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Posted by on Mar 22, 2009 in At TMV | 3 comments

Printed Books on the Road to Obsolescence

A rave from Jacob Weisberg:

Like the early PCs, the Kindle 2 is a primitive tool. Like the Rocket e-book of 1999 (524 titles available!), it will surely draw chuckles a decade hence for its black-and-white display, its lack of built-in lighting, and the robotic intonation of the text-to-voice feature. But however the technology and marketplace evolve, Jeff Bezos has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution. The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence…

The Kindle is not better than a printed book in all situations. You wouldn’t want to read an art book, or a picture book to your children on one, or take one into the tub (please). But for the past few weeks, I’ve done most of my recreational reading on the Kindle—David Grann’s adventure yarn The Lost City of Z, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, Slate, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times—and can honestly say I prefer it to inked paper. It provides a fundamentally better experience—and will surely produce a radically better one with coming iterations.

Kevin Drum chimes in with 2 things he’s realized about the Kindle. One of them — he now buys books one at a time. The other is that he likes the gray-on-gray e-ink. That’s something Steven Berlin Johnson says he doesn’t like in his list of early reactions to his new Kindle. He notes there’s an iPhone app, it’s wonderful for no-hands reading (while eating, for example) and there are no page numbers, just location numbers. He wonders how to cite a passage from an e-book:

…but I think it begs a larger, and more interesting question about standardizing page references in all e-books — including Google Books for instance. (I’m going to write a longer piece on this…)

Fred Wilson was an early detractor who has seen the light:

Reading is addcitive on a Kindle. If authors and their publishers see that and make buying a book an impulse purchase (like a ringtone or a game on a mobile phone) they will see way more purchasing activity, more reading, and more addicted readers.

Andrew Sullivan points to Tyler Cowen highlighting an article by Jakob Nielsen on another way the Kindle could foster more purchasing activity:

Letting customers read a book’s initial pages for free is a great Kindle innovation and makes good use of the digital medium’s ability to dissolve the print requirement to bundle chapters. (Thus, this is a better-than-reality feature.) The innovation will no doubt sell more books — particularly for fiction, where people will want to see what happens next once they’re gripped by a story. In fact, for mystery novels, Amazon could probably give away the first 90% for free and charge the entire fee just for the last chapter.

I haven’t seen one yet but the killer app for me will be  hyperlinked text.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • I love your blog a lot, keep posts like this one coming, you totally rock, I am impressed!

  • archangel

    since Bezos, the head of Amazon, pays less than 15% on kindle to the publisher, who then turns around and gives less than 5% of that 15% to the author, very few book author will be able to make a living if this replaces all else. Even if the author got the entire 15%, still cant make a living; the volume, unless you’re stephen king or danielle steele wont be high enough. Likely have a lot of fiction top guys and lots of politicos who make non-fiction bestseller lists on the kindle, and a few stragglers, but the trade of writing wont find a living on kindle, adding that Bezos also wants to be the proprietary publisher of everything for kindle… cant take it elsewhere, you have to have his hardware only. No crossplatform to Sony, for instance.

    Writers will still write. But, as you see for most blogs, it will likely be for very little income they can rely on, or for free, or privately, or not at all. Also, just to note, for those who do research everyday, black beauty ink on light cream paper is the easiest on the eyes. Grey is a disaster for long hours of focus, as is the light from the screen. I have a kindle, and find myself turning to books, even though I’ve bought maybe ten books that have been ‘kindle-ized’ …. if you’re in a serious project and want to be able to easily go back or forward pages at a time, a book is far easier. But then, I write extensively in my books, and ear-mark, and need to get back to the reference quickly. Kindle seems made for reading entertainment best.

    But I see a lot of people are excited about the $300+ kindle. Believe me so is Jeff Bezos. He needs the money to fund his many many lawsuits, currently all the states are looking hard at taxing anything coming from Bezos at full freight. NY just did, less than a year ago. Bezos sued NYstate and just recently lost big time. Anything sold at Amazon that is shipped to New York State, pays full freight in taxes by buyer, collected and kept track of and banked by seller, then turned over to Uncle Sugar at the State capitol in NY. Period. The volume of sales from amazon into each state is huge. That’s why the legislators are licking their chops.

    If more states pile on (what do you think the possibility of that is right now? High? Low?) then, not only Bezos but all his millions of small affiliates (those are mom and pop or mom only/ pop only operations) throughout the US will soon have to be collecting taxes and reporting to various state governments for anything they ship to any state including their own state. That will put them all in serious legal jeopardy with the tax man if they dont, and will because of costs, put most of them except for the biggest ones that tend to be associated with a sdiscount store of some kind, out of business. No question. The balance of tiny side business in the economy will be gone with the wind.

    Bezos is currently being sued by Disney on patent issues re the kindle. That takes a lot of money too. There will be more law suits against Bezos and more lawsuits that Bezos brings/ and as my late friend and fellow author said, So it goes.


  • jaden

    It is hard to think of the traditional book facing obsolescence. For a long time now I’ve used many technologies that COMPLEMENT my reading of printed works but in the end, nothing really beats curling up with the crisp leaves of paper. This, I believe, will be the niche that saves the printed book from ever becoming completely obsolete.

    I haven’t used the kindle, but I’ve used an old sony e-reader from time to time. It has it’s place when I want to travel, but that’s it. I read books in my email every day from, but I’d never use that anywhere but work. I’ve listened to perhaps a hundred audiobooks over the years, mostly from, but again, only when I’m driving somewhere.

    In the end though, when I’m sitting at home and find myself with a few spare moments to read, I will grab for the printed book each and every time. So, while the printed book will of course continue to lose market share to these ever encompassing technologies, I hold out hope that it will always have a place out there (it certainly will have a place by my bedside).

    *Archangel: Wow, I can not believe the author makes such a small cut from the Kindle. That really is amazing, though I’m sure that will change over time as the electronic works continue to gain market share.

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