Amazon unveils e-book device

$399 Kindle is size of paperback, with access to 90,000 titles

Plugged In

November 22, 2007|By Wailin Wong | Wailin Wong,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- Consumers have mobile phones and digital music players. They write e-mails, surf the Web and watch videos on YouTube. Yet digital publishers and manufacturers are still trying to convince consumers to modernize that most old-fashioned medium: the book.

On Monday, Amazon.com Inc. entered the fray with Kindle, a $399 device that will try to do for books what the iPod did for music: use a new gadget to promote a digital-based industry.

It's a flashy idea tied to the digital media revolution that has already upended both the music business and newspapers, which are scrambling to adjust. But book publishers, particularly those of literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have struggled to find a digital format that offers immediate and significant improvements over the time-tested combination of paper, ink and binding.

"Fundamentally, you've got a very portable device at the moment - the paperback book," said Eric Price, associate publisher at Grove/Atlantic in New York.

Amazon's long-rumored Kindle is the size of a paperback and weighs 10.3 ounces. The company will make more than 90,000 books available electronically, including best-sellers and new releases, many of which cost $9.99 each.

One of the Kindle's main features is its ability to download content without being connected to a computer. Amazon's reader uses a wireless broadband standard used by mobile phone service providers. Kindle owners must have Amazon accounts to use the device, which can hold more than 200 titles at one time.

"It can provide instant access," said Steven Kessel, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide digital media. "So you think of a book and you go to the store that's connected on the device you buy, and that book is downloaded in less than a minute."

Industry players say that while so-called e-books have gained popularity in educational circles and other niches, mainstream consumers have been reluctant to adopt the new technology because they want it to replicate the experience of physically handling a book, something the digital format hasn't delivered on yet.

Both Amazon and Sony Corp, which introduced a new version of its portable book reader in October, are working to overcome this hurdle. The two companies use technology by start-up E Ink, a company in Cambridge, Mass., that makes "electronic paper" designed to reflect light like physical printed paper. The displays on the digital readers don't require backlighting and are meant to reduce eyestrain and glare.

"The Amazon Kindle and devices like the Sony Reader are now taking advantage of very exciting reading technologies that are improving the ability to create a much more book-like experience," said Steve Potash, who is president of the International Digital Publishing Forum, an industry trade group.

E-book proponents are betting that technological strides in readability and portability will dovetail with consumers' growing ease in accessing information digitally. Digital books are already popular with travelers, who can carry one device rather than lug around a library in their suitcase.

But one reason why consumers have been slower to embrace e-books is that digital music offers "compelling advantages" for consumers that don't necessarily translate to books, such as the ability to pluck one track from a list of songs on an album, said Matt Shatz, corporate vice president for digital at Random House Inc. in New York.

"Because the consumer differences aren't as obvious as music, it doesn't mean we expect the floodgates to open instantaneously here," Shatz said. "But that said, people are doing more reading every day on screens."

Publishers acknowledge that the market for e-books outside of niche genres such as romances and thrillers is still limited. Price, of Grove/Atlantic, noted that when his firm published Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize, the novel sold just 13 e-books in three months, compared with the 270,000 paperbacks.

In an interview with influential technology blog TechCrunch on Monday, Amazon chief executive officer Jeffrey P. Bezos said the main buyers of the Kindle will be "heavy readers. Anyone who keeps three or four books open at the same time."

They are the minority, of course, which underscores the challenge facing Amazon: How to promote widespread adoption of digital media when fewer consumers are reading books at all.

Wailin Wong writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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