Technology Review asked for my thoughts on Kindle. Here they are, slightly emended.
No one can doubt that digitization and the Internet together with various factors intrinsic to the publishing industry will radically transform the distribution of books: books can now be transmitted like e-mail directly from writer to reader eliminating nearly the entire traditional supply chain along with much of its cost and infrastructure. Publishers of the future will function much as agents do today, depending upon free lance editors and publicists, and serving their authors as business managers.
Research materials, technical data and the contents of dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, manuals, journals and so on, which are often obsolete upon publication need no longer be printed and bound but transmitted on demand to users screens either for a fee per use, by subscription, or free. This process is already far advanced.
But for books that embody the ancient and ongoing dialog that constitutes our civilization and without which we would not know who we are or where we came from or where we may be going, the format of printed and bound sheets is optimal and irreplaceable. I am not a Luddite. I have been responsible for major and disruptive innovations in our industry beginning with the introduction of trade paperbacks fifty years ago. My Readers Catalog in the mid eighties anticipated on line bookselling and I saw the revolutionary implications of digitization soon thereafter. But the market for hand held readers will, in my opinion, be marginal, serving mostly recreational readers and by no means all of them. The inference that because content can now be transmitted electronically books will necessarily be read on electronic screens overlooks such factors as cost,convenience, reliability and human nature as well as the peculiar nature of books. My philosophical friends used to say “for example is not a proof,” but the failure of such devices so far to find a compelling market may suggest more than that the market for them is still unripe because publishers have not released their full digital catalogs. Had the market for e-readers responded as the market for the iPod has, publishers, for all their notorious caution, would by now have responded accordingly.
In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver visits the airborne island of Laputa, inhabited by so called projectors – what we today would call inventors. The projectors were growing quantities of cucumbers on the plausible but incorrect assumption that because cucumbers absorb heat and energy from the sun they can replace traditional sources of heat and light: biofuels 300 years avant la lettre. Gulliver also wonders why Laputan coats fit so badly until he visits a tailor and finds himself being fitted by quadrant and compass.
The new kindle from Amazon, like its several failed predecessors are Laputan biofuel technology and tailoring. Take for example Kindle’s price of $400: the first book downloaded will cost the reader $410, assuming ten dollars per download. The first twenty books purchased will cost $30 each and the first forty, say a year’s supply, will cost $20 each, by which time the device will probably have failed, been lost, or replaced by a newer, perhaps cheaper model. But if the next version sells for about$160 the price of the new Sony model, amortization will remain an issue. Or consider function. The designers of handheld readers aim to approximate as nearly as possible the characteristics of a physical book -including I am told pages that actually feel like paper and in the case of the new Sony device a leather-like cover. But why bother when the physical book already embodies these characteristic to perfection?
The practical solution to the presentation of digital content is not a handheld reader posing as as a book but an actual library quality paperback that has been printed, bound and trimmed automatically, at low cost in a matter of minutes at point of delivery by a machine like an ATM designed for that purpose. In the interest of full disclosure and not as a solicitation, test versions of this machine sponsored by On Demand Books of which I am a founder, are currently making books in several locations in the US and abroad. A commercial version will be ready later this year.