“It’s not for me!”

I started using my Kindle 2 more regularly over the past week and the device piqued the curiosity of quite a few people who saw me use it. It’s been a great opportunity to start conversations on the topic of reading and e-reading, and pretty much every person I have talked to has one big problem with the Kindle: they don’t think it is for them because they like holding, feeling and even smelling of books.

I have been there. As I described in my previous post, it takes a mental paradigm change to realize that this urge is not as strong as it initially seems. I know I got over it pretty quickly, especially when I realized that about 90% of the books I read are easily forgettable and that I thought I could use the bookshelves space for books or items that I feel more strongly about. Please read the linked article for a more in-depth analysis of why letting go of physical books turns out to be much easier than it looks.

Nobody likes holding newspapers

While the attachment to the feel of physical books cannot be denied, I have yet to hear anyone say that they really enjoy holding a newspaper. Pick your favorite gripe:

  • The ink stains on your fingers.
  • The unwieldy gigantic size (have you ever tried to read a newspaper in an airplane?).
  • The paper that blows away at the slightest trace of wind.
  • The awkward folding.
  • The labyrinthic navigation (“Continued on page C-24”).
  • etc…

The bottom line is that I have never looked forward to picking up a newspaper. Reading it, yes. Holding it, no.

Which is why I was very curious to see how the Kindle would treat newspapers, and I have to say I’m pretty impressed so far. The Kindle is actually close to being a perfect medium for newspapers, and the user interface designed by Amazon is very effective.

Learning to enjoy newspapers again

Some of the available US newspapers Section list Article

The sections are easily accessible from the front page and you can quickly navigate from one article to the next by pressing the joystick to the left or to the right. Of course, Next/Previous Page lets you page through the article and will seamlessly move to the next article once you reach the end of the one you are currently reading. All the usual functionalities are available, including Search, which applies to the entire issue of the newspaper.

You can either subscribe monthly or just buy individual issues. I am currently using the free two week trial so I can’t comment on either yet, but the issues seem to be discounted on the Kindle (e.g. 75c instead of $1 for the New York Times – of course, this discount can vary depending on the newspaper). If you choose to subscribe, the issue gets automatically uploaded to your Kindle and the previous issue is moved to a section called “Back issues”. Downloading a single issue is extremely fast, and being able to just download an issue while inside your car on a long road trip or on a rainy morning when you don’t feel like making the trip to your nearby coffee shop turns out to be extremely convenient.

A boon for publishers too

I’m not a newspaper expert, but it’s hard for me to imagine what’s not to like from the publisher’s perspective. Not only do the publishers keep absolute control over the pricing (excluding Amazon’s cut), but the overhead of converting their content over to Kindle’s format is probably very low. Also, I’m not sure if the Kindle “phones home” (uploads data about the user back to Amazon’s servers), but if it does, the publisher can get a very detailed insight about the popularity of certain topics or how well their journalists are performing (you might be tempted to pay someone whose articles are read 90% of the time more than someone who floats about 10%).

Amazon’s main challenge

Having said all these positive things, the newspaper experience on the Kindle is facing a pretty dire catch-22 problem.

While the Kindle has been selling pretty well and is overall liked by all its users, its current audience is still a group of early adopters. These early adopters are tech savvy and they have the money to afford the steep $360 price. However, because they are tech savvy, these adopters are also most likely getting their daily news from all sorts of sources, from traditional Internet portals to news web sites to more cutting edge locations such as blogs or Twitter streams. Because of this, they are probably not hardcore newspaper readers.

I belong to that category. I certainly enjoy reading newspaper articles and I appreciate the professionalism and the research work that goes into each of them, but I still feel very little incentive to pay $1 to buy a newspaper when the news that it reports will be available on my screen as soon as I open my laptop or when I get back home.

This, by the way, is the reason why forward micro-payments for news articles are a fundamentally flawed idea. I might be convinced to buy an entire issue of a newspaper because even if I don’t learn much from the articles I read, the feeling of serendipity and broad coverage will leave me with the impression that overall, my money was well spent. You can’t transpose this idea to single articles.

Back to the Kindle and its newspaper dilemma. How can you convince the crowd of people who get their news every day from their newspaper and who are probably not tech savvy to spend $360 for a device that is at the bleeding edge of the electronic reading industry? It’s a tough sell, especially when you consider that no matter how “state of the electrophoretic art” the Kindle is, it still looks very bland and crude. In ten years, we’ll probably look back on it and we will laugh at how primitive things were back then.

The next step for Amazon

Lowering the price of the Kindle is probably the very first measure that Amazon should take. Amazon doesn’t sell razors, they sell razor blades, and the fact that they released a free Kindle reader for the iPhone clearly shows that they know where their profit source lies. At the end of the day, Amazon needs to sell books, so taking a loss on each Kindle sale sounds like a reasonable idea that might even attract the unlikely audience made of avid newspaper reader.

As for myself, I’m still busy finishing up a couple of paper books, so I haven’t started reading books on the Kindle in earnest, but I’m certainly looking forward to it, and my next installment will probably cover reading PDF, Word and other formats on the Kindle.