Kindle's in the kindergarten

In my own academic research work (PhD in progress until 2014) I try to keep all my data and documents in The Cloud. This is partly borne out of enthusiasm for e-learning generally, but mainly out of practical necessity; my bibliography is currently around 200 items, and I expect it to hit 1000+ eventually. Some of these works are paper-based books, but most are electronic journal articles (stored as indexed, searchable pdfs, with the attendant bibliographical metatdata available to the citation tools available in Zotero). I work on 5 different Macs and an iPhone, and although I have a paper-based library at home (with, like, real bookshelves and everything) this library is, of course, non-searchable by text string, slowing down my research productivity.

My supervisor is a very experienced and knowledgeable academic who tends to work in a very different way i.e. using paper-based books and printing out journal articles. We understand each other in this respect; he often champions the depth of thought needed to sit down for a long reading session with no distractions; I am inspired by the intellectual and conceptual ‘branching’ that can be achieved by plundering an academic’s bibliography and exploring ideas online – e.g. finding Google book previews to develop further reading.

To contextualise the forthcoming rant about the frustrating limitations of Amazon’s new Kindle For Mac (and iPhone) application, here are some of the characteristics of physical books vs on-screen documents.

Books .pdfs
Better/more tactile reading experience Uncomfortable for long reading sessions
Geographically fixed Available everywhere
No text-search Fully searchable
No copy and paste Quoted excerpts can be pasted into work
No hyperlinking Can be hyperlinked (chapters/headings etc)
Cannot be shared with others Can easily be shared
Immune to copyright infringement Susceptible to copyright infringement

If you agree with this (I hope uncontroversial) summary of the characteristics of the two media, you’ll agree that the first and last rows represent the advantages of using books for research; the rest represent the advantages of using electronic means of study (summarised by but not exclusive to the category ‘.pdfs’). My personal choice is always to go with e-media for these reasons, but it’s exactly that – a personal choice. Many highly effective and more high-profile academics than I are still using paper-based research.

So, to the issues with Kindle. As you see I am already a primed and enthusiastic user of e-learning and an on-screen reader, so yesterday for the first time I found an academic text on Amazon that was available as an e-book download for Kindle. Previously, whenever I’d discovered a research text that was in print, I’d either schlepped over to a library (creating an ever-increasing carbon footprint) or bought the book online and waited for the post to arrive a few days later (increasing the postal service’s carbon footprint – but I’ll leave aside the eco-angle for now).

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

The book (Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi) showed up as being $12.01 as a Kindle download. Not bad for a large-ish specialist interest book, I thought, and way cheaper than my local Waterstones, until I looked at the row below and  saw that the paperback version was $8.99. How can it possibly be cheaper to produce a physical book than an e-book – do the Kindle R&D department staff have a particularly luxurious office building? Never mind, I thought – at least I’ll get it straight away without having to wait for shipping from the USA, and I’ll have the advantage of being able to read the book on the phone too, so I’ll pay the extra and get the download now. Literally one mouse-click later, the book was on my Mac desktop and syncing merrily over the web to my phone, with Amazon’s legendary e-store usability making it an effortless online purchasing experience.

The Kindle app allows you to read the book, and change the font size on-screen. It remembers where you left off reading, and lets you put a manual ‘bookmark’ in the text. And that’s the whole feature set. No text search, no copy-and-paste, and no indexing – exactly, in other words, like a real book.

It appears, then, that Amazon have taken the e-book metaphor to its logical extreme. They have managed to reproduce faithfully all of the disadvantages of the physical book medium online. So much so that even when I’ve bought a Kindle book, I find myself going to Google Books limited preview in order to text-search it. Here’s the table updated to compare the Kindle to the printed book.

Books Kindle
Better/more tactile reading experience Uncomfortable for long reading sessions
Geographically fixed Available everywhere
No text-search No text-search
No copy and paste No copy and paste
No hyperlinking Very limited hyperlinking
Cannot be shared with others Cannot be shared with others
Immune to copyright infringement Immune to copyright infringement

The last row, of course, is key to all this. If Amazon enabled all my wish-list of features, the copyrighted object (the text itself) would be easy to copy and distribute. But these are specialised works with a small sales volume in any format – if Amazon made the usability of these e-books greater, more academics would buy them, especially if the price point was more realistically tied to the production cost.

My point is that the Kindle e-book represents an inferior product to the physical book – at a higher price – and it provides fewer features for the reader than a pdf. Even as an e-learner I do actually like the physical experience of having a book – it’s just that the other advantages of e-text outweigh this short-term tactile benefit.

Kindle/Amazon should learn from the music industry’s experience in the early 2000s – consumers will not tolerate Digital Rights Management for long.


  1. (I’m mirroring this post onto a backup server. Can scarcely believe your admission about owning real-life books!).

    Didn’t realize you couldn’t text search on a Kindle – risible.

    No production cost reason why the Kindle version should cost more than the paperback. But they’re shielded from competition by the proprietary format. So unless Sony & the iBook make in-roads into the Kindle market share (a few million units shifted), Jeff Bezos’ profits rule.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the relationship between GoogleBooks & Kindle turns out. If you can buy in-copyright material from Google that works on a Kindle, then perhaps the Amazon prices will tumble.

    Kindle/Amazon HAVE learnt from the music industry’s experience in the early 2000s, that’s why all the publishers want DRM on their e-books. The difference is it’s easy to rip a CD, very time-consuming to scan in a 300p book. (Unless someone cracks the DRM, which is a possibility…). There’s no widespread Napster/torrents-type pressure outflanking publishers, forcing them to throw in the towel & go DRM-free.

    Thanks for the picture of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi!

    1. Interestingly and unusually, I did get a reply from Amazon when I contacted them – it reads as follows.

      “Thanks for sending us your comments about Digital Rights Management for Amazon Kindle content. Publishers choose whether they apply DRM to their content, and when they do, we respect and protect that DRM. Today you can read books purchased from the Kindle Store on a Kindle or device running a Kindle application.”

      > Kindle/Amazon HAVE learnt from the music industry’s experience in the early 2000s…
      I’m not so sure about this. The history of DRM in music is that it was imposed by the ‘publishers’, not the distribution channel (for Amazon, read iTunes/Apple). In 2007 Steve Jobs gave a ‘don’t blame us’ response that is the equivalent to the Amazon response above – here’s the link.

      Two years later, DRM was dropped from the iTMS. The major music labels accepted that some people would share unprotected content, but hoped there would be enough legitimate customers to make digital distribution (which, remember, has next-to-zero cost) economically viable.

      It is indeed easy to rip a CD, as it is now easy to distribute freely an unprotected MP3 – although I suggest that very few people now buy physical CDs. Spotify now provides an all-you-can-eat model for $10/mo.

      I agree the solution could include Google books – they’ve scanned and metatagged the content with OCR it so it’s already text-searchable. I think in the future we’ll look back on Kindle (and eventually iTMS) as historical/temporary stepping-stones that forced the respective industries to change the way they approach copyright.

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