Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Until last week, kindling was always a common noun in my house. I have a huge bag of it next to my Danish piano (an unusual instrument, that looks as if it's been stolen from an infants' school gymnasium). However, during the last seven days it has become a verb for something completely unrelated to fire, although it has had an incendiary effect on the book trade.

I have written many derisive comments about the Amazon Kindle and ebooks in general. As someone who has spent most of their working life in the book trade, it was the default position to take. I love books. For all their worthiness, books are surprisingly sensual objects, engaging all of the senses except taste. Ebooks were the enemy: drab, monochrome devices, reducing every reading experience to uniform fonts, grey backgrounds and a dependence on electricity.

However, like most puritans, I was a hypocrite, secretly fascinated by the ebook phenomenon.

I first saw an ebook in 2000. It looked like an upmarket Psion Organiser and I was underwhelmed, but slightly unnerved by the realisation that something better would appear in a year or two. However, fours years on, ebooks still showed no sign of making any inroads into the book trade and a lot of people were content to bury their heads in the sand.

It says a lot about the book trade that during the mid-'noughties', The Friday Project were regarded as 'zeitgeisty' for turning web content into paper books. We had no idea.

The Amazon Kindle was launched on November 19th 2007 and sold out in under six hours. Customers had to wait for five months before the Kindle was back in stock. But in spite of the apparent demand, the Kindle had a neglible effect on book sales and at the time, it looked like a geeky toy that would never break through into the mass market.

But last year, everything changed. The third generation Kindle was one of the bestselling Christmas presents of 2010 and sales of ebooks began to affect the bestseller charts. Admittedly, this was largely driven by Amazon, who were keen to reduce their warehousing and postage costs by selling ebooks, but nobody could deny that the Kindle was changing the way people bought books.

I became increasingly obsessed by the Kindle and railed against it in various blog posts, but somebody saw straight through me and said that I was on the "verge of Kindledom".

Last week, I asked people to give me reasons for not buying a Kindle and received a number of interesting comments which helped me make up my mind. The following day, I ordered one:

These book titles are quite apposite and I like the "Welcome Philip" - everyone calls me Phil apart from Amazon and my mother. That's how it should be.

It took a while to get used to the light grey screen, but overall I like the Kindle. I had very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. As some people have said, it doesn't replace the printed page, but it does provide an interesting alternative.

I like the fact that I can order the new Henning Mankell - a book I will probably never read again - without having to go through the process of travelling to a bookshop or ordering a hardback, only to find a slip on my doormat saying that the parcel was too big for my letterbox. I also love Project Gutenberg, which enables me to download any one of thousands of classics in under a minute.

What I don't like about the Kindle is the conspicuous absence of most titles published between the 1940s (the threshold of copyright) and four years ago. These titles are all not available in Kindle format:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Great Railway Bazaar
The Songlines
Mr Norris Changes Trains
The Stone Diaries
Brightness Falls
The Slaves of Solitude
The Well of Loneliness
I Capture the Castle
The Dice Man
The Accidental Tourist
Things Fall Apart
The Female Eunuch
Moon Palace
The Bone People
Guns, Germs and Steel
Miss Smila's Feeling For Snow
The Tin Drum
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

I could go on.

Obviously these gaps will gradually be filled, but at the moment I'm impressed by how many books aren't available as downloads, in spite of the hyperbole. We could probably all live without The Bone People and The Dice Man, but Blindness? Come on Random House!

In spite of this, as a reader, I like the Kindle more than I thought I would. As a bookseller, I feel nervous. My project at work is going well and on its own merits, is pretty Kindle-proof, but it is completely dependent on a larger business that sells used paperbacks for a penny on Amazon marketplace. If they go under, so do I.

Last week was my best ever, but in spite of that, I could still be out of a job. I won't be taking out any loans for the time being.

It's hard to know what will happen, as the success of ebooks depends on a number of factors. If digital books become as easy to illegally download and share as MP3 files, then book trade as we know it may be largely finished, apart from niche areas like titles for young children. But on the other hand, people have a greater emotional attachment to books than they did to records, tapes and CDs, so the reading world may be more pluralistic.

I bought a Kindle for two reasons. First, I wanted to understand at first hand the phenomenon that is having such a large impact on the industry I work in. Second, I loved the Kindle's space-saving properties. My small, Victorian terraced house is slowly sinking under the weight of books, many of which I'll never read again. I don't need a hardback copy of the latest Henning Mankell. I'd rather save the shelf space for books that are particularly beautiful.

I know that some people may cry "Judas!", but I've tried to remain open minded and the pro-Kindle comments on this blog have been so eloquent and well-argued, I had to find out for myself.

Jonathan Main (aka Bookseller Crow) wrote this excellent article on the Kindle, arguing that "It is functional in the way that listening to Mozart on a transistor radio is convenient in the circumstances but ultimately completely unfullfilling". However, I think we have to separate the message from the medium. I was all geared-up to hate the Kindle, but was surprised to find that once I was immersed in the text, I forgot that I was even reading one.

Of course, when we enter the next dark age, all of our digitised culture will disappear in a puff of smoke and the Riddley Walkers of the future will be denied the pleasure of reading The Da Vinci Code.

Now there's a thought.

P.S - STOP PRESS - Visit Bookseller Crow's blog for this funny, poignant anecdote about the threat of ebooks.


Martin H. said...

Glad you are enjoying the best of both worlds. Happy reading!

Nicholas said...

Best of both worlds is right, Mr H. Why do people think it's a question of one or other medium exclusively? Most of us - and I think Steerforth is one now - are happy to crack our eggs big or little end according to mood. Use Kindle for the ephemera and reading becasue you have to; paper for those other subtle pleasures of book-owning.

The winning USP for me is that the Kindle is FLAT. I can read over breakfast without laying a knife across pages; turn pages with a non-marmalady knuckle. Precious print volumes remain unsullied.

Also on tedious beach holiday when you've read everything by day 5 you can order something new immediately. And no added weight to take home.

zmkc said...

Ooh lovely. I can't understand why so many think it's either paper books or electronic books - there's theatre, cinema and telly isn't there (not sure if that analogy works)? But I'm still more tempted by a Sony e-reader. I don't like the handcuffs that I understand the Kindle applies - am I right in thinking you can only put Kindle formatted books on it (which means you can't access lots of the free pre 1940s book that are available?)?

Sarah Norman said...

I just discovered that myself about I CAPTURE THE CASTLE! I love that book. What are they doing? But the one that really shocks me as THINGS FALL APART - arguably the most important African fiction of the twentieth century!!

George H. said...

Yep. Life is better when you are inclusive rather than exclusive. Read on.

Foxesatdawn said...

I am shocked, Steerforth. Shocked

The Poet Laura-eate said...


Shari said...

I'm so pleased to see this post. Not because of some notion that we Kindle-lovers have another convert in the (silly, made-up) "paper vs. e-ink war," but because you've so honestly shared your experience, pluses and minuses. The more sane conversation on this topic, the better.

I was the person who left a (too-long, sorry, and here we go again) comment anonymously some weeks ago, imploring you to consider the merits of living in both worlds. The atmosphere in the comments section seemed so thickly disdainful of e-readers that I hid in fear of being more personally addressed with that attitude. Not a great strategy for meaningful discourse, I know, but some people have very angry feelings about e-readers. (Brace yourself!) Consider J.K. Rowling, who feels that the printed book is so sacred that she refuses to allow Harry Potter to be sold as an e-book. Not sure how she reconciles this high horse with some of the movie adaptations, but anyway. No matter, her books are easily downloaded and... oops, not anonymous any more. ;)

Alas, one of your commenters speculated that maybe I was Amazon in disguise. Oh my. No, but I do love this thingy they've made. Wishing you many happy reading experiences!

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

I wonder why book lovers always think it's their holy duty to OWN books. My friends are always telling me things like "moving house was a nightmare because we had fifty boxes of books" etc. Our flat is quite small and we see no point in owning books one will never open again. Of course, plenty of people might say they see no point in owning a fifteen part encyclopaedia from the 1930s, but I find it awfully useful.

Also, sometimes I feel people who rant against ebooks seem to forget it's the content that matters. And when people say Kindle or iPad are expensive, they seem to forget how dreadfully expensive it is to get a good book cabinet with glass doors for the home library!

Steerforth said...

Gabriela - I agree. Why do we have to own everything we read? I derive a lot of pleasure from looking at my bookcase containing the titles I really love, but I feel oppressed by the piles of paperbacks that I may never read.

And when I moved to this house, it was a nightmare!

Shari - I'm glad you feel able to come out in the open (although I don't think you had anything to fear - everyone's very civilised here). Your comment a few weeks ago was one of several that made me reconsider my attitude towards the Kindle. As you say, the more sane conversation we have on this topic, the better.

Laura - Go on, you know you want to ;)

Foxes - I'm looking forward to discussing this face to face on Sunday.

George - That's a good motto to have.

Sarah - I was really shocked by the lack of backlist titles. It's not Amazon's fault, it's the publishers. I bet they're all frantically digitising their backlist now that ebooks have suudenly taken off.

zmkc - Project Gutenberg has Kindle versions of thousands of classics, so it isn't a problem. I considered the Sony Reader, but the Kindle's 3G/wireless capabilities won the day.

Nicholas - Aren't you worried about getting marmalade on your Kindle?

Martin - I partly have you to thank for making me aware of my secret ebook desires!

Alienne said...

I agree, there is no need to own every book you read - look at libraries! I downloaded the kindle app on my laptop to try it out and to access some of the free classics I would not actually go out and buy. While I am sure it will never overtake a real book in my affections, it is useful for reading while knitting as the 'page' stays upright and does not close up by itself. I may eventually give in to the kindle itself as it will reduce the weight and space taken up in my bag by lugging books on holiday or on train journeys.
I have recently started selling some of the books that I have collected over the years on Amazon as I have many I will never read again, but I know I will keep buying second hand books on there too because nothing is quite as good as holding a real book in your hands.

John Self said...

There are many advantages to ebooks - searchable, annotatable, text size can be changed, not to mention Nicholas's point about being able to read them while eating.

My only experience of e-readers has been the first generation Sony Reader, which a PR company sent me, and which was pretty rubbish. I read Kertesz's Fatelessness on it and my only memories of the book are what an unsatisfactory reading experience it was; I can remember almost nothing about the story.

I have only once or twice felt the desire to have a paper book in e-format, most recently with Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party, which was so massive I resented the space it would take if I kept it, and it seemed the ideal e-read with its enormous index and notes, ideal for cross-referencing more easily than on the paper version.

I'm an Amazon boycotter because (a) I disapprove of their unethical practices with suppliers and employees, and (b) I would quite like other suppliers of books/ebooks to exist in ten years' time other than Amazon and supermarkets. I have no idea if Amazon was the inspiration for the Buy'N'Large Corp in Pixar's Wall-E, but that's certainly how I view them.

Of course, as I have no particular interest in ebooks, that makes my boycott of Amazon very easy. If I was drawn to the convenience of the format, I might be more conflicted, or even hypocritical.

I have downloaded a few iBooks onto my iPhone. I did it with short stories because I thought they would be best suited to the format, so I chose (and paid for) Kafka's Metamorphosis and David Eagleman's Sum (both of which I already have in paper format). I also downloaded Penguin's innovative myFry app, which contains the entire text of Stephen Fry's The Fry Chronicles in bite-size, subject-linked chunks. I haven't read any of these books yet, and have no desire to. If I have a free moment with my phone, I'll check Twitter and email, or if I've more time, I'll read a 'real' book. I seem to be immune to the charms of the ebook, which is perhaps surprising for someone who is so into (a) books and (b) e-life otherwise.

One final observation: Shari spoke of the "silly, made-up 'paper vs e-ink' war," but I don't think it is silly or made up. Amazon is going to be the single mass supplier of books in the near future. It is very keen to push the Kindle and ebooks, and prices them accordingly (some say below cost, as a loss leader to corner the market). Amazon will certainly do everything in its power to move people from paper books to ebooks - because of the savings they make on storage and postage, as Steerforth points out in his post, but also because it enables them to exert an Apple-like stranglehold on the market, where they have complete control of supply. I consider this a sad and unwelcome process - and I haven't even touched on the effect this is likely to have on risk-taking in our already cautious major publishers - but I recognise that I am in a minority.

Steerforth said...

I've just discovered John's comment in the 'Spam' folder - have Amazon bought Blogger as well?

Funnily enough, I am now reading The End of the Party in ebook format - it's one of the many titles I wanted to read but dodn't want to own.

The process of consolidation is depressing. I've witnessed it in high street bookselling and the best man doesn't always win. The free market seems to ultimately lead to cartels and monopolies, but I hope that the democratising nature of the internet will see underdogs challenge the hegemony of corporations.

But in the short term I see less competition, fewer risks taken and more job losses in the publishing industry. I'm particularly worried about Waterstone's.

mtff said...

I knew you'd do it. Glad you're having fun. I'm thinking of getting one for Six, or rather I'm thinking of giving her my old 2nd generation one and buying a new one for my good self..