Cory Doctorow: Put Not Your Faith In Ebook Readers
from Locus Magazine, March 2008
Two fascinating lumps of white plastic hit major snags this past Christmas. One was the Nintendo Wii, a surprise smash-hit game console that compensates for its relatively crude graphics with ingenious gameplay based on a controller outfitted with accelerometers that let you interact with the console by waving your arms around. The other was the Amazon Kindle, an "E-Ink"-based e-book reader that, like its competition, the Sony Reader, delivers long battery life and superb screen quality in a slim and sexy form-factor that is just about the right size to slip into a large-ish coat pocket.
Both devices had the same problem: they sold out completely and new units could not be manufactured in time for Christmas. Both devices spawned entire Internet tool-suites dedicated to helping frustrated would-be purchasers locate their own unit. Amazon was selling 17 Wiis per second at the height of the fever, and more than one enterprising hacker whomped up a little pinger that would obsessively check Amazon for notice of new stock and then IM, email or SMS you the instant the Wii went back on the block.
No one knows how many Kindles Amazon sold. It's safe to say it was less than 17 per second. Far less.
Book reading is just not a mainstream activity in America. Every study conducted since the turn of the century shows book reading as flat or declining. Reports like the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts "Reading at Risk" is full of depressing nuggets about the ongoing decline in the importance of reading books to pretty much everyone: old people, young people, educated people and dropouts, the affluent and the poor.
But cheer up. It's a big world. Even minority pass-times can be real business and real culture does it really matter that only mumble-mumble percent of Americans read a book last year if the total number of book sales still topped mumble billions? If you're a writer whose take-home slice of those sales was enough to cover the mortgage and food for the cat, there's nothing at all wrong with living in the niche.
It's fine to be a medium-sized small fry in those areas where the capacity is nigh-unlimited say, Internet hosting, xeroxing, offset printing. No one's going to tell you that there's no room for your e-books website because the Internet is full. You're not going to have a hard time sourcing programmers to hack together your neat little social book-recommendation system. The world has lots of these commodities.
If you have a cool way to make money (or art, or both) that requires plenty of commodities, you're in luck. Your success metrics are relatively attainable: you need to be passionate, smart, and right. Combine these three and you'll be in business in no time.
If, on the other hand, your cool idea requires that you outbid other would-be artists and entrepreneurs for resources, your success requires more than being right and passionate and smart: you also have to have deeper pockets than the competition. When your plan hinges on something scarce say, high-quality manufacturing capacity you need to be able to win the inevitable bidding war.
You can bet that even as the Wiis were disappearing from the shelves, frantic buyers from Nintendo were camping out in the factory cities of Guanzhou and Shenzen, cajoling, threatening and begging for more capacity to make more devices before the Wii's moment in the sun passed, eclipsed by the next surprise-hit console.
As, no doubt, were the Kindle's masters wheedling to get more units out the door in time to meet the Christmas rush, to ride the PR wave the Kindle caught from its (expensively promoted) launch.
It's telling that neither of the companies could outbid enough competitors to get units out the door in time. Not surprising, but telling. After all, getting good manufacturing out of a Chinese factory requires great care in your sourcing neither Nintendo nor Amazon wanted to flood the market with defective, rushed units with crummy build-quality that would give the products a hard-to-shake reputation as a lemon.
China has experienced the largest migration in human history 160,000,000 people moved from the inland farms to the coastal manufacturing cities but it is not endless. Most of the world has shut down most of its factories, shuttering domestic manufacturing capacity in favor of the cheap labor, poor working conditions and environmental controls of China's factory cities. When you go to China to get your Kindle or your Wii produced, you're competing for space among the factories that produce socket wrenches, Happy Meal toys, laptop computers, prison cafeteria trays, decorative tin planters, vinyl action figures, keychain flashlights and cheap handguns.
Frankly, book reading just isn't important enough to qualify for priority treatment in that marketplace. E-book readers to date have been either badly made, expensive, out-of-stock or some combination of all three. No one's making dedicated e-book readers in such quantity that the price drops to the cost of a paperback the cost at which the average occasional reader may be tempted to take a flutter on one. Certainly, these things aren't being made in such quantity that they're being folded in as freebies with the Sunday paper or given away at the turnstiles at a ballgame to the majority of people who are non-book-readers.
Meanwhile, handheld game consoles, phones, and other multipurpose devices have found their way into the hands of people from every walk of life. In some countries, mobile phone penetration is above 100 percent that is, a significant proportion of the population maintain more than one phone, for example, a work cellular and a home cellular.
Not only can these devices command the lion's share of China's high-quality manufacturing capacity, but they are produced in such staggering volume (and often distributed with a subsidy game devices are sold below cost in the expectation of selling games; phones are subsidized by carriers) that they can be had for a pittance.
As fierce as hardware manufacturing competition runs, it still creates a paradoxical abundance: an abundance of platforms that can run e-book-reading software. If you're someone with a smarts, passion and vision, you can easily source some hackers to bang up an e-book business to run on a PC, phone, or other handheld (note that in the world of phones and handhelds, a substantial portion of the manufacturers take pains to stop you from running software on their devices, as Apple did with the iPhone, but it's not illegal to defeat these measures and plenty of people do so).
Hackers are a commodity. Devices are a commodity. High-quality factories are not.
I'm skeptical about selling ebooks as a business model (see my earlier column "You DO like reading off a screen" for more about this), but if I had to bet on a future for e-books, I would take long odds against a hardware reader catching on in any meaningful way.
What's more, the top choice for hardware reader displays E-Ink screens are poorly suited to use in gaming and related applications. While these screens do deliver super-crisp, low-power-consumption text, they have an abysmal refresh rate (the time it takes for the screen to redraw itself). That's because E-Ink works on the basis of a close-knit grid of little two-tone balls that are physically rotated from white-side to black-side when a charge is applied to them. There is a noticeable lag when you page forward on an E-Ink device as all those miniature ping-pong balls spin in their lattice, a lag that is completely foreign to those of us accustomed to watching light get painted on the back of a tube or pass through the polarizing liquid of an LCD. You might be able to play a good game of Zork or Hangman or Scrabble on an E-Ink screen, but no one's gonna be porting Pac Man to it anytime soon, let alone Counterstrike.
E-Ink is a brilliant solution in search of an economically compelling problem. $400 e-book readers are not that problem. As we look to the future of books, reading and bookselling, it's critical to keep things in perspective. When Nintendo can't get line-time for the Wii, what hope does a niche item like an e-book reader have?
Sure, someday we might all be factories of one, printing devices from our desktop fabbers, but until then, put not your faith in hardware readers take the easy way out and hack bits, not atoms.
Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.
Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.
Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:
- Artist Rights
- Creative Commons
- Free(konomic) E-books
- The Progressive Apocalypse and Other Futurismic Delights
- In Praise of Fanfic
- You Do Like Reading Off a Computer
- Blogging Without the Blog
- The March of the Polygons: How High-Definition Is Bad News for SF Flicks
- How Copyright Broke
- Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet.
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