Quentin Hardy, 02.08.09, 03:00 PM EST
Could Amazon’s device help save an industry?
On Monday Amazon is expected to announce the second version of the Kindle, its powerful electronic book. Most gadget freaks expect some significant improvements, including a better keyboard layout and less intrusive navigation controls. The most interesting question about the device almost certainly will not get answered, however. That is: Can the Kindle save the publishing business?
The blogs already say the new Kindle will still be an oyster white, with an easy-on-the-eye gray screen slightly smaller than a mass-market paperback. The blog Boy Genius Report last week had purported pictures of the new device. Unlike the first Kindle, the supposed new model has rounded corners and a unified keyboard, instead of the slashed edge and broken layout of the first model. The screen still has no backlighting. The “Previous Page” and “Next Page” buttons are smaller and less intrusive, to prevent accidents. A couple of other buttons and the headphone jack have been moved around, and commands that used to be inside the software, like connection to the menu, appear to have buttons on the machine.
The big question is whether Amazon will also offer a Kindle-like store for Apple‘s (nasdaq: AAPL – news – people ) iPhone and other mobile devices. It would be a smart move–why not be on every possible outlet?–and necessary. There are already readers for smart phones that access books in the public domain. Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ) has said it will offer the 1.5 million library volumes it has scanned in a mobile formas suitable for both the iPhone and its own open-source Android operating system.
Still, Amazon wants to sell hardware, as does Sony (nyse: SNE – news – people ), which offers its own electronic reader. Amazon fans may be disappointed that there is not more seemingly new to the new reader. I like the Kindle, however, and do not think the company needs to change too much in the core experience.
I own about 2,500 old-style books, and my wife works in the restoration of antique volumes, so I was prepared to hate electronic reading. The Kindle offers a way to download and carry a lot of books (Amazon claims 200, with an expansion card in the current model that allows for more) with next to no weight. More important, reading on the Kindle is very pleasurable. Choosing one’s own print size and losing the paper shuffling for a low-intrusion click, time’s passage more easily gives way to a good book than it does with the pulp-paper form.
The shopping convenience offered by the Kindle is fun and addictive. The device wirelessly connects to the Amazon store at no charge to the customer. After the initial authentication, ordering and downloading a volume into the Kindle takes about a minute. Amazon claims it has over 230,000 titles available. I am suspicious: On my more obscure searches, about 10% of the volumes listed for sale were not actually available. While fans of State Building and International Intervention in Bosnia are admittedly few, if you say you have it, you should have it.
Kindle books are cheaper, too. The current Kindle does carry a too-high $359 price tag–the new one may be a little cheaper–but that should be weighed against a lower price for content. Current books like Richard Price’s Lush Life run about $9.99, vs. the conventional book’s $26 at full retail or $17.50 plus shipping from Amazon. Older titles, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, are $7.96. The real savings are the classics. For $4.99 per author, you can get the complete works of Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, William Shakespeare and many others. Navigating through all of those titles isn’t easy but these are still early days, and it is an impressive value.
That kind of value, and the free books from Google, may hurt book publishers’ bottom lines if they catch on. So-called older “backlist” titles, along with books in the public domain without copyright, like that student copy of Hamlet, are good earners for many publishers. There is not a lot of money in any one volume, but they add up well.
Similarly, if Kindle really does eliminate the business of packaging in paper, a lot of the value in being a book publisher goes away. Writers and editors could regroup in other forms, and Amazon could be a publisher itself. (People are already selling self-published, .pdf copies of works on Amazon.)
As much as this takes away from book publishing, it could be a boon to journalism and publishers of newspapers, magazines and even blogs.
Besides books, the Kindle wirelessly updates 31 newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, 21 magazines (yes, Forbes, too) and over 1,000 blogs. And while most of these publications are free on the Web, scratching out a living on advertising alone, the Kindle versions have subscription prices ranging from $6 to $15 a month for the newspapers and $1.25 to $3.50 a month for the magazines. Even popular blogs like Boing Boing run $2 a month.
Reading the papers on the Kindle is slower than it should be, with lots left to do on design and layout. So far the publishers seem to be moving Web copy directly to the Kindle rather than designing content for this as a unique device. I tried to go to The New York Times’ op-ed page, and after an initial blank screen received a full-screen picture of David Brooks. Eeek. Satirical blog The Onion jumps straight into stories, with no organization.
On a per-reader revenue basis, though, the charges are almost certainly more than anybody makes off an ad-supported Web site. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller recently published a thoughtful take on how unworkable the current economics have become. His solutions included micropayments, not-for-profit publishing and devices like Kindle.
For anyone who loves journalism, here’s hoping.