Kindles are for suckers.

21 05 2011

I love Amazon.com. I really do. I remember when I lived in Walla Walla, Washington where the only book store was about the size of my apartment. Their long tail stopped me from being bored out of my head all year. Look inside the book? Great. Competition for iTunes? Great. The Kindle? Not so much.

I’ve been kind of ambivalent about the Kindle previously. As a devoted reader, I had the typical electronics lust for it that most people like me probably had when it first came out. Then I read this article by Nicholson Baker in the New Yorker, which made me wonder whether it was all worth the trouble. As time has passed, I have become actively hostile.

It’s not as if I hate all e-books. They’re good for research purposes, and I’ve sold a few myself but when the Kindle edition of my book came out, the publisher set the price at $27.95. They also raised the price of the hardback by $5.05. It’s the difference between the electronic and physical copy of the book that matters, I figured, not the cost of the book itself.

What sent me over the edge is when I saw that Amazon.com is charging more for the Kindle version of David McCullough’s new book than they are for the hardback (at least as of the moment that I’m writing this). This tells me that the pricing for Kindle editions has become totally untethered from economic reality, and that can’t be good for consumers. Certainly, it costs more to produce the physical book than it does to deliver the e-version. All the savings from an electronic edition of McCullough’s book are therefore flowing to Amazon rather than readers. Readers should demand better.

Instead, Amazon.com believes that their Kindle customers are willing to pay more for this fleeting edition than they are for the thing which is permanent. Indeed, since Amazon can delete books from your Kindle for a whole host of reasons, they’re fleeting even if you never get to the capacity of the machine. You’re just renting the right to read them. If you use your Kindle for almost everything you read, it will fill up eventually. What are you going to do with your extra books? Buy a new Kindle?

Books are an excellent technology that have served mankind for hundreds of years. Kindles, among other problems, seem to freeze up on a lot of people. They’re also going to be obsolete pretty soon so I don’t understand is why anyone would pay more for an electronic version of something that works better in the real world. Megan McCardle offers one explanation:

But I doubt that many of the kids starting school now will build up the same kind of personal reference system around print books, any more than most children of the 1920s bothered to learn how to hitch up a team properly. To them, print books will seem ponderous and slow–what we find serene and undistracting, they will find as annoying as making your own Jello out of calve’s feet and eggshells.

That’s it! Think of the children!!! Yet college students overwhelmingly prefer physical textbooks to electronic versions. Apparently, Florida is mandating that all textbooks in schools there be e-books by 2016. Are they doing that for the kids? Of course not. They’re doing that to save money. Those savings come from the difference between the price of the physical book and the price concession that the state can extract out of publishers. Amazon customers can do no such thing because they can’t demand bulk pricing. Amazon can pocket all the cost savings from the e-book versus the physical version.

Amazon should be giving their machines away for free. Instead, people pay for the privilege of renting books from them. Buy a Kindle and you’re just encouraging them to rip you off more. Yes, I know that a lot of people are encouraging them these days. We’ll see how they feel when their Kindles become dinosaurs. Physical books, on the other hand, will last longer than any particular operating system (as long as you don’t abuse them).

So don’t be a sucker, buy paper. Then you can really stick it to the man by loaning your book out for a while after you’ve finished reading it.

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16 responses

21 05 2011
Leslie M-B

I see your point and agree with you, but I use my Kindle less to read books I’ve bought from Amazon and more for reading and annotating PDFs I’ve converted into Kindle format–academic articles and whatnot. The Kindle makes it very easy to move my annotations and highlighted passages to my computer, so I don’t have to retype them from the print book or article. So for me it’s more of an efficiency (and an I-can’t-afford-an-iPad) thing than a desire to do away with physical books.

22 05 2011
Historiann

Love this. I feel completely ratified in my technoskepticism.

As for “the children.” I have it on very good authority that children still achieve literacy via codex technology even today, and that codex technology is still the standard in most elementary and secondary schools. I think the differences that many adults see in comparing e-books to codex books won’t make sense to a lot of kids. As it has been for the last 60 years, the real threat to the future of books is TV/video/DVD technology, which offer highly stimulating yet passive entertainment. If offered a Kindle, all children will understand quickly that you still have to READ the f’ing thing, whether it’s on a screen or in codex form.

22 05 2011
Codex rules, Kindle drools. (And I told you so.) : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[...] know many of you didn’t believe me, but here’s the testimony of a Kindle-ized author and former true believer: [W]hen the Kindle edition of my book came out, the publisher set the price at $27.95. They also [...]

23 05 2011
Middle Seaman

Hold your horses. Stopping trains constitutes risky behavior. Just because paper books, they started with painting in caves, have a long history is not a sensible argument. So, are murder, war, hunger and the Potomac (great for sculling).

I do prefer reading my paper books, still buy them and stack them. My Kindle has become very useful too. It’s great for long travels (book weigh a lot), carries my PDF files and even my airline tickets.

Kindle is a lousy device. It was almost as badly designed as possible. The next generations will, hopefully, be much better. The Kindle should have at the very least email, built in facebook and prices that reflect the cost of the book and the CEOs houses around the world.

23 05 2011
Jonathan Rees

MS:

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. That trip needs to be pretty long for the book to make a serious dent in your luggage. It reminds me of why my mother bought a station wagon. “I need it to carry plants to Vermont,” she said. “How often do you go to Vermont,” said her children in unison.

PS Ever heard of an e-ticket for airplanes? Thanks to TripIt, I carry my itineraries on my phone.

29 05 2011
Towards a unified field theory of Internet charlatanism. « More or Less Bunk

[...] could start back again on the subject of Kindles, but let’s do e-books in general instead. Here’s the poet [...]

31 05 2011
Andrew Battista

I think you’ve stopped short of articulating the real point here. It’s not that Amazon is pricing Kindle books in a way that is “totally untethered from economic reality.” Rather they are pricing Kindle books in a way that precisely accords with economic reality, i.e., the profit motive.

Amazon knows that the demographic attracted to writers like David McCullough are more apt to own Kindles and purchase e books, even if they cost as much or even a little more than a hard copy. These people comprise a predictable group: upper-middle class, intellectually-curious but not professional academic people who just want “a good read.” And they prefer the experience of an e book because it’s “new,” the vanguard of reading, and they prefer to be seen in public reading on a Kindle and thus distinguish themselves from an underclass of urbanites who still use the public library.

The market for your book, Representation and Rebellion, is much different, and much smaller. Anyone who reads your book is likely trying to write an article that would boost a tenure portfolio. I highly doubt that HBO will make a mini-series about Representation and Rebellion (although I could be wrong). The audience is specialized, and Amazon knows this. Thus, they are hoping to force the hand of academic libraries and academics in general. If a library is trying to cut corners on the book budget, why wouldn’t it spend $5 less to get the same content if it can? Anyone who really needs to read your book will access it however it’s available.

This is the way the market is heading, I think. The question at hand is, can academics and academic institutions begin to recognize e books as viable and legit scholarly contributions? The day is coming (in fact it has already arrived) when academic presses will publish only e book formats of scholarly monographs. The related question is, will academics get on board with this and view electronic sources with the same level of gravitas as print volumes?

6 06 2011
Why higher ed is like the Northern Pacific Railroad. « More or Less Bunk

[...] Add something about rain following the plow and minus the pre-1995 part, and I bet the people who ran the Northern Pacific thought pretty much the same thing. Just because the future might be now does not necessarily mean that you can make a huge profit from it (unless perhaps you’re Amazon.com, but that’s another story). [...]

6 08 2011
Einstein’s chalkboard or why you don’t need to buy a Kindle. « More or Less Bunk

[...] seeing Keith’s picture and hearing his interpretation of it was the Kindle. I still think Kindles are for suckers, but besides the reasons I gave in that post I also think they are also a very complex technology [...]

23 08 2011
How can you tell good educational technology from bad educational technology? « More or Less Bunk

[...] with primary sources, instead. This may seem strange coming from someone who purports to hate e-reading, but in fact it gives me much better control over my curriculum than if I used a paper [...]

3 10 2011
A book is not a toy. « More or Less Bunk

[...] know that new Kindles are coming out in November. Sorry Amazon, but I still haven’t changed my mind about them. Actually, Nick Carr’s yeoman’s work on this new batch of toys makes me want [...]

7 10 2011
Reading is a solitary experience. Learning isn’t. « More or Less Bunk

[...] all the nasty things I’ve written about Kindles recently, at least the old version of the device allowed for reading the way it was intended to be: start at [...]

13 11 2011
Kindles are still for suckers. « More or Less Bunk

[...] everything it can to exploit such proclivities for its own material gain. When I wrote my original “Kindles Are for Suckers” post, the price of the Kindle version of David McCullough’s The Greater Journey was pennies [...]

26 06 2012
When your books aren’t really yours. « More or Less Bunk

[...] I know – I’ve written that e-readers are unnecessary. I’ve written that they are for suckers (twice). However, I still remember a comment by “Middle Seaman”* in the first of those [...]

6 09 2012
My classroom is my platform: A manifesto. « More or Less Bunk

[...] longtime readers might remember, I find the reasons for the existence of the Kindle platform much less compelling. Thanks [...]

10 11 2013
In which I make an embarrassing admission. | More or Less Bunk

[…] think that this is an embarrassing admission, but then you’re not the author of posts like “Kindles are for suckers,” “Kindles are still for suckers,” and much more along these lines. To summarize, I went […]

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