An Inside Look at the Leading E-Book Readers in Action

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The Readers

As it turns out, Amazon has attracted a much different audience than the kids I see crowding the Apple store in Manhattan. Indeed the crowd looks far more like the folks who come to hear me read in a bookstore on any given evening. One of Kindle’s fans started a recent thread on the Amazon bulletin board asking Kindle owners their ages. The youngest two were 12, there were a few in their 20s, but the vast majority were over 30, and quite a few were in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. One man, an early adopter for the first time in his life, confided that he figured that he might not live long enough to see the next incarnation, so why not enjoy the first generation Kindle now. Right now, the average age in this running thread is 49.

That puts me just below average at 47 years old. Lots of us love that Kindle offers six text sizes (my favorite is size four). As it turns out, the fact that Kindle works without a computer is what sold our family on our second, third, and fourth Kindles: to my 72-year-old mom, my 50-year-old babysitter, and my 11-year-old nephew.

Actually, our 11-year-old isn’t allowed solo access to the internet, my mom gets lost on her way to the enter button, and our babysitter has no interest in turning on a computer. Still, all of them love reading on the Kindle, and I can float books directly to them. Although Amazon does not allow books to be transferred from one account to another, as many as six Kindles on one account can share books. My best pal at work is slated to become the fifth in our little reading group.

The Kindle device also makes it so easy to read, even when exhausted. I am devouring two books a week now—popular fiction, classics, military history, current events; I am once again deeply curious about all of it. It helps that Amazon is selling e-versions of most of its popular hardbacks at $9.99 and e-versions of paperbacks at a dollar or two less than the cheapest cover price.

The discount on current popular books are possible because publishers—not facing shipping costs or returns—are charging Amazon a lower list price, about the same as that of a trade paperback, and because Amazon is cutting its own margin. According to my own editor, Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs, authors will get royalties somewhere between 7% and 15% of the lower list price—less than traditional hardcover books but better than the $9.99 price would suggest.

Osnos is also looking to Amazon and other electronic formats as another outlet for his Caravan Project, dedicated to keeping "serious non-fiction books" in print. Caravan is also getting involved in the business of printing books on demand. If Amazon’s president Jeff Bezos has his way, every book ever published will be available in Kindle format, and no book will ever be truly out of print.

That idea isn’t new. Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, has been trying to create a worldwide digital library since 1971. It took his volunteers 22 years to create the first 100 etexts. Now there are 25,000 free books in the Gutenberg catalog. The World Public Library offers 500,000 free books online and is aiming for 600,000 by year’s end. Amazon boasts 115,000 for its copy-protected best-sellers and other books. Free books are also available at www.feedbooks.com, www.baen.com, and www. manybooks.net, among others. I paid $29 for a compilation of 500 public domain children’s chapter books, just to make it easier to find books my nephew would like. I can email them to him at his @kindle.com address.

Not every book I have looked for is available, to be sure. My niece was recently desperate to steal her brother’s Kindle and read three books for her school term. Her top three choices, all classics, were not available in any electronic formats: The Hobbit, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. J. K. Rowling has sworn never to publish Harry Potter in e-ink. PublicAffairs has been a little slow getting a digital copy of the book I wrote with Christopher Drew—Blind Man’s Bluff The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage—to Amazon, mainly because it has been in print for awhile and we need to figure out which "edition" to send over as we’ve continued to edit the book over the years.

There are, however, enough books available that eight pages in my Kindle table of contents comprise Amazon book samples—for most Kindle books Amazon sells, you can download a free chapter or two, just to see if you want to buy more. I have grabbed a sample for every book that I’ve seen get a good review that seems like something I might want to read.

Contenders and Contention

There are still people betting against Kindle and the rest of the electronic readers. One notable: Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, has been scathing of electronic readers "posing" as books. He has founded On Demand Books, which uses something called an "espresso book machine" that literally prints books while you wait. It’s a great idea, and I have no doubt he will have an audience.

Sony, Bookeen, and Amazon have been guarding sales figures, but no one thinks e-readers are ready to take over. One commentator on Engadget.com (working back from production figures released by the e-ink manufacturer for all three companies, Prime View International) estimated that Amazon has sold about 216,000 Kindles. From launch on Nov. 19, 2007 through mid-April, Amazon was backordered by about 6 weeks. That is how long my family waited for our first three units. A quarter million -plus other companies still leaves a lot of people reading on paper. I’m just not going to be one of them.

My favorite toys are now my Kindle, my Mighty Bright booklight, and the WaterField travel case designed just for the Kindle I carry it all in. My dusty, book-laden shelves have been cleaned. Just a couple of weeks ago, I packed up cartons of books to give away to fans of the dead-tree format. I even bought Kindle editions of books I owned on paper. I’ve cancelled most of the premium movie channels on our television. Kindle has helped me to rediscover my old and deep love affair with books. No reader can buy me the time to read, but Kindle makes it easy to carry a book or 200—and 1,000 more on an SD card—wherever I go, so I have a book on hand whenever I find the time.


Companies Featured in this Article:

Amazon
(www.amazon.com)

Bookeen
(www.bookeen.com)

On Demand Books
(www.ondemandbooks.com)

Project Gutenberg
(www.gutenberg.org)

Sony
(www.sony.com)

World Public Library
(www.worldlibrary.net)

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