Naturally you know that anything you ever read that includes a question mark in the title is obligated to answer it with the word ‘no’. But this time, I think it’s ‘no’ bordering on ‘maybe’. I’m just not sure what I think about it.
Here’s the thing. Author Lee Child was on BBC’s Newsnight this week about the spat between Amazon and the publisher Hachette. Child isn’t with that publisher and he has been vocal about supporting Amazon in general, but he was on Newsnight to tell Amazon off. That’s not what interests me most, though. I’ve appended the full interview way down there below but during it, he said this:
“Amazon is fantastically ambitious, they want to change the world, they want to dominate and the Kindle simply hasn’t. It hasn’t worked as well as Amazon wanted it to work. It’s become – you know, America’s market is about two years ahead of the British market and the verdict is in, in America. And to put it in the vernacular, Kindle is ‘so 2012’. People tried it out back then. Some people liked it, some people didn’t, most people were completely indifferent and it has settled into a good, solid niche which is fine from a business point of view but not good enough for Amazon.”
You can argue that authors, especially ones with long and successful track records in hardback and paperback, might want to think that Kindle is a niche. I think we’ve all expected and/or feared that ebooks will one day replace all books and there’s certainly been a massacre of high street bookstores.
But Lee Child is an international hit and he does huge business in America: though he’s a British writer, he sets his Jack Reacher thrillers in the States and very, very convincingly so. I tend to give him some credence, then, especially as there was also news this week of how shops are not necessarily being beaten by online sales as much as expected.
Over the past 20 years, e-commerce sales have grown to about 6% of total retail sales (excluding gasoline and food services) and about 11% of Forrester’s top 30 product categories.
But though the e-commerce growth rate is attractive, it has slowed from about 30% per year in the early 2000s to less than half that rate today. If the trend continues, e-commerce sales will increase from 11% of Forrester’s top 30 categories to about 18% by 2030—higher in some (such as music) and lower in others (such as food). While 18% is a significant number, it does not exactly spell the end of physical stores.
The full piece then goes on to talk about how the lines blur anyway:
Imagine that a customer goes to a Macy’s store, learns that the product is out of stock, and uses her smartphone to order the product from another Macy’s outlet, which ships it to her home the same day. Is that an e-commerce sale or a physical one?
You can extrapolate too much from any one or two sources but it’s not unreasonable, I think, to wonder if all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. Theatre was destroyed by radio and radio was destroyed by television but all three are strong again today. Maybe over time things will even out and Child is right that Kindle will be just one format instead of the dominant one.
The trouble is, I don’t like Kindle.
The original hardware Kindles irritated me with how the screens would flash black every six pages or so, I never got used to that distraction. Plus the typography, the very look of the words on the page niggled me. The hardware is better now and, moreover, you can get Kindle software on just about everything I use: iPhone, Mac and especially iPad.
I buy quite a lot of Kindle books to read on my iPad.
But I’m afraid I do it reluctantly. Kindle books are ugly. I mean, they are just ugly. I say this as someone who has some of his books out on Kindle and I definitely say it as someone who uses Kindle to get many books that aren’t available anywhere else. But it’s not the greatest reading experience. I’ve just been reading a book that has a lot of photographs in it; the way the book is formatted you’ll sometimes get a caption on the next page so I was often skipping back and forth to read caption, see photo or vice versa. Every time I would do it, the entire book would reformat and put the text in a different place. What was a half page at the end of a chapter was now a full page at the end of a chapter.
If a book is available on both Kindle and Apple’s iBooks, this reading experience business is enough that I will buy the iBook. Even though typically that’s a little bit more expensive.
Reading an iBook is a genuine pleasure, though. I’ve looked to see if I can show you a comparative screenshot, grab the same page from a Kindle ebook and an Apple iBook and there’s not really one that conveys this difference to you. That does tell me that the difference is slight. But it’s real and it’s enough that it matters to me.
Plus, I have some skin in the game. The most popular edition of my The Blank Screen book is definitely the Kindle one – though you’d be surprised, the paperback is pretty close – but I think the most gorgeous version is the one on iBooks. I’m just astonished how good that looks.
And then you get things that cannot be done on Kindle and in fact cannot be done in paperback either. Writer David Sparks has a range of books he calls the MacSparky Field Guides that are a mixture of text, graphics, video and audio, all working together. It’s not a gimmicky use of technology, it’s exploiting the tech to get us something good. His latest is a guide to making presentations and it is just beautiful.
Not just beautiful, it’s a very good read. (And listen. And watch.) But it’s definitely also beautiful.
Books like his and, yes, mine, are so good as ebooks that I would actually be sorry if paperbacks rose up and took over the world again. I just want them both. I want them all. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
David Sparks’s MacSparky Field Guide: Presentations is exclusively on iBooks here. Even if you’re not going to make a presentation, a look at the free sample just to see how well he’s done the book.
Lastly, here’s that full Lee Child interview on Newsnight with Kirsty Wark: