Amazon Kindle

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Amazon showed off its new eBook reader this week. While I've always been intrigued by the concept of electronic distribution of books, magazines, etc., I've never really looked into it much.

The concept is appealing, at least initially, but after hearing a few things on the 'net and listening to Jeff Bezos on The Charlie Rose Show, I am pretty appalled...

Amazon's implementation and Bezos' thought processes really frighten me..

First off, the idea of DRM on eBooks is a real issue. For me, part of the importance of books is that they are yours. You can do what you want with them - give them away, resell them, annotate them, pass them on to your kids, etc. How are you going to do that with a Kindle?

For years the publishing companies have tried to wipe out used books sellers or make things difficult for them. A prime example is the text book industry - the current trick is to create new editions of books that really don't need it to keep prices inflated. For physics texts this is nuts - standard textbooks being updated when electricity & magnetism haven't changed in 50 years?

Secondly, what about people who can't afford these things? If eBooks become the de facto standard, as Bezos seemed to imply, will we return to the era when only the rich could afford to own books? Sure the price of the device will go down, but will the cost of the eBooks? Can you will your Kindle to your kids or do they have to pay all over again for the same eBooks? I see another digital divide growing here.

What is the privacy situation with the Kindle? Its always attached to 'the network' via EVDO, but what happens if you were to take a prohibited work into China or something similar?

What about orphaned works?

What is the role of a publisher when they don't have to actually print anything? Why should they even make any money here - can't I just publish my Lab Manual directly through Amazon and have all the money go into my pocket? Promotion is no longer an issue if a reader can find what they want to read via Amazon's various recommendation systems, or via social networking like Facebook, et al.

I just don't like the implications anymore... gimme dead trees any day.

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This reminds me of CompuServe's bet-the-company WOW service, developed in the mid-90's as a stripped down but safe Internet experience for kids and families. Ultimately, families wanted the real Internet and things didn't go so well for CompuServe. Were I Bezos, I wouldn't bet the company on a variant product (ebooks) with fewer features than the existing, dominant product (paper books).

Whacked product strategy aside, he may be swimming against a strong tide. A couple examples of open content he'll be competing against...
- NIH is requiring open access to it's funded medical research, with similar Open Science efforts on the horizon.
- Project Gutenberg offers 17,000+ titles and could reinforce the Internet users' expectation that online content "ought" to be free or nearly free.
- MIT offers course content online for free.

In my own school district, fewer and fewer teachers even use textbooks. Mostly, K12 schools can't afford regularly obsoleted textbooks. Online resources and teacher- and student-driven projects have made the traditional textbook less important and, frankly, even less engaging for students.

If democratization of content seen in music continues in the area of book and textbook publishing, I'd expect publishers to face the same fate as the music industry. Indeed, the music industry is already moving away from DRM. Ultimately, the middlemen may be out of a job as producers and users meet in the middle instead -- online.

"What is the role of a publisher when they don't have to actually print anything? Why should they even make any money here - can't I just publish my Lab Manual directly through Amazon and have all the money go into my pocket?"

With all due respect, this is the whole point. Allow me to elaborate:

Kindle is but one part of Amazon's aggressive attempt at vertical integration. By removing the traditional publisher from the equation, Amazon hopes to pocket a significantly higher percentage of the per/sale revenue, while simultaneously compensating the author at a rate several times the traditional range of revenue-shares for authors.

In my opinion, what is arguably the bigger development in relation-to Amazon's attempt to monopolize publishing was its 2005 acquisition of BookSurge, a print-on-demand company. Through Kindle and BookSurge, Amazon hopes to be able to persuade authors to bypass traditional publishing in favor of e-books and print-on-demand.

Granted, this course-of-action may not come with the built-in marketing that traditional publishers offer. However, as you mentioned, Amazon's recommendation systems may offer a solution to that problem. Additionally, Amazon is hoping the rate-of-compensation per sale offered to authors for Amazon's print-on-demand services will be enough reason for many if not most authors to use Amazon exclusively for their publishing, sales and distribution.

If successful, this spells major trouble for the traditional print publishers.

FORBES.COM recently published an excellent article by Sramana Mitra entitled "How Amazon Could Change Publishing" that sheds some light on Amazon's attempt at vertical integration.

I guess it is Amazon's attempt at vertical integration which really bothers me because it creates a level of control over books (or ebooks) that scares me.

If you buy a book, its yours, you can do what you want with it. Buy an ebook and you can only do what Amazon wants you to do with it. If they are successful in taking out the publishers, what happens then? Just as I don't want my only news source to be Fox News, I don't want Amazon to be my only source for 'printed' material.

I don't trust Amazon's recommendation system for one second - I have found reviews of HD TVs, for example, extolling their virtues and how great the Super Bowl looked when the TV being 'reviewed' was not even available until March.

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This page contains a single entry by ERIC AITALA published on November 21, 2007 12:41 PM.

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