The Tech Herald

Publishers split on divisive Amazon Kindle book reader?

by Stevie Smith - Jun 3 2008, 16:25

Despite growing support and sales, are leading publishers really behind electronic book readers? Image: Amazon.

While there’s certainly no denying the technological appeal and customer convenience of Amazon’s wireless Kindle electronic reading device, it would appear that the very book-publishing industry it has been designed to serve is somewhat divided as to whether it is a blessing or a curse.

Taking the stand at last week’s BookExpo Convention in Los Angeles, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sang the evolutionary praises of Kindle, enthusiastically lauding the slender and versatile reader, which is capable of holding around 200 non-illustrated books and presently contributes some 6 percent of Amazon’s total paper and electronic book sales.

However, despite the fact that Amazon’s opening run of Kindle stock sold out in less than six hours when it launched in November of 2007, some publishing houses are not entirely sold on the format and the effect it is having on the book-selling industry.

While prominent publisher Simon & Schuster has recently revealed it is to add a further 5,000 titles to its Kindle catalogue (taking the publisher’s total to 130,000 titles), there are gathering whispers from certain quarters that suggest Amazon’s emerging strength as a bookseller could result in it pushing publishers to reduce traditional paper prices in light of electronic versions selling for considerably less.

Potential industry consequences associated with electronic publishing run beyond mere price reductions however, with surging digital book sales perhaps even posing a genuine threat to the traditional book publishing industry.

According to a related New York Times article, Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn K. Reidy has said that her company expects digital book sales to more than double in 2008 when compared to 2007. She also noted that digital sales grew 40 percent in 2007 when measured against 2006.

And Simon & Schuster is not alone in recording expansive growth, with Penguin Group USA’s CEO David Shanks similarly revealing that the company, second only to Random House in the publishing stakes, has sold more digital books in the first four months of 2008 than it did during the whole of 2007.

While mass consumption is still someway off for digital readers such as Kindle -- not least due to its $359 USD price tag and current US localisation -- the fact that it offers free wireless network access (via Sprint), can carry an entire cabinet’s worth of content, is lightweight (a mere 10.2 ounces), boasts a QWERTY keyboard, and also offers an adjustable 4-level grayscale view screen (600x800), means that once the price drops sufficiently and the device spreads to other market regions, there’s every chance the traditional book format will be saddled with a true rival.

That being said, it’s hard to see the majority of the book-buying public (including this writer) fully abandoning the sentimental value associated with traditionally published books. Compounding that notion, Amazon is keen to point out that Kindle users often purchase a digital and traditional version of their desired book, which goes against industry worries claiming customers are choosing a digital book instead of a traditional alternative.

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