If you think Black Friday was ugly, you haven’t been paying attention to the e-reader wars. The knock-down, drag-out that’s going down between e-tail giant Amazon and brick-and-mortar survivor Barnes and Noble makes the California woman who pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers look like Mother Theresa. Hell, it makes the UC Davis cop who pepper-sprayed protesters look like Sister Helen Prejean.
Now, you may know me as the Philly Post’s Monday morning guy, a role in which I’ve taken on such issues of urgent civic import as asinine Internet legislation, the scourge that is Philly’s stretch of I-95 and, um, the Jonathan Papelbon contract. But by day I’m a mild-mannered business magazine editor covering the book publishing industry. From that particular catbird seat, the e-reader war, a tasty little drama that pits Amazon’s Kindle e-reader franchise—and its newest member, the $200 mini-tablet computer the Kindle Fire—against B&N’s Nook roster of e-reading devices—including its own new $250 Nook Tablet—has been downright spellbinding. (This is, of course, all going on in the considerable shadow of Apple’s iPad, the tablet computer that defines and still leads the market.)
While a war between a Kindle and a Nook may sound like the cuddliest wittle donnybrook this side of a Care Bear tickle fight, the stakes are huge, the tactics cutthroat, and there are implications for the future of the book industry, as well as the nature of reading itself.
Essentially, even though basic models of the Kindle and Nook have been market rivals for years, the titans behind both seem to be approaching this holiday season as do-or-die time. With more people than ever before reading books electronically, and Borders’ bankruptcy earlier this year fresh in everyone’s minds, Amazon and B&N look to be fighting for much more than market share—they’re battling for hearts and minds. Both companies are ostensibly losing their shirts on devices in hopes that they’ll make their money back on future sales of e-books (not a guarantee given the drama surrounding e-book pricing).
Amazon launched the first salvo, announcing its much-anticipated Fire would be considerably cheaper than anyone expected. Barnes & Noble scrambled to counter, offering the tablet version of its Nook for $250 (fwiw, it does come with quite a bit more storage). Then Amazon announced its controversial (and contractually dubious) Kindle Owners Lending Library, which offers free access to tons of books to people who both own a Kindle and subscribe to Amazon’s Prime service. Now all that’s left to do is watch to see how it all shakes out.
Though I’m rapt with these developments from a professional standpoint, I’m personally anguished—to no small extent because I don’t know which of these I should be buying myself, if I even want one at all. (My underdog tendencies do me no favors in technology pick-’ems. I’m a proud former owner of a TurboGrafx 16, a Rio player and a Sega Dreamcast. I currently get my Internet from Clear.)
The part of me that appreciates efficiency (the part that’s putting my entire record collection on a 1TB hard drive) can get behind the entire-library-at-your-fingertips thing. The part of me that likes to collect tangible things (that would be the part that’s holding on to all those CDs just because) is dismayed by the idea of a world without bookshelves. For starters, how will we judge people when we visit their homes if not by snooping at their book collections?
The part of me that thinks about sustainability can see the benefit in saving some trees. But the same part of me wonders whether all those millions of devices (and the rare earth elements required to make them), designed with planned obsolescence in mind is really an environmental gain at all.
But my trepidation runs deeper. There is a very real sense that, as the mp3 ravaged the music industry a decade or so ago, the e-book is about to completely alter the book publishing landscape. We’re already seeing tears in the continuum: Penguin, one of the vaunted “big six” publishers, recently pulled its titles from a service that provides e-books to libraries for fear of piracy. (Penguin has since reinstated older titles.)
That could be the most concerning aspect of all of this: the further commodification of knowledge. It’s fundamentally wrong when you can’t easily loan a book because your format isn’t compatible with your friend’s. And when books—e or print varieties—are kept out of libraries because publishers are afraid people will read them, that’s a net loss for society. I know publishing’s a business, and those who create important books deserve recompense. But part of what makes books so important is that they represent the infinite expansion of the cosmic knowledge base. Tying that principle to a device absolutely undermines it by threatening access by the impoverished and the oppressed.
I know Ludditism is, in general, the practice of tilting at windmills. But in this instance, I’m with them, at least in that I don’t think the printed volume will ever outlive its usefulness.