collects stories and ideas from John Kelly

The decline of ebooks

Craig Mod has some theories surrounding the apparent decline in ebook sales. TL;DR: he reckons it’s mostly to do with the physical experience of reading on ereaders (and let’s be clear, when we say ‘ereaders’, there’s really only one player in town, the Kindle). For me, he borders too much on the fetishisation of the physical form of the book. For example, here’s his description of the travel guide City Secrets

Bound in rust-coloured cloth, rough against the skin, with jet-black foil‑stamped lettering and a small key on the cover, City Secrets was skinny. The trim size was non‑standard, much taller than wide. It bent easily, fit handily into my jacket pocket, and was made with cover boards that had a reassuring springy resilience. The combination of the size and the cloth cover made it feel like a travel companion – a book that could take a beating, be dragged around the world, stored for years, and returned to, again and again.

It’s like Nigella-style food erotica for the lit crowd.

But I sort of agree with some of what he’s saying. As I mentioned before (and I’ll continue to mention at any available opportunity), I recently — finally! — finished Infinite Jest. Now, Infinite Jest is a goddamn doorstop. A thousand pages of some of the densest prose you’ll find. It should be the perfect candidate for Kindle-reading. But I read the entire thing on a physical book. I hauled that monster in and out of the city every day on my commute, even though it took up most of the space in my bag, simply because it was just a more pleasant experience than reading on the Kindle.

The worst part is that a lot of the things that keep the Kindle from being a genuinely great reading experience (as opposed to an entirely passable one) are fairly minor. They’re not insurmountable. They’re mostly niggly details like shitty font options and character spacing that could most charitably be described as ‘schizophrenic’. And these issues are getting addressed, albeit at a glacial pace. This June, almost eight years after the first Kindle was first released and seven generations into the Kindle product line, Amazon released firmware that finally fixed its shitty hyphenation and layout engine.

So the changes are slowly coming, but Amazon’s reluctance to release any information or suggestions of where they plan to take the Kindle is baffling to me. Especially when it’s their mealticket item. Apple called the Apple TV their “hobby” and said nothing about its roadmap (until they finally did). Amazon seem to be treating the Kindle in the same way. Is it any wonder people are returning to books? I’m sure they’ll be back to the Kindle when something dramatically enhance the experience on there, but who knows how long that will be?

Personally, there are two things I would love to see that would improve my relationship with the Kindle. First, release an updated Kindle DX. You know, the bigger Kindle. The “Kindle Pro”. My neighbour in Rome, an editor, used to have one and it was the cadillac of readers even then. The resolution of the Kindle Voyage is finally at a print-like level, but the size of the actual screen means it’s useless for anything but imitating cheap paperbacks. A slightly larger physical screen would open the device up to so much more.

Second, and this is a cheap, simple win - I’d love to see the Kindle display the cover of the book I’m currently reading instead of the Kindle’s shitty generic screensavers. When I read a physical book, I am greeted by its cover every time I look at it. I know the name of the author, I know the name of the book. On the Kindle, this stuff is hidden away from everyday view, so it’s possible to read a book and have no idea of its title or who wrote it. You’re cut off from a relationship with the book in favour of a relationship with its content. The cover, that singular piece of design that, let’s face it, we almost always base our initial judgement of a book on, is completely removed on the Kindle. Without it, a book is just a collection of photocopied pages held together with sticky-tape.