When reports came out last month about declining ebook sales, many reasons were offered up, from higher pricing to the resurgence of bookstores to more efficient distribution of paper books to increased competition from TV’s continued renaissance, Facebook, Snapchat, and an embarrassment of #longread riches. What I didn’t hear a whole lot about was how the experience of reading ebooks and paper books compared, particularly in regard to the Kindle’s frustrating reading experience not living up to its promise. What if people are reading fewer ebooks because the user experience of ebook reading isn’t great?
Luckily, Craig Mod has stepped into this gap with a piece asking why digital books have stopped evolving. As Mod notes, paper books still beat out digital ones in many ways and the industry (i.e. Amazon) hasn’t made much progress in addressing them.
The object — a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth — requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.
Contrast this with opening a Kindle book — there is no procession, and often no cover. You are sometimes thrown into the first chapter, sometimes into the middle of the front matter. Wherein every step of opening The Conference of the Birds fills one with delight — delight at what one is seeing and what one anticipates to come — opening a Kindle book frustrates. Often, you have to swipe or tap back a dozen pages to be sure you haven’t missed anything.
The Kindle is a book reading machine, but it’s also a portable book store. 1 Which is of great benefit to Amazon but also of some small benefit to readers…if I want to read, say, To Kill A Mockingbird right now, the Kindle would have it to me in less than a minute. But what if, instead, the Kindle was more of a book club than a store? Or a reading buddy? I bet something like that done well would encourage reading even more than instantaneous book delivery.
To me, Amazon seems exactly the wrong sort of company to make an ebook reader 2 with a really great reading experience. They don’t have the right culture and they don’t have the design-oriented mindset. They’re a low-margin business focused on products and customers, not books and readers. There’s no one with any real influence at Amazon who is passionately advocating for the reader. Amazon is leaving an incredible opportunity on the table here, which is a real bummer for the millions of people who don’t think of themselves as customers and turn to books for delight, escape, enrichment, transformation, and many other things. No wonder they’re turning back to paper books, which have a 500-year track record for providing such experiences.
PS. Make sure you read Mod’s whole piece…you don’t want to miss the bit about future MacArthur Genius Bret Victor’s magic bookshelf. <3