Welcome to the Kindleverse

by Lara Amber

I’ve never been an early adopter of technology. I, like most people, come in at wave two or three, but well before grandmas finally get that machine everyone else had for a decade. So ordering a Kindle 2 the day it was announced by Bezo goes against the grain. I’ve had it for a day, and let me tell you it’s going to change the world.

I’m not talking about the sleek design, the high price tag, or the status symbol of carting around the next hot gadget. This, as has been said before, is the iPod of the book world, and its effect will be just as profound.

E-ink is a new technology that is best described, for non-tech-heads, as the digital etch-a-sketch. It’s opaque, works in shades of gray, and only uses power when it changes the image on the screen. The level of contrast and lack of any backlighting allows people to read in bright sunlight to shadow with no adjust of anything like a computer monitors contrast settings. Today I read my K2 in both the bright sun of noon and walking across a parking lot after dark with only the lot lights to illuminate the page. This is the technology that will make reading on a screen enjoyable without the petty problems of eye strain, power consumption, or lugging around a device either too large or too small for comfort. E Ink CEO Russ Wilcox was recently quoting as saying that if The New York Times (available for subscription on the Kindle) bought each of its subscribers a Kindle and signed them up for digital delivery, it would save the newspaper giant $300 million a year. The potential savings could save $80 billion a year if all newspapers, magazines, and other print media switched to digital delivery.

The second technology is the Amazon store. Yep we all know and love Amazon, order a book, video game, or even breakfast cereal without leaving your house and in five to seven days it shows up free of charge. Well with the Kindle storefront, a person can download a sample chapter using the Sprint 3G network, give it a whirl, and purchase and download the full book. All without finding a WiFi hotspot, plugging into a computer, or even finding your credit card. Each Kindle is assigned to an Amazon account where either gift card balances or credit card numbers are on file. What grandma couldn’t love the low tech aspect of getting the latest mystery novel without actually needing to own a computer? The number of titles available for download keeps growing, and any book available on Amazon not yet in Kindle format has a dandy “request a kindle version” button to let the publisher know you want it.

So what does this mean to the world?

The first answer is environmental. If the New York Times suddenly did start shipping out Kindles the demand for paper, oil, and water would drastically drop. No more creating huge rolls of paper, shipping them around the world to be print, cut, and bound. No more additional fuel costs to deliver them to newsstands and homes scattered across the United States. A tremendous amount of waste is generated creating magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and other short life media.

Second, the world job market would shift again. Why go to Barnes & Noble when the digital download will always be pristine and Kindles on the same account can read the same book at the same time? Households of multiple Harry Potter fans, sorry, those are still not available in digital format. There would be less mail through our postal service, fewer delivery drivers of many flavors, the people who run the giant printing presses and sawmills will find themselves out of jobs. The demands for water, wood pulp, and oil would drop and a great deal of our quasi-recyclable trash would disappear. An argument for smaller home footprints could even be made, for as the iPod decimated the need for a home CD collection, the home library would also disappear.

Third, the people who’ve lost reading just gained something back. Some of the most devoted Kindle fans have problems with the standard book. The elderly and vision challenged who have problems getting large print editions can just simply adjust the font. The small light form is great for those who have problems holding a book steady or turning pages. The wireless digital downloads are wonderful for the housebound. One Kindle fan I met online loves his Kindle – before it came along his MS made it impossible to read. Another Kindle fan’s 99 year-old aunt can’t imagine life without it.

Fourth, the world just got a little flatter and the publishing giants are quaking in their boots. RIAA lawyers, you have some new fearful clients. The old days of publishing involved finishing a manuscript, shopping an agent, who then shopped one’s book. Then if one was lucky enough to have an agent with actual connections, an offer might be made for a small sum of money. A pathetic advance check would arrive and it would be split with the agent. The terms of the contract were poor for all but the name brand authors. The author had to go to the publishers; they had the presses, the publicists, and the access to the public via television appearances, contacts with wholesalers, etc. The new digital stores, a relatively unknown author can get his/her work before the audience quickly. They can self-publish on a Web site or contract directly with a store and be instantly available to e-readers around the world. Now the publishing houses own some very expensive scrap metal and logos.

The Authors Guild and publishing houses are quaking in their boots right now, not because author’s rights are being threatened, but because their existence as the membrane between authors and the public is being threatened. The author is suddenly meeting with the public in a way that hasn’t existed since Charles Dickens was publishing his novels in serial format. The day of the one-man printing press and the self-promoted author is back. The author, like the musician, is figuring out that the leeches getting fat on his/her back can be removed. If publishing houses want to keep their jobs, the pot is going to get a lot sweeter. They are also discovering the public is very aware of the cost savings of e-books over the traditional model and won’t stand for inflated costs and minuscule author percentages.

The Kindle is here to stay. I’ve only had mine one day, and already I’ve had multiple people planning to purchase their own after a simple demonstration. The Kindle community has its own online book groups, sharing of tips (where to get the best covers, new free downloads, and which authors are finally making the plunge), and connecting with authors and works in a way that is just staggering. People who have converted have reported dramatic increases in the amount they read and in the breadth of subject matter. Kindles are soon purchased for spouses and children. Parents are clamoring for textbooks to make the switch, tired of paying huge semester bills and seeing their public school age children complain of back problems, and with the new 16 shades of gray, we are closer than ever.

We once wondered if the book was going to die out, forever replaced by television and the internet. The Kindle, just brought it back to life.


Lara Amber received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Colorado.  Her interests are in the sociological impact of technological innovation, environmental change and economic behavior of developed and developing countries.

30 replies »

  1. This is the most comprehensive article I’ve read on the Kindle and its impact on society. In particular, I wasn’t aware of how it might affect the publishing industry.

    Years ago, I bought an early e-reader. It was so complicated and had so many format-compatability issues that I never succeeded in loading even one book. Threw it out. They’ve sure come a long way in seven or eight years.

    Personally, I have some reservations about the Kindle. Foremost among them is that it’s all about purchasing books. I can’t afford to buy books, except used in the $1 to $5 range. Until we can download books from public libraries — my main source of reading material outside the Web — Kindles will not be relevant to me or the working-class reader.

    But I imagine the day will soon come when library books will be available on the Kindle.

  2. Russ,

    Many books are available for free download and can be sent to the Kindle, mainly classic works. They can also be purchased from the Kindle store for $0.99 to $1.50.

    Lara Amber

  3. Russ,

    To add to what Laura said, my understanding is that you can download books from the Project Gutenberg, as well.

    But the thing IS expensive. No question.

  4. Guess I’ll have to take a look at it–you’ll bring it to the next game, right?– but I’ll say up front that I’ve never been much for reading off of any screen; I much prefer holding the pages in my hand. You do make it sound very interesting, though.

  5. Can you really access Wikipedia anywhere with it?

    And I’ll second Terry, please bring with next Saturday; I’d love to play with it. The $360 price tag would probably keep it out of my reach otherwise.

  6. The co-founder of Amazon was on “The Daily Show” the other day, said something about book downloads being $9.99? .. and it sounds like there’s a lot of “free” content, too..

    Does it have a USB port on it, for downloading stuff from your computer? That would make getting books easier and cheaper, too.. I imagine you have to pay air time on that 3G card? or are connections for downloads free..?

    I have lots of questions, but none all that serious. I won’t be getting one of those any time soon, mostly because I think the tech is still pretty young. We have color LCD panels that are “paper thin”, and I’m guessing those will be running on the kindle in the next 2 or 3 years (and I’m not upgrading that quick!)..

    I really like the text book idea, though. That would be excellent for kids.. But I have to imagine you get a lot of teachers not sure what their students are reading during class. Probably not a big deal in college, but in high school it could be a major concern.

  7. Don’t bet on it, Savantster – the E-Ink technology consumes a lot less power than LCD screens given the fundamentally different technologies.

    On the other hand, you can get LCDs to do color and you can’t get E-ink to do the same, so far as I know.

  8. You make interesting points, especially for textbooks!

    It just might take a shift in the earth’s poles to get me to read off a screen though. Reading an old fashioned book is such a sensual pleasure. The feel of the paper, the smell of the ink, the weight of the book – it all contributes to the pleasure of reading. I love buying second hand books – the fact someone else held it and read these pages before me adds to the experience. I love to find a clever margin note or maybe a doodle on the page. The thrill of finding a first edition is hard to beat.

    For me books make a home – they tell our children that stories are valuable enough to keep. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying folks with high-tech readers don’t value stories. Just look at the difference between your music collection all hidden away inside an IPod and a library with shelves of books accessible to anyone that walks into the space. One is very private and one public.

    The Kindle is a different experience – I hope it brings an equal measure of joy to its adopters.

  9. There is a USB cable, which is used for downloads and to recharge the battery (adapter on end to plug into wall socket).

    Not only can you access wikipedia, but one of the features Amazon isn’t talking about is the built in free mobile web. I can go to any website, just like on a cellphone, though it will be the mobile version and black & white. The monthly cost? Nada. Amazon picks up the tab. I just pulled up S&R on my Kindle 2.

    Many books are less then 9.99, the 9.99 titles are usually the bestsellers that are still in hardback in the store. I got plenty of books for $5-6, the same price as their mass market paperback. Occasionally they offer books for free, to introduce a new author or series. I just got the Cook’s Illustrated How To Cook Library for free.

    Lara Amber

  10. Djerrid: LOL
    Lara: So *does* it come with a large button saying “Don’t Panic” on the cover? 😉

  11. It looks like really interesting technology with a bright (and non-backl lit) future. As i understand it though, the publishing industry is not terribly worried about it (printers might be another matter), but rather excited as it removes a fair portion of their costs. You can’t share your purchased books with others, right? (unless you let them borrow your kindle) And unlike with music, no one is going to unbundle the contents of a book. That is, in music one of the big “problems” is that consumers can just take the one song they like without having to buy the whole album.

    I do love that it will allow people who’ve had to give up reading (like my grandfather) because of print size issues, etc to return to the written word.

  12. Here’s the other thing – drop a book in the bathtub, probably retrievable. Drop a Kindle – yikes.

  13. One of my guys at work just got one and it lloks really interesting. Especially for travel. We are heading to Afghanistan in a few weeks and this is a way to carry a lot of books in a little space. Just not sure of the durability. I’d hate to spend all that money and then brake it one month into the deployment.

    I’m 50-50 about getting one.

  14. Ann,

    Durability has been brought up. Many people take their Kindles to the beach & desert or use them in the kitchen to read recipes, or even take them in the tub. The trick is to seal them inside a ziploc bag or one of those dry-bags people use to keep documents safe when rafting/boating. The screen can still be read and buttons pushed while protecting it from sand,water, and spaghetti sauce.

    There is a concern for other damage. A kindle boards user reported last week that he barely missed being involved in an accident where one car t-boned another in an intersection. He was on his bike also crossing the intersection. His bike went down and smash went his Kindle. Though it should be noted the only thing lost would be the Kindle, not the books. Amazon keeps track of all the books you bought from them on their servers for free re-download. Books from other sources would hopefully also be copied on the home computer.

    Lara Amber

  15. Lex, just about anything “digital” can be hacked. You can “loan” books to a friend, so people will justify hacking any protections there might be on the Kindle for the same reason, to “loan” a book to a friend. Obviously, you can’t use the concept fully since 99% of the people out there won’t also be deleting their copy while their friend reads it, but they will still hold to the idea that not everyone that is reading a book has bought that book (libraries comes to mind).

    We’re in a tricky age where the cost and action of duplication is virtually nothing, so people stopping and thinking about what it is they actually have is happening less and less. After all, an instant “copy” of a book at the push of a button, how could that be “stealing”, right? What we’re seeing, I think, is the general premise of trying to get people to “do the right thing” and pay for things they want, even when they don’t technically “have to”. One way to look at it would be to tell the business and intellectual property owners “but, you wanted a free market with no laws, right?”.

    Though, I think that’s where the “free chapter” comes from. You get a taste so you don’t feel like you need to buy something you haven’t had a chance to look over. I think a good thing to do would be to let people share that chapter from their kindle to another.. so people don’t have to log on to the web to get one, but I don’t know that it physically matters, but more it’s a psychological thing to “get it from a friend” instead of some “machine on the internet”.

    If they _really_ want to help only have “purchased copies” out there, they will devise a way to let you transfer a book to a friend in a way that _does_ remove it from your kindle/list and puts it on theirs. You basically loan your “license” to them for that book, since that’s what their server is really tracking anyway. If that was a free service, you’d have lots of people loaning books and very little reason to “steal a digital copy”. But, then, I think you’d have the book people mad that their sales numbers are down and want to know why it’s so easy for people to swap books.. especially when I can swap a book instantly with a friend 1/2 way around the world.. you’ll end up with virtual book clubs where lots and lots of swapping goes on.. facebook, myspace, twitter, etc etc.. lots of places people could meet, virtual libraries, etc etc etc. A good idea for consumers, bad for businesses..

    But isn’t that always the case?

  16. My wife has a Kindle version 1 and loves it.

    The only problems are that it freezes (becomes non-operable) occasionally and she has once accidentally reset it and had to download all the books she bought again. The freezing problem has only happened 4 times in several months, but I imagine the Kindle 2 is a bit better. The reset happened because of the frozen screen. You can reset the Kindle to get the screen back, but you have to avoid resetting it all the way back to its original settings (then you lose your library).

    I like the screen, but I’m holding out for the textbook sized Kindle. I want an 8×10 screen so I can use slightly bigger fonts (and can read textbooks).

    It won’t end the printed book, but may end the printed Pulp book. The paper books will be the ones you want to physically keep, but I can imagine most books existing only in Kindle form within 10 years. We still go to Borders and Barnes & Noble because we like hanging out there. My wife even occasionally buys books there “just for fun”. So Kindle won’t totally kill paper books, but should increase the number of small and individually published books.

    Thanks Lara for your comments. I agree with all of them.

    By the way, the bathtub thing… It’s been done, and it survived a very brief dip in our tub. Just turn it off and wait until it dries out before using again. Note: Not recommended as your results may vary.

    Or take Lara’s advice and put it in a plastic bag. It shouldn’t overheat as it doesn’t use much power.

    Hope this helps everyone.

  17. What about books with things like glossaries, appendices, etc. such as Lord of The Rings, or what I’m currently reading, Anathem? Part of the joy of reading these books is being able to flip to the back, check on things, adding to the depth of the reading experience. Then there’s, say, biographies hat have photos, art/photography books, cook books, etc. that are image dependent…I’m not dissing Kindle, but it certainly does have limitations.

  18. The footnotes symbol becomes a clickable link in the book. That takes care of footnotes, etc. Many images still look damn good in 16 shade black & white. Of course, this is no way to view art.

    Lara Amber

  19. So… full-color Kindle, we await thy coming! In the meantime, I still want one like yours, especially now that I know the plastic bag trick.

  20. I’ve been thinking about the text book angle and school usage. If they made a specific model for schools they could incorporate controls that allow a teacher to monitor & limit what the students in his class are accessing. At the end of the class a log could be generated on his master unit for tracking purposes and in home room every morning a log of what its been used for since the last log was generated could be made. They could also either eliminate the net access, severely limit it, or make the default off unless a teacher authorizes it with a master unit for a specific length of time.

    This would greatly reduce costs for schools, increase accountability of students/teachers, and reduce the massive amount of weight a child caries on his back every evening as he lugs his school work home.

  21. I do design and layout for the educational publishing market. Trends in student literacy are on a downward spiral. Books are dumbed down: Less text, fewer syllables and more pictures, preferably in color. Not exactly a Kindle market.

    For myself, I doubt I’ll ever buy a Kindle or some other text reader. I read a variety of newspapers from around the world and prefer doing it on a large monitor. The same goes for technical papers. When I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to look at more pixels or be scrolling or pressing keys to navigate a page. I can’t see myself lying in bed holding a Kindle. As I often wake up with a book pressed to my face or crumpled under a shoulder blade, I can see an immediate drawback to using a Kindle, aside from having to hold it with two hands in order to navigate.

    Real books don’t have issues. They don’t go blank when the battery fails. You don’t need to charge them up. They’re not prone to dead zones. They rarely get stolen. They don’t break when dropped or sat upon. You can pass one on without needing an intermediary. They don’t need periodic upgrades. You can level a couch with them. Throw them in anger. Spill beer on them. Start campfires. They’re a ready source of emergency toilet paper too, just read it and wipe.

    There’s nothing as tough and enduring as a real book. When your Kindle is just a distant memory and your digital library obsolete, the book will still be there.

  22. Calson,

    I think you missed something in the thread. Part of the appeal of the Kindle is it is easier then a book. It’s easily held one handed and don’t require turning pages or holding a book open. The “pixels” issue doesn’t exist, it’s not a monitor, it’s feels just like reading on paper to your eyes (even better with the adjustable font size).

    I would never in my life level a couch with a book or any of the other things you mentioned. That’s just sacrilege to the printed word.

    Yes, one day my Kindle will be obsolete. It will be replaced by better and cheaper models and I will be able to up-convert my files. Printed books on the other hand will disappear, just like carving blocks and hand copying were replaced by the printing press and sheepskin and bark was replaced by paper. The cost of paper, which will only go higher as our amount of arable land available for non-food production shrinks, will ensure that.

    Lara Amber

  23. Lara,

    The printed word is not holy script. A lousy book deserves whatever fate I decree. I’ve consigned many a book to the recycle bin and not felt like a barbarian at the gates for doing it. I’ve torn off covers, cut out pages, highlighted text, scribbled notes, dog-eared pages,and pressed leaves and flowers. Most book lovers have done the same at one time or another. I consider books versatile, multipurpose tools. I also revere quality books and my shelves are filled with fine literature and art books, both old and contemporary, and these books will go to my heirs assuming they can still read.

    As far as the cost of paper and declining resources ensuring the demise of books, doesn’t the same hold for Kindles, the plastic of which is derived from oil or cellulose (trees and plants)? Which is more biodegradable and recyclable, paper or plastic? And while the Kindle’s price is sure to come down in the near future, it’s also going to go back up when the supply of lithium, a battery component, runs short due to ever increasing demand. Also, where do all the dead batteries go? And while a Kindle may be a low power device, so is the iPod, the cell phone and its ear bud, the Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, laptop, notebook, hybrid car, etc. When we tally up all our low power gadget use, we aren’t conserving all that much electricity, are we? And I haven’t even mentioned all the little power bricks that require more outlets than are available in the average home.

    As a gadget, the Kindle has its place. As a replacement for books, I don’t think so. Remember when the Segway was going to revolutionize the world? No one would ever have to walk! Urban cores would become car free! ‘Nuff said.

  24. Well I’m simply not going to be able to convince you, and you aren’t going to be able to convince me. So the only thing we can do is wait and let time determine the “winner”. See you in 20 years at S&R?

    Lara Amber

  25. It’s a date. Thanks for engaging me in a bit of dialogue. I enjoyed it.


  26. Lara,
    I too struggled over the decision to purchase a Kindle when they first came out. I have looked at e-readers for the last year or so–debating on whether to take the plunge. Like you I purchased the Kindle 2 — I jumped into the deepend and can’t wait for it to arrive (15 Mar). I agree with your analysis. This is the next technological jump, and it may be the saving grace for the newspaper business. I only wish it had color–perhaps the next release.