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« The power of remarkable | Main | No such thing as price pressure »

Random thoughts about the Kindle

Might be of interest to investors, readers, writers, designers, marketers, etc. Or not...

Two months ago, I got a Kindle. It's a fascinating device, unlike almost any other launched by a significant tech company. Here's why:

1. It's for women and women are buying it. The bestseller list of Kindle titles is much less tech-heavy than Amazon's list was in the early days of the web. An Oprah book is #1. And the colors and feel of the machine don't feel like the current uber-geek tech dream device.

This is a fascinating strategy. It means that typical technology marketing and adoption strategies aren't in play, since most tech devices go after nerdy men. It means a slower start (since paying $400 for technology is a stretch unless it's your passion) but also possibly a much bigger finish.

2. I just got rid of 3,000 books in preparation for an office move. That's two decades worth of reference books. I realized that most of the books I bought I didn't use any more (thanks to wikipedia and google) and that buying books in anticipation of giving them to someone else was generous but not actually happening in practice. For the tiny slice of readers that account for a huge pile of book sales (300 books a year adds up), moving those purchases to the Kindle is smart for Amazon and smart for the reader.

3. It changes (at least for me) what it means to buy and own a book. Delivery is very fast, and I feel a lot less badly about stopping a book on page 10 if it doesn't interest me (sunk costs should be ignored, but that's hard to do--if a book's not worth reading, one should stop). As a writer, this raises the bar even further in terms of keeping people with me past chapter one if they're using this device.

4. The Kindle does a fine job of being a book reader, and a horrible job of actually improving the act of reading a book. This is a surprising design choice, I think, and a mistake. Here are three simple examples of how non-fiction books on the Kindle could be better, not just cheaper and thinner:

--Let me see the best parts of the book as highlighted by thousands of other readers.
--Let me see notes in the margin as voted up, Digg-style, by thousands of other readers.
--Let me interact with hyperlinks and smart connections not just within the book but across books

I can think of ten others, and so can you. Instead of making this a dead end (like a book) they could have made it a connector (like the web).

Word processing didn't work because it was typing but a little cheaper. It worked because it was better than typing. Email didn't work because it was mail but a little faster. It worked because it was fundamentally better than snail mail...

5. The pricing of books is whacked. $9.95 is a publisher-friendly price, not an author-friendly or reader-friendly price.

My first thought is that every Kindle should ship with $1,000 worth of free books on it. I offered Amazon rights to as many of my books as I control if they would just agree to put em free on every Kindle. They declined. I can think of a hundred authors who would be delighted to put one or more of their backlist books in front of this book-hungry audience.

Once you have a device that lets you get any book in a few seconds, one that eliminates both paper and inventory (the two enemies of every publisher and bookstore) then the marginal cost of a book drops dramatically. And as we learned at the iTunes store, when something costs a buck, it's a fundamentally different purchase than when it costs $10 or $20.

The funny thing is: I've heard from a few publishers about my comment about pricing, and they've pointed out that authors would be hurt if the price was lowered, because, they argue, the royalties would go down. This is nuts, of course, because volume would go up, and the author percentage rate would go up as well (no paper costs to pay for). The power stays with the author, because the author is not a commodity.

Some publishers are worried that Amazon would get too much power if the Kindle succeeded. I think the power is going to continue to accrue to authors with direction connections to readers... that's the real asset. Amazon doesn't care which author sells, just as long as something sells.

What happens to reading habits when you can buy all the books you want for $40 a month? What happens to book consumption when books become social objects, commented upon by you and your participating friends or network? The conversations surrounding books are often a prime driver behind book sales ("You haven't read it yet?) and the conversation-enabled Kindle takes that to a whole new level.

How does a classroom or corporate book circle or book group change when 20 or 50 people each spend a dollar or five dollars to engage in a spirited device-based/book-based discussion around a big idea?

6. As an author, I won't write directly for the Kindle until it has a big audience and it offers more than just a linear reading experience. When that happens, though, when thousands of writers start using this portal to reach millions of readers, it becomes a killer app. Not until then, though.

A lot has been written about how cool the screen is. It is cool. A lot has been written about the offbeat interface (not so good) and the seamless downloading (a wonder.) This is all irrelevant to me. What's worth commenting on is how close the Kindle comes to revolutionizing the way ideas are sold and spread, and how short it comes out in the end (for now.) My bet is that this is just round one. Round five could be/should be powerful indeed.


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