The New Kindle: Winner, Winner, Winner?

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.

11 Responses

  1. Another person already kindly
    Another person already kindly pointed that out to me, Tobias — thanks!

  2. Rather than pay full price
    Rather than pay full price (or a discounted price) for the hardback, or wait for the paperback, I often buy used hardbacks.

  3. There is still this big
    There is still this big restriction in format of digital books you can read on Kindle. I undesrtand their interest to keep you tied to Amazon but still it is not complete winner. I agree it is a big step but only because the race is hotting up and others are coming with good devices and prices are going down.

    I like your point about publishers and hardbacks.

  4. One thing about the argument
    One thing about the argument about making things available: There is more content available now in more forms than ever before. More people have a voice than ever before. The Wylie thing might seem constricting, but compared to how little access readers had to material, and how little access writers had to readers, in the days before ebooks, it’s really probably not going to make a difference. The question now is with all the material that’s out there, and all the channels there are for helping that material to meet it’s reader, how on earth is a writer going to attain Stephen King status? That’s a much more interesting thing to ponder.

    About paywalls: I wonder if some day it’s going to be a prestige thing to have a subscription (i.e. access to ) to licensed content. Things that are free will be available to everybody, so who cares about that snooze news? If you really want to get ahead, outshine, out compete, be in the know, etc. you’ll pay for your information. Just wondering, not predicting.

  5. “I say this would have a lot
    “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”

    Or in that they don’t have a sterling record in helping to cultivate and produce new and talented writers. It’s just te same old same old with the publishing giants. Whose gonna shake it all up?

  6. Listen, Levi, I expect you to
    Listen, Levi, I expect you to march on over to your computer and buy yourself a Kindle. It’s time. Enough beating about the bush. Just do it. I insist. You’ll like the thing. Trust me. Go for it. You can thank me later.

  7. Sue, you’re more optimistic
    Sue, you’re more optimistic about the publishing industry than I am, at least in so far as access to potential readers is concerned. From my experience, without a publisher with good contacts to respected, wide distribution and review network, most information about books, whether ebooks or real copies, gets dumped into a stream of information overload, where it becomes difficult to distinguish spam from quality.

  8. I also appreciated the
    I also appreciated the level-headed, clinical tone of Menaker’s piece — and I certainly don’t have any competing information or stats with which to argue with him on that level. I agree with your criticism about its effect on writers however, and would add that it would also seem to be a case of the NYT voluntarily writing themselves out of the online discourse, and ignores the ways that communication has permanently changed.

    It’s strange to remember that in the past, after reading a piece in the paper, the only debate that would follow would be among friends who read the same piece at a party that night, or via a couple carefully-selected letters to the editor the next week. These days, after reading a provocative or interesting article, I just naturally expect I’ll be able to find several pieces critiquing it (some thoughtfully, some savagely), others defending or elaborating upon it, and then perhaps even a defense of the critics. And it’s no longer the obvious dynamic of “newspapers report, bloggers respond”; quite a few papers seem happy to allow their colleagues at other dailies, or bloggers, to initiate the conversation. That’s just the way information is spread and opinions are aired these days — any information that can’t be linked to is of inherently lesser value than that which can — and a paywall can only hinder the NYT’s place as leaders of the national discourse.

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