e-booksOn Aeon.co, Craig Mod posts a long and thoughtful essay about how he fell into and out of love with the Kindle that’s worth giving a little attention. Mod explains that he was originally attracted by the Kindle’s compelling promise of a digital future for literature, but gradually embittered by Amazon squandering that promise in favor of an overwhelmingly mediocre platform.

It seems as though Amazon has been disincentivised to stake out bold explorations by effectively winning a monopoly (deservedly, in many ways) on the market. And worse still, the digital book ‘stack’ – the collection of technology upon which our digital book ecosystems are built – is mostly closed, keeping external innovators away.

The post ends up a mixture of eloquent paean to physical books as beautiful artifacts, and disappointed diatribe against all the areas where the Kindle settles for “good enough” (or in some cases not so good at all) where it could be significantly better. While it is easy to pigeonhole Mod’s lionization of well-designed paper books as just another invocation of the tired old “smell of books” cliche (especially given that he seems to focus primarily on books that are works of art, while ignoring all the soulless slabs of mass-market paper that make up the vast majority), he does have a valid point about the way e-book progress has languished since Amazon has effectively taken over the marketplace.

E-books are basically a digital echo of paper books, but what about all the areas where they could be more than just a glass-and-e-ink doppelganger of paper and ink? For example, Mod notes that paper books we haven’t read remind us of their presence whenever we glance at our laden bookshelves, whereas the Kindle offers no reminders of the hundreds or thousands of titles we’ve bought that aren’t the half-dozen listed on the first screen. If the Kindle can greet us with advertisements for Amazon products every time we pick it up, Mod wonders, why can’t it remind us every so often of books we’ve forgotten we already bought? (Because they’ve already got our money for those, the cynic in me scoffs.)

Mod is disappointed that there is no way (that he knows of) to export notes one has taken on the Kindle so as to use them elsewhere. (Here, at least, he is in error, given that Nate reported on several ways to export Kindle notes in February.) He dislikes the way that the Kindle reduces the individual experience of opening a well-crafted book to tapping a listing and seeing identical words come up on a screen. He is also indignant that the nature of e-reading devices limits the number of fonts and formatting choices available to e-book preparers, further reducing individuality.

And when he points out that DRM restricts what individual users can do with e-books they purchase at the same time it forecloses on additional innovation by other companies, it’s hard to argue.

Many of these digital concerns would be rendered moot with more open digital-reading ecosystems. Without proprietary DRM, we could copy and back‑up our books with ease. Even if Amazon stopped supporting Kindle (as Sony did with LIBRIé, as Yahoo! did with Geocities, and as countless other huge corporations have with their seemingly invincible products and communities), we could be certain that our books and reading data would still be accessible. With a proper API (an application programming interface, which allows one authorised application to read and manipulate data in another), entrepreneurs outside of Amazon or Apple could step in and offer more beautiful, efficient, or innovative reading containers for our books, leaving the bigger companies to do what they do best: payments and infrastructure.

Mod discusses a visit to Bret Victor’s Communications Design Group research laboratory, in which Victor demonstrated a system for overlaying a digital framework onto physical book artifacts, illuminating the spine of a paper book with a green laser and triggering a projector to display scanned images of the pages on the wall at the same time a single page showed up on his tablet. “But this was possible only by performing your own scans, owning your own data, placing it in an open, malleable format. A supple data source, it seemed, was the only way to hold forth these investigations.”

All in all, it’s hard to disagree in principle, especially as Mod does not come off as the usual smell-of-books luddite. He does not scorn what e-books are so much as he is disappointed by what they could be but show no signs of becoming. Perhaps this is one area where Amazon’s domination of the marketplace actually does ill-serve it—it reduces the opportunity and the incentive to try to innovate further.

Why venture beyond appealing to the lowest common denominator when that’s where the safe money is? After all, e-books are plenty good enough for the majority of Amazon’s customers now, who don’t look much beyond the ability to carry hundreds of titles on a slim and light glass and plastic slab. Amazon may not see sufficient profit in appealing to the few who want something more beyond that, whereas companies who could see a point in it lack sufficient market share to support them in making bold experiments. Until that changes, Mod suggests, people like him will find paper books more valuable and useful overall.

It’s hard to disagree in principle. When you get right down to it, e-books have fundamentally changed very little since the first commercial formats were introduced in the late 1990s. Many of the e-books in my Calibre library now come from the Peanut Press/eReader of those days, and it’s hard to tell them apart from the more recent Kindle titles I’ve converted. Where is the bold experimentation with new digital formats? It doesn’t seem to be happening—Kindle e-books are “good enough” for the people with the lion’s share of the disposable income. I wonder when or if that will ever change?


  1. I agree with Mod’s observations and note that my interest in ebooks has diminished greatly. I have found that for text-only fiction, ebooks are OK, not great, but OK, whereas for nonfiction that includes images (as opposed to just text) ebooks make reading those books less than pleasurable. Where I used to spend $100 to $150 a month on ebooks at the peak of my interest in ebooks, I now spend $0 (although I did breakdown and buy a $2.99 ebook last week from Smashwords). If the ebook isn’t free, and quite often even if it is free, I’m not interested; I have gone back to print.

    My experience, which is MY experience and not necessarily that of anyone else, is that reading ebooks is a sterile experience. I don’t mean the smell and touch experience that Chris disdains (although we should not forget that such sensory experiences do enhance an experience which is why wine and food lovers, for example, make so much of that experience). Rather, with a print book in hand I am focused; with an ereader in hand, my mind and eye tends to wander.

    Perhaps the greatest deficit of ebooks is, as Mod notes, the difficulty in remembering what I have on my ereader. It holds too many books. Sure I have hundreds (actually thousands) of print books on my library shelves, but my eye can readily skim them. Not so with ebooks.

    Bottom line is that my buying has changed: I spend $0 on ebooks and $150 to $200 a month (average) on print books.

  2. It would be awesome if there was a consistent API for all ebooks/apps so that you could view all the books in one place on your tablet, regardless of what app they are in. Different visual metaphors would be possible – spread out on a coffee table, stacked on a bedside table, shelved in a bookcase…

  3. You can’t blame Amazon for DRM. They let publishers and KDP self-publishers opt out. And having had a Kindle 1 in 2007 and a Kindle Voyage now, I can assert that the e-reading experience has improved vastly. One thing I’m surprised not to see mentioned is the X-Ray feature on the Kindle, which I don’t think other readers and apps have, but it is a wonderful feature for long, rambling books with a huge cast of characters. But for X-Ray to be enabled, the publisher has to provide the info on the characters, places, & organizations in the book, and I don’t think they always do that. I don’t think they want ebooks to sell better or Amazon to sell more Kindles. They are more into putting the brakes on than stepping on the accelerator.

    I think this guy a) doesn’t know his Kindles and b) assumes that Amazon can do it all without cooperation from publishers.

  4. Too many people are overlooking the core benefits of ebooks. They are always available, never out of stock. They eliminate the returns problem, which also serves to hasten publishers’ out-of-print timetables and labor inefficiencies in bookstores and distribution centers. If you forget your print book, you will not read it, whereas you can access this forgotten book in the cloud, one of the networking saviors of our time. You can easily look up every unknown word. You can increase font sizes. And ideally, you should pay less given the reduction in dead trees and related outdated print distribution costs.

  5. I love ebooks, they’re all I read and my reader of choice is my smartphone. However I have moved away from Kindle ebooks as the DRM feels more renting than owning. So now I’m exploring Gutenberg and Archive.net delving into older titles. I will continue to read ebooks just not Kindle ones.

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