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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why the Kindle will not take the world by storm

I wrote a column for the December issue of The Word predicting that the Kindle wasn't going to work. This got plenty of reaction, the most interesting being an email from, I think, Simon who made a point I was too stupid to make: reading is an activity that doesn't require a reproduction device so why introduce one? This argument adds to the feeling that the argument around the Kindle and the belated development of a machine for reading magazines is driven more by land grab fever amongst publishers and retailers than it is by any consumer demand. We've decided to make the Ceros "e-dition" of The Word available to subscribers. It's a bonus, not a substitute. Anyway, here's the original piece:

HEADLINE: The electronic book substitute is a solution where there is no problem. It's not going to work.

Readers, I am about to do something so stupid you may wish to avert your eyes. In the following 800 unretractable words I shall promise that something new, exciting, hi-tech, an innovation which will get unprecedented publicity and be backed to the hilt by some of the shrewdest investors in the world, is not going to work.

I am speaking of the Amazon Kindle. And the Sony E-Reader. And whatever comes next in the shape of a machine delivering traditional print products such as books and magazines in digital form to be read off a screen. They won't work.

Oh, I can understand the appeal. You probably want one for Christmas. *I* want one for Christmas. It's another new toy. We heart toys, don't we? I can certainly see the appeal for Amazon and Sony. Just as the only people who made money in the Californian Gold Rush were the folks who sold the shovels and Google now own the world of media without producing any media, what company wouldn't want to control the means of reading rather than the infernal books themselves?

I can see practical benefits for the user as well. You can go on holiday with an unlimited amount of reading stored in or accessed via a nice little device you can slip in your suitcase. You can call up any reading matter at any time if you want to. Then there's the march-of-time argument. The average British child already spends five and a half hours a day looking at a screen, which means we'll soon have adults for whom paper is an anachronism and therefore this is our only hope of getting them to read anything at all. I can see them as a means of delivering some newspaper content but I can't imagine the luxuriousness of a glossy colour magazine, whether it's Vogue or this one, reduced to a screen. It would be like putting velvet behind glass. However, that won't stop publishers trying. There are strong resource arguments for them. Just think how many forests might be saved if your daily newspaper was squirted on to a hand-held device rather than on cumbersome, commuter-inconveniencing paper. That's a good feeling, isn't it? Then there's all the printers and distribution workers made redundant. That's a less good feeling.

I shall not rehearse all the touchy-feelie arguments around boarded-up bookshops and abandoned libraries because those places are at the mercy of larger forces. No, let's focus on the thing itself and its claim to be the iPod of the written word. People saw beyond the iPod's novelty and immediately felt they couldn't live without it. With hindsight people are saying it enabled us to get rid of our bulky CD collections. I don't think it's as simple as that. It didn't provide a solution because most people didn't feel they had a problem that needed solving.

If the Kindle is going to rage through society like the iPod did it's going to have to confront the fact that reading is not an essentially rational act. Lots of us buy books we don't read, or at least don't read the whole of. We do this because we believe even showing the inclination to read a book is a virtuous act, like cooking. It shows a willingness to become absorbed, further prized in an era when most entertainment only asks us to be distracted. People have an emotional investment in books which they have never had in CDs. As Anthony Powell pointed out, books furnish a room as nothing else does. We value them as much as objects as for their contents.

Now try this experiment. Take this magazine and then just flick through a few pages. Go forward ten pages and go back ten pages. Note how many words, pictures, adverts, charts, headlines and graphic elements your eye flits across and your brain lightly registers, how many mental placeholders you set down, how many things you promise yourself to return to or avoid altogether, how you almost inhale content and context at the same time. That's because there never has been and there never will be a means of negotiating one's way around written content that is as flexible and efficient (let alone as satisfying) as the combination of hand, eye, paper and ink you are using right now. This is not an emotional argument. It's a profoundly practical one, which will not be trumped by all the wordsearch in the world.

Last but not least, a lot of books and nearly all magazines are read on public transport. In the act of reading something with the cover pointing outwards we advertise ourselves and our attitudes. It's the most complex and powerful sign language we know. An attractive woman makes herself twice as attractive when she is seen reading an interesting book. How can a brushed metal blank or a piece of nice smooth plastic begin to compete with that? We live in a culture of display, where people pay more for a ringtone than for a record. It's the worst time in history to be hiding what you're reading.