Kindle, E-Readers Must Be Cheap, Flexible to Supplant Books

    by Mark Glaser
    February 11, 2008

    i-5d6b0949cacdb8e13afa3de6a8e3ccdf-Kindle in hand.jpg

    Amazon Kindle

    Are e-readers like the Amazon Kindle going to make print books obsolete, or will people’s undying love for the printed book continue on in the digital age? While the Sony Reader didn’t catch fire, the recent release of the Amazon Kindle has brought another round of debates over the future of the print book.

    I spoke at a conference of small book publishers in British Columbia, Canada, and they were generally unfazed by the e-reader phenomenon. Many people there believe that small literary presses with artfully designed books will have staying power, while academic texts and reference books will more likely be swallowed up by digital replacements. One particularly wise publishing veteran noted: “These e-book readers seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Are people really demanding that books be replaced?”


    Because MediaShift readers are often a bit more tech-savvy than the public at large, I asked whether there was something that would entice them to use e-readers instead of print books. What features did they desire most? Not surprisingly, people wanted to pay less for books in the digital format, and they wanted more than just the book’s content — they also wanted online links to more material, ways of sharing content and open formats so they could transfer material to other devices.

    One reader, Jim, had the most pithy response: “Sleeker hardware. Better design. Larger reading surface. Thinner. More portable. Cheaper content. Cheaper unit price. Ability to load your own stuff. Word processing.”

    Timothy Nott knocked the Kindle for being too ugly and the Sony Reader for being too expensive. Nott says a successful e-reader must do more than a printed book:


    I need a solution that is rugged and can do more than one thing. For a couple hundred bucks, I want to be able to do more than save a couple trees. The technology has to be BETTER than paper, not just nearly as good. I need to be able to take notes/write responses, send those notes to someone, check references online, build a derivative work. A handheld is oh-so-close to what I want, but the screens are too small.

    Another reader, Drew, points out the dilemma for the e-reader: It has to fit in with all the other devices in our lives, and it has to have enough available content to cover all the possible print books we would want:

    I would like the same flexibility for a reader that I have with an MP3 player. I know that I can get any new content in MP3 and I can easily convert my current content into MP3s, no matter how obscure or unpopular it is. For reading, I’m dependent on someone else deciding what gets converted so some periodicals, some books, some newspapers become available but not necessarily the ones I want. For me it would be the worst of all worlds — I’d have to carry a reader AND printed reading, all while I’m probably also toting a laptop. One of those has to go and it’s the reader.

    Kayrun, an actual e-book publisher and writer, says that an e-reader must look and feel similar to books:

    We have a definite need for an e-book reader that is very similar to a book, with large reading screens, but which allows bookmarking, note taking, and email…It should be thin, lightweight, open like a book with a screen on each side. Think iPhone for moving things around and adding text (or maybe voice activated). It should be comfortable to support with one hand and read from it in the traditional reading position. If the developers will give us the hardware, watch e-books (with video and audio) take off. We will then really start saving trees and time! We will also be better able to organize and retrieve our knowledge.

    Joe Wickert is a vice president at the book publisher John Wiley & Sons, and also maintains the Publishing 2020 blog, along with a new Kindleville blog. Wickert recently figured out a way to offer his entire blog’s archive in e-book format through Amazon for 99 cents.

    Wickert thinks that e-readers will have to do much more than simply replicate a book’s content on a new piece of hardware.

    “How about a device that offers more than simply the print book in electronic format?” he wrote. “I’m talking about a major overhaul to how books are written, but one that would result in a better layering of content, particularly for reference material. This is more than simply embedding links to other sources; it’s really about tapping into the platform and creating a product and content repository that has social networking capabilities. Again, it’s more than just a port from print to e-book and probably way out there on the timeline.”

    Reading on Cell Phones

    Not only did people comment on what they’d like to see in an e-reader; they also had a spirited debate over the future of the printed book. Playing off of Jennifer Woodard Maderazo’s recent post, 5 Reasons I Won’t Give Up Books, folks weighed in at both ends of the spectrum. Some people believe that print books are doomed, while others would never give up books for digital devices.

    What’s interesting is that there are people who are perfectly happy to read digital books on their existing cell phones. One reader, Avagee, has even been using a regular “dumb” cell phone to read novels: “At the moment it’s all been public domain and Creative Commons stuff from Books In My Phone. For me the phone is perfect for that kind of ‘low format’ content — it’s more portable than Kindle or a paper book.”

    Ged Carroll similarly uses a cell phone — in this case a more high end Nokia E90 — to read books. He also reads PDF books through Adobe Acrobat, but says that the Kindle would have to be “10 times better than my current solution for me to choose it, and cheaper, easier to read, more flexible than my current device.”

    Meanwhile, Bob Benz spelled out five reasons why he’s given up books. For Benz, something changed when he got a Kindle:

    I’m not saying books will die. And I was a bit dubious after buying the Kindle. But a month later, I’m hooked much the way I was when I switched from vinyl to CDs and then from CDs to MP3s. There will always be someone around extolling the “warmth” that vinyl brings to a recording’s sound. There will always be vinyl. But I don’t miss my turntable at all…

    Of course, others jumped to print books’ defense, just as Jennifer had. Amy Strecker was one of many folks who has a strong love of books. “There’s something deeply personal and connective about sharing a book with a friend and watching it become gently worn by the multiple of hands that have enjoyed its secrets,” she wrote. “Passing a PDF just doesn’t provide the same kicks!”

    Bob Kasher, who runs a company that provides content for mobile phones, takes a middle ground in the print book vs. e-reader debate. Kasher notes that disruption does not always lead to obsolescence, and also points out a possible generational divide on printed books and old media:

    Each media has its own sense of warmth, usefulness and utility and the notion that one will somehow necessarily replace the other can sometimes be a fascinating exercise to speculate about. Ultimately I think we will find that most media (not all, I have nothing to play my 8 track tapes on after all) will find its own niche and relevance with those who still appeciate the individual appeal of printed text vs digital.

    However…let’s not forget that the generation now arriving doesn’t have that same loyalty to the printed word, or the television channel for that matter. YouTube, MP3 downloads and mobile texting seems just fine for them. That is far more relevant to what the future may bring than what those of us who still use books, magazines and newspapers bring to this debate.

    What do you think? Will certain printed books disappear over time or are they all doomed? Or do you believe books will prosper in a digital age? Is there a generational divide on the future of print publications? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Photo of Amazon Kindle by Min Liu via Flickr.

    Tagged: books conferences new media
    • Charles F. Wilkes

      A nice roundup of comments from badly confused people.

      I’m 81 years old, and have been an avid reader since early childhood. I’ve spent thousands on Amazon.com buying books, which overflow all the many bookcases that I have been able to add to my home. But when my Kindle arrived Dec. 4th, that era of my life all ended.

      Now I don’t want to read any of my books anymore — the large type which my Kindle provides makes reading fun again, and I can’t express my love for my Kindle strong enough.

      Now my main job ahead of me is to sell my hard bound books on one of the many places which allow me to do that. When I am finished, I will give away any that I couldn’t sell.

      I will never buy a dead tree book in the future, and will read only from my Kindle, where I already have 360 books recorded on the 30 pages of my home directory. Most of these were free classics now out-of-copyright, which I last read in my college days as an English Lit. major. I am so gratefull that I can once more own and read these wonderful books.

      Charles Wilkes, San Jose, Calif.

    • Paul

      As an avid reader, I am skeptical about this new reader. When the Sony Reader was released, I was able to see and actually touch it at the local Sony Store and also at Borders. It was something to think about until I was made aware of the restrictions of book purchases and at,not so reasonable cost. I have looked at other readers, one in particular was the reader from E-Bookwise which was a larger,clumsier item..It would be nice to see an item that cost $399. before purchase. I like the idea of portability and,as one gets older,a larger font size is a true blessing.
      I think that we need to be open minded about the futyre of the Kindle and like items. They are here to stay and are going to be a part of our reading world, whether for pleasure or for the world of academia….

    • I love the discussion on e-books. In fact, I’m so convinced that a tech-savvy, environmentally conscious generation will embrace the medium, I started a host site offering Aspiring Authors an opportunity to provide E-ffordable reading.

      In choosing a technology, I knew it had to be something besides a PDF/Word format. That’s like reading a term paper. Our 3D page-turning format has been well received, the reader is free, and you get the feel of a book as curl up with your computer. With so many people toting laptops around, our pieces are portable as long as there’s a WI-FI connection. For the non-gadget group, we offer an alternative to $300 and $400 readers, and, at $3.99 each, an opportunity to make reading affordable again.

    • Why an e-book reader ? Why not just copy the $100 laptop idea but with more style ? What we need is a product small enough and versatile enough so that we can read, whatch, listen to, or whatever else we want to do outdoor. Not just another replication of an old technology. Give us a break.

    • skeptic

      over $300 for a unit just to read books?
      i have a TON of e-books i would love to utilize with this new technology… but the price and size of unit are rather bulky.

      as soon as they come out with a unit that is more than half the cost and half the size… im SOLD!

      i hope they come out with a foldable split screen reader that can save space. that would be wicked and feel quite close to the reading experience.

    • Ebook readers are going to have to be improved significantly if they are to take the place of paper books.

      Our state’s budget has recently had to be cut and one of the budget items that was cut was new books for students.

      Here is an idea: A new ebook reader, about the size of the new super thin Apple computer would be ideal. It could easily fit in children’s backpacks and help avoid the concerns we have about all of the books they are trying to carry. Schools could make all of the textbooks available online at a fraction of the cost school districts now pay for paper books. Students should be able to make notes, underline, search text, enlarge print for easier reading, adjust brightness & contrast and even print the review questions via a wireless connection. All at a fraction of the cost school districts now pay for paper books.

      The technology is here now. Why wait?

    • Fer

      I believe the keyword here should be interaction. Traditional books are passive, “isolated” devices. You can neither alter them nor exchange information with other devices – or people – through them. You can’t directly process the information contained in them by the use of supplemental devices – besides your brain -.

      I think as long as new digital devices are ok to manipulate and read, and they are economically viable, they’ll have a future. They’ll just have to be true to their essence.

    • brian moe

      first of all , why should i pay $300 for something i can get at the library for free . must be very portable , unlike a laptop which is akin to dragging a baby around . you can’t let it out of your site and you have a big bag of crap to feed and change the laptop . my laptop stays at home . most of all , uncomplicated , easy to use . i mean very easy . not like a cell phone that comes with a giant manual one has to read in order to make a phone call . to many useless functions . all i want is a device that i can turn on and read , nothing more . no word processing , i don’t want to edit , blog , chat , or interact in any way . i just want to read without throwing it against a wall because i cant figure out how to operate it . i don’t want to read a manual to tell me how to read a book . i’m not asking to change the entire industry , just one simple version for the technically challenged like myself . thankyou brian moe las vegas , nv.

    • Michelle

      I am an avid reader. I am also agorophobic and have a borderline personality disorder. I buy books offline in both formats (book & ereader) I would love to have an ereader, I think it would be handy not to have to sit infront of the computer to read a book. If I have nothing to read I go online and download books. What can be more handy?

    • Vee

      I purchased an eSlick reader for $249 and love it. The only problem that I have with it is that I still have to carry print books because the battery needs to be recharged. My solution? I have decided to purchase another ereader and am shopping around.

      I don’t need it to be a mp3 player but I would like wifi capability. I don’t need word processing or it to be sleek or cute or have a large screen. I just want to read the book.

      The other problem is pricing. All the ereaders on the market are expensive. I would like to see something along the lines of a paperback sized notebook.

    • Casey Lindsey

      I just gotta say I love my kindle and the cheap books.

      My taste is a bit rough but I enjoyed “The Misogynist” by Emily Downs.

      It can be a bit vulgar at times. Be warned. But it’s cheap.


      She is the bestselling author of “Lisa Loves Girls”


      2 books for under 2 bucks. THe kindle will own publishing.

    • I am an avid reader and I’m forced to travel a lot because of my work. There is no way I would carry around with me 5-6 different paperback books. My Kindle solves that for me. Besides, since I’m sometimes “on the road” for a month or more at a time, I couldn’t possibly know what I will need/want to read during all that period of time when I leave. With the Kindle, it’s just a matter of downloading an ebook from Amazon or even browsing a bit.

    • ereader

      It’s been a while now, but the reality is the market dominance is inevitable. The album to cd to mp3 is a great example. Books will be no different. Books, as we’ve known them, are clutter. You need furniture to store them. Last time I checked, you don’t need furniture to store your mp3’s. You can’t stop technology. Embrace it, or keep using your abacus (whatever that is).

    • I completely agree and it looks like amazon do to! The $139 price drop for the new Kindle signifies that amazon finally have a grasp on this market.

      Ben – Kindle Case

    • I completely agree with what you are saying. Amazons recent price drop of the Kindle 3 to $139 shows that they do to!

      Ben – Kindle Case

    • It seems to me that nearly everything will be digital in the near future. Just as newspapers and magazines have been swallowed up by the internet, I also think that soon books will also meet their fate. I am also afraid that someday there will also be no more libraries either. Seems a little sad now, but technology usually makes our lives better and everyone will get on board at some point.

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