Don’t mention the Kindle

November 2013

About a year ago I had the pleas­ure to chat with a person who can be described without hes­it­a­tion as influ­en­tial in Germany’s lit­er­ary scene. We briefly talked about e-readers and I asked that person to test an upcom­ing version of the Kindle for a review. The answer, while friendly, was clear:

“No, thanks. I’d rather refrain from doing that. We don’t want to upvalue e-readers as a tech­no­logy by gen­er­at­ing atten­tion for them.”

Fair enough. Back then, I didn’t med­it­ate about it.

After all, my view on the future of e-readers wasn’t overly enthu­si­astic. While biased because I already used e-readers on a regular basis, they were still a niche product and didn’t deliver excit­ing reading exper­i­ences.

But that has changed a bit.

I remem­ber a few weeks ago using my new 2013 Kindle Paper­white for the first time, brows­ing through e-books with back­ground light­ing and think­ing to myself: Wow. It’s not perfect by any means but there’s so much pro­gress hap­pen­ing between iter­a­tions that a world class reading exper­i­ence on digital devices beating the analog thing – at least from most con­sumers’ point of view – is clearly in sight. Maybe a year from now, maybe later.

At that moment I remembered the con­ver­sa­tion which intro­duced me to the “Don’t-mention-a-Kindle”-doctrine. While at first I used to think it didn’t matter that much anyway and under­es­tim­ated it as mild cur­mudgeon speak, I’m now con­cerned it might actu­ally do no good in the longterm.

Here’s why.

Looking at the current gen­er­a­tion of e-readers and their eco­sys­tems, it’s obvious that hard­ware is ahead of soft­ware and content.

Let’s take that Kindle Paper­white as an example.

If you know earlier ver­sions of the Kindle, you can’t but admit that Amazon has accom­plished sig­ni­fic­ant improve­ments. The device feels really good in your hands – light­weight, black, almost elegant, with a nice and skin friendly surface.

Then there’s back­ground light­ing. Nothing has changed my reading habits so pro­foundly in recent years. No more looking for decent room light (an old Kindle needed a lot of light to make text per­fectly read­able); hours of relaxed reading even in com­plete dark­ness. If only my eyes had to decide, they’d prefer a Kindle to an iPad or other tablets.

Imper­fec­tions of earlier Kindle gen­er­a­tions have been addressed, too – the most notori­ous an over­sens­it­iv­ity of the touch­screen making people acci­dent­ally browse forward dozens of pages by touch­ing the surface only once but a frac­tion of a second too long.

Non­ethe­less a Kindle is far away from a 10/10 rating with much room and need for improve­ment. I concede that this is always a sub­ject­ive matter; some aspects of using a Kindle however give me a head­ache and I assume others feel the same.

The UI still isn’t simple enough. Try giving a Kindle to your parents without further assist­ance. Chances are that they have prob­lems organ­iz­ing stuff and buying new books.

Great books are cel­eb­rat­ing text – the Kindle doesn’t do that yet. Jus­ti­fied text as a default without any option to change it in the pref­er­ences is plain awkward; making it inten­tion­ally dif­fi­cult to add altern­at­ive fonts to a Kindle doesn’t help either.

Having seen more than one poorly pro­duced e-book in the Kindle store, I wish Amazon would enforce stricter pub­lish­ing rules on their plat­form. After all, everything I buy in the Kindle store is a product I down­load with the per­cep­tion that it is somehow part of the broader Amazon brand. There’s too much crap on offer.

The way Amazon handles its best­seller lists in the Kindle store is amp­li­fy­ing this issue. Let’s look at the Apple App Store for a moment. Its default start page is a heavily edited mix of app recom­mend­a­tions with a clear intent to feature not only popular, but great apps. It has a premium feel.

The Kindle store not so much – somehow anaemic recom­mend­a­tions (hey Amazon, by now you should know I love history and short stories) pair with a wal­martish “Kindle deal of the day” and seem­ingly unpol­ished best­selling lists, car­ry­ing a good deal of lo-fi fantasy, thriller and erotica works. Not the most invit­ing lobby for a library.

In all fair­ness, the lack of enthu­si­asm among German pub­lish­ers for e-books makes it dif­fi­cult to let a digital book store shine. To me, a great book store is not only about current books but also a lot about diversity and back cata­logue content: The clas­sics that are in stock – or aren’t, looking at the German Kindle store and its com­pet­it­ors.

Over the years I’ve spent lit­er­ally thou­sands of Euros in the iTunes music store buying older records from all kinds of genres. I can still remem­ber when music CDs conquered the market; it took years until even popular artists were present with their back cata­logues on CD – now record labels make a big portion of their rev­en­ues with retro content. It’s a mystery to me why book pub­lish­ers seem to re-learn this lesson from scratch.

Then there’s DRM. While it is almost useless to “protect” content – free soft­ware like Calibre and addi­tional plugins let users remove DRM and archive e-books safely on a local drive with a click – it makes hand­ling e-books dif­fi­cult and non-fun. Don’t you think there’s a reason major players in the music busi­ness like iTunes returned to DRM-free content?

I’m listing all these aspects because they show that the e-book industry could do better. Leaving them alone with fig­ur­ing out how a future reading exper­i­ence should look like is not the best move.

Lit­er­at­ure simply isn’t another retail ver­tical that can be driven by product man­agers and pro­gram­mers alone. It needs special care and spe­cific skills to prosper.

Who are the people who could give valu­able input? Writers. Pub­lish­ers. Designers. Critics. We’re looking at a sweep­ing, culture shift­ing land grab in lit­er­at­ure and these are the people who still have – as far as I’m con­vinced – the chance to shape things.

But to shape things, looking at things is imper­at­ive.

It’s funny how I could think that lit­er­at­ure wouldn’t be ser­i­ously dis­rup­ted like other indus­tries. To be clear, dis­rup­tion doesn’t mean that people won’t be buying books on paper in 10 or 20 years anymore. It will be con­sidered a gourmet reading mode for a long time. While reading on paper will not lose its charm for con­nois­seurs and its dignity, it will lose its mass rel­ev­ance in the fore­see­able future like vinyl did for music decades ago.

Which leads to the core ques­tion:

What is driving our decisions – sen­ti­ment or impact?

If your answer is impact and you feel bring­ing lit­er­at­ure to as many people as pos­sible in the future is a noble cause, then you should make up your mind about digital reading.

E-books won’t go away; if any­thing, they will slowly but stead­ily become the leading format for dis­trib­ut­ing lit­er­at­ure, no matter if the sup­port­ing hard­ware is a tablet, a smart­phone, an e-reader or some other gadget that has to be inven­ted yet.

Now, not in five years, is the time to get involved. Delib­er­ately ignor­ing e-books won’t work; that strategy is rather a carte blanche for com­pan­ies like Amazon. You’re not betray­ing your paper roots when you immerse your­self in this new tech­no­logy – you’re taking care of the future of reading.

Sounds good? I think so, too.