Twitter  At Gannett, questions about how metrics determine coverage nie.mn/1C31dJM  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Why the Kindle will fail

I tend to try to moderate my opinions here a bit more than I do in person. Like everyone, I have gut instincts that lead me to certain conclusions — but I try to keep what I put up here to more concrete ideas. But I feel I need to share a hunch I’ve had for a year or so — and one that seems to be increasingly at odds with the conventional wisdom — if only because I feel I should be held accountable if I’m wrong:

The Kindle is going to fail.

It is not “the iPod of books.” It will never be.

To support this hunch, I offer two data points:

— I’m a nerdy guy. And I’m a writer. I work at Harvard, which is filled with nerdy people who are writers. I write about the intersection of writing and technology for a living. I’m a classic “early adopter” for tech. I buy a lot of books; my girlfriend is editorial director at a book publisher; I have lots of friends who’ve written books; and I’ve got a variety of fiction and non-fiction book projects of my own, in varying states of completion and disarray.

I say all this to illustrate that I am the exact target audience for the Kindle — precisely the mix of book reader and tech lover who should want one. And yet, 15 months after the Kindle, I have not seen one single Kindle in the flesh.

Not one.

— I’m spending a couple days at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York City. It’s a conference for people in the publishing industry who are interested in books’ digital future — lots of sessions on ebook publishing models, online reading habits, XML best practices for long-form content, and so on. (I’ll write a lot more about the highlights here over the next couple days.) If there is anyone who is more of a perfect target for the Kindle than me, that person is here.

And yet yesterday, during a panel on ebooks, the moderator asked the audience of hundreds of tech-savvy (or at least tech-interested) publishing professionals how many of them had a Kindle. I’d say maybe 1 in 8 raised their hands. Then he asked how many had an iPhone — about 1 in 2. (Later on in the day, someone asked how many were on Twitter — maybe 1 in 3.)

If Amazon can’t win in this room — people willing to spend two or three days sitting through sessions on XML and such, people who love books and who want to navigate through the coming digital thicket of their business — then the Kindle ain’t going nowhere.

As I wrote the other day, the distribution model behind the Kindle is much more likely to be a success. But I think Amazon’s battle to expand people’s three discrete screens — cell phone, computer, TV — into four is headed nowhere.

                                   
What to read next
Quartz_homepage
Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 26, 2014
Previously proudly without a homepage, the business site is trying to shift its email success to the web to build loyalty.
  • http://pindropsoup.blogspot.com Dave

    Your logic is flawed. You are not the initial early adopter of this product and the fact you don’t want one is skewing your conclusion.

    You are entrenched. How many people in Microsoft’s mobile division have iphones? My guess is not many. You are the guy that says Twitter and Facebook will fail because you don’t get it. The fact is new media attracts the new minds.

    Carry 50 books in the space of one on your next vacation. Never lose your page again because the bookmark is built in. Instant delivery/acquisition of books. Always have a dictionary. Search the book. Get your home newspaper while you travel. These are the attributes that will drive this product to success. Good luck explaining to a college student in 10 years that you had to purchase your text books at high prices before this invention and why that was better.

    It is officially in release 2, and yes, I think it is too closed too. And they need to solve for color. It should support PDFs. It should be lighter. They said the iPhone (v1) would fail because it wouldn’t connect to MS Exchange (fixed in V2). In a few years, this device will be lighter, brighter, and more open. It will use multiple wireless networks.

    The reason ebooks have failed over and over is the selection and chasm crossing thing. Amazon has addressed that. Now if they can just execute.

    One more factor, the publishers like it and will want this to succeed. Current pricing is on par with printed media, but that is silly. Logistics are too expensive for printed media. Plus used books are getting resold – eating revenue from the publishers and the authors. The Kindle solves all this. Make the Kindle edition 30% less than paper (only a matter of time) and watch the market adoption rate swing.

    I remember telling a friend that I needed a bigger ipod – 80GB – and he could not fathom why I needed that much music on the go. Wrong paradigm. It wasn’t the on the go, it was the elimination of CDs on my shelves and the ability to find the music I wanted. Now that I have videos on it, the 160 GB version is too small. What value do bookshelves offer a home or office?

  • lmv

    I agree, with author to some extent. My reasons include:

    1. Kindles are only sold in the US. Sony’s can be sold anywhere. Why are we focusing on the kindle?

    2. While it would be great to replace college textbooks with an e-reader, courses often require multiple books. Q: How do you compare passages and quotes in books when you only have one reader?

    3. On college e-textbooks: Who didn’t write in their books in college? I don’t think that the kindle note-taking features are robust enough for a Uni student.

    4. The size of a kindle is too small to digest content when speed-reading.

    Unless these basic needs are addressed, I don’t think Amazon can corner the college e-textbook market.

    e-books for education need to offer robust note-taking features. If I was at Uni, I would consider purchasing multiple Kindles (one per course, or for the ability to compare books with each other) only if I could take notes and export them.

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com MichaelJ

    @Imv,

    You are exactly right for the serious student. In fact you have made all the arguments, I wish I had said as clearly,for the fundamental advantage of paper books.

    But, the reality is that serious students are a small niche in the mass market of college students who buy textbooks fundamentally becuase it is required by the instructor.

    But as the niche of serious students grow, my take is that Print on Demand might fill the needs you describe. Until e devices have all the features you need.

  • Steve

    Re: Tim

    I love libraries, don’t get me wrong, but mine is open from 9am-5pm and I work 8am-6pm. Free is great, but it just doesn’t fit my schedule.

  • Bob

    Kindle = too few reading choices, especially in magazines and too much kindling in literary mask.

  • Lisa

    I think you’re looking in wrong communities to find Kindles. It really isn’t about the techheads, it’s about readers. Among my friends, all huge bookworms, I know about 20 who have Kindles. My elderly uncle & his wife each have one. My husband and I each have one. They work well for us – and I’m reading more than ever now.

  • Mick

    Like so many others trapped within your institution, you are a lot less savvy than you think you are. Take a small step out of your little world and you’ll find lots of people who love to read, who read all sorts of books, who read at every opportunity for whom a device like the Kindle works really well.

    Actually I suspect that you do not belong to any of the market segments for whom the Kindle works, because you really don’t read very much or very widely.

  • http://counternotions.com Kontra

    ”I can even read it in the sunshine,”

    Duh! That’s pretty much the only way you can read eInk screens as they are NOT backlit, unlike iPhones. Speaking of the latter, we explored the iPhone-Kindle comparison when it was introduced last year in:

    Why is the new Kindle eBook reader from Amazon and not Apple?
    http://counternotions.com/2007/11/19/kindle-vs-iphone/

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com MichaelJ

    @Lisa and Mick,

    Exactly.

    The notion that everyone who graduated from college is a reader is just not true. And the idea that everyone in college – even Harvard – is a reader is also not true. The idea that people buy newspapers to read is just plain silly.

    To be clear, very high performance certificate holders of even Ivy League schools are not necessarily readers. Consider ex-president Bush. On the other hand, my immigrant grandmother was a reader.

    Readers engage with the world of emotions and ideas through words. Words and the way they are used and presented supply the threads that hold facts and ideas together. It’s when the flux of life is captured in words that new thoughts have the best chance of occurring.

    The internet and all the gadgets that connect to the internet are conversational. The Kindle and it’s copycats are the first electronic tech that is optimized to present words to do what they do best.

    Readers are getting the same freedom to choose as TV watchers. Once you can time shift an activity, it’s much easier to do what you want to do. Readers read. Viewers scan and watch. Everybody loves to talk.

    For readers, at different times the words present in a paper newspaper,magazine or book or the web version or the epaper version. It’s not a zero sum game as the reader niche continues to grow.

  • http://BrassCannonBooks.net Francis Hamit

    I rather resent the “vanity press” label applieddd to Smashwords. It implies that there is value to the work, and that’s not the case. My existing 66 e-books are actually previously published magazine articles for which I was paid. They are very narrow niche products and publishing them was an early experiment to determine the size of the market. (Not large.) Smashwords.com is a way to feed content to this market without getting ISBNS registrations. These only get you into online bookstores, which have not proven to be an efficient channel for distribution. Moreover, Smashwords.com returns 85% of the net and allows you to set your own price (which can include free or letting the customer set his or her price).

    E-book distribution is still in its infancy and no where the financial gold mine once assumed. It can serve as a test-bed for new text and new writers without the expense and gatekeeper obstacle course of print publication. My novel in a print edition is selling well and getting great reviews, but I also want to experiment with these new forms.
    An efficent e-book reader would be a great help in enabling this process, but so far, that’s not the Kindle, but the iPhone which has millions of verified users, not thousands of possible users

  • http://BrassCannonBooks.net Francis Hamit

    I rather resent the “vanity press” label applieddd to Smashwords. It implies that there is no value to the work, and that’s not the case. My existing 66 e-books are actually previously published magazine articles for which I was paid. They are very narrow niche products and publishing them was an early experiment to determine the size of the market. (Not large.)

    Smashwords.com is a way to feed content to this market without getting ISBNS registrations. These only get you into online bookstores, which have not proven to be an efficient channel for distribution. Moreover, Smashwords.com returns 85% of the net and allows you to set your own price (which can include free or letting the customer set his or her price).

    E-book distribution is still in its infancy and no where the financial gold mine once assumed. It can serve as a test-bed for new text and new writers without the expense and gatekeeper obstacle course of print publication. My novel in a print edition is selling well and getting great reviews, but I also want to experiment with these new forms.

    An efficent e-book reader would be a great help in enabling this process, but so far, that’s not the Kindle, but the iPhone which has millions of verified users, not thousands of possible users. Smashowrds.com formats for every device on the market, so it’s the future or the medium and the one that treats authors the best.

  • Podesta

    I can only underline your point about being of the target demographic for Kindle and never having seen one in the wild. Among the places I have not seen a Kindle is Powell’s flagship store, where I spend at least a few hours every week. Ditto for Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. Both cities are invariably in the top five of ‘where people read’ lists.

    My tech junky bona fides include buying the iPod when it cost $499 and was only Mac-compatible, standing in line for the first generation iPhone and then upgrading to the iPhone 3G expeditiously. I ordered the first MacBook Air as soon as it was announced. Moved on to the revamped MacBook Air less than a fortnight ago. I’ve read ebooks on my iPhone. Have had an Audible account forever. But, still, no Kindle, even though I don’t like to carry hardcover books around with me.

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com MichaelJ

    Podesta,
    re”I can only underline your point about being of the target demographic for Kindle and never having seen one in the wild.”

    The Kindle and copy cats is for college educated baby boomers and students who are forced to “read” in school.

    The iPhone & copy cats is for everyone else. Probably including the target demographic in which you live.

  • Maggie Leung

    Podesta, once I get my hands on my Kindle, I don’t imagine I will be whipping it out at a bookstore. I’ve spent many hours at Powell’s and Elliott Bay, though.

  • Daniel L. Lieberman

    There is a niche market for people who need large print books. The electronic reader can make it possible for them to have a book that is reasonably light weight and is relatively current.

  • Erik

    Sort of reminds me of that great line Pauline Kael was alleged to have said after Nixon was relected: That it couldn’t have been possible, because she didn’t know *anyone* who had voted for him.

  • http://www.officemedia.com JHH

    Hey, I have a Kindle (1.0), and just as I knew the world was different when I got my first Tivo (OK, ReplayTV), and my first iPod, that same aura of utter certainty surrounds the Kindle.

    The Kindle (and Sony ebook reader, and all future players in the space) change the publishing business forever. Say goodbye to the midsize and small publisher and the big bookstore (as currently configured).

    I’m a frequent business traveller and love the tactile feel of books, but I like the convenience of carrying hundreds simultaneously on my Kindle more. I like having someone recommend a book to me via email and owning it 30 seconds later. I like paying about half price for everything. I like saving trees. Look, the Kindle is far from perfect, but I’d be shocked if the volume of printed books doesn’t mirror or approximate the decline of the music CD in ten years or less. (I know, this is a category statement and the post is about the Kindle, but right now Kindle is the category.)

    Anyone care to wager?

  • Maggie Leung

    JHH, I’m ready to put my money where my mouth is, but I agree with you.

    I also find it odd that so many people reject reading devices because they like hard-copy books. It’s not like I have to give up hard-copy books just because I’m going with a Kindle. I can have both. Gasp!

  • Steve Hill

    The basic concept behind the “iPod of books” idea is flawed, I believe. Simply put, people do not read books the same way they listen to music. Listening to an album is a 30-40 min activity – and that’s only if you choose to listen to the whole thing at once. People are happy to store 1,000s of songs on an iPod because they don’t know when they will want to hear one particular song. They will browse and shuffle and it’s all good.

    What is the equal experience when it comes to reading? Maybe we dip into magazines & newspapers, and we can even have several books on the go at once. But if I buy a book & keep a book, it’s because I know I’ll want to read it again some day, or lend to someone else to enjoy. When I reread it, I will start at the beginning & read it through. I won’t want to just read a few paragraphs in the middle, or a single chapter halfway through, in the same way that I may just want to hear one song from an album.

    Will people store books on a device in the event that they may wish to read it again in the future – maybe years away? I’m not sure they will. At least, not in the same way that they will store an album on their iPod when in fact there’s only a couple of songs they regularly listen to on it.

    The iPod is more than a listening device – it’s a storage device. You can store your entire music library on it and listen at will. eReaders are a reading device, but I don’t see them becoming anything more.

  • Pingback: Microsoft’s vision: ubiquitous display technology » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

  • Pingback: theredheadsaid » Blog Archive » The Kindle Will Fail Because It’s Butt Ugly

  • http://deakin.edu.au stephenq

    The comments on this article have been a fascinating read. Makes me sad I live in Australia. The Kindle is not available here. And different technologies mean it’s pointless buying an e-reader in the US and hoping to use it in Australia. I think the e-reader could transform the newspaper distribution chain. Printing and distribution account for at least 60 percent of a print newspaper’s costs. Imagine being able to read a newspaper on a color screen the size of a magazine like The Economist?

  • jim

    Interesting conversation. I have one friend with a Kindle – a lawyer friend and he likes it.

    I would probably buy one if it were under $200. For $350 I’d rather buy a netbook.

    I also think piracy will be an issue. Most popular books are already online in pdf on various sites. And they are often packaged in huge blocks (1000 best novels, 1000 best mysteries, 1000 best SF novels, etc).

    The awkwardness of reading on a laptop limits this activity. But when eink readers are cheap and widespread then piracy will grow.

    The counter-argument is that the minority of the population that reads is upper income, so it’s not worth it to them to pirate to save $10-$20 for a book.

    We’ll see, people under 35 or so have been well trained to find all forms of media they want for free.

    The textbook market is safe until color eink becomes practical. And that is many years out still.

  • http://sellingprint.blogspot.com MichaelJ

    @Jim,
    Interesting point about textbooks. I hadn’t thought of that. On the other hand Open Textbooks is trying a textbooks for free model that I assume is meant to be read on a laptop or net book.

    I also wonder whether color is going to turn out to be as important in a $10 digital version as it is in a $200 hard cover paper version.

    It will be interesting to watch.

  • BenN

    Interesting discussion.

    I’m surprised more hasn’t been said regarding the delivery of school textbooks to eReaders. That seems like an exciting, obvious development — one that would end up being extremely useful and, I dare say, profitable for the schools/teachers who get behind the technology.

    That said, I am posting just to be the first to point out (here, anyway) that the Kindle is not just an ordinary eBook reader…

    It is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

    I do not have a blackberry or an iphone, yet I’m 29 years old and have three computers in use at my desk. I am a small business owner, to boot. I’m sure I’m part of an attractive demographic for a smart phone… but… they are not for me.

    The Kindle is apparently not for the publishing world itself, either (as evidenced by the iphone to kindle ratio at your conference), but is rather intended for the consumers of the content they distribute.

    When it comes to smart phones I am a hold-out, and fast becoming practically anachronistic amongst my friends. I totally empathize with the poster who described their incongruous budgeting (expensive shoes without a second thought, but serious pause at the $3.50 vs $9.99 issue). I simply do not want to pay a premium for a data plan on a phone that will most likely be used for a CLOCK APP 95% of the time. My Nokia 5190 10 years ago had what I needed in a phone.

    iPhones are NOT the ideal place for book distribution, despite the saturation of the device. For a lateral example of the social reasoning behind that statement, read the article on this blog “He’s a PC, but he prefers small niches”.

    Back to the Kindle, and to the reason I wanted to post in the first place.

    Free access to wikipedia and wikitravel? A huge supply of books and PDFs at my fingertips?

    It’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

    Jeff Bezos certainly makes for an odd Ford Prefect, but there it is.

    Will the Kindle fail?

    Don’t Panic.

  • Suzanne

    I am not sure that the Kindle or Kindle 2 is *the* answer but it is *the* answer for those of us who travel all of the time. I love it for reading newspapers on the plane or at hotels that don’t provide them. It also allows me to bring lots of books with me so that I can read whatever my mood dictates. I love tech & love reading + travel every week so it’s perfect for me.

  • Pingback: Kindle users skew older; does that impact news biz’s revenue hopes? » Nieman Journalism Lab

  • Pingback: Thad McIlroy - Future Of Publishing

  • Scott E. Stratton

    I believe you’ve set up your premise to make it easy to prove. If the essence of the argument that the Kindle won’t be the “iPhone of books” you have made a safe bet. Virtually *NO* product will be as successful as the iPod/iPhone phenomenon (you have to consider them together). It was a spectacular, rarely occurring type of success.

    Second, you are dead wrong, in my opinion, about the target market. It is precisely NOT the tech savvy. As said so well by an earlier commenter: “Bibliophiles are the target demographic, not technophiles.” I happen to be an anomaly: I am run a 150 person software company, I program, I love gadgets (of course I have an iPhone); but I am also a hard-core Bibliophile. I have 3,000 book library with collections ranging from 1550 to 1850 plus many thousand more moderns.

    Until the Sony or the Kindle, I didn’t bother reading on electronic devices. If you are a dedicated reader you know what it means to “get lost in the book”. That simply doesn’t happen with LCD or CRT screens. Period. E-books will NEVER be widely popular on phones, computers, or TV’s. That is why I think you are missing the point. The electronic ink innovation changed all that. The Kindle is the first electronic device I’ve every had where I could “get lost in the book.” I’ve read many, many full-length books.

    Is it perfect? No, of course not. But it’s in a completely different world from cell phone or computer screens. If one thinks this is a “gadget” marketed to “technophiles” that happen to read, one is waaaay off base. Technophiles love the sleek look of the iPhone; the Kindle 1 is ugly. That is almost completely irrelevant to the bibliophile. I don’t know that the Kindle will be the #1 e-reader forever, but they currently have a enormous advantage in content over everyone else.

    I do know this – the future of eReaders will NOT be on a device that is “a little easier for reading”. It simply won’t happen. It hurts your eyes way too much after more than 30 minutes of reading. I challenge you to read a full-length novel on a cell phone or computer screen AND on an e-Ink screen. Most people can’t do the first one at all.

    I would ask how many technophiles will pull out a book and read for 4 hours straight. Being one, I know many, and most of them won’t. That’s why you aren’t the target market. The target market are people who buy a book or more a week. Who can’t go on a trip without bringing 10 books because they don’t know what they might read. People who have long ago run out of space for their books. Those are the target for first adoption. If it takes hold there, I assume Amazon is hoping they can expand the market from there.

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02! Opening my Kindle 2 box right now!

  • Pingback: Jeff Bezos pushes “competition” for Kindle hardware » Nieman Journalism Lab

  • Amy

    Just a personal note: I Own a Kindle and have also seen them “in the wild”. They may not be for everybody but I can personally say that for me it is fantastic. I can take the multiple books that I am reading anywhere I go….and I do. This is a great item for people who enjoy reading, or read multiple books simultaneously for research.

    It is not the best format for staying connected (lap top, I phone). But when I am using my Kindle I am usually glad to be avoiding the usual chat screens, texts, phone calls etc….

  • http://www.onlinexcasinos.com/Top_Casinos_sc168.html online casino games

    I say all this to illustrate that I am the exact target audience for the Kindle — precisely the mix of book reader and tech lover who should want one. And yet, 15 months after the Kindle, I have not seen one single Kindle in the flesh.

  • kamakiri

    How’s this opinion working out for ya?  

  • HAHAHAreddit

    Whoops! Guess Harvard can’t get them all right.

  • Randomredditor

    Oooh, dropped the ball on this one huh?

  • http://profiles.google.com/shawn.haggard shawn haggard

    I just read this on my Kindle…

  • Ha Haha

    Hahaha

  • Truth Budinski

    Good ‘ol Joshua, the author of this article, was about as forethinking as a box of rocks.

  • http://blog.hackingbangkok.com Kirkaiya

    So, is now the time to tell you that you were a bit off?  Jeff Bezos just used your quote on a slide, announcing the new $79 e-ink Kindle (and the $199 Kindle Fire tablet).  Amazon’s now selling more e-books than physical books.  I don’t think that counts as “fail”.  Obviously, you talked about the Kindle being a “3rd device”, and some ebook sales for Amazon are for reading on existing (phone/tablet/notebook computer) devices, but clearly they’re selling a LOT of e-ink Kindles….

  • Anonymous

    Josh, you’re fired.

  • Anonymous

    hahahahahaha! Man great predictions! OMG I never laughed so hard you my man have made my week.

  • Anonymous

    Josh, nothing gave more proof that you were wrong like the way you vigorously defended yourself in the comments.  If you were right, you think your article could stand on its own with no defense.  Cheers!

  • Matthew Stephens

    Josh, can I call you Josh or is it EPIC FAILURE? Find another line of business.

  • Lindalawson790

    you got this one wrong, didnt you