Can the Sleeker — But Still Pricey — Kindle2 Change Publishing?

Publishing hotshots show up to check out Amazon’s device — and glimpse their possible future.

Last Updated: February 10, 2009 @ 5:55 PM

What a difference fourteen months makes. When Amazon introduced its first wireless reading device, back in fall 2007, there was a press conference, but little fanfare.  On Monday, the introduction of the new Kindle2 was a major publicity event: formal press lists (strictly enforced), packed room at the Morgan Library – I even heard it mentioned on the local New York  NBC news affiliate  in the morning.  

And it was a star-studded event: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos conducted the press conference  – and introduced his  Kindle-loving friend,  author Stephen King, who read from a story, “Ur,” that he specially wrote about a Kindle with mysterious powers. He also showed off the one-of-a kind versionBezos gave him – it’s hot pink – but that’s not going to be available to the public.

King was the only bona fide celebrity in attendance – but what was striking to me was the number of publishing “celebrities” in attendance. Such agents as Sterling Lord Literistic’s Ira Silverberg, publishers David Shanks (Penguin) and Carolyn Reidy (Simon and Schuster) and foreign scout queen Maria Campbell were there – as was new Random House CEO Markus Dohle (with handlers.) 

Is the Kindle really that important? Most estimates put all downloadable books at at most 1% of the market, and the Kindle is only one device. The company is and remains very close-mouthed about how many they’ve sold, though Bezos is happy to tell you that in 14 months, they’ve gone  from having 90,000 titles available in the Kindle-ready format to having 230,000. Yet somehow, even though some publishers have said privately that they prefer the Sony reader over Kindle, version 1 – their attendance at the kind of event that used to be the province of geeks and publishing reporters (sometimes in the same persons), suggests that a shift is upon us.
 
It’s no secret that publishers have more complicated, love-hate relationships with Amazon, which still commands less than half of the bookselling market, than, say, Barnes and Noble. But its “mind share” is huge – Amazon feels to bookselling what Xerox was to copiers in the 70s – and its power increasing.  And there are plenty of traditional publishers who worry just how that power will be used: to demand special terms that cut into publishers’ profits is one real concern. So are such Amazon programs as BookSurge, which virtually gives the Seattle-based behemoth a shot at becoming a publisher. You couldn’t quite shake the feeling that all these New York publishing hot-shots were there at least partly to gauge the speed and extent to which Amazon might take over their world.
 
The new device itself seemed cool enough. Version 2 is sleeker, 25% thinner, Bezos said, than the size of the #1 bestselling phone (probably an iPhone, but of course, Bezos doesn’t name a product from his rival, Apple.) Its buttons are less obtrusive and more easily manageable – removing the Fisher Price See-and-Spell feeling of the original. It offers improved graphics and more storage – up to 1500 books, Bezos says. And the battery – which seemed weak in the old version – will reportedly hold its charge for two weeks. 

The biggest advance, without doubt, however was the audio feature. Apparently now, “when you’re cooking in the kitchen,” as Bezos said, you can push a button and have the book that you were just reading read itself to you. (Unstated, but likely: This development surely has something to do with the fact that fact that Amazon recently bought Audible, the leader in downloadable audio books. Don Katz, the journalist who founded Audible in the late 90s, was one of the machers present.)

Predictably, Bezos didn’t take any questions from the audience – you could elbow your way to the tables afterwords, and touch a sample of the Holy Grail, and make discreet inquiries of the Amazon folk. And many in the publishing firmament did. But cool as it is, and as scared as some publishers are of digitized books in general and Amazon in particular, it remains to be seen whether the new gizmo will be the boon or the bane of BookLand. 

For one thing, it costs $359, which is a tidy sum when you consider that the average American reader, according to many studies, reads between two and six books a year. (Never mind the videos of “regular folk” testifying about their love for Kindle. Even at $25 a book, most readers will get  off easier ordering the  paper and ink version…) Isn’t it a truism that as sure as the stock market will someday go back up, the cost of technology is supposed to go down?  

Then again, Amazon has spent the last 14 years making a fortune by bucking  the common wisdom.