Monday, 12 October 2009

Kindle, Schvindle

Way back last year I described my purchase of an e-book reader (My New Toy) and how the missing player in the UK market was Amazon's Kindle. Anyone who uses Amazon regularly will have noticed that, finally, a UK version of Kindle was launched this week. Except, it isn't.

What is being made available is the new "international" version, sold to us in the UK via Amazon in the USA, and which makes available not a new UK Kindle store but (for now, anyway) the existing USA Kindle store. Not only that, but the price per item is going to be 40% greater in the UK ($13.99) than in the States ($9.99). Not only that, but the connection to the Amazon store will be achieved by "roaming" on various 3G phone networks, which immediately puts a question mark over availability (ever tried ringing home from a train? Check out the Ofcom "3G coverage maps"). Hmmm. I ordered a Kindle in the initial excitement, then almost immediately cancelled it. Wait and see, I think.

However, the fact is that I'm encountering two problems with my current e-reader, which even the advent of a full-blown UK Kindle would not address.

1. The first is good old "digital rights management" (DRM), which will be familiar to users of music downloads. They simply don't want you to use your purchased books on more than a couple of nominated machines, don't want you to use rival DRM formats on the same machine, don't want you to buy "US only" books in the UK, and sure as hell don't want you lending your books or dropping them off at the Oxfam bookshop when you're done with them. Sure, there are "open" and portable formats like PDF, but even these are sold in DRM-ed versions for in-print items, so an "Adobe PDF" can't be used on your Mobipocket e-reader, even though it can read Mobipocket PDFs and non-DRM PDFs. Oh, and not all e-books are available in all formats. It's pretty tiresome.

2. There are quite a few e-books available, but you simply can't get the books you actually want. Example: I recently came across Charles Portis -- one of those cult writers you can't quite believe you've never heard of before, about whom people rave, and whose best-known books were first published decades ago, but are still in print. Although repeatedly frustrated by previous "dead cert" searches (John Le Carré? Nope) , I really did fully expect to hit paydirt this time. But none of his books is available as an e-book, not a single one.

Now, I'm perfectly happy with my current device as a piece of technology. Yes, it could be a lot easier to buy and upload the e-books. That's where the Kindle would score mightily with its promise of instant gratification: find a book, and download it directly to your device in 60 seconds (unless, of course, you're looking for Charles Portis or John Le Carré). Yes, it would be nice if the pages turned instantly, and navigation were simpler and quicker. Yes, it would be good if the contrast (and, for the sight-impaired, colour) of the "electronic paper" could be adjusted. But, the thing works well enough for a simple, linear, page-turning read in good light. I wouldn't want to use it to study a student textbook, though.

What I object to is that the availability of e-books is making my reading choices for me. I wanted to read more Robert Stone, but all I could get were his memoir of the sixties, Prime Green. I wanted to read Larry McMurtry or Dee Brown on the pioneer days in the American West, but ended up reading Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides instead -- a good read, but not where I wanted to go.

One day, of course, none of these things will be problems. I'll let you know when that happens. Until then, unless you're a first order gadget freak and/or a book fiend in search of an urgent space solution, I wouldn't bother to buy any of them. Though the new Sony Pocket e-reader does look very tempting...

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