In an article “cleverly” entitled “Kindle…Or Is It Just Kindling?”, looks at whether the Kindle is really likely to be a “game-changer” in light of the potential total market for a device of the Kindle’s specifications.

Their argument is that the intersection of the sets of those people who can afford to spend $360 during a recession and those people who read enough to make a Kindle desirable will not be a terribly large one, and that the overall market for a Kindle may be as small as a million or fewer units. Although the figures they choose for their thought experiment are somewhat arbitrary, it is interesting to follow its process.

However, as one of the comments below the article indicates, “The problem with such critical articles on e-readers is that non-book readers write them. From their comments, it’s pretty clear that they’re clueless to the advantages of devices like the Kindle, such as its portability, better text quality, zoomable fonts, and the fact that you can walk around with a couple hundred books in your bag.” Another comment notes that a lot of people below the arbitrary minimum income level the author chose were willing to spend $300 during a recession on an iPod.

One thing the article suggests that is not as arguable is that the Kindle has the potential to sell a lot more units if they are able to lower the price. (Of course, there is nothing unique to the Kindle in this assessment; lower price leading to more sales is a simple axiom of economics.) One commenter writes, “I also know a lot of novel readers who are waiting for the price to come down to $150 or below, myself included.” More units sold means a larger base for selling compatible ebooks and e-periodicals, which means a better economy of scale.

(More after the jump.)

“Game” Hunting

The article concludes with another line that brings to mind the image of the author spraining her arm reaching around to pat herself on the back: “Designing the game-changing e-reader, it seems, is more like designing the game-changing harpsichord than the iPod.” But does the article proceed from a false premise? Is it necessary that the Kindle be “game-changing” to be successful, and does the Kindle being successful mean that the “game” will “change”?

To consider this, we have to figure out what “game” the Wired writer is talking about, and how it might be “changed.” But it is not too hard to figure out, from that other product they compared it to. Though there were other mp3 players, and even other hard-drive-based mp3 players before the iPod, nobody remembers them. The iPod changed the way people listen to portable music forever, and the iTunes Music Store has largely or entirely replaced CD buying for a pretty significant chunk of the population. Are they anticipating that the Kindle might change the reading game in the same way, largely or entirely replacing paper book buying just as the iPod did?

It has been an expectation, either conscious or unconscious, that electronic books will replace paper books for about as long as the idea of electronic books has existed. You see it in the Star Trek franchises, where Captain Picard is considered unusually old-fashioned because he likes to curl up with a genuine paper book to relax. You see it in Ben Bova’s Cyberbooks, one of the first “modern” fictional treatments of the idea (back before ebooks were even called ebooks), which ends with “the last paper book” being published. You’ve seen it in the starry eyes of ebook enthusiasts for the last decade and a half—the idea that, sooner or later, paper publishers will be the first against the wall when the (ebook) revolution comes.

But is this expectation realistic? Eric Flint, Baen author and ebook evangelist, doesn’t think so. Paper books are far too entrenched, and have too many cases where they are better than ebooks, ever to go away—even when as many people own ebook readers as TVs or DVD players. Flint predicts the trend already happening will continue: ebooks and paper books will exist in symbiosis, with people benefiting from the advantages of each form in situations where the other would not work as well.

Whither the iKindle?

Coming back to the Kindle, we can already dismiss the notion of it “replacing” paper. But what about simply being adopted in iPod-like numbers, bringing the e-and-p symbiosis to a much larger chunk of the population? I believe it could happen, in the right circumstances. But those circumstances would involve a dramatic drop in pricing, because the Kindle simply does not share the same advantages as the iPod.

The iPod, and mp3 players in general, makes listening to portable music easier. No more fiddling about with linear-access media like cassette tapes, or random-access-but-clumsy media like CDs. No more bulky CD or tape players required—now you can carry hours of music in a gizmo the size of a pack of cigarettes, light enough to strap onto your arm while you jog. And the music sounds as good as it ever did from cassette or CD (or at least close enough that most people cannot tell the difference).

The Kindle, and ebook readers in general, actually make reading harder. (Leaving aside the issue of people with poor eyesight who need to increase the font size to be able to read, of course.) The screen quality is not quite up to paper (though, as the Kindle shows, it is getting there). The user interface (of ebook readers in general; I have not used a Kindle) can be confusing, but everybody knows how to “use” a book. It requires battery power to operate. It is a lot more fragile than books—drop a Kindle and a paperback from twenty feet up and see which one takes more damage when it lands. The form factor is about the same as a regular book, so it does not get the iPod’s convenience benefit. And even if it can hold dozens or hundreds of books, how many people read more than one or two books at a time?

These disadvantages are things that most ebook lovers have learned to live with, avoid, or even embrace—but you will have a hard time explaining to the average layman why he should spend $360 on a device that will make books harder for him to read. Ebooks do have advantages as well as disadvantages, but those advantages usually do not cancel out the disadvantages in situations where paper books simply work better.

When the Kindle, and ebook readers in general, get cheap enough to see massive market penetration, then we might see the “game” start to “change.” But to extend the metaphor perhaps past its breaking point, ebooks are only going to be a new expansion for the game—not an entirely new set of rules.


  1. The Wired story, and even the comment from the Baen author, seem to me to miss the point about ebooks’ future. Other than some beautiful photo-gravure printed books, why do most people read? For the content!

    My take on ebooks is that their adoption is a generational thing. Those who are children now will grow up and be quite comfortable reading digital versions of books.

    I’ve loved reading since I was very young, have a personal library of thousands of p-books, and still read several books a week, fiction and non-fiction alike. Yet the other day, I declared to my husband that I was beginning to hate books. He looked startled and I quickly added that I still love the content, but the physical book itself was becoming annoying.

    Why? I was trying to read a large heavy softcover non-fiction book and it was a battle. It was awkward to hold (both weight and size), reading the first few chapters was a struggle since the perfect-binding (a misnomer if ever there was one) meant I had to hold the book at an odd angle to read toward the gutter, and, frankly, holding up that heavy of a book grew tiresome quickly. I ended up using one of my book pillows, but the whole experience led me to declare my growing dislike of having to struggle to get to the content.

    The Sony Reader I have (and, I would imagine, any well-designed ebook reader) does not present those same problems with reading large books. How great would it be to grow up with textbooks as ebooks, with a layer for highlighting and margin notes. A book could be read with or without the extra layer, all in a light-weight unit that would be easy to carry and to read.

    I can’t see many of the children who would grow up using ereaders for text books wanting to then read five-pound awkward monster books by choice.

  2. I think the real point of the Wired article was to point out that books, reading and literacy are all dying art forms. A futuristic e-reader is therefore pointless, because in the future, nobody will want to or know to read.

    Of course, we can all hope and dream that a properly designed e-reader might actually promote literacy around the world. But that might just be wishful thinking.

  3. Well…

    “Leaving aside the issue of people with poor eyesight who need to increase the font size to be able to read, of course.”

    We can leave it aside, but that was one of the driving factors for me in purchasing my Cybook. My eyesight isn’t all that poor, but it isn’t what it used to be — and being able to adjust fonts and font sizes is a clear advantage to me. And given the aging of the large boomer cohort, I’m not alone.

    Good post overall, though.

  4. Are children growing up using e-readers, though?

    Not yet. As Eric Flint put it in the second of the articles I linked:

    Even in today’s “computer age,” almost all children are first introduced to reading with paper books—and there is not a shred of evidence that that custom is changing. The number of children just learning to read who are being provided with electronic reading devices and e-books instead of “obsolete” and old-fashioned children’s paper books can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

    Why in the world would that change? Why would any parent with the intelligence of a carrot saddle their small child with two tasks to learn simultaneously? The ease of handling traditional paper technology is so great that any small child can master the art of handling a paper book in minutes—which allows them to move on almost at once to the critical task, which is learning how to read. Why would any intelligent parent place an obstacle in the way by insisting their child had to also learn how to handle an electronic reading device before they could start reading?

    I think you may be overgeneralizing based on your own experience: because you enjoy ebooks more, sooner or later everyone will read them instead of paper books. I think that’s the same trap that a lot of ebook evangelists fall into: “I like it better, therefore someday everyone else will too.”

    But as Flint said, there are a lot of situations where e just won’t cut it, and we already have all that existing infrastructure to support paper that isn’t going to go away. Maybe paper publishers will reduce their print runs, maybe they’ll even go mostly to print-on-demand instead of using large presses. Maybe Kinko’s (well, whatever they’re calling it now that they’re ditching the brand name) will start cheaply producing hardcover books rather than those comb-binding things they offer now. But printed books are never going to be reduced to the level of mere curiosities. They’re just too easy to make and use.

  5. Now, to be fair, ebooks do have some amazing advantages and conveniences. Like the size factor you state. And for those situations where they work well, they work wonderfully.

    But there are enough situations where they don’t, and enough infrastructure still existing that has been built up over the years, that print books will still be around for a long, long time. It’s not a question of “replacing,” it’s a question of symbiosis.

  6. Travel is the one circumstance in which paper books really don’t work, and that’s where I think ereaders have a real advantage. Academics travel a lot and often would benefit from having books with them, but they are incredibly heavy to take along. Unfortunately, the books that tend to be made available as ebooks are more commercial types.

  7. I’m not surprised to see so many chiming in to say, yes e will replace p. With gas at $4.00/gallon (and yes, it may dip a bit but do we really expect $.75 a gallon gas again?), why lug paper from Indonesia to America, drive to bookstores, pick up a hunk of paper, etc., when an eBook provides a better, more portable, more deliverable and instantaneous, and ultimately cheaper experience?

    eBooks won’t replace p in the same way printed books didn’t replace hand-caligraphied books. But I anticipate similar market shares.

    It’s a truism in technology that short term changes are always slower than we anticipate, but long term changes are always quicker. I remember when telecom people complained about the ‘ever-receding, imminent data bonanza.’ Guess what–one day it happened and Cisco took all the marbles because the telecom people were trying to protect their old technology.

    Rob Preece

  8. The kindle breaks even if you assume a lifespan of 3 years and 20 books a year given they continue the 20-40% discount on E, add secondhand paperbacks or the mass-market ones sold at supermarkets and your probably not even breaking even.

    The scrap value of ebooks is zero because your leasing for life instead of buying. and secondhand markets dont exist it’s full retail price or public domain.

    As long as you stay on dedicated hardware ebooks make very little economic sense to the casual reader. Sure it fits your entire library but when do you actually *need* that feature?

    I think he’s kind of right the kindle probably isnt that big a deal for E even if it makes amazon a good deal of money.

  9. I was discussing this article on a mailing list, and someone asked me to come up with a list specifically of the advantages paper books have over e-books. I came up with the following:

    Paper books don’t need batteries, are easy to understand and use, stand up better to abuse, are cheap enough that it won’t totally break you if you leave it on the bus or out in the rain, will still be readable fifty years from now (unless you leave it on the bus or out in the rain) even if their publisher goes out of business, can be legally transferred to new owners through the simple expedient of handing it over to them, can be flipped through in bookstores or libraries, and have that evocative smell of paper, ink, glue, and leather (where applicable).

    (I’m being a bit facetious with that last one, as I don’t have a sense of smell anyway, but it’s amazing how many Luddites out there espouse the Lack Of Smell Factor as one of the major reasons why they could never EVER read an ebook.)

    Some of those advantages are trivial, some are counteracted by other advantages that ebooks have—but some of them are showstoppers that mean no matter how good ebooks get, paper books will always have their place.

    For instance, browsing for books in a library or bookstore is a lot different experience than browsing for them on-line—even somewhere like Gutenberg or Baen where you can click to read the book or a sample thereupon. Even if people prefer to buy ebooks, they may want to browse through paper ones when looking for something that looks interesting to read.

    Also, as Eric Flint points out, the existing infrastructure built up for printing, storing, distributing, and selling paper books isn’t just going to go away overnight.

    Furthermore, consider the Third World, where cellphones and even a cheap Fisher-Price-style laptop are pretty big deals. There are still places there that are a couple of centuries behind in terms of the technology available.

    I could, of course, be wrong, but all the signs I see are that ebooks may eventually replace paper books—but probably not in our lifetime. Paper books are just too useful, and there are just too many of them around at this point.

  10. When CDs came out, I was sure they’d never fly. We had too much of an investment in turntables and our installed bace of vinyl.

    I was wrong (obviously), although a few people continue to insist on the benefits of vinyl. So many of the pBook analyses seem based on logic similar to my own rejection of the CD business.

    Admittedly eBooks have taken longer than CDs to replace their predecessor. But, as Chris points out, the infrastructure moving from a store model to a download model is different enough to slow the process.

    I truly believe we’re talking about a transition that will be virtually complete by 2018.

    Rob Preece

  11. I’m with Rob — familiar paradigms are changing far faster then we expect them to. Rob mentions the speed of the vinyl-to-CD transition; the tape-to-DVD and VCR-to-DVR transitions have been even faster.

    The most significant such transition to watch is the one that will bring unshared high-bandwidth to the home. While cable operators like Comcast are still dealing with the “last mile” problem and throttling P2P transfers to avoid saturation of a local resource shared by several hundred subscribers, Verizon is the only carrier to have committed in a big way to bringing a “fat pipe” all the way to subscribers’ homes with its FiOS rollout. Other carriers will eventually see the light, but the longer it takes them to do so the greater the advantage Verizon’s head start gives them.

    Given the ease of duplicating and sharing digital content in today’s world, how long will it take before content owners recognize their “legislate and litigate” strategy is merely a short term fix? It may allow them to perpetuate an outdated business model for a while longer, but this is another paradigm change they will have to address in the very near future whether they like it or not. To the early converts go the spoils.

  12. People seem to be addressing the “sooner or later, everybody will start reading ebooks” side of the argument for ebook adoption, and I have no argument with that. I don’t take issue with that idea. Yes, sooner or later, when the technology improves and the cost drops, everybody will start reading ebooks.

    What nobody has addressed yet is will people stop reading paper books, too? I don’t believe they will—at least not in my lifetime. Paper books have far too many advantages in specific situations, and those specific situations are ones that will still come up even after everyone has an e-reader.

    Look twenty or thirty years back in time, when people were enthusiastically predicting that the dawn of the computer age would bring about the “paperless office.” Has it? No. We actually use a lot more paper now than we ever did back then.

    It’ll be just the same with electronic versus paper books. There will still be plenty of reasons for trees to die.

  13. Both Flint and Meadows seem to be missing the one aspect of the Kindle that sets it apart from Sony and other e-reader devices. Meadows quotes a commenter that summarizes Kindle’s advantages as follows:

    “The problem with such critical articles on e-readers is that non-book readers write them. From their comments, it’s pretty clear that they’re clueless to the advantages of devices like the Kindle, such as its portability, better text quality, zoomable fonts, and the fact that you can walk around with a couple hundred books in your bag.”

    While a nice quotable summary, it misses the point that the Kindle is not simply like “walk[ing] around with a couple hundred books in your bag,” it’s walking around with an entire bookstore in your bag. You can shop Amazon’s entire selection of Kindle edition books from the device itself, and have a purchased title transmitted directly to the device in under a minute. (Assuming of course you’re within the cell network coverage area.) In an age of pricey gasoline, it’s comforting to think that you not only avoided “killing a tree” for your reading pleasure, but you avoided burning gasoline for either running to your local Borders or B&N, or for its postal delivery from an online retailer (with added packaging consumption).

    On a recent cross country business trip, I was able to purchase copies of a couple of newspapers on my Kindle while on a layover stop at an airport. The Kindle had the additional advantage of the newspaper being much easier to read in a plane seat, than it is to flip through a full size print newspaper that tends to spill over into your neighbor’s seat space.

    But, returning back to the issue of “game changing.” I don’t expect that the Kindle is going to completely supplant printed paper books like the CD oblitered vinyl and cassette – at least not in the current Kindle 1.0 iteration. But it is a very significant shift towards an e-book world, when you can carry a bookstore in your hand.

  14. My comment to the article “Kindle…Or Is It Just Kindling?” is that I too will purchase one when I am able to afford one, but the bigger picture for me was the fact that the device is “green”.
    A further thought is in imagining all the future uses. It actually boggles the mind. Imagine for a second schools. The money they would save if they didn’t need to purchase paper text books, not to mention, no more lost books due to thoughtless children. Schools could purchase the eBooks with the right to duplicate to students for however long they use that certain text. No worries about editions, they could be automatically updates without the school ever having to do anything.
    Text books with outdated or incorrect information would be a thing of the past. These changes could be made system-wide. And you know all those historical facts found to be slightly askew – easily corrected.
    The ideas and uses are absolutely endless. Do I think this will ever replace books? Absolutely, not! We will always have people with a love for the antique, the passé, the “collectable”, etc.
    I sincerely hope that the device comes down in price, but more for just that I too will be able to afford to own one, but also because I believe the manufacturers will recognize (if they haven’t already)an even bigger source of income for them will be in the form of secondary income – the selling of eBooks.
    To conclude: I am currently waiting delivery of books that I have ordered from Amazon and the fact that I must wait for between 3 and 15 days irritates me. For all those out there like me; you know the instant gratification seekers, I would get a Kindle just for that alone.

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