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.