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Does the new Kindle herald the end of the book?

2 March 2009

It may seem like old news now, but News Review has been on holiday so it seems worth tracking back to Amazon's announcement of its new version of the Kindle (see News Review 2 February), which became available last week, only in the US, although wider release is expected to follow soon.

Publishers' Lunch review went along these lines: 'Thinner ("pencil thin"--a third of an inch); a new five-way controller to improve navigation, which particularly helps for newspaper reading; improved placement of the page-turning buttons; a new E ink display...; 20 percent faster page turn; 25% longer battery life; seven times more storage (though who knows why); USB-charge capability and a more portable charger; and yes, still apparently designed by Jeff Bezos's brother-in-law in his spare time and priced at $359.

The new Whispersync lets you switch among multiple Kindles and other devices without losing your place, and "experimental" text-to-speech feature lets Kindle read aloud to you in a computerized voice at any time without losing your place in the work.'

So the Kindle is better in a number of ways and Amazon's Jeff Bezos still seems to be working on his original aims for the device: 'We want to make Kindle a bookstore -- the largest e-bookstore in the world, with 230,000 titles and growing. We want to make those titles also available on a bunch of different devices and then synchronize them with Kindle.'

Two things about the announcement have caused furore in the book world. Publishers would clearly and understandably prefer that one retailer did not so totally dominate the bookselling world as Amazon has long been trying to do. A three-way tussle between Amazon's Kindle, Sony's E-reader and Google, which has 1.5 million books scanned and available through the iPhone, may be about to commence.

Simon Juden, CEO of the UK Publishers' Association, said: 'Authors contribute £3.45bn to the UK's economy and we look forward to working with Amazon to ensure authors' rights continue to be fully respected.'

This is a reference to the other contentious thing about the Kindle's relaunch, which is that the text to speech capacity, presented as just another feature, cuts across authors' rights to license audio rights and receive income from them. Paul Aiken, executive director of the US Authors Guild said in the Wall Street Journal: 'They don't have the right to read a book out loud. That's an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.'

Behind all this is publishers' anxiety that the Kindle will replace the physical book. Julian Rivers, a well-respected commentator in the UK, predicts: 'I'm not sure when precisely books will meet their end but I am clear that the impact of e-books on their demise is accelerating. My research is extensive. Last Christmas, friends aged eighteen, 48 and 80 were given Sony Readers. They are all now evangelists.'

The scary example of the music business is influencing how people in the book world feel. In a recent article in the Bookseller Tom Tivnan concluded: 'People engage with books and music in completely different ways. But if there is one lesson to be learned from the music industry it is that age-old practices and consumer behaviour can be altered in a flash.' He quoted Danny Ryan, intellectual property expert at LECG: 'The main thing the music business didn't realise at first is that digitalisation isn't about distributing the same content in another way. It changes the way people consume content and what is consumed.' Tivnan's conclusion is that the book trade needs to be ready for this.