Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Kindles Rarer Than Leopards or Lamborghinis

Last week, a close friend was leaving for a trip to Papua New Guinea and wanted to borrow my Amazon Kindle to take with him. Then, just as soon as he asked, my mother-in-law asked to borrow it to take it on safari with her in Africa. In the end, both opted for plain old paper books. Both decided, independently, that where they were going, outlets to recharge the Kindle would be hard to find.

When I bought the Amazon Kindle in November 2007, I was curious more than anything. Once I got my hands on it and experienced that initial “wow,” I played with it for a couple of weeks, showed it off to friends, and then more or less shelved it. The utility of the device, to be frank, is limited. I read mostly pre-publication books that I’m reviewing.

The few times I have bought books for the Kindle – I tend to opt for long one’s – like David Wrobelewski’s 600-page “The Story of Edgar Sawtell,” to save on weight. And while I have taken it on a couple of business trips, I use it mostly to read email, using the Whispernet service, saving myself the unfortunate $10 internet access fee most hotel’s charge. (That said, I’ll have to do that a total of 40 times to justify the $400 upfront price I paid for the device.)

I read in today’s news TechCrunch as reporting 240,000 units have sold; and the number of customer reviews have passed 4,000 on Amazon.com’s Web site. And now I’m told that Amazon could sell 380,000 units in 2008.

Well, that just sounds like hyperbole to me and I’ll tell you why: I have not yet met a single person who owns one – and I live in a city of about six million people, regularly fraternize with book lovers, and travel frequently. I've seen more exotic cars in the past ten months -- Ferraris, Bentleys, Lamborghinis -- than Kindles.

Or, to use a safari metaphor, Kindles are harder to spot in the wild than your average leopard.

After all, even Amazon itself only supplied a handful for display at BookExpo America (and even refused to lend one to the e-book trade association, the International Digital Publishing Forum for the length of the show).

This is all a preface to saying that I harbor doubt about the numbers being bandied about by the press and elsewhere about the Kindle. Until I see one other than my own in public, I won't be convinced.


Anonymous said...

You may be right about Papua New Guinea, Edward. Last time I went there, it was hard to get connectivity outside Port Moresby. Friday is the worst day, apparently. It's public servants' payday, and they all rush out to buy SIM cards for their mobile phones, thereby jamming the network!

book/daddy said...

When I've spoken to book clubs or other literary gatherings the past 5-6 years, I've often asked, how many here have ever read a full-length novel on a digital device? Any device, desktop, laptop, e-book reader, cellphone, doesn't matter. But it has to be a full-length novel, not consulting a reference work, because novel readers tend to be compulsive readers. So adopting a digital device for reading means a fundamental change in a long-established habit.

Only once did someone raise his hand. Every other time -- zero. Not a soul. But then last year I asked the question to a crowd at the Texas Book Festival in Austin and about one-fourth (25 out of 100 or so) raised theirs. A bit of a surprise, if they were being honest and hadn't simply taken a disliking to me and decided to fuck with my head (always a possibility considering my relationship with crowds).

Two months later, I was stunned to find my niece had one -- mostly because I would have been stunned to find my niece reading much of anything, let alone forking out some serious cash for a device that she might not use more than once or twice and that certainly didn't award her instant coolness with her (cute, male) peers.

Kindle may well represent some (small, incremental) breakthrough -- altough I agree with Ed that much of the chorus of hosannahs over it sound like bullshit to me. This is especially true of the claims that it's the reading equivalent of the iPod (not so, given the huge number of readers and the comparatively tiny number of Kindles sold). The claim that "it's just like a paperback" is also bullshit. It's far too large and clumsy for that; its size doesn't suit most pockets or purses (except the larger bags). I find it unattractive and plasticy with hard, sharp edges. Compare it to the elegant, curvy, palm-friendly design of the iPod or the iPhone, and you wonder what any of the hooplah is about.

It's not that I'm against digital reading devices per se; I just haven't found one that I could see myself using repeatedly and comfortably -- switching my reading habits for, in other words -- and I've been trying these things out since the old Franklin electronic reading book days more than a decade agao.