Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The reading business, not just the book business

In "Freed from the Page, but a Book Nonetheless" in Sunday's online New York Times, San Jose State business professor Randall Stross reviews Amazon's new Kindle e-book reader. It's really less of a review than a look at where the publishing business is, and what Kindle may mean for readers and authors alike.

I'm not terribly excited about the Kindle, which is expensive at $399, and seems like a very clunky design and clumsy interface despite its use of the cool new E ink technology. But Stross makes three really interesting points:

What makes Kindle so appealing is the ability to download books and other digital content wirelessly from anywhere Sprint's EVDO network reaches. The point of that techno-jargon is this: Kindle makes obtaining a new book incredibly convenient. If you've got your Kindle in hand and you're within reach of Sprint's wireless network (which would be in any major urban area), you just search on Amazon for the book you want, and in minutes, you can start reading. You don't have to go to the library, the bookstore or even sit at your computer. Kindle thus becomes a bookstore itself, at your fingertips, as it were. That makes downloading books as simple as downloading songs, and if you've followed the revolution in the music industry, you know what that's done to sales of CDs (they're dwindling fast).

Does this mean the long-forecast beginning of the end of the actual book? Not necessarily: there's the cost, and the clunky factor. Still, as Stross notes, Amazon sold out of the devices soon after they were introduced and they're having a hard time keeping them in stock. (But we don't know how big the initial manufacturing run was or how many have sold since.) The Kindle IS the first e-book reader to actually sell well. That's interesting in itself.

The second thing Stross said that interested me is his response to Apple CEO Steve Jobs' comment about the book industry at the recent MacWorld. When asked about the Kindle, Jobs, in one of his more arrogant and less-visionary moments, said in part: "the fact is that people don't read anymore." Not true, says Stross, citing a Book Industry Study Group report that 408 million books were sold last year, bringing in $15 billion in revenue, not a bad chunk of change. Stross also cites a survey for the AP that found that 27 percent of respondents hadn't read a book the previous year, while the same percentage had read more than 15 - and eight percent had read more than 51 books the previous year. (You go!) Yes, concludes Stross, some people don't read - but some read a lot. (And we authors love you who do.)

The end of Stross' review is really intriguing. The book world, he says, has always had "an invisible asset": the passionate attachment that its authors, editors and most frequent customers have to books themselves. Indeed, in this respect, he continues, avid book readers resemble avid Mac users.

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell. Kindle’s long-term success is still unknown, but Amazon should be credited with imaginatively redefining its original product line, replacing the book business with the reading business.

Replacing the book business with the reading business: What does the reading business look like? And what will that mean for authors, publishers and readers? That's something worth thinking about.

By the by, here's an indication of the changes to come: in "New Literary Program to Make its Home Online," in today's NY Times, Motoko Rich reports that Daniel Menaker, most recently executive editor-in-chief of Random House has signed on as host of "Titlepage," an online book show, beginning March 3. Described as "passionate conversations about books" Titlepage will feature Menaker and several authors in roundtable discussion and will "air" on titlepage.tv, a new internet television channel.

What do you think the reading business will be? And how can authors help shape it? Let me know.

1 comment:

marion said...

Hello Susan,
Just want to tell you I have a Kindle...and I love it. But use it most when I am stravel...so I don't have to carry a book bag. (But I do anyway ;)
A Kindle just doesn't "feel" like a Real Book.....it is very light weight and easy to read. No for everyone. But I like it.