Wednesday, December 16, 2009

For those considering buying an e-book reader

This year, I bought my first e-book reader, the Kindle 2. I'd resisted buying the first generation Kindle. Despite my love of gadgetry, I try to avoid buying first-generation technology. The price tends to be very high relative to the usefulness of the technology (there’s a premium fee for being an early adopter, as iPhone buyers learned when the price of the device dropped drastically mere weeks after its initial release), and I prefer to wait for bugs to be worked out. I was a little wary about going the e-book route; I couldn’t imagine giving up the feel of paper, and I was concerned that the books I wanted to read wouldn’t always be available. Nine months after getting my Kindle, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back.

Right now, there are three primary competitors in the e-book reader market: Sony’s PRS, Amazon’s Kindle, and Barnes and Noble’s just-released Nook. While each one has some technical advantages over the other, my belief is that the storefront availability of books is much more important than any hardware differences. Regardless of how good the reader itself is, it hardly matters if the book you want to read isn’t available on it.

I’m worried that, as the e-book market itself expands and stabilizes, we might even see some publishers retaining exclusivity rights to certain devices; i.e., Publisher A will only put their books on Reader X, while Publisher B will only put their books on Reader Y. This is similar to the current videogame market, where some games are only sent to certain consoles, so if you want to play every game out there you have to own every console. Ultimately, I don’t believe this business model is sustainable for e-books, and we’ll end up with something more like the current downloadable music model, where the files you download are standardized and playable on any MP3 player - likewise, the books you download will ultimately be readable on any device.

If you’re considering buying an e-book reader (and you very well might be, as it’s one of the big sellers this holiday season) and are trying to decide which model to buy, I would encourage you to go to the device’s website and see if the last five or ten books you read are available for a specific device. The website can help with this by showing what books are available by device, but their catalog doesn’t seem complete yet. Again, I can assure you that it won’t matter how great the hardware itself is if you can’t get the books you want toread.

For the Kindle, I’ve learned that not every book I want to read is available, but there are certainly enough available to keep me reading. The advantages of owning the device far outweigh the slight decrease in availability, but those advantages may not be relevant to everyone.