In a wide array of places the news that various publishing houses are jumping ship and leaving the Amazon Kindle high and dry is reported. Other than a quick assessment of rampant greed, what exactly is happening? I think that what many, possibly all, of these publishers is forgetting is that, to my way of thinking, e-publishing is not something that will ever totally displace standard, made from paper, books.

There is the ability of books to be quickly accessed in a random fashion, much as a hard drive is more easily accessed than a tape drive, which is totally sequential access. Then, for many, there is simply the palpability of it – to own a book – something of value. Anything electronic is not the same, and though it might have its conveniences, it is also ethereal, and nebulous.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, from ZDNet, believes that the reasons for the changes is the iPad, which many believe is going to be the next game change device for the world at large. While that is possible, I believe we are also seeing a brute force assessment of how we, as a culture, value works of language. Since there is none of the standard cost of publishing involved, past that last edit before publication, we are also deciding how much the delivery is worth to us, especially since the content container is not being subsidized in any way. (we’re not using the cell phone model with any of these e-readers.)

It seems that Amazon’s dream of the $9.99 ebook for the Kindle is dead. First it was MacMillan who strong-armed the book giant, then HarperCollins, and now Hatchette. Where does this leave the Kindle?

As it stood, with ebooks for the Kindle costing $9.99, Amazon had an advantage over Apple’s iBooks store for the iPad. That made the iPad a poor buy compared to the Kindle for book lovers. Now that publishers are pulling out of the flat-fee deal with Amazon and setting their own prices (which will, of course, be higher no doubt), that advantage will likely disappear.

What’s happened here is pretty obvious. Initially Amazon had the publishers over a barrel when it came to pricing. If publishers wanted in on the Kindle wave, they had to play ball. Barnes & Noble’s Nook wasn’t enough of a game changer to change things.

But the iPad is different.

The iPad is different because it does more. It is not simply a reader device. This is more a dismissal of the Kindle than a revaluation of the public’s notion of what a work of literature should cost, however, it is possible that the one price fits all may have been more upsetting than the actual price chosen.

My guess is that Apple’s behind this change of heart by the publishers. While the Kindle has enjoyed some success, it’s a fair bet that if the iPad takes off, it’ll be far bigger that the Kindle could ever have been, so now is a good time to shake up the pricing.

But there’s another side of the coin, and that is that the $9.99 price was likely unsustainable for publishers, especially given that printing costs of hardback books is something in the region of $2.50. While $9.99 was attractive to both Amazon and consumers, it’s likely to have been painful for publishers.

It was not painful, according to Amazon, because they claim to have been subsidizing the price down to $9.99. Who is playing who here? I have seen no drop-dead date for that subsidy published, we can assume that is would have gone on for quite a while, perhaps forever, since Amazon has stated that lesser works would also be $9.99. The uptick in price for those works would ostensibly balance the other works subsidy.

But the question is, will the Kindle suffer because of the new pricing? It’s easy to think no, given that pricing will be consistent from different outlets. However, the problem is that people get used to pricing at one level, and raising prices is likely to annoy those who have been faithful to the Kindle. But that effect is likely to be short-lived (remember when iTunes raised the prices of tracks … it quickly blew over). While going to be more damaging is that the Kindle is a one-trick pony compared to the iPad. Sure, the Kindle is a good ebook reader, but that’s it. Compared to the Kindle, the iPad is a digital Swiss Army Knife. It’s that fact, and not the price of ebooks, that’s going to harm the Kindle in the long run.

The Kindle is a single-purpose device in a convergent world.

Late last year I gave the Kindle three years. Now, that could be as little as 18 months.

While I don’t think the Kindle will go away, I do think that the device will have to come down in price, and any e-reader that does nothing more will find a home in the under-$100 zone. I stated that months ago – it was not a revolutionary idea. It still does nothing to make the assessment of content price any easier.

How that will shake out is anyone’s guess.


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