Kindle success is no surprise
Thursday October 22, 2009
The e-book is tasty with chips, writes Charles Wright. IT WAS a sunny weekend, early evening, and we'd ridden the Bleeding Edge bicycle down to Port Melbourne for some exercise and relaxation. We were sitting on the pier, eating takeaway flake and chips from D'Lish Fish and reading the first chapter of a new e-book we'd downloaded just an hour or two earlier from the US, when it occurred to us that we were at last catching a glimmer of the future of book reading.It is not the first time we have thought this and been completely wrong. Indeed, our performance as e-book seer has been pathetic, since we bought one of the first e-book readers €“ the Rocket eBook €” in 2000 . . . and quickly had our $500 investment trashed.In a matter of months, the Rocket format disappeared from the market and publishers opined that there was no outlet for e-books, proving conclusively that they had no interest in digital opportunities and €” many times since then €” no capacity to learn from the mistakes of the music and movie industries.Almost exactly a year ago, inspired by the release of a new generation of e-book readers from Sony and, subsequently, the Amazon Kindle €” neither of which was available here €” we invested another $500 on the Cybook Gen3, a thinner, more advanced version with a six-inch, e-ink screen.We still love the Cybook but again, within months, we found local publishers were increasingly throttling our efforts to obtain electronic books overseas, forcing us to pay the same, unacceptably high prices they wring from Australians for print books.Those are precisely the tactics required to ensure there is no market for e-books, which no doubt provides smug satisfaction for publishing executives at the same time as it guarantees lower sales and a diminished future for their companies.Typically, we contrived to buy our latest love, the Amazon Kindle 2, just two weeks before Amazon slashed its price by $50, coinciding with its announcement of an international wireless version that was finally released to Australian buyers just two days ago. It didn't trouble us all that much. We're not at all interested in the international wireless version of the Kindle and at least the price for indulging our apparently insane passion had dropped substantially. The US model is now just $US259 ($280) and the international version $US279, for what is basically the same technology as the Cybook.Aside from having a keyboard, slightly faster response times and a more elegant interface than the French-made Cybook, the principal difference of the Kindle is that it allows delivery of books to the device via an international mobile phone network.The international version uses international roaming for that service but in Australia, unlike in the US and now Japan, Hong Kong and Mexico, it doesn't have the experimental web browser.Amazon's belated overseas offering is inferior to the US experience in other ways. While its website heavily promotes the availability of newly released titles for $US9.99, in fact, Australian buyers will have to pay $US11.99 and in some cases more, largely because of those international roaming charges. That is better than the $US13.99 British buyers will face and, more to the point, it's roughly one-third of what you'll pay for that title in a local bookshop.Unfortunately, the international publishing regime that applies in this country means that many of those new releases won't be available to Australians, who will be able to select from a catalogue of just 280,000 books.There is another, much more significant difference between the Kindle and its competitors: its design and the fact that Amazon has used its purchasing muscle to force publishers to lower e-book prices have sparked an ever-increasing love affair with consumers that has sharply increased the sale of e-book editions, which last year trebled in volume in the US.It took us only minutes with the Kindle 2 to understand the phenomenon. It is much less clunky than its predecessor €” we wouldn't have dreamed of buying an e-book reader that devoted so much of its surface to a keyboard €” and its screen and page-flip speed have improved dramatically, to the point where it's noticeably more convenient than turning pages.Hooking it up to a PC and transferring titles by the "Send to Computer" option, rather than using wireless, is simple, fast and satisfying.Even people who enjoy the smell and feel of books and the ambience of bookshops have fallen in love with the Kindle once they've experienced it.Australians aren't going to buy the Kindle in any numbers unless our Government accepts the recommendations of the Productivity Commission (tinyurl.com/mjlqgy) to end the parallel-import restrictions that sustain local e-book prices as high as $35 apiece. Dymocks, for instance, which has pioneered digital sales, is even charging $12.95 for Robinson Crusoe, which is available as a free download from gutenberg.org.The Kindle's availability in Australia will add pressure for that reform. But, in any case, a vast number of free titles is available in the Mobipocket format, which the Kindle supports. You could use it to read titles such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, The Great Gatsby or possibly War and Peace. There's a handy pointer at tinyurl.com/6ncmul, which doesn't include the invaluable Australian Gutenberg Project offshoot at gutenberg.net.au.Another essential reference is the Kindle section of the MobileRead forums at tinyurl.com/2ashpj.Bleeding Edge is going to be spending many more weekends on the pier at Port Melbourne with our Kindle. We hope supplies of flake and chips hold up.