Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
When Amazon recently announced its tablet Kindle Fire, it also created a whole Kindle family, with prices ranging from $79 (Kindle with special offers) to $379 (the larger Kindle DX with free WiFi and 3G). When Apple’s cheapest iPad is still $499 and Barnes & Noble’s basic Nook is $139, that $79 price tag might do a lot to entice buyers who couldn’t afford an ereader before. And even for an avowed print snob, I’m more concerned about declining reading rates than I’m worried about the same machine being used for reading and for playing Angry Birds.
It’s worth noting at this point that $79 gets you the most basic Kindle, with ads–I mean “special offers.” For the privilege of an ad-free reading experience, you pay anywhere from $30 more on that basic Kindle to $50 more on the Kindle Keyboard 3G.
It’s also worth noting that while many people are calling the Fire the first real competitor to iPad, it may not be, really; while Fire comes with built-in WiFi, it does not come with 3G, or even appear to have 3G capability at this point. (And while iPad is now the only tablet with whenever-wherever Internet access, if you want 3G on your iPad, your price rockets from $499 to $629–yikes!)
But leaving the question of Internet access aside, Amazon has done more than Apple or B&N to make its ereaders affordable to anyone who might want one, and that’s really saying something. In a country where reading rates are declining steadily year after year (just Google ‘declining reading’), getting more books into more pockets is a cause that parents, teachers, academics, and publishers alike can get behind. Worldwide, ereaders are a way to increase literacy rates in countries with far less access to books than we have here in the US (check out Worldreader.org if you don’t believe me that Kindles might save the world–or at least save reading.)
This isn’t a particularly new idea. Ten years ago, editor/publisher Jason Epstein prophesied in Book Business, “Readers in Ulan Bator, Samoa, and Nome will have the same access to books as readers in Berkeley and Cambridge.” Sure, he was talking about print-on-demand technology, which kind of fizzled before it ever really took off; he was also writing before the first Kindle ever appeared. If we translate Epstein’s 2001 ideas into 2011 technology, ereaders are definitely a substitute for the book printing machines Epstein envisioned in every household. He continued,
The technology of the printing press enhanced the value of literacy, encouraged widespread learning, and became the sine qua non of modern civilization. New technologies will have an even greater effect, narrowing the gap between the educated rich and the unlettered poor and distributing the benefits as well as the hazards of our civilization to everyone on earth.
Positively, Amazon didn’t much care about these Utopian visions when they released the new Kindle family. I’m sure Amazon was more motivated by the prospect of selling more hardware (and creating a captive market for their exclusive ebook language) than they were by altruism. However, that doesn’t mean that more competitive/affordable pricing of ereaders can’t be a great thing, not just for grad students looking to save a few bucks, but for poor families whose kids might have never read much otherwise. And even if publishers are scared of declining print sales, rising digital sales might be worth a little bit of terror, if we consider the great opportunities for learning and the global exchange of ideas that ereaders could represent–if they just weren’t so darned expensive.
Recommended Reading: Book Business by Jason Epstein, W. W. Norton, 2001.