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A modest proposal to Amazon re: the Kindle

The Kindle is a beautiful thing. The e-ink display is gorgeous, the book selection is great, the built in 3G network provides an extremely convenient way to get content, and more... Clearly Amazon got a lot right with this device, and the new model is even better than the original, now fitting more comfortably among current gadget families.

People I know who have a Kindle report that the device quickly dissappears and they're left with the book they're reading, exactly as you would ask of an e-book reader.

And much like the iPod in its time, devices like the Kindle seem inevitable for the future. Books are beautiful objects that we rightly cherish in our culture, but it's hard to argue with the convenience of having your library with you wherever you go.

Now, I'm a typical (pathological?) early adopter. I love new technology and trust my instincts to pick winning trends and ideas. So, how have I been able to resist the Kindle so far?

First of all, there's the small matter of price point. At $359, the device is a little too expensive to buy on impulse and hence, if you want one, you need to justify it rationally to yourself. If the Kindle was below $200, this would not be an issue at all. But alas, it is rather expensive. And since Amazon is selling them as fast as they can build them, we can't expect the price to change anytime soon.

Trying to rationalize the purchase I come up with the following objections:

  • I'll miss a few, key physical properties of books. One is the ability to lend special books to people. Another one is the ability to display carefully selected books in public places, like your living room, a coffee table, a book shelf at work. The books on a person's shelf say a lot about who they are and I like books I select for display to serve this purpose.

  • Worries about the library disappearing. If the Kindle is all you have and Amazon is the repository of all books you've purchased, what happens if Amazon decides they're no longer interested in this or if (gasp!) Amazon failed to survive as a company? I don't seriously worry about this at all, for two reasons: Amazon is maniacal about keeping customers happy and discontinuing something like the Kindle would be bad, and if Amazon was to disappear as a company I think we will all have more to worry about than our book libraries. Nevertheless, this objection frequently comes up in articles about the Kindle.

  • The gut feeling that there's something iffy with purchasing e-books at the price of real books. I know a book is really the content, not the physical item, but this is really a gut level issue. It feels weird to me to pay the same for bits as for the physical item.

Of course, the advantages of the Kindle are obvious, and I really like the device. So I thought a bit about this and came up with a scheme that Amazon could implement to lift my objections.

The key insight is the following: only a small subset of the books you buy are special and are books you like to lend to people or display in special places. A very small subset. The vast majority of books you read and then put away forever. In these days of environmental worries, wouldn't it be nice to save even printing these books?

Another very significant point is that you don't know if a book is special until you've read it. The ideal would be to read a book on the Kindle and then, when you decide it's a special book deserving to be printed and to take up some of your physical space, only then you would get it.

Which leaves the other two objections still on the table... Here's the modest proposal, then, based on these insights:

  • After a book has been purchased at full Kindle price on the Kindle, the customer has contractual rights to purchase one copy of the physical book for a symbolic extra amount (one or two dollars?).

Extremely simple and satisfying, at least to me. I can buy a book on the Kindle, paying full price knowing that if I want a physical copy I can get it for a little bit more, lifting the "gut feeling objection". If I realize a book is special and deserves to be lent or displayed on my shelf I can buy it in physical form and I'm not penalized for having purchased it first in electronic form. And finally, if I'm feeling at all uncertain of whether Amazon will continue supporting the service, I can order the books I care about in physical form and cross this objection out as well.

The question is whether people would abuse this system. I can only talk about myself. I would not, because only special books deserve to be printed and take up room in my house. And there are not that many special books. So, if the user population behaved like me, this could be a big win for everyone.

At this point I suspect I'll eventually break down and get a Kindle because it's just that cool... but I still believe the model above would be liked by customers and result in higher adoption of the device.

Disclaimer: I work for A9, an Amazon subsidiary. Obviously I have no connection whatsoever to the Kindle teams at Amazon.


  1. Una contra más. La ubicación geográfica. Deberían planificar expanderse a otras regiones para que no sea válido sólo en los Estados Unidos.
    No se cuánta inversión deberían hacer en infraestructura, pero si quieren volver el gadget realmente popular deberían pensar en algo más mundialmente masivo.


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