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The mighty Economist has produced an editorial forecasting the death of the book following Amazon’s launch of its ebook reader, labelled Kindle.

It seems that Kindle Fever is in full swing, yet the mass consumer adoption of ebook readers seems thoroughly unfeasible in the short term, and I’m not convinced it is a likely scenario in the long term either.

The so-called 'first-mover advantage' is a bit of a myth when it comes to technology - unless consumer habits have achieved some kind of critical mass, then being early to market is only likely to hurt you.

Amazon is a kind of second mover, but the market seems woefully underdeveloped.

That said, a brand like Amazon - with a visionary like Jeff Bezos at the helm and a sound financial position - might be able to pull off the tricky manoeuvre of Encouraging People To Change Their Behaviour.

It’s a big ask. The aim appears to be ‘to do an iTunes for books’, with Amazon viewing the Kindle as “less device than service”, but who pays $399 to access a service? That money buys you a Kindle, not a bunch of ebooks. They’ll be made available as separate, paid-for downloads.

The nearest comparison seems to be mobile. I wonder if Amazon will change its pricing strategy, borrowing from the subscription model adopted by the mobile operators. They ‘give away’ the handsets for free and then theoretically make money on subscriptions.

Bundles are big in the world of mobile, with many packages now featuring a range of mobile services – voice, text, MMS, internet access and so on. Perhaps the Amazon model for Kindle will evolve in a similar way? You pay little or nothing for the ‘device’ but subscribe to the service, which provides you with access to a bunch of books and related ‘services’.

The Economist suggests that the mainstream publishing industry is an innovation-dodger, and it isn’t too far wide of the mark. But, citing the 6-12 months required to transform a manuscript into a book, it says:

“If Mr Bezos (or anyone else) can figure out how to introduce internet time into this part of the publishing industry, the traditional world of books really will be dead.”

Yes, but only if everybody buys ebook readers, otherwise it won’t make any difference.

Is this really an either/or proposition? I don’t think so. Has iTunes and online piracy killed CD sales? The record execs will tell you that yes, they are in decline. Maybe so, but there are other reasons to factor in. Personally speaking, I’ve bought more CDs in the four years since I bought my first iPod (partly because I don’t use the P2P sites, partly because sites like Last.fm have helped me discover new artists, and partly because the iTunes proposition sucks). It doesn't necessarily follow that ebooks will kill off printed books.

The other thing with books, and this is one of the key barriers to any subscription proposition, is that you can only read so many books per month.

With the Kindle priced at $399 in the US, a subscription model would need to charge consumers $40 a month just to cover handset costs, and to bundle in some ‘free’ books. It would work like DVD rental services, where you can choose from a range of pricing models to access 3, 6 or 12 DVDs per month, as required.

Or Amazon could launch it as an unlimited service, given that most folks can’t read more than a handful of books in a month, though you can't imagine that the publishers will go for that kind of deal.

So now we’re paying $40 a month to read books electronically. That sort of money might buy you two or three printed books on average, or four books if you download them from Amazon (books for Kindle are largely priced at $10 a piece, give or take a dollar). But these are busy times and if I read three books in a month I’ve done well. If three books is my particular saturation point then where is the value with Kindle? What’s the advantage to using it, for someone like me?

Well, I guess after year one, when I’ve come to the end of my subscription period, things might make a bit more sense. Then I’d be simply downloading books from Amazon via Kindle as and when needed, probably on a pay-per-download basis rather than a (presumably reduced) subscription.

But at about $10 per book, I don’t think I’m going to save much money, so we can factor out cost savings, and while I like the immediate access provided by the service I also love browsing around in bookshops, when I typically buy a few books in one go. It’s the same with buying music – I love my iPod and use iTunes when necessary, but I still spend hours browsing around in a record store. Changing people's behaviour is tough, especially when there are no obvious incentives on offer.

Bezos himself describes his ebook project as an ‘infatuation’ (see also his space travel plans), which might explain why the project has come to fruition. I’m sure Amazon will sell a few, and then maybe a bunch more, but I’ll be amazed if it kills off the traditional book industry, as suggested by The Economist, or if ebook readers achieve more than 5% market penetration in the next decade.

The Kindle has already generated 321 ‘customer’ reviews on Amazon, though at the time of writing it has a distinctly average 2.5 stars, partly because ‘no-one has been able to use it yet’. Ah, so these reviewers aren’t in fact customers... yet.

At any rate, the produce looks sexy and it will be interesting to watch the development of this nascent market in the years to come. The Economist isn’t normally too far wide of the mark, so perhaps it will be proved right.

But the death of the printed book industry? That sounds like a bunch of pulp fiction to me.

Chris Lake

Published 21 November, 2007 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (1)

Mike Weston

Mike Weston, Managing Director at Profusion

Anyone heard of Mobipocket - www.mobipocket.com... or for that matter eReader? Both excellent examples of ebooks software that work really well on phones and PDA's.

I've been reading ebooks for many years, since I got my first colour screen Palm. Mobipocket is now a decent reader, simple, works on most modern smartphones etc and has a pretty good range of fiction and non-fiction titles to chose from. At an average of around $10 per title, this is a reasonable cost - and you can do pretty well via a US retailer of ebook titles called Fictionwise. I'd say I read between 1/3 and 1/4 of my books that way these days.

Why do I do this? To reduce the weight of the things I have to lug around (laptop, MP3, email-capable phone...). The latest hardback from Steven Pinker is a bridge too far, but if it fits on one of the devices I'm already carrying...

Amazon are SO barking up the wrong tree with this - as are Sony. there is absolutely no value in a stand-alone device for ebooks. What we need are better screens on the devices that we have, less backlight intensive etc. This is how the mobile industry is going (seen the latest Samsung devices anyone?)

Oh - and don't even get me started on the DRM debate on this one....

almost 9 years ago

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