The Kindle is a watershed event in electronic publishing. It is not the first ebook device, and it may not ultimately be the one that will prevail (it could of course be one of several). But its appearance marks the point where ebooks move from theory to actuality. Whether the leading device is the Kindle, the Sony electronic book, a cell phone platform, or some variant on an iPod, ebooks are here to stay. In discussing the Kindle, then, I am thinking about ebooks in general.
Not a few people have been waiting for “the ebook moment” for years. The arguments in favor of ebooks are many and include: efficiency in the supply chain (because there are no atoms to move around); the ability to store multiple titles on one device (a boon to travelers); and the added value of links, bookmarks, and adjustable text size. We should add to this a very important aspect of ebooks: the coolness factor. I read a post recently by a woman who extolled the virtues of the Kindle, which she took to bed with her. She could have taken a print book to bed, of course–she could have dragged into bed the entire Oxford English Dictionary (think of all the dirty words!)–but that would not have been as cool. We love some gadgets precisely because they are gadgets.
One of the unintended consequences of the Kindle and its brethren (desirable for readers, more woe for publishers) is that it will reduce the number of books that are actually sold. This will happen not because of piracy (with the proprietary Kindle, piracy may be a small problem, though ebooks built with open standards may pose larger problems for publishers), but because the architecture and business model for the Kindle support a “buy only when you need it” frame of mind, aka “just in time” inventory management. In the hardcopy world, where many books (no one knows how many) are bought “just in case,” the number of books purchased exceeds the number of books read. The Kindle will remove the excess, adding to the legions of misfortunes of publishers and authors.
Let’s back up to the bricks-and-mortar world to see why this will be so. When John Doe steps into a bookstore, he browses a bit. He may buy a specific title that brought him to the store in the first place, but he also may buy something that happened to grab his attention. He buys that second book with the intention of reading it after book #1 is completed or perhaps for some future time–that upcoming vacation in Aruba–where, blessed with time, he will immerse himself in a book. Book #1 is just in time, #2 is just in case.
Prior to departing on that trip, however, something may have come up. A friend recommended another book (worse: a friend wrote a book, signaling a requirement to read it), or something broke in the news that demanded attention in the form of a book, or Doe’s mood has changed, or any of dozens of other reasons. The result: Doe now has in his hands book #3. This is also just-in-case. If Doe is compulsive, the number of just-in-case books grows and grows; if Doe’s house is like mine, the number of not-yet-read books greatly exceeds one’s life expectancy.
With ebooks you don’t purchase a title to have it waiting for you when you get time to read it. You purchase at the very moment you are going to read it. There is no reason to purchase it sooner, because it is always available: there, in the Cloud, living 24/7 on Amazon’s servers. What the Kindle does is introduce digital accountability to book publishing and purchasing. It saves consumers money, but it does so at the expense of publishers, whose income statements for decades have been propped up with the sale of things that ultimately do not get used.
Digital accountability has already reached into many corners of the publishing industry; in this respect, the nefarious implications (from a publisher’s point of view) of ebooks are nothing new. Retailers have computerized inventory systems that, when they are working well and are properly managed, help to cull slow-selling stock. Librarians review Web statistics for online journals, canceling those that are not used. And publishers have always reviewed their own sales records in order to help determine what new properties to invest in. What’s different about the digital accountability brought about by ebooks is that it does not simply result in one title being chosen over another; it results in the wholesale reduction of the total number of books sold. It is an industry-killer–or, if that language overstates the case, an industry-diminisher.
What’s at issue here is that publishers who look to ebooks for grand sales opportunities are in fact taking steps that reduce the overall market. There are exceptions to this, however. College textbooks will likely sell more copies in electronic form, since many students currently fail to purchase expensive hardcopies at all. And in the developing world, it is possible that digital texts may find markets that print never could (assuming the digital infrastructure can be put in place). But for consumer books in the developed world, ebooks shrink the market.
Not that publishers have any choice. If consumers want their books in digital form, a publisher would be foolish not to satisfy the demand. After all, if HarperCollins decided to be print-only, it would lose sales to Simon & Schuster, if S&S decided to be both print and digital. This is a fight for market share, however, not a strategy for growth. Publishers who have hoped that ebooks could be a vehicle for growth will have to look elsewhere.