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.