Before anyone gets too excited about the DOJ antitrust suit against "agency-model" book publishers, it's important to reiterate the following important facts:
Who is on your side? We will assume, for the purposes of discussion, that you are, but I retain the right to be skeptical.
I'm trying not to have an emotional investment in this case (see opening list). Belle and I use a lot of Amazon services (did you know in Seattle you can buy your groceries from them? We do), but I'm fully aware that when it comes to both strong-arming suppliers and providing unfettered access to content (read: AmazonFail a few years back) they've got more issues than New Yorker archives. I'm just having a hard time, ultimately, seeing how the publisher's problems dealing with Amazon should be my problem (or any other customer's problem), or why they should be allowed to fix prices just because they feel threatened.
There has been a lot of good commentary written about this. Charlie Stross uses the suit as an opportunity to propose that DRM is dead, since it's the primary weapon that publishers have against Amazon. This is an interesting pitch, although I'm not sure it actually makes sense: Amazon has been selling other media, such as MP3s, unencumbered by DRM for some time and it doesn't seem to have done much for them either way. Moreover, I don't buy Kindle books because they're locked to the platform--I do it because the process is practically frictionless, as opposed to requiring a connection to a PC every time I want to buy a book. But then, I find Stross informative but not always particularly prescient, such as this disastrously wrong post from 2007 (shorter version: there will never be a cheap e-book reader. Five years later, you can get a Kindle for less than $80, and dropping).
As far as the antitrust case goes, the government's case seems pretty straightforward: yes, the publishers colluded to fix prices, using Apple as a middleman but also trading e-mails (with notes attached reminding each other to delete said e-mails at a future time) and having private meetings at fancy restaurants. From this we can conclude that these are people who have not watched either The Sopranos or any other mafia movie made in the last thirty years.
In fact, it's kind of amazing how much this case lets us learn about the book publishing industry--stuff that, frankly, seems entirely insane. This is an industry that, as Obsidian Wings notes:
Ignore the questions of price-fixing. Set aside the (debatable) arguments that publishers provide valuable editing and marketing services that full-time authors cannot handle for themselves. Forget about the fact that, under their preferred agency model, they are happy to sell you fewer books at a higher price, or that this all seems weirdly similar to the way the music industry campaigned for self-immolation post-Napster. Just look at that last item: this is a business model that pays retailers to destroy stock solely to keep distribution channels stuffed.
Even people in the publishing industry tend to agree that this is basically insane. Call me an anarchist, but you'll have to forgive me for being incredulous when they propose we let them do whatever they want to keep their institutions intact. Anti-trust? Yeah, that seems about right.
So the publishers are moving the e-book industry to the so-called agency model. I resent having to care about this, but since I own a Kindle and the new model will boost the price of digital "hardcovers" by at least a couple of bucks, I feel like I've been dragged into it.
The argument for agency pricing (in which the publishers, and not the retailers, set the prices for their books) primarily concerns preserving the premium for new releases. This premium, and not production costs, is why hardcovers are traditionally priced so much higher than paperbacks (they don't actually cost much more to produce). It's a kind of early adopter tax on avid readers, and the extra profits on bestselling hardbacks go to subsidize all the other books, most of which lose money. The irony is that under agency pricing, publishers are actually making less money in the short term, because they're not getting as much as they were when Amazon was selling titles at a loss.
Customers have been promised that this will all work out better for them in the end, because agency pricing also means that publishers can drop the price of older e-books, similar to the way paperbacks work, instead of keeping them all at a uniform $10. Amazon was also supposed to work this way, and I believe it sometimes did, but I'm not really sure when the change was supposed to happen, and often e-books didn't drop in price when the paperback version hit shelves. That said, I think a lot of people are distrustful that the older book discount is actually going to happen, and with good reason: publishers have historically looked at e-book markets as an opportunity to gouge readers, and it's not at all clear that they won't continue to do so.
Take, for example, Karin Lowachee's Warchild. I started looking at Lowachee's books after her newest, The Gaslight Dogs, got a favorable review on Tor.com last week. Warchild is the first of a three-part series, and was originally written in April of 2002, making it more than eight years old now. Hachette, the publisher, wants readers to pay $11--more than many "brand-new" e-books!--to download it. No doubt they considers this fair: Hachette offers Lowachee's books in a $22(!) mass market paperback format, making the e-book a 50% discount. From their perspective, maybe that seems like a good deal. But to the average reader, that's insane. There's no way I'm going to pay $11 for a pulp sci-fi book that's almost a decade old, any more than I'd pay more than $20 for it on cheap paper. Those are the kinds of prices that send me running to the used bookstore or the library--and then Hachette (and more importantly, Lowachee) gets nothing.
Which pains me, because I like giving money to authors. That's one of my favorite parts of the e-book market: I can give my money to authors without feeling guilty about destroying countless trees for books that I'll read once and never touch again. I buy a lot of books--many more, in fact, now that eco-guilt is out of the equation. And given time to adjust, as I've said, I don't see a real problem with paying a bit more for a just-published e-book. To give one example: although Ian Tregillis's Bitter Seeds will set me back $13, it sounds like a neat book and I don't want to wait for a paperback, so going over the $10 Amazon price point isn't the worst thing in the world. On the other hand, if it costs that much 8 years from now, I'll be considerably less sanguine about it.
I don't know that much about publishing models, so I'm not going to lecture about the costs of production and all that--I'm told those are minimal anyway--but nothing's going to kill consumer interest in e-books faster than a pricing scheme that regularly makes them more expensive than their paper equivalents. And if publishers wonder why people tend to eye them with distrust when they insist that they'll price older titles fairly, they should probably take another glance through their own back catalogs.
At some level this is a conversation about what kind of book market we want to have, and what it's possible to preserve. The existing publishing system is not at all set up for profitability. It leverages blockbuster titles to pay for the writing and editing of a diverse range of smaller, less popular books. I may find Dan Brown and JK Rowling personally repugnant, but their omnipresence makes possible the publication of obscure personal favorites like, say, Joseph Schloss's Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York.
Assume that we agree, as a society, that diversity of publication is a good thing. Does the agency model preserve it, or does it simply allow an inefficient system to perpetuate itself digitally? More to the point, does the move to cheaper digital pricing necessarily mean margins too thin for niche books to exist? Or is it possible for independent writers and publishers to leverage the new platform? Is the desired model that of the music industry, the movie studios, or something else entirely (Netflix and subscription services, maybe)?
I don't have pat answers for those questions, but I hope they figure it out soon. I'm getting exhausted by the rollercoaster up-and-down of the debate, and I can't be the only one. It'd be nice if they got this sorted out before they alienate the Americans who still read, but given the print industry's general track record, we probably shouldn't get our hopes up.
If the ongoing Amazon-Macmillan pricing struggle has achieved anything, it's making it very difficult for me to love the book industry right now. After all, in a fight between a retailer and a publisher, there's little evidence that either of these is actually good for readers--particularly readers of e-books. And as someone who lives in a tiny little apartment, I'd really like e-books to do well.
The quick summary, as best I can tell, is that Macmillan wants to move to something called the "agency" model, which will give it the ability to dictate retail pricing. Amazon would prefer to stay with the model it has now, where it buys books for a wholesale price and then decides for itself how much to actually charge for them. Consumers could be excused for a general feeling of "who cares?" except that Amazon decided to throw a fit during negotiations and delisted all Macmillan titles from its store. They remained "unavailable" for a week, even though Amazon had accepted the publisher's terms (or "capitulated" to the "monopoly" that Macmillan had on its own authors, as the site bizarrely put it) only a few days later.
Macmillan's argument, roughly, seems to be that it would like to have variable pricing on its catalog, with higher prices on new releases (akin to hardcover pricing) ranging up to $15 or so. The reasoning for this is largely to ensure profitability, since new releases currently subsidize the rest of the book catalog. They'd also, in theory, be offering older and backlist titles for much cheaper, possibly under paperback prices, which would be good for readers.
Amazon, on the other hand, swooped in early during the Kindle launch and loudly marketed bestsellers at the $10 price point, which probably had a lot to do with the device's success (it certainly helped me buy a couple of the things). They're obviously trying to set this as the price for digital text, and to a fair extent they've succeeded, which is welcome since e-books have historically been priced extremely poorly. The fact that the $10 tag helps Amazon maintain a firm grasp on the market has no doubt played a role in their decision.
In the meantime, a lot of authors have taken to their blogs to argue one way or the other (for every John Scalzi or Charlie Stross, there's also a CJ Cherryh or an Lynn Abbey who are skeptical of Macmillan's good will), or at least to ask for support from their readers. And I'm sympathetic to that, because I like authors and because they're no doubt financially-impacted by this action. Everyone else in this equation, on the other hand, is apparently working really hard to make themselves unlikeable. Obviously Amazon has acted poorly, adding yet another layer of failure to the now-towering failcake they've been baking for the past year or so. Meanwhile I'm trying to follow along with the publisher's side at Making Light and Tor.com, and it's not exactly easy to follow in either tone or content. Note: it's probably not helpful for the lay audience to deny that this is anything like the music industry while quoting approvingly from a comparison to the music industry elsewhere. I'd recommend starting starting with this comment, since it's the first one I saw that didn't make me want to tear my hair out. Chris Meadows also has a good, even-handed summary at Teleread.
Ultimately, I'm not completely averse to paying a little more for e-books if publishers need the money for a healthy ecosystem. I like books, and I want lots of authors to succeed in a diverse marketplace. What I fear, however, is that this marks a return to the publisher's neglect--or outright loathing--of the digital marketplace. Variable pricing would be be great if the publisher can be trusted to actually enforce it, but there's plenty of evidence that the prices never get adjusted, and then we're stuck paying $20 (or more!) for texts that can't be lent out to friends, copied, or annotated as easily as paper. That's the kind of pricing that'll send me, and a lot of other people, back to dead trees. And maybe that's what they want.
If you weren't going to get the first Kindle, you probably don't want the second version. The substantive criticisms--DRM, relatively slow screen refresh, skimpy non-ebook featureset--still remain. And of course, the very silly complaints of many tech bloggers, like adding a touch interface or color screen, have been completely ignored. This is an upgrade, not a completely new device. Do I recommend it to newcomers? Absolutely. Do you need it if you own the first one? Not necessarily.
Amazon has answered some of the criticisms of Kindle 1.0. The buttons are harder to press accidentally, the selection roller is gone, and it's a lot thinner. Basically, where the design of the original was meant to evoke a book, with angles for the "spine" and a planed right side that mimicked the fall of pages, the new device drops this pretense in favor of more artificial lines. Mostly this is for the better. I think the fuss over the original buttons was way overblown personally, and I sometimes miss their huge surface area, which made it easy to hold the Kindle in a variety of positions and still turn pages. But on the other hand, it's a lot lighter now, so the temptation to prop it up or lean it against something is less urgent.
The screen is noticeably faster, and it selectively updates whenever possible, so the fullscreen "flash" is minimized when not actually reading books. That said, it's still e-ink: slow, but very gentle on the eyes. I stare at a computer screen all day, and it's so relaxing to be able to read my e-books on the Kindle screen at the end of the day instead of on another LCD.
In getting rid of the roller wheel and "sparklevision" indicator on the right side, Amazon's had the chance to rethink the interface a bit. The Kindle 2 uses a joystick to move a cursor around the screen instead, and so it provides two more axes that can be used for control. For example, on the home screen, you can move up and down and select books as usual. Pressing left, however, will prompt to delete the selected book, and pressing right will open a navigation menu. Both actions used to take many more clicks, and a lot more time--they've added power without really increasing complexity, which is a good thing. Amazon also moved the wireless switch to software, which is a very good thing once you get used to it--the device prompts you to activate wireless when required, instead of just spitting back an error because the physical switch wasn't enabled. All in all, it's smoother.
They've said that the battery life is better, and I think that's definitely true. It's certainly much improved when it comes to going online--with the old Kindle, I tried not to turn wireless on without a charger handy, because the strain of the cell modem could wipe out a pretty good chunk of the power gauge. The Kindle 2 lasts longer with the wireless off, and it charges via USB, so that's one fewer power adapter I have to carry. Unfortunately, if the battery on a Kindle 1 starts to act up, you can replace it. The new one is built-in, a trend I don't particularly care for. I would have sacrificed a few millimeters for a user-accessible battery.
Since I wrote a review of the first Kindle, the supply situation has also changed. Nowadays, I can get a pretty good selection of what I want to read in digital form. I still buy a fair number of physical books, but fewer than I used to, and I'm arguably reading a lot more. Of course, you don't need the new hardware to benefit from that infrastructure, but it's good to keep in mind if you're thinking about joining up. Arguably, it's more important than any physical aspect of the product.
Here's the thing: like I said a while back, Amazon's big coup with Kindle isn't really about the reader, although that helps, and it's not really about the cost, for all the fuss that's made about it. It's the ease of the whole experience that makes it something special. A Kindle basically gives you a bookstore, a library, and a newstand wherever you go, in a package that fits in most bags or briefcases. If that idea doesn't make you salivate, then it's probably not for you. As a voracious reader, apartment-dweller, and traveler, I think it's a phenomenal device. The new Kindle only makes that better, and I don't regret buying it at all. But if you've got the original and you're happy with it, I wouldn't really say it's a required upgrade.
In conclusion, because I can't resist a cheap laugh, here's the Kindle 2's evil robot voice synthesizer reading from "A Briefer History of Time"--the only book where it will ever sound natural, I'm afraid.
After today's press conference launching the Kindle 2, Amazon must be feeling pretty good. The new hardware looks solid: better screen response, improved casing, and slightly longer battery life. Overall, not a leap above the first revision, but a solid step forward. As someone who spends a lot of time with the Kindle, and liked the original version, it was enough to get me to pre-order--which'll make Belle happy, since she'll get the old one.
But while it's always nice to get better hardware, and while I remain a huge fan of what Amazon's done, I do still have a few software nitpicks, and I haven't seen any sign that they're going to be corrected yet. These changes should really be made on both new and old devices, just as Amazon managed to upgrade the firmware of my original Kindle today for its multi-reader sync functionality (note that there's no word on whether first-gen Kindles will get software-based features like creepy robot text-to-speech, either).
Here's the problem: say you finish a book sample, and at the end of it you click the link reading "Buy this book." The Kindle takes care of purchasing and downloading the full version. But it doesn't get rid of the sample, and it doesn't set your progress to the same place in the new file. So now you have to manually delete the sample, and then re-locate your place in the book to continue reading. This is not an ideal workflow. The Kindle should either replace the sample with the download, preserving your location, or it should copy over the bookmark and delete the sample from the library.
But while they store everything, they don't provide any facility to prune that collection. There are books I've bought that I know I'll never read again--either because they weren't great, they were time-constrained, or because they were, in fact, so terrible that I never even want to think about them again. I can't remove these books from my library. I can't even hide them from the device. It's not that it's hard to navigate the library--far from it, the keyboard makes it a snap. But to my fevered imagination, it should be snappier.
John Siracusa has written an interesting "history of the e-book" from the publisher's point of view at Ars this week. Siracusa worked for Peanut Press, one of the earliest digital book vendors--I remember them from when I was using a Palm IIIxe to read on long car trips in college. The article sags around the middle, where (as the site's resident Mac greybeard) he complains incredulously about Apple's failure to enter the market in any organized way. One wonders why he'd want them in the market in the first place, given the proclivity toward censorship that they've already shown in their app store, but I guess for some people the dream dies hard.
Still, toward the end, Siracusa discusses his own conversion to e-books on a Palm device, and it rings familiar to me:
At a certain point, I realized I'd read my last five or six books on this thing. Without noticing, I'd gone off paper books entirely. Only then did I take the time to examine what had happened. Why was reading off of this tiny PDA not just tolerable, but (apparently) satisfying enough to keep me from returning to paper books?Having now owned the Kindle for just over a year now, and having read e-books for many years, Siracusa's comments on convenience have the most resonance for me. That's why I like the format, and if it takes off, that's why I expect it to happen.
Here's what I came up with. First, I was more likely to have my Palm with me than a book. When I had an opportunity to read during the day, my Palm was there, and a paper book, had I been in the middle of one, would not have been. (Incidentally, this also lead to a vast expansion of the definition of "an opportunity to read.") Second, I could read in the dark next to my sleeping wife without disturbing her with bright lights and page-turning noises. (The tan-on-black reader color theme was affectionally known as "wife mode" at Peanut Press.) Third, I was loathe to give up the ability to tap any word I didn't understand and get its dictionary definition.
The great advantage of reading on a PDA, back when I owned one, was that it was always there. It eliminates downtime, and turns it into just another chance to get some reading done. Belle makes fun of me, because I carry gadgetry with me everywhere to deal with boredom, but there's something to be said for literature as an interstitial activity.
What Amazon did right with the Kindle was that they built on that on-demand aspect of the e-book. Sure, the hardware itself is larger, but people have bags and briefcases for a reason. More importantly, that Whispernet connection means that I can not only continue reading anywhere, I can start reading anywhere I want. Someone can mention a book to me, I can say "yeah, that sounds interesting," and in a couple of minutes (assuming it's on the service, for which the odds are not too bad) I can be reading it. There's no physical trip involved at all, and that's a vastly superior experience.
See, I like computers, and I like hardware that interoperates with them. I'm a fan of phones that can connect to my Outlook address book, and I like being able to browse the filesystem of my devices. But when it comes down to it, if I have to return to home base to load up a new set of books, I might as well just be reading on a laptop screen. And when I'm traveling, if I have to unpack the laptop to buy new reading material, I'm not going to bother--it's easier to go over and buy a magazine. More than anything else, it's the convenience that sets e-books apart from their physical counterparts. The Kindle gets that right: despite all its other flaws, it is focused on being a very, very convenient device. And for that I love it.
File under "seemed like a good idea at the time": Amazon's Digital Text Platform is a disaster.
In theory, it's great: give anyone the ability to self-publish through Amazon's Kindle Store. It democratizes publishing. It makes more content available on Kindle, and boosts Amazon's numbers for available titles. And it offers a new revenue stream for writers, which I can see as a good thing.
But in practice, it means that any quality controls have been removed--and you don't realize how valuable the QA functions of editors and publishing houses really are until you get rid of them. I am glad that Paul and Bobbie Abell can write about Our Trip to Israel and distribute it to their friends. Likewise, perhaps USWEBGURU really does know How to Make Money on the Internet (in addition to their numerous publications as USHEALTHEXPERT and USDIETEXPERT). And maybe there really is a market for erotic short fiction written by women with terrible lingerie headshots, I don't know. But I didn't want to know, either.
We already have a place where anyone can publish their work online, including in a Kindle-ready .mobi format. It's called the Internet. And I celebrate its openness, I really do. But when I hit the Kindle Store to check for new publications, I don't really want to have to skip past pages of self-published short fiction of unknown quality in order to find something that (at some point) has crossed an editor's desk.
Frankly, even on the web, we rely on editors. How did you find this page? You probably got referred here at some point by another blog whose judgement you trust (and which now you are doubting), or you know me personally. But you had a way of evaluating this content.
Amazon isn't helping matters by dumping tons of public-domain titles into the Kindle store every day with a "new" publication date, using incredibly tasteless public domain images as the "covers" for these titles. Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that I can buy Balzac with better formatting than the Project Gutenberg version for only $1. But it's not a new title, and I shouldn't have to see it when sorting by publication date.
At some point, I'm guessing when Amazon has sufficient title coverage that they're not insecure about it, the Digital Text Platform fluff will be cordoned off. You could do it now--just add an option to filter out any books that don't have a printed version, and that would solve the problem for me. And these problems don't cripple the store now. It's still useful. But it makes browsing for books less enjoyable than it should be. What Amazon attempted to do--opening up the book market to the masses--was a respectable goal. It just hasn't turned out to be a practical one for readers.
The problem with me reviewing the Kindle is that I'm the central section of the target audience's venn diagram. I love ebooks, I read constantly, and I've got the disposable income to spring for a $400 device in the hopes that it will, eventually, prove economical. What I'm trying to say is: look, I really dig the thing, but that doesn't mean it's made for you. That said, I think the Gamers With Jobs review is excellent, and basically spot-on.
Jeff Bezos says he wants it to disappear while you're reading, and for the most part it works as advertised. After half an hour, you get the timing of the page turn down so that it blanks the screen while your eyes are traveling back up to the top of the page, and you stop noticing the delay. The reading quality of the display is otherwise very, very good, which you'd expect from e-ink. The "Whispernet" (which I guess sounds better than saying "Sprint cell phone modem," perhaps because most people hate cell phone companies) is also fast and effective, but it does take a big chunk out of the batteries, particularly when first activated. I leave it off probably 99% of the time.
A lot of reviews have been critical of the Kindle for the placement of the page-turning buttons. I think they're overreacting. The main time when I see them hit accidentally is when I hand the device to someone else--they're not expecting the borders to be sensitive. But when I pick it up myself, there are plenty of places to grab it, especially since I lock the buttons (by hitting the ALT and Text Size keys on opposite ends of the keyboard) before I put it down. When holding it, the buttons are actually placed logically: your left hand rests with the thumb able to reach the next page easily, and the previous page with a little bit of a stretch. You can also just hold it with the left hand, and use the right hand for additional support and page turns. Part of the confusion may come from people who expect to be able to read one-handed all the time, which you can do easily left-handed but not so easily with the right. But at the same time, most people do not read books with just one hand--they use two, one to prop it open and one to read pages. The Kindle just mimics this.
As far as the industrial design goes, it does look better in person than it does in a picture. It's still not going to win any design awards, but it is surprisingly thin and light. It's solidly-built and passes the "creak test," so it doesn't look as expensive as it maybe should, but it doesn't feel cheap either. Its case is also better than you'd expect--there's a little tab that slots into a corresponding slot on the Kindle's battery cover and keeps it from sliding out. The LCD roller is a very clever solution to the refresh rate problem, and once you point it out to people they seem to get the hang of it immediately. Some people have claimed that it needs a touch screen. These people are wrong.
I've finished five downloaded books on the Kindle so far, and the experience of buying them and reading them has been smooth. Because the wireless can be hard on the battery, I don't find myself browsing Amazon from the Kindle much, but if I want something directly it's easy to just type it in with the keyboard and grab it. That's assuming that they've got it, of course--the selection is not quite as comprehensive as I'd like it to be yet. Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series, for example, is exactly the kind of disposable pulp that I'd like to read on Kindle, but the second book (and only the second book) is missing, so I'd have to go buy the paper version before I can continue reading them. All of Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books are available, but I still can't buy any Iain Banks. On the other hand, they've got a good choice of Murakami titles. Best-sellers and new books are well-represented, but older titles are less reliable--I went looking for M.T. Anderson's Feed based on a recommendation from a while back, and it's not up yet. And the periodical selection seems weak to me, particularly in magazines: no New Yorker or Harpers?
That's not to say that I can't find stuff to read. I've been using the free samples as a shopping list--if I see something on Amazon and it's available on Kindle, I click the "send sample" button, and it gets downloaded the next time I turn the wireless on. I probably sent 15 titles the other night, just browsing through the virtual stacks. And while I hope it gets more coverage, I'm not unhappy with the selection--even just buying off the bestsellers and the new hardbacks, there's lots of good stuff there and the price discount isn't anything to scoff at.
People tend to forget that real-world selection is nothing special either. The other day I went out to buy a book as a birthday present for one of Belle's friends. We called a couple of stores to see who had it in stock, and then when I got there, they didn't actually have it, so I got to trundle over to another branch and wait in line to buy it. This is not, by the way, an isolated incident: I'm always looking for stuff in the chain bookstores, and have to go to several before I find it, or I resort to Amazon and have to wait a week. I bought the same book that night as a download, and I had it in two minutes. The Kindle's a fine way to read, but for all its flaws I think it's also a better way to buy books in the first place.
So the long and the short of it is that the Kindle is, for me, a success. I think it's better than most reviewers have treated it (the Ars review, for example, is overly harsh). That said, it's basically a $400 wireless bookstore. If you don't see yourself going to the bookstore very often, or if you've got close proximity to a used bookstore, or if you're irrationally attached to the idea of paper, that's a lot of money to spend. I personally love the experience of the Kindle (or more accurately, the lack thereof), and I love the fact that I'm not buying more physical books that I'll read once and then have to find space to store (or haul down to Manassas to sell).
More details in a while, but so far I'm pretty happy with it.