Technology

Amazon Can Empty Bookstore Shelves


The Kindle might just be the iPod of digital reading, according to one author, who predicts the device will improve the publishing landscape for all except retailers

Few things have come along in recent years to excite me more as a reader and author than the Kindle digital-book platform just introduced by Amazon.com (AMZN). I have one ordered, but even before using it, my mind is buzzing with how to make full use of the platform for my next tome.

As the author of two books—Getting the Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of Volkswagen in America and Driven: Inside BMW, the Most Admired Car Company in the World—the first issue I have to sort out is whether I need a publisher at all for my upcoming titles. That is a game-changing development in the world of publishing, and one that will take the industry time to digest.

Publishing Sans Publisher?

Are there ways to publish digital books now without the Simon & Schusters and Little, Brown & Co.'s of the world? Sure. We have seen experiments by some big-time authors publishing serialized books on the Net—Stephen King famously published a serial, The Plant, on his Web site for a subscription cost of $7. Lesser-known authors have done the same, but we all know how tough it is for such writers to build an audience without the imprimatur of a large publishing house.

And, of course, the Sony (SNE) Reader, which stores e-books, has been available for some time. But the interface is not very good and Sony is remarkably inept at marketing it. Let's remember there were MP3 players before Apple's (AAPL) iPod, but it took a brilliant user interface, design, and mystique created around the product for people like me to abandon CDs for digital music.

Timely and Feature-Rich Content

Publishing digitally into an attractive user interface is akin to finding a car that is powerful and gets 40 miles per gallon. My next book, in fact, is likely going to be about a car company undergoing a huge transformation to secure its survival. The time window in which I am writing, though, is awkward.

There will probably be a four-month lag time between final proofs, based on reporting that had to be completed three months earlier, and the time the book goes on sale. At that point, a lot will still be going on with the company's story. If I was publishing just digitally, I could write up to the week of the book's release, and save all those trees from the paper mill at the same time. As is, I will have to settle for releasing a "dead trees" book, which will also be distributed as an e-book that will be more up-to-date with added features.

And then there are the pictures. In my first two books, I was limited to eight pictures on two pages stuck in the middle of the book. This is done for cost reasons, as publishing four-color pictures throughout a book, which is what I wanted, is much more expensive. With a Kindle book, I can drop in as many pictures as I want throughout the book. I can also include video interviews, an audio slide show, and podcasts as part of the book's maintenance package.

The Bottom Line

Books don't have to end, and neither will my author's revenue stream. If I sell my Kindle book to a reader for $9.99, he has saved perhaps $20 on the price of a hardcover book. Let's say I sell 40,000 copies of the book, and further assume that I can get at least 10,000 of the buyers to subscribe to periodically updated chapters and podcasts, or perhaps a blog, for an additional $9.99. As an author, I would like to control that end of the revenue stream, which I don't need a big publisher for anyway. That's another $100,000 in revenue to me, minus my costs and Amazon's cut.

The efficiency of this system makes me think of what I wish the health-care industry would do to save everyone money and make the experience richer. I had my knee replaced last April. When I tried to reschedule a pre-surgery appointment with the doctor, they tried to make me do it in an office he only occupies two days a month just because that's where my X-rays resided. The X-rays were not, in 2007, available on a networked computer even though my doctor works out of three separate offices. Yikes.

A New Chapter

It's not hard to see how Kindle will take off. Business travelers, I predict, will be the first to embrace it. Having a device with multiple books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs to travel with, which also has a long battery life, beats wrangling a laptop, magazines, and papers in an airline seat. The next market will be university students, undergrad and grad. With such a nifty application and the tension over ridiculously high prices for textbooks, going digital is a brainy way to deliver textbooks to an audience that is already used to digital consumption.

Taking the e-book logic to obvious conclusions, think of the energy saved as we make this transition over the next, hopefully, two decades. The trees not cut down. The trucks not hauling books. The paper plants not stinking up riversides and bays. The Kindle is too smart an innovation not to succeed. Authors and readers will embrace it. Brick-and-mortar booksellers and publishing houses will have no choice but to play along.

If I was Barnes & Noble (BKS) or Borders (BGP), I would start planning for what I was going to put in all that store space in 20 years. At least I hope they have to have those meetings.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has demurred making too many comparisons between the Kindle and the iPod. And, of course, Amazon.com has to get the marketing, delivery, and application improvement right. But what he is doing is cracking open an egg that, in my opinion, has become increasingly ossified over the last 20 years. And what we find inside is a better world for reading and writing. It's one we always knew was there.


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