Ever since I saw the first Kindle, I've had one big complaint: the screen is way too small. It will never be widely adopted until the screen size approximates a book.
Amazon announced the Kindle-DX, and the screen is as big as a book. (Though they don't have touchscreen keyboards yet, so they're wasting a lot of space, making the thing bigger than a book, but it's looking pretty good.) We have choices.
Unfortunately the price got even worse--up to an outrageous $489 for the new model--but competition and mass production will drive that down in time.
But they're getting the textbook companies on board, which are so expensive that for college students, the economics work. And if they can get a few million people a year to adopt the technology that way, eventually the rest of us will all die off.
The NY Times story led with a puzzling statement:
Most electronic devices are getting smaller. The Kindle electronic book reader from Amazon.com is bucking the trend.
That seems like s gross exageration. The iphone is significantly bigger than most of the cellphones it displaced. Desktop monitors have been growing bigger and bigger for years--and that's the area we're talking about here: the device we use to read. Laptop makers are also coming out with much bigger models.
The truth is that size moves in both directions: We want the smallest possible size that gets the job done without waste, but we can't stand devices that are too small for the job at hand. (For example, hardly anyone wants to read a novel on an iphone, and few were even willing to read the web on a device smaller than that. That size proved just about right for the web and email, at least while we're on the go.)
I don't think the DX will ultimately prove the model that will go huge, but we're finally revving up to where ebooks are a reality. They are finally getting good enough, and they finally improving fast. (Compared to the previous decade of glacial change.)
The kindle does finally seem to be igniting things. It has proved, finally, that there is a sizable and growing audience for these things. And there are a lot of competing products coming out of the next year.
Ebooks are finally arriving. How quickly they will push out paper books, no one can really know. My prediction is that they eventually will, but it will be slow. Large numbers of people will never adopt them and will have to die off. And some will live on, like vinyl. (Though we're not THAT far away from vinyl. Will vinyl really live on forever? Paper has been around a lot longer, though, and I can't see it disappearing entirely--or even close in my lifetime.)
As an asthetic choice, I'm agnostic about the future of paper. For me, paper books are still something I like, but that's probably because I grew up with them. If most people 20 or 50 or 100 years from now feel more comfortable with an ebook, then I'm fine with that. I don't think there's an innate superiority of one just because of my upbringing.
The economic impact to our profession, though, could be huge. I'm conflicted over whether ebooks are a good thing for the short- and medium-run. Long-term, I think they're great. If you can take out about 2/3 of the cost of the book, that's amazing.
(Currently, half the cover price goes to the bookseller, though in reality, the big sellers now discount that and give it back to the consumer already. But with ebooks, their cost of operations is much less. There is also no cost to print the book, ship it--often multiple times: to wholesaler, to bookstore--warehouse it. A huge cost to the industry now is returns, with about 1/3 of books being returned. The publisher has to eat the cost of producing these, and pay to ship/warehouse them the first time, and then charged again to process the return. It's a huge cost plowed back into the cost structure of every book. With ebooks, it disappears.)
Today, the average harcover sells for about $26, but the publisher only gets $1 of that in profit, if lucky, and the writer gets $4. (I'm not sure what the publisher gets to cover costs of creating and marketing.) With a $10 ebook, the seller gets $2, the writer can still get $4 and that leaves $4 for the publisher to create the book (editing, proofing, marketing, etc.) and their profit.
The actual share each party gets is sort of up for grabs at the moment, though writers aren't going to get the $4. I'm not sure it will end up that way, though. Will writers still get what they do now? I need to check my contract on what I get on a kindle. I'm pretty sure it's much less than on a hardcover, where the writer makes most of our money, but more than on a paperback. Will that make us come out even?
In theory, though, there is dramatically less waste, so readers can get much cheaper books, without writers or publisher having to suffer.
Significantly cheaper books are a very good thing. Hardcovers are ridiculously overpriced in today's entertainment market. Our industry and our art form will be much healthier with a much cheaper product. Over time, we will hopefully find many more people willing to buy books.
But once again, we sort of got rushed into the ebook agreements, with no one knowing how it would end up. When the rules get rewritten, they tend to stay that way for decades, even if the rewrites were arbitrary and/or unintenional. Writers could come out with a smaller share of the pie, and that could be disastrous, since most of us already unable to support ourselves writing.
For a long time, I've also thought that the end of the hardback/paperback distinction will be great. More than half the population feels they can't afford hardcovers, and waits for the paperback. It seems like professional suicide for our industry to kee all the hot books away from all these people for a year or more--until they are much less interested. What a stupid approach. I understand that we are trying to bilk much more money from the people who will pay more for a year, but it's making books less relevant and desirable in a world that is already losing interest in books. Shouldn't we be winning them back by tempting them with the hottest new books that they want from Day One?
In the long run, that seems much better for the health of books. And ebooks may well be the answer. There is no distinction: a book just comes out day one, and you get it for $9.99.
Here's a hitch, though. Currently, most books that come out in hardcover get two chances at the market: one in hardcover, and a sort of rerelease a year later, with a new marketing campaign (and book tour, etc. for the big ones). It's like a few decades ago, when movies had multiple runs at the box office. It would be rereleased months later and then years later. You get multiple times to build up sales. Also, books that stumbled for whatever reason the first time, get a second shot in paperback. Some break out that second time.
In the long run, maybe that's fine. If every book only gets on shot, we'll have half as many new releases, so there will be more shelf space, media space, etc., for each on the first time. But it's that changeover process that's a killer. I'd hate to invest several years working on a book, hoping to recoup some of that when the book comes out, and then have half of that disappear because there is only one issue of the book instead of two.
Assuming the ebook becomes relevant slowly, though, this will be a gradual process.