to figure out where things are going to settle with regard to that. The fact is, though, that the eBook as a format brings more to the table than price drops. If there weren’t people who would rather have their collections of bestsellers on a Kindle instead of a bookshelf, sales would drop off on those books to the point where even the most stubborn publishers would have to consider changing things around. Perhaps, rather than talking solely about the sacrifices that are necessary when choosing an eBook over a paper book, it would be more useful to think about what it is that brings you to the eBook as a choice in the first place. There is obviously something the average Kindle Store customer values beyond the savings.
The Amazon Kindle is great and all, but for many lovers of the printed word there is something still lacking. The History. We can download the newest books to our Kindles and forget about them. We can collect and delete and have no real need to take them seriously because they have no substance anyway. They’re just data. Real paper books on the other hand have survived for centuries. You can pick up a paper book from a hundred years ago and still turn the pages and read the words that somebody enjoyed long before you were born. Can you say the same about Kindle eBooks? The problem with this argument is, of course, that it is thoroughly ridiculous.
The virtue of an old book, to your average reader, is not necessarily its age. The value is the information it contains. You don’t just grab a 200 year old manuscript off the shelves for some pleasure reading. I’m not going to say that there is nothing to be gained from a direct study of old physical texts, because there is, but for you and me it is probably more useful to pick up a brand new copy of the Commedia or Beowulf. If we are to stipulate that the value of the book is in the information it contains, which I think is fair, then the eBook on the most basic level is just a distillation of the book concept. This on its own does not mean that the format has any particular value in the long term, though.
I think that at the core of this argument is the question of what one believes that the future will bring. Whether or not we have faith in the potential for progress. It is true that the paper book requires no batteries, wires, accounts, or anything else. It can also degrade to the point of uselessness or easily be destroyed. The Kindle requires many or all of these things, but a Kindle eBook exists independently of the physical device you hold in your hand. It is not only here, or even on the server, but also on thousands of computers all over the world. Even if 90% of the existing copies are destroyed, it is the work of minutes or hours to replace them should the demand grow enough. So long as the ability to read eBook files remains, and that seems to not be going away, these books are safe and the best loved will always be around. Unless you somehow believe that computers and the internet are a temporary thing, it just makes sense.
Now, I don’t blame people for their skepticism on this. On a personal level it can seem a little bit off. A Kindle book is certainly more easily forgotten or lost than a paper book. In both cases, though, we’re talking about a single instance of the “book” as a collection of information. Which is going to persist: a file that can be copied and replaced on demand, or a printing with a set number of units? If we’re really talking about the long term benefits of books, then this matters more than most things in my opinion.
I acknowledge that this is a narrow kind of argument that fails to take into account the benefits of having multiple formats and a wide network of distribution, but I’ve heard enough talk about how long books have survived over the years as a way of pointing out the newness and untried nature of the Kindle that it seemed worth pointing out. Take what you will from it, but try to keep in mind that just as what is new isn’t always good it also isn’t always bad either.
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.
Long before we had the Kindle to play with, Amazon was still making a big impression in book sales. They got started over 15 years ago now and in that time managed to become the number one destination for anybody wanting to pick up reading material. This in itself is an amazing achievement for any company. Then, 4 years back, they introduced the Kindle. A good situation got better. In these four years, Amazon has brought the eBook from a fad to a point where sales of electronic texts exceed those of print books in their entirety.
That’s right, it finally happened. Since April 1st, Amazon’s Kindle Store has sold 105 Kindle eBooks for every 100 print books they have sold in any format. We knew it was going to happen eventually, of course. First they outsold hardcovers last July, then paperbacks six months later, and now this. The speed of the progression is as impressive as the accomplishment itself.
To put this in the proper perspective, a couple things need to be kept in mind. For one, all of these milestones I mention were factoring in only paid sales. The free editions that tend to be the first selection of the new Kindle owner were left out for obvious reasons or else this probably would have happened a while back. Really, how many people make their way through all their free downloads though?
Also, given the timing, this clearly came prior to and had nothing to do with the introduction of the discounted, ad-supported Kindle w/ Special Offers. This means that you can’t consider this more widely appealing Kindle offering to be part of the trend when Amazon lets us know that their 2011 Kindle Edition sales to date have been more than three times those of 2010. When you consider than in about a month the Kindle w/ Special Offers has become the best selling member of the Kindle family by far, the trend seems poised to continue.
The Kindle Store is now home to over 950,000 titles, including 109 of 111 current NYT Best Sellers. The vast majority of these titles are priced under $9.99, including the aforementioned Best Sellers. Again, these numbers don’t even try to factor in the millions of titles that are available for free due to expired copyrights or the many books available through other sources that can be used on the Kindle. On top of this, new titles are being added all the time including many from Amazon’s successful self-publishing platform. Over 175,000 books have been added to the store in 2011 alone.
We’ve known for a long time that the eBook was on the rise. It was only a matter of time before it became the dominant format. While this is only citing the success of one retailer, Amazon is leading the way. They have localized stores in multiple countries, are steadily expanding, and continue to distribute the most popular eReader on the market in spite of steadily increasing competition from tablets and competing eReaders. Even without the upcoming Kindle Tablets, the Kindle is demonstrating an ability to keep up the momentum.