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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

For all you readers out there...

Santa, Baby,
Leave a Kindle under the tree, for me,
Been a good reader, and so…

I probably won’t be getting a Kindle for Christmas. And I don’t just say that because I’m Jewish. I say it because the simple truth is that it’s way out of the price range of anyone I get gifts from. And, well, most people who’ve even heard of the Kindle, are early adopters, gadget heads, Oprah watchers, avid Amazon wish-list makers, writers, or insatiable readers; or some combination of all--and really, my people are all broke versions of the above description.

If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. The Kindle is a handheld ebook device. It is the proud production of the folks who brought us the internet book store, the small bookstore and independent bookstore marketplace, and CreateSpace, a print-on-demand client; Amazon. With Kindle, Amazon brings on what some consider the doom of the “book,” and others the liberation of the author.

Steve Windwalker is in the latter group. A self-published author, and Bestselling author in the Amazon Kindle bookstore, Windwalker has written several guides to the Kindle since its inception a year ago. He has also written Bey ond the Literary-Industrial Complex, a polemic part manifesto / part how-to guide. Windwalker contends in his book (published both electronically and traditionally through his press, the Harvard Perspectives Press) and when speaking that the Kindle is, and should be, part of an inexorable wave of change in the way books are published and sold.

In fact, Windwalker explains, the Kindle is simply the current top technology for a net-based movement that is far older. Writers have already been liberating themselves, they’re simply finding the Kindle to be the next best way of doing it.
“Amazon’s goal in creating the Kindle, wasn’t to create the best device ever; it was to create the bridge so that they would still be selling books in 2018” Windwalker said. “They’ve set the bar in terms of delivery and content. So I think when you combine that with the fact that writers are blogging and writing books online and doing all kinds of things and the whole focus of what is considered journalism has changed.”

The doomsayers, on the other hand, are bemoaning their private libraries. One anonymous poster on a writers’ listserv spoke of the Kindle as a machine that would need constant replacing and would make buying physical books obsolete, and thus create a situation in which, if one had a library at all, it was a collection of Kindles and memory cards. He then went on to describe his doomsday scene, in which the world is subjected to an electrical bomb, which would then wipe out all the Kindles, leaving all humanity without any of its published record. We would have no way to recover the glory of human publication from such a disaster as all databases would be wiped out and we will have long since thrown out our books.
The truth, always, lies somewhere in the middle.

Windwalker doesn’t represent the Kindle as the end of all books, but does see publishing in general headed in that direction. For him, all Amazon did was recognize the coming wave early enough to be the leader.
“The Kindle is not going to do this in any kind of quick time-span. But I think a lot of that kind of change never is absolute, as its heralds proclaim, but [it] is going to occur in waves.”

And perhaps the corner of possibility was turned when Oprah jumped aboard, in late October, with a show all about the device and a discount offer for her viewers. Those lucky enough to have been in the audience that day received their Kindle for free. It was under their seats. And as she breathlessly praised the device, she held it in her hands and suggested they pick it up. She explained that it naturally could store up to 200 books, had GPS and emailing as well as free blogging access, and users could even ask it questions. The entire audience was Kindled.

“And,” she mouthed with that deep excitement that has earned her a yelling satire on Saturday Night Live, “with a memory card it can even hold four th-OU-sand books. FOUR THOUSAND!”

For Windwalker, the Oprah effect is particularly fascinating.

“The interesting thing about the show was that we’ve seen for years that she can sell a $15 book, but there she was selling a $359 gadget, and by my calculations, Amazon sold about 100,000 after the show.”

Windwalker’s sales went up by about 500 percent by his own estimation before Amazon started having to backorder the device. The fascination is not just in Oprah’s ability to sell a big ticket item, it lies also in her ability to do so as the national economy tanks and many people find themselves jobless, or facing that possibility, and even those who have managed to maintain employment face grocery bills that climb on a weekly basis.

The Kindle is selling, regardless. Or, perhaps, because of. One of the arguments for the Kindle in a time of economic crisis is that Amazon’s Kindle books sell for $9.99 a piece; roughly half the price of the average book. By buying a Kindle, the argument goes, one is saving on one’s book budget.

One blogger, at, suggests this logic is false.

“Truth is, you are never going to get back that $359,” The blog explains. “All the fancy projections you are hearing about how buying x books a month will get you your $395 back in a year are nonsense.”

Why? Because book lovers buy books. And when book lovers can buy books more cheaply, have ready access to them whenever and wherever they may be, and use simple, light, handheld technology to do so, they will buy more books.

Thekindle blog rather wisely suggests that if you are looking at the Kindle as an investment in lowering your book budget, either look again, or purchase a will of steal to go with it. Instead, the author suggests, you may want to look at the Kindle as a way to “get more book bang for your buck.”

Just as buying any item on sale still requires the outlay of money, buying the Kindle allows the user to then have an ongoing book sale at his or her fingertips. In this way, we are allowed to drool over the idea of the Kindle. We are encouraged to do so. But just a little more realistically. The logic of getting one’s money back is only economically sound for an item that can earn money.

But lookee-here! The Kindle can.

For writers, Windwalker says, the Kindle, in concert with CreateSpace brings the concept of the indie market to publishing. It may even remove some of the stigma associated with the vanity press—lightheartedly lampooned in Beyond the Literary-Industrial Complex with a dialogue between writer and book in which the writer shyly says, “But I would never want it to get around that I was paying for it.”
And while Windwalker does posit that at this point in time self-publishing is simply easier for non-fiction and niche-based books because such books have a very clear audience and thus make distribution and marketing far easier for the self-publishing writer, that may not be a long-term actuality.

“It’s amazing that there’s so much openness in the world of Indie music and film to do-it-yourself models without stuff getting stigmatized as; ‘here’s a song by a guy who couldn’t find a label.’”

In fact, Indie music and film are heralded as the truer, less commercialized forms of art. Because there are no big dollars behind the artists, there is no pop-stigma. The pieces are looked at as thinking-people’s art. An entire cable channel is dedicated solely to the world of independent film, to match the Indie film festivals that are highly attended and covered, and most large communities or cities have radio stations entirely dedicated to Indie music. No one would suggest to Ani DiFranco that Righteous Babe Records is pointless because she built it herself.
Why, then, the taboo of the vanity press, and is the Kindle really the solution? Windwalker points to the writing cottage industry both in his book and in talking about the future of Indie publishing (whether it be Kindle or any other device that allows it to flourish). In particular, he blames the MFA and big publishing industries for perpetuating the taboo. Because so many writers make money from the teaching of writing and so many writers pay money to the cottage industry of learning to write, the supposed impossibility of being a real author is made overt and self-perpetuating. But he doesn’t see that lasting very long.

“I do think that 8 or 10 years out, it’s going to be a very different world, with respect to those things, and part of it is that technology allows change,” Windwalker said. The Kindle, for him has helped bring this about by bringing the cost of self-publishing to the ground. When he first began his publishing company, the cost of a small run of books was $3-5 thousand. “Now, the cost through Kindle is $0.”

In addition, he cites generational demands that will radically change the situation within the decade.

“It will be gradual. There won’t be any point where we can say ‘Ah the Kindle did that.’ It will occur in ways and there will be other forces, and it may not even be the Kindle. One of the things that Amazon has set itself up for with the Kindle, is that they will be very well positioned if the Kindle flames out and is replaced by an Apple device. Amazon only has to flip some switches so that that stuff is available on Amazon for the Apple device.”

Ultimately, though, Windwalker believes that the Kindle is merely a bridge to the next generation of reading and readers. And perhaps, if one takes Oprah’s view, it doesn’t matter what people use to read, so long as they read more. If nothing else, the Kindle seems to be proving that people do want to read more.

As for me, I will have to wait for Kindle 2.0, as Windwalker puts it, that will likely come in colors and have even neater features, before I can afford a Kindle 1.0—whose cost will go down drastically as did the iPod’s. Unless I can get ahold of Santa before Christmas.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Hey! How cool is that?

This showed up in my "Google Alerts" for CreateSpace overnight.

Glad to see you are blogging.