Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Kindling Textbooks

A Linkedin group discussion pointed me to a new possibility - that Amazon actually targeting their new version of Kindle, which is supposed to come out with a bigger screen and better everything, to the textbook market. Yes, rather than the newspaper market.

I have not seen a Kindle yet - this has not been released in the UK - but read about this on readwriteweb. I know of the talk, mostly on CNBC - that Amazon Kindle will do to books what iPod has done to Music - and I am waiting eagerly to lay my hands on one. However, targeting at the textbook market is an interesting shift of strategy, and this made me write about this immediately.

Accordingly, this post is not about Amazon Kindle. I have not seen it yet, so I can not comment whether it is worth its $300 price tag. I did think the idea is novel, a new generation ebook reader which comes with wireless connectivity and newspaper subscriptions to download. I think the newspaper men also saw this as their deliverance. I read Walter Isaacson writing in TIME about the formula of charging piecemeal for content - like iTunes - and the whole thought was based on a special device like Kindle, rather than the Web, the land of free.

Kindle obliged, indeed. Its first version was launched with partnerships with leading newspapers, including the New York Times. Instead of subscribing for the print version, which is turning costlier by the day, and then having to store and ultimately dispose of the bulky load of papers, one could simply download it through the wireless networks and save or discard it once read. Subscription for this kind of a service looks far more feasible, and this took newspapers as close to the satellite TV as one could wish.

However, as this article points out, there were challenges. We already know about the screen size and that newspapers, in their usual layout, needed a bigger screen to be read with comfort. Besides the adjustment in layout, now it seems that the currency of the content is becoming a challenge too - one can not just pass off the newspapers for this kind of service. Newspapers' biggest challenge is indeed that whatever they publish is old news in the age of TV and Internet, and while they revel on analysis, increasingly, newspaper analysis is seen as gossip in the old boys' club rather than independent opinion.

I think the point is that what one is subscribing on Kindle is News and Analysis, rather than the Newspapers, and there is this alienation of the content from the medium which the newspaper owners have to grasp. They have so far failed to see what their main product is - information rather than a bundle of paper - and they started giving away the information free while charging for the newsprint bundle. They continue to make the same mistake with Kindle, trying to pass off a replica of their morning tome as the digital era nirvana, and this seems to have undermined the business model altogether.

So, anyway, back to the textbook business. The article points out that there is a solid commercial logic there. The textbook providers want to cut into the used book market, which is roughly one-third of the total book trade. But textbooks on a Kindle? I don't want to sound averse to progress, but I love my textbooks on my shelf. It gives me the feeling, that I studied [even if i did not]. Besides, here, Kindle is up against one of the fundamental values of book buying - ownership - which did not apply to the newspaper trade.

John Updike made an impassioned appeal for the value of ownership of books in his Due Considerations. When Amazon shifts to the book market, they will be up against this first of all. Besides, the text book publishers increasingly have the same problem of competing with the Internet, agreed, with paid electronic libraries - but then you get this bundled with your college fees anyway. I am not sure whether by trying to cut into used book market, the technology will actually destroy the business itself.

Let me explain. If I get a digital copy, I shall still buy an used book if I want to own it, especially when I can get a few months' old copy at a low price, and keep the digital version for my need for the updated version. One can argue that once the digital version takes off, there will be no used book market. But then, the new book trade has to become extinct before the used book trade dies off.

I am obviously excited about Kindle's potential in unlocking the potential of e-Learning though. Text book trade is the right direction, but again, this is probably confusing the medium with the value proposition. Amazon wants to give students access to knowledge - let's get Kindle-only version of Knowledge. One can see the knowledge subscription working fine, as this will add enormous value, a short e-learning package downloaded on the fly at the library, complete with scholarly references and web links. However, DRMed text books is so old world an idea that even Gutenberg would have scoffed at it - he wanted to democratize knowledge not restrict it - and in the world of FREE [read Chris Anderson], it is a total anomaly.

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