I always try to mix it up here on Litkicks, and I wrote about digital reading just yesterday. But this is an eventful week, so here’s a quick wrap of some big new developments.
1. Amazon has announced the new Kindle, and I think it’s finally a winner. I called the Kindle a “loser, loser, loser” the day it hit the streets, and I have explained my complaints with the device a few times since then. I saw three problems:
- At $400, it was way too expensive.
- It was too big to fit in a pocket.
- The Kindle format was proprietary.
Why do I call the new Kindle a winner? Because Amazon listened to me. They solved all three problems:
- It now costs $139.
- It now fits in a pocket.
- Kindle software now runs on PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, Androids and more.
I’m proud of Amazon. They’re a smart company and they’ve made the right decisions (though I wish they hadn’t taken so long in coming around). Now, the truth is that I still don’t own a Kindle, and I’m still not even sure I want to own a dedicated book reader device at all. But it’s pretty clear now that the Kindle would be the device I’d buy if I did want one. Well done, Bezos.
2. Marion Maneker has written a good article about newspaper business models for the Big Money, with a self-explanatory title: The Case Against The Case Against Paywalls. I remain skeptical about newspaper paywalls, and I continue to believe that the New York Times would be making a big mistake by sealing its content off behind a subscription system. However, Marion Maneker has made the best positive case in support of a New York Times paywall. He argues that, despite popular misconceptions, the New York Times is a niche publication with a relatively small, dedicated and financially secure core readership. Unlike other publications that truly aim at casual mass market audiences, the Times has the characteristics that will allow it to survive and thrive on a smaller base of paid subscribers. Maneker backs this up with some numbers, and challenges opponents of the paywall proposition to do the same.
I like it that Maneker avoids high pitched emotional appeals in this argument, and I like it that he focuses specifically on the New York Times, sidestepping the usual pointless generalizations about the value of journalism and notions of entitlement on the Internet. I agree with Maneker that there are some types of online publications that can succeed behind paywalls (the Wall Street Journal is the classic example). The question, then, is whether or not the New York Times fits this profile.
Maneker may be right about the nature of the Times readership, but I think there’s one gigantic problem with his argument. If the New York Times were to orient itself towards a smaller paying audience, its best writers would go elsewhere. The Times is currently able to gather some of the very best editorial voices in the world, and I cannot envision why these writers would be willing to continue contributing to the Times when other publications offer them wider reach. It’s the nature of journalism and editorial writing to seek exposure. Like hungry plants reaching for sunlight, writers will invariably go where the readers are. If the New York Times shuts itself off behind a paywall, it will have a much harder time bringing in the best journalistic talent, and this will irreparably harm the nature and the reputation of the publication.
I believe this is a fatal problem with Marion Menaker’s otherwise well-reasoned argument. If anybody disagrees with me, I’d love to know why.
3. The news of the new Kindle will probably make everybody forget about Andrew Wylie for a few weeks, and I probably have to retract my statement yesterday that Wylie has become the human face of the e-book revolution. With the $139 pocket-sized Kindle, Bezos just took the face back.
But I do want to comment on the American Booksellers Association’s late-arriving statement that Andrew Wylie’s deal with Amazon “is bad for the book industry and bad for consumers”. They say:
Books — in whatever format — are crucibles of ideas and unique expression, and we should be doing all that we can to expand, not constrict, readers’ access to them.
I say this would have a lot more credibility if major publishing firms didn’t cling to the unpopular tradition of publishing new books only in expensive hardcover formats, making readers wait a full year for the reasonably-priced paperbacks they’ve wanted all along. I find it hard to believe that they suddenly care about restricting access to books when they’ve been gouging loyal readers at hardcover prices for decades.
If that’s not restricting access — $30 for the new Franzen, or wait a year for the paperback? — I don’t know what is.