Amazon Unveils the Future of E-Books

By Neal Comment

newsweek-bezos-cover.jpgRemember Friday morning’s item about the possibility might unveil its e-book reader tonight (or is it this morning)? It’s looking a lot more likely, now that there’s Newsweek cover story by Steven Levy on whether or not Jeff Bezos can redefine the book with his company’s highly anticipated Kindle device—which Bezos, as Levy puts it, “hopes will leapfrog over previous attempts at e-readers and become the turning point in a transformation toward Book 2.0.” And even if this particular gadget doesn’t fulfill that goal, observes Tim O’Reilly, “even if some other device becomes the reader of choice, Amazon will still become one of the leading sources of the books that feed it. All Amazon needs to do here is move the industry forward, and I think that’s already been accomplished.”

“Though Bezos is reluctant to make the comparison,” the article adds, “Amazon believes it has created the iPod of reading.” Levy’s certainly impressed; he even enthuses over the Caecilia typeface the Kindle uses to display text. But he also goes widescreen to look at the implications of the Kindle’s possible success—creating, by extension, a new level of success for e-books—on the publishing industry, as well as big-picture questions like where publishing companies will try to set the price point, the potential for readers to become annotators and remixers, and of course the intricate copyright issues.

On his blog, Levy further admires the Kindle, describing it as “pretty attractive” and nothing like the ugly sci-fi prop described by David Rothman on his Publishers Weekly blog (which he reiterated in response to Levy’s article). Over at Dear Author, “Jane” is similarly unimpressed. She also mentions an interesting hypothetical stumbling block, in that the Kindle seems to her geared heavily towards cutting-edge consumers and business types, whereas the biggest consumer blocs in the book market are buyers of religious and inspirational books and romance novels.

Seth Godin chimes in as well, revealing that he’d been invited to be part of the launch, but Amazon balked at his terms: “I wanted my books to be free and included in every reader, and my blog, too.” (Kindle apparently allows readers to subscribe to certain blogs for a small monthly fee.) “My thought was to use it, at least for a few years, as a promotion device,” he explains. “Give the books for free to anyone who buys the $400 machine… You’ll sell more machines that way, that’s for sure. And the people willing to buy the device are exactly the sort of people that an author like me wants to reach.” It wasn’t meant to be, but the scenario does actually tie into some of the serious questions about uniform formatting standards that Rothman’s been raising about the Kindle, and just how much free content will be available for the device. (If I’m understanding Levy correctly, the Kindle will read PDF files, so there are some possibilities…)