Kindle Hikes Book Prices and Adds to My Ambivalence

Just when I was coming to terms with my ambivalence toward my Kindle e-book reader, Amazon and the publishers have gotten greedy.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the device since I bought my first one about 9 months ago. As a frequent traveler and voracious reader, I’ve found the Kindle to be nearly ideal. I never have fewer than a dozen books in its memory, and they’re always things I want to read.

As someone who believes we should often interact with media instead of passively consuming it, however, I don’t think much of the Kindle for any purpose other than reading a narrative. And given what a disaster “digital rights management” (DRM) is becoming for scholarship, culture and ultimately freedom, the device’s restrictions on how I can use what I’ve purchased are deeply troubling.

Still, I’ve been using it with some degree of satisfaction (as have enough other people to have helped boost Amazon’s stock price, so as the holder of several hundred shares I’m slightly better off in that way, too). The second-generation model improved nicely on the first–among other things, fixing some user-interface quirks, letting me charge it via a USB cable, and boosting the battery life.

The books I load onto the device fall generally under the casual entertainment category. I buy a Kindle book the way I buy a movie ticket (or did before going to theaters became such a crappy experience).

These are books, like most movies, that I’ll read or watch once and forget about. A physical book is more like a DVD–something I want to own and enjoy again and again.

So the kinds of books I tend to buy for the Kindle are the sort I’d often pick up at an airport newsstand, namely mysteries, thrillers and semi-trashy novels that I’d sometimes leave in hotels or airplane seat-back pockets once I’d finished them. (I also subscribe to several magazines, and consider it a favor not to see the advertising.)

Once I got accustomed to reading e-books, I started doing something that had been out of character in the analog era: buying new books that, in print, were available in hardcover only. Why? The price, typically $10 (okay, one penny less), was right. In fact, my new-book purchases soared.

But not for long. In recent weeks, Amazon (AMZN) or the publishers (or both) have done their best to deter me from buying the latest releases. Prices have gone up, way up.

Now, I often find books for which I’d have gladly paid $10 listed at $14 or $15. I save these to a list I keep on the Amazon website, called “Too expensive for Kindle,” and periodically check to see if the price has dropped. So far, not yet on any of these.

Hiking prices this way creates a bad deal for the customer. Amazon’s price for a new hardcover is typically just a couple of dollars higher. This means I could buy the hardcover, read it and donate it to my local library, and–after the tax deduction–come out ahead. I’d do even better taking the book to my local used-book store and getting cash.

But I almost never buy new hardcovers of books I don’t expect to reread or use as a reference, because a) I’m kind of cheap; and b) I can stand waiting for the paperback. So if prices stay high, I stay away.

Now, sellers have every right to charge more for popular books, especially when they’re new. This is basic supply and demand. But when the price only makes sense for people who consider the ultra-portability of an e-book paramount, that’s a turnoff for other potential buyers.

As a customer I also understand supply and demand. My demand is extremely elastic, and in this case it’s snapped.

Last week’s introduction of the Kindle DX was framed in many ways by different constituencies, but I was taken aback by the praise heaped on the device by several newspaper people, including the CEO of the New York Times Co. (NYT) (in which I also own a small amount of stock). Newspapers aren’t going to fix their considerable woes with Kindles, and anyone who thinks so lives in a fantasy world.

The DX, with its bigger screen, strikes me as potentially useful in several ways, possibly including the textbook function that Amazon hopes to jumpstart with the help of several universities (including the one that employs me). But if textbook publishers don’t radically cut prices on the outrageously expensive books they sell, they will find themselves creating a strong incentive for precisely what they don’t want: unauthorized copying.

I suspect the DX will prove most useful in more prosaic ways. For example, it could be a nearly ideal container and viewer for technical documentation–thick manuals that need periodic updating, where the cost of printing is prohibitive and the bulk of the books is daunting for the user.

Will all of this be made moot by the widely anticipated Apple (AAPL) “NetPad” or whatever it’s going to be called? I refer to a device that looks like a larger version of the iPod Touch, which would be a wonderful mobile multimedia player, among other likely capabilities.

I doubt it. If you enjoy severe eye strain, reading books on a back-lit, glossy display is just the ticket. The passive displays on Kindles, the Sony (SNE) e-reader and other such devices are much better for this kind of reading.

One size does not fit all in the emerging world of devices. Then again, one carry-on bag doesn’t hold all devices. For now, however, the Kindle has a place in mine.

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