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Kindle and the Death of Books…

Posted Aug 15 2011 7:21am

Ever since the Kindle 3 appeared – I got mine in the first tranche, so I’ve been particularly sensitive to this – the Guardian has been running articles, of varying levels of sanity, speculating on whether the Kindle – ignoring all other similar devices (yes I know the Kindle is the biggie in this market, but it’s not alone) – is going to destroy the book-publishing industry, make books obsolete, diminish reading standards (most recently, and WTF?), or any other crackpot theme they can dream up. Mainly, though, they are obsessed with the Death of Books.

Obviously, I can’t speak for the whole of literate, tech-savvy, humanity, only for myself, but if my experience is remotely typical, the idea that the Kindle will destroy the market for books is pure lunacy – not least because more readers don’t have a Kindle than do, an obvious extrapolation from Kindle sales figures.

A little backstory and, yes, I know I’ve already said this, but not everybody reads every post I write (sadly!), so some repetition is always going to take place. Anyway, a couple of years ago, I realised that my books, about 2,000 of them, took up an absurd amount of space in my tiny flat. Something had to be done to quell their ever-increasing numbers. Then, fortuitously, along came Kindle.

Now I have, in the past, come out firmly against the Kindle, suggesting it was a solution in search of a problem, and that no-one actually needed one. I still hold to that last point – they are immensely useful devices to have, but few people really need one, not even me, as it turned out, but I still wouldn’t be without it – and when Amazon kicked off their advertising campaign, I thought about it, and how it might help keep the number of books down (while also thinking about how many books I could buy for £109!), and on the second day of advertising, I put in my order. Luckily, because some later ones where faulty, the clips that hold it into its leather cover shorting out the battery. I missed out on that.

So, eventually, it arrived, and I’d spent the interim period downloading books (that was when Amazon had loads of free books, many of which they now charge for), some paid for, from Amazon, plus a load of freebies from various sources, mainly Project Gutenberg online outlets. No delay, I was ready to go.

Before I continue, a warning – Terry Pratchett on Kindle is a disaster. If you’re a fan, you’ll know he’s fond of footnotes – in the case of Unseen Academicals, very fond. The Kindle solution was to put all these at the end of the book where, unless you wanted to spend hours, maybe days, trying to relate them to the relevant pages, they were totally wasted. Another problem is that as Tom Paulin once idiotically said, he doesn’t write in chapters. He actually does, chapters being indicated by a row of asterisks, not by Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. Paulin totally missed that, and so did whoever formatted UA for Kindle – it’s a shambles.

Anyway, life with Kindle was excellent, More or less free of faults (hell, early adopters always expect a few glitches), but nothing to really cause me any grief and, when I was eventually admitted to hospital, it was invaluable.

But – and it’s a huge BUT – I rapidly found that most of the books I wanted to buy simply weren’t available in Kindle format, or any other electronic format I might be able to convert. And it was at this point that the Kindle as a space-saving device rather took a dive.

Not totally, since. as soon as it arrived, and in the next couple of weeks, I loaded it with around 200 publications, about 50-50 books and short stories, so that was the contents of maybe 1.5 bookshelves saved, but so many books I wanted to buy for the Kindle simply weren’t available, which prompted me to buy them in the “old” print format. And wound up buying books I might not otherwise have bought.

Now I love new books, the smell and feel of an unopened book is, for me, deeply pleasurable, and akin to the smell and feel of a new car – something to be treasured but essentially ephemeral (I almost said a new woman, but this is a family show; I’m sure you take my point, though). And, you know, you don’t get that with Kindle. While it does what it does very well, and I do like using it, it is, essentially, soulless. OK, I can live with that, as I don’t really buy into the soul concept anyway.

So, for me, Kindle has meant that I buy at least as many print books as I used to, and probably a few more besides.

I very seriously doubt that my experience is in any way unique, though I accept that my taste in books has influenced my Kindle experience considerably (I don’t buy books simply because everyone else is doing so, and the critics say I should). For example. I have a small, but expensive, collection of books on breadmaking – not something you’re likely to find for the Kindle. I did buy a book on sausage-making for the Kindle, but it’s not a success. These books – bread and sausages – pretty much demand the ability to flick back and forth through the pages, something you can’t do on a Kindle, at least not in any easy or even useful manner. Great for fiction, not so great for anything more technically demanding – another reason for buying traditional books.

So, all thing considered – and my Kindle is getting to the point where it needs its content severely pruning – while I’m very happy with my Kindle, and find it hard to fault (the problem I mention in the last para is inherent, it’s not a defect), it has, in fact boosted my traditional book buying, both new and second-hand.

I don’t have any stats to hand, but I believe book-buying is in decline, for which the Guardian would love to blame Kindle, but I don’t believe it’s that simple. We are still, like it or not, in a recession, which is likely to get worse before it gets better. For many people, books, especially new books, are a luxury item,** and when times are hard, people simply cut back on luxuries. Then there’s the decline in quality. Time was that a hardback book was pretty much built from the ground up, as it were, with pages stitched into groups, and the groups stitched into a whole book. The spine was covered in a protective layer of buckram before being assembled into its fly-leaves and board covers. Such a book, well cared-for, would last for generations, even centuries (my oldest book, at 101 years, is just such a book).

These days, hardbacks are just glued together, in exactly the same manner as paperbacks. They are, in fact, simply paperbacks with board covers and dust-jackets. They are no longer artefacts to be treasured down the years but – and here’s what pisses me off, and no doubt many others too – you still pay a substantial premium for hardbacks, as if they were still produced to traditional standards.

That, too, will undoubtedly have a deleterious effect on sales. Add to that the fact that paperbacks are overpriced (many not too far from the hardback price), and have been for a long time, and you really don’t have to blame Kindle for the decline in book-buying. The industry is doing enough damage all by itself.


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