Turning over a new e-page

A couple of weeks ago, Amazon.com put out a press release revealing that e-book sales now top those of hardback books in the US. It called this a “tipping point”, but to be honest it was more a case of being a nice hook on which to hang a bit of PR. After all, who really buys hardbacks anymore? I actively hate and loathe hardbacks for fiction books and avoid them at all costs. What really will be a major moment in this history of publishing will be when e-books outsell paperbacks – and Amazon reckon that will come as soon as 2011.

As it turns out, the original press release was simply the opening salvo in a big product launch by Amazon – a new-model Kindle e-book reader was announced last week so it’s no surprise that the company had been talking up e-books. The significance of the new Kindle isn’t just the usual collection of faster/better/much cheaper, but also that the device will be on sale outside the US for the first time – customers in the UK will be able to buy direct from Amazon.co.uk rather than having it shipped over. Clearly, Amazon are looking at the recent launch of the iPad and concluding their window of opportunity to establish the Kindle as the international e-book standard is closing fast and they have to get a move on to hold off Apple from taking over.

By coincidence, the day the first Amazon press release came on the day that I paid for an e-book for the very first time. I’d downloaded free ones before (all the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, are public domain now) but this was the first time I’d actually paid out good money for a modern title. I’d been put off before this by scepticism – would I actually read an e-book, or would it languish unread? (Why should it be any different from the piles of dozens of unread physical books, after all?!) I’ve seen a few people on the train using e-book (usually the Sony e-Reader which is the main one that can be bought from high street shops in the UK) but never felt they had much appeal for me – certainly not enough to get me to shell out hundreds of pounds for the device itself.

It took a very particular set of circumstances to get me to overcome my reluctance to go virtual when it came to books. Specifically, the book I was interested in wasn’t actually in print in the UK until next year, but was available now for downloading via the likes of Apple’s iBooks and Amazon’s own Kindle platform. While I don’t have a Kindle device, Amazon have very cleverly developed a range of applications that put the Kindle reader onto many different platforms – iPhones, iPads, PCs and Macs. That gave me a certain reassurance about not being too tied to a specific device in order to still be able to read and access any book I’d bought. It’s back to the early days of music downloads: would MP3 sales have taken off if you could only play the file on one specific player and if the manufacturer stopped making it then tough luck – the books were gone too?

So I ended up going for the Kindle version. the main reason being that I wanted to be able to read during my daily commute to work. I don’t take my iPad into the office on a regular basis but I do take my iPhone – but it’s a 3G which doesn’t play well with the new iOS4 required to run iBooks. The Kindle iPhone app, on the other hand, works just fine on the old 3G and old operating system.

There were other factors that persuaded me to go Kindle as well. Some time ago, some very generous relations of mine gave me a sizeable gift token for Amazon.com; but since it was not transferable to the UK store, it’s actually proved oddly difficult to use up. I don’t have a multiregion DVD player, so they’re out; books and CDs are costly and slow to have shipped over; MP3 downloads are restricted to the US only. But it turned out that not only are Kindle books available from Amazon.com for download in the UK, you actually have to download them through the US store – at least until the end of August, when the Kindle goes international and the UK store commences its own Kindle edition e-book sales. That gift certificate suddenly became a little gold mine!

So the book (just a trashy summer action thriller, nothing high brow) was bought and downloaded within a minute – it’s really amazingly satisfying to be able to start reading a book just seconds after having decided to buy it. And then we arrived the moment of truth – would I actually carry on reading the book, or would it be a novelty quickly forgotten?

I’m actually surprised by the answer: I’m reading, and quite regularly. I’m near finished the book, and in about my normal reading time for a book of that size and type. I’ve not found it a strain reading from the screen: that’s mostly been on the iPad where a page is roughly the same size and layout as a printed book, but the iPhone has proved remarkably easy as well despite my initial doubts about the small size of the screen. I love how the Kindle software will automatically sync the book, so wherever I get up to is automatically bookmarked and offered to me as the point to read from on the other device.

Some people find they get eye-strain reading on backlit screens, but I’ve not had any problem or even really thought about it – I turn the iPad to low brightness and use the sepia colour scheme which works just fine. (The physical Kindle device, on the other hand, uses a monochrome “e-ink” system which doesn’t use backlighting and instead more closely simulates the ink-on-page of regular books.) The physical Kindle seems to be often criticised for slow page turn speeds, but on the iPad and iPhone these are quick, responsive and nicely animated.

Overall, I’m amazed how quickly the novelty wears off and you’re quickly just ‘reading a book’ and the medium doesn’t matter, but that’s something the iPad is very good at doing – disappearing into the background and letting the content take centre stage. I’m so comfortable with this set-up already that I’ve bought the sequel to the book I’m currently reading, and another as well by an author whose new detective novels I always buy when they come out in paperback. Now, instead of waiting, I have the e-book.

I’m so impressed that I’m actually mildly considering buying a physical Kindle device when they finally land in the UK at the end of August, just to try out the experience and see whether it’s different/better than the Kindle apps on the iPad and iPhone – and to see if it makes any difference to my commute.

About the only remaining frustration with e-books is if you want to read near water – say, in the bath. How are you going to feel about your pricey e-book reader coming anywhere close to liquid? So if I’m looking for a relaxing soak in the bath then it’s back to fishing out an alternate paperback from the shelf rather than carrying on with the e-book. It’s not much of an advantage, but it definitely is one – the paperback isn’t quite dead yet and still has a couple of advantages all its own!


  1. sebcrump

    “I don’t take my iPad into the office on a regular basis” Ahahahahahaaaa 😉

    Is there much difference between the Kindle, Stanza and iBooks apps?

  2. andrewlewin

    Oh, all right then! More accurately, that’s “I regularly won’t take my iPad into the office, to keep it away from prying fingers!”

    Good question about the comparison between the three apps. I’ve only used the Kindle to a read a full novel which gives it an unfair advantage, but in brief: they’re kind of exactly what you would expect. Which means, Stanza (the free/public domain book reader) is perfectly functional, but lacks any bells and whistles and looks a little primitive. But it certainly gets the job done.

    Apple’s iBooks, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of beautiful, aesthetically-advanced app you would expect from that company, every last button and function gorgeously implemented. Kindle can’t match that, and doesn’t try to: it sits somewhere in the middle, balancing functionality with good looks and arguably does it better for cutting out distractions and prioritising the reading experience. But in recent weeks they’ve been rolling up updates to make it more and more like iBooks (and Apple have been doing likewise to match Kindle/stay ahead) – there’s a real arms race going on here for e-book dominance.

    The main difference in functionality is that the Kindle is the one app which doesn’t allow you to buy/download books in-app – you have to do it on the web at Amazon.com, hardly a problem. But the Kindle is the one app that will sync your latest position/bookmark across all devices automatically so you can switch around – incredibly useful.

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