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Started: 2012-02-09 08:19:20

Submitted: 2012-02-09 09:15:10

Visibility: World-readable

In November, after the release of the current generation of Kindle e-readers, I finally broke down and bought a Kindle Touch, after visiting my local Best Buy to investigate it in person. Kiesa took advantage of her employer's e-reader subsidy to encourage library employees to become familiar with the e-reading experience. I have some experience with e-reading on much older devices; I actually read most of the Honorverse, up to War of Honor, on my vintage PalmOS Visor in late 2002 and early 2003, thanks to Baen's habit of making it easy to e-read their books, but I haven't e-read much recently.

I like the hardware and the user experience of actually reading on the Kindle Touch. (I wouldn't mind if the pages turned a bit faster, but I've gotten in the habit of tapping to turn the page while I'm reading the last two words on the page, so I don't have to wait. I was worried that I'd miss the physical buttons on the touchless Kindle but I found that tapping the screen works just fine.) I'm a little disappointed by the user experience on the home screen and the organizational capacity of the device; I loaded every Honorverse book I had in electronic form and quickly overwhelmed the organizational capacity of the device. I want to be able to define nested collections, and to define custom sort orders (so books within a series show up in the right order), but Amazon apparently only expected me to have no more than a dozen books at a time. Buying books from the Kindle store is nearly painless: I have to be logged into Amazon's website, click to buy the book, and it magically shows up on my Kindle in a few minutes. Checking ebooks out from my local library is a tiny bit more involved but still only involves a few clicks.

The strange problem I have with my Kindle is acquiring content for it. I can, of course, go buy and download nearly anything published recently through Amazon, but that doesn't quite match how I actually read. At the moment I read mostly non-fiction, mostly related to my current areas of interest, especially obscure academic monographs. (I'm proud to be the only person Willy knows who reads academic monographs for fun.) These aren't always the sorts of things I want to buy outright (or that I even could buy outright, especially in electronic form, if I wanted to), but the things I can get from my local public or academic library, read, take notes, and return. Late last year, Amazon introduced reasonable support for public library lending on the Kindle, and I've checked out and read exactly one book on my Kindle, but the selection of ebooks available at the public libraries I have access to is limited, and some publishers are freaking out at the idea of their precious books being available to lend through libraries. So I'm stuck leaving my Kindle under-used while I keep reading more-widely-accessible physical books. I am going to buy A Rising Thunder as soon as it's available.

As a software engineer, I'm in a position to be even more worried about the future-proofing of the content I buy as the average civilian. It's more likely than not that my grandkids will be able to get their hands on something capable of reading HTML in ASCII, and viewing jpegs, especially if I manage to keep propagating the files I create onto the current media formats, but I'm less confident about whether the books I buy and download on my Kindle will be readable next year on my next device, let alone fifty years in the future. I'm not so much buying content as leasing it, especially since I typically don't get any legal first-sale benefits.

I can, at least, find some other sources for reading on my Kindle. Instapaper bridges the gap between the web and my Kindle much of the time, making it easy to read long-format web articles on a proper e-reader.

It's easy to get the feeling that the book-publishing industry is in roughly the same place the music industry was in around 2005: it's not difficult to get an unlicensed copy of a book, and the publishing industry is cramming DRM down the throats of their customers, as if small-scale copying were their biggest problem. The e-reader market is dominated by a single giant tech company, like iTunes dominated music stores. (I do find it ironic that Amazon now operates a credible alternative mp3 music store, and Apple shook up the e-publishing market when it introduced the iPad.) I have some optimism for the future in that the music industry finally decided that an iTunes monopoly is actually worse than customers being able to copy their mp3s between devices and share a few with their friends, and started to sell digital downloads without DRM. But in 2012, the publishing industry is on the cusp of being disintermediated, because publishers haven't done a very good job at convincing customers that they're actually useful, and that a manuscript is not actually equivalent to a finished book.

It doesn't help that many publishers keep trying to keep libraries from providing their books to e-readers, by simultaneously clinging to the notion that a digital download ought to be equivalent to a physical book (one "copy" that can only be lent to one patron at a time that "wears out" after 26 checkouts and must (in the case of at least one unenlightened publisher) be repurchased) while denying any rights of first sale to the purchaser. Kiesa wants to try a model in which the library pays a small fee (on the order of a dollar or two; roughly equivalent to the average cost the library pays for a checkout of a real physical book) to the publisher for each time-limited checkout, but she's having trouble getting any publishers to pay attention.

I like my Kindle, and I expect to get plenty of use out of it, but I'm still trying to figure out exactly how to integrate it into my reading habits, and how the publishing industry will handle the seismic changes facing it at the dawn of the twenty-first century.