Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Why I got a Kindle *

Last night after another discussion with Ian Clark about the Kindle and its relative technical and ethical merits, I decided that I needed to fully establish my attitude to the Kindle and to Amazon and that this needed more than the 140 characters afforded by Twitter **.

To my mind, there are two dimensions to the purchasing of a Kindle: the technical dimension amounts to an argument in favour of it; the ethical dimension amounts to an argument against.

Technical dimension

I love my Kindle and I recommend the device to other people principally because of its technical capabilities. Prior to getting a Kindle, I owned the now-discontinued Sony Reader PRS-505 model. Switching to the Kindle felt equivalent to when I switched from an MP3 player to an iPod: it felt like moving from a device that did its job adequately to a device that did its job well. Compared to the reader, the Kindle is easier to put documents onto (via the WiFi/3G email service), works faster (particularly with PDFs), and has more internal memory, more intuitive menu screens and more ergonomic button placement.

The success of the Kindle can be attributed partly to aggressive marketing by Amazon (so much so that ‘Kindle’ is becoming synonymous with ‘e-reader’ in the same way that ‘Hoover’ became synonymous with ‘vacuum cleaner’) and partly to the fact that it’s so much easier to use than other e-readers on the market. The average consumer doesn’t care about ebook file formats or openness: the average consumer wants a device that they can use to read books.

Ethical dimension

...but we’re not average consumers: we’re librarians. And we do (or arguably should) care about ebook file formats and openness. It seems that the major argument against the Kindle is its parent company’s attempted monopolisation of information provision. The Kindle supports MOBI format, Amazon’s own AZW format, and PDFs. The Kindle doesn’t support the industry standard ebook format, ePub, and therefore cannot support ebooks provided by public libraries via OverDrive. Although certain DRM-free ebook files can be switched to the MOBI format using programs like calibre, this is beyond the average consumer (or my mythical version of him/her).

This means that anyone who buys a Kindle is funnelled into providing continued financial and consumer support for Amazon since the Kindle-owner has little choice but to purchase Amazon ebooks. This amounts to attempted monopolisation of electronic reading material on the part of Amazon. It’s a particular concern for the UK’s public libraries since it means that they can’t provide lending ebooks to anyone who owns a Kindle. Amazon are working with public libraries in the USA but arguably libraries are getting the raw end of the deal.

OK, this may be the real reason I got a Kindle. From xkcd.

Generally I own a Kindle because the technical functionality of the Kindle outweighs my ethical qualms (and indeed my liberal guilt at using such a blatantly consumer-restricting product). More specifically, with all the issues laid out, I can explain why I use the Kindle.

A. My reading habits. When I’m looking for a book, I have two major considerations: first, I prefer reading print books to reading ebooks (as do “almost all” participants in a recent study); second, I’m just a poor librarian and so I try to get books for free when possible. So my sources of books in descending order of preference are: the library I work in; the local public library; a friend / family member; waiting for a customary gift-giving occasion and getting someone to buy it for me. If it comes down to actually spending my money on a book, only then will I buy the electronic version and I’ll do this purely for the convenience of being able to carry multiple books around. Therefore I don’t accept Ian’s – I assume semi-ironic – ‘Love Kindles; Hate Libraries’ equivalency. For me at least, libraries are way up my personal scale of preference as a source for reading material.

B. Public libraries have bigger problems with their ebook provision than Amazon’s looming dominance over the market. This post sums up the potential difficulties of getting an ebook from a public library. It’s unfair to blame libraries for all these issues – some are imposed by publishers, some are imposed by OverDrive. Amazon has more resources and certainly more funding available to make its technical process as smooth as possible. But the fact remains that as it stands, it is easy to get ebooks from Amazon and it is complicated to get ebooks from public libraries. Consumers go for the easy option and to say that Amazon’s dominance is a primary contributor to levels of public library ebook lending is disingenuous.

C. Amazon’s ‘monopoly’ is not that big or that threatening. Without any facts to back me up (apart from Amazon’s list of bestselling ebooks), I would guess that the majority of Amazon’s ebook sales are for reading-for-pleasure books primarily fiction. The Kindle is a great device for reading a book from beginning to end: it’s designed for reading-for-pleasure rather than reading-for-information. Libraries – public, academic, commercial – are massively important for reading-for-information (and as suggested in Justification A also have a key role in reading-for-pleasure). It’s true that each person who purchases a Kindle is funnelled down the digital primrose path towards supporting Amazon’s monopolisation of ebook provision but Amazon are nowhere near complete market dominance and I think that suggesting otherwise is an over-reaction.

The point

The point is that I like and recommend the Kindle as a reading device but, for the most part, I share Kindle detractors’ legitimate concerns about the ethics of Amazon’s consumer practices and attempted monopolisation. I am however not as concerned as they are.

* Or more precisely, why I dropped extremely unsubtle hints last December leading to my parents getting me a Kindle for Christmas.

** Turns out I needed 5979 characters. Huh.


Megan Roberts said...

I completely agree! Although I come at it from a rather different angle in that my book-buying habits have changed little since I got my Kindle - that is, instead of mostly ordering books (historical romance novels mostly) from Amazon to be delivered in the post, I now order them to be delivered to my Kindle!
Well, except that I have used some of the free classics available and use the Gutenburg project (LOVE that!)

Much though I do love libraries, I don't personally use them a huge amount - but I'm not really the primary audience for them. I do use them for work purposes, but otherwise I am so picky now over what I read that the library often doesn't have anything for me. I also don't have children - if I did, I would definitely take them to the library regularly.

So although I do understand the ethical arguments against the Kindle and hugely support the work of the librarians working to get Amazon to provide libraries with something workable, until they get somewhere it doesn't impact directly on my reading habits. And if they do, I'm one of the reasons Amazon don't want to provide a public library system, as they'll possibly make less money from me if I can get books from the library instead!

mininglibrarian said...

Don't suppose you can recommend a public libraries friendly e-reader? I don't tend to buy books at all, so I definitely need an Overdrive compatible one.
It doesn't matter if it's not quite as user friendly as a kindle, my other alternative is to *ahem* hack the Kindle I assume...

Simon Barron said...

You'd need any e-reader that can take ePubs and I think several non-Kindle ones do. I'd suggest the Sony Reader. The new versions are quite nice and work well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you say. However, what really gets me down is that, having finished the books, I can't lend/give them to anyone else to read. (You've guessed I AM a librarian!)