Friday, May 8, 2009

Kindle DX & the textbook & news industries

I was pretty excited about the Kindle DX announcement yesterday. In fact I had ordered an iRex iLiad Book Edition, and ended up cancelling that order to pre-order a Kindle DX. Both have full-page-size native PDF rendering; the iLiad gives me the ability to mark up/write on the screen, whereas the Kindle DX gives me the ability to have all my other Kindle books. It was a tough call, but the iLiad’s not likely to go up in price so I saw no downside to cancelling my order even if I decide to reinstate it later.

I have to admit I’m puzzled about some of my colleagues’ pessimism surrounding the proposed deals with textbook publishers and pilot programs at various colleges for e-textbooks. Maybe I’m overly optimistic but I see a win here for publishers, students and faculty. As a student, I would have loved to avoid carrying around 40 pounds of books. Also, most textbooks are revved very frequently, and a lot of paper is wasted when old editions are discarded; the tree-hugger in me cringes at the thought of how many books are thrown away. Yes, students currently benefit from the used textbook market because they can recapture part of their investment by selling back their textbooks each semester, but the even as the books are replaced by e-books that enjoy bigger margins.

But more importantly, in the long term I believe students will also benefit because a lot of textbooks are already available online free or nearly-free from their academic authors, and there areseveral movements and organizations working to make textbooks more affordable and to create open-source textbooks. Large-screen ebook readers provide a low-cost distribution mechanism for them (creating an e-book that is friendly to small display sizes is not trivial, especially if there are lots of graphs, equations or technical figures). Over time I suspect that e-book prices will fall to the point that students will, in fact, either experience a net savings compared to the current practice of buying and later re-selling their used physical textbooks, or be willing to pay parity price but not have to lug books around. (And the DRM used on Kindles doesn’t prevent buybacks or textbook rentals; it just hasn’t been implemented.)

On another note, I also noticed the new deals announced with various newspapers to . This is an interesting approach, and I wondered why not do this for small-screen Kindles also, but then I read Robert Fabricant’s interesting piece on FastCompany on how the physical layout geometry (and therefore the size) of print media matters for news & journalism in a way that doesn’t apply to other kinds of print media. The idea that you can juxtapose stories, points of view, etc. by putting them side-by-side in a newspaper layout is something that might kind-of work on the Kindle DX, but wouldn’t work at all on the 6-inch Kindle.

Maybe the best short-term thing about the DX announcement is the “trickle-down effect”: a pronounced increase in the number of used Kindle 1’s and Kindle 2’s on Craigslist at a price point that people might actually find palatable (I’ve seen as low as $150). Well, Mothers’ Day is coming…