Jeff Bezos,Amazons boss,pays attention to symbolism. He named his e-commerce company after the worlds largest river to suggest a flood of books and other products. He named Amazons e-book reader,launched in 2007,the Kindle to suggest that it would spark a fire (and not of the book-burning sort). This week he unveiled the Kindle 2,an improved version for the same $359,against the backdrop of a library that was once the private collection of John Pierpont Morgan. Assisting him was Stephen King,a popular author who has written a novella that will be available only on the device. The Kindle 2,Mr Bezos means to say,is about preserving a great traditionbook readingand improving it,not about replacing it.
In many ways,this is true. The Kindle is an unusual gadget in that it does not obviously target young people,or early-adopting technophiles. Instead it appeals to passionate readers,who want no fiddling with cables (the Kindle works without a computer) or complicated pricing plans (Kindle users pay to buy books and other content,but do not have to pay wireless-subscription fees). It is,in short,perfect for older people. The Kindle is a surprisingly conservative device,says John Makinson,the boss of Penguin Group,a large book publisher,so it is an additional distribution channel and thus good for us. (Penguin is an arm of Pearson,which partly owns The Economist.)
Steve Kessel,a member of Amazons Kindle team,says that Kindle owners seem to read more. Its the conveniencethey think of a book and can be reading it within 60 seconds, he says,thanks to the instant wireless downloads,and theyre now carrying all their books around with them all the time. The Kindle 2 can hold about 1,500 books,and one battery charge allows two weeks reading. And since the screen is not backlit but imitates real ink and paper,Kindle owners can read for hours without straining their eyes.
So far,says Mr Kessel,this does not seem to spell the end of paper books,since Kindle users buy just as many bound books as before,so that their total consumption of books goes up by 2.6 times. That may change as more titles become available. More importantly,the Kindle and similar devices made by Sony and others represent only one side of the evolving e-reader market. They are for aficionados,since paying $359 for a device makes sense only if you read quite a lot of books,newspapers or magazines on it.
For everybody else,such as infrequent readers and the young and cash-strapped,the mobile phone may become the preferred e-reader. A popular software application on Apples iPhone,called Stanza,already turns that device into a book reader,with one-handed page turning that is ideal for public transport. A backpacker who consults his Rough Guide for snippets of up-to-date information in a dark tent is unlikely to tote along a Kindle and a lamp,or a paper book,if he can get the e-book on his backlit phone.
It is now only a matter of time until absolutely all books become available,and properly formatted,for mobile phones. Google,an internet giant that has been scanning and digitising books for inclusion in its search engine,now offers thousands of books that are in the public domain free on mobile phones. It seems likely that,eventually,only books that have value as souvenirs,gifts or artefacts will remain bound in paper.
Newspapers and magazines are on the same trajectory. Their paper editions are in decline in most of the developed world,as readers opt for the web versions on their computers and laptops,or on smart-phones such as the iPhone. The Kindle could accelerate that shift since it also lets users subscribe to news publications,which are automatically delivered.
All this has led to a new phrase in the book and newspaper industries: Is this the iPod moment? It is a layered and loaded analogy. On the one hand the iPod,Apples now legendary music-player,and its associated iTunes store opened up a new market for legal digital-music downloads. On the other hand,the iPod accelerated the decline in CD sales and shifted power from record labels to Apple. Will the Kindle similarly put Amazon in a dominant position,while weakening publishers?
This is unlikely. Books,says Penguins Mr Makinson,are different from music. Sales of CDs were harmed because iPod users could unbundle the albums that record labels had forced on them,and download only the songs they wanted. By contrast,there is no obvious reason to unbundle narrative books into individual chapters or paragraphs. A book sold via a Kindle thus has no marginal cost,but adds revenues. Another difference is that music was being widely pirated before Apple made legal downloading attractive. There is no such crisis in the book business.
Nor is Amazon likely to achieve anything near Apples power over the music industry. True,when a newspaper or magazine reader drops his paper for a Kindle subscription,he enters a billing relationship with Amazon rather than the publisher. (Neither Amazon nor its partners will reveal how the revenue is split.) But for record labels,Apple was the only viable and legal route. For the news industry,says Craig McKinnis at USA Today,a large American daily,the Kindle is just one of the splinters among many new distribution channels,from the web to mobile-phone applications to e-readers. What happened in music I cannot imagine taking place in news,he says.
Indeed,the Kindle and other e-readers could be a boon to newspapers. With rare exceptions,newspapers have accustomed their readers to expect digital editions to be free. As circulation revenue has declined,this made them dependent on advertising,just as the recession hit. On the Kindle,by contrast,the news has no ads. Instead,readers seem happy to pay for itjust as they pay for services in any other industry that offers something worthwhile.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009