Electronic book reader the No. 1 seller

Is Amazon’s Kindle the new iPod? The end of book publishing as we know it? Or one too many in a pile-up of trendy gadgets and gizmos?

Right now, Kindle electronic book reader is the No. 1 seller in the electronics category, shipping about 40,000 units a month and tallying about $100 million in device sales and downloads.

And while such rivals as the PC-friendly Sony Reader and the just-introduced touch-screen Plastic Logic e-reader will bring increased competition going forward, Amazon’s Kindle is the big kid on the block. With a few improvements, the gadget, which Amazon introduced in November, could well be a game-changer.

That’s just what book publishers are afraid of, according to last week’s sky-is-falling New York Magazine cover story, which describes Amazon as “a power-hungry monster bent on cornering the whole business.” Recently ousted HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman is even reportedly considering an Amazon consulting job.

So far, because the lightweight electronic book reader costs $359, early adopters are typically high-end users (paparazzi caught Jennifer Aniston clutching one in Miami in May). Amazon has already shipped some 250,000 units. Analysts are predicting that Kindle could be a $1 billion business by 2010.

What’s all the fuss about?

Clearly, the Kindle is great for traveling and train or bus commuting. Instead of packing in piles of books, mags and papers alongside your other gear (I added a Kindle to my MacBook, iPod, BlackBerry, and Nikon Coolpix, along with a tangle of cords, earbuds, drives and chargers when I headed to the Toronto film fest), you load the Kindle with black-and-white text. Content ranges from book downloads to feeds from such blogs as Awards Daily, Huffington Post and Tech Crunch, as well as Kindle versions of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time and Newsweek, with fees ranging from 99¢ to $14.99 a month. While Amazon pays royalties on book sales, the fees Amazon pays to media content providers, however, remain small to nonexistent. (Variety, for one, has yet to close a deal.)

While paying $9.99 for a permanent online copy of a book (stored on Kindle and backed up on Amazon’s server) seems like a bargain, it does seem odd to have to pay even low fees for clunky limited access to media you can mostly grab for free, in full color, online.

Availability of book titles also is an issue: Amazon started with 90,000 titles and grew to 160,000 as of August. But when I tried to download my first selection, Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” I found Amazon offered all his books except that one. So I settled for a guilty pleasure, the second installment in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” vampire romance series.

Ollie Van Nostrand, from UCLA’s Department of Film, Theater and Television, got the Kindle after she and her husband decided to buy fewer books to take on vacation. But Van Nostrand couldn’t download her desired book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” so she loaned the Kindle to her daughter during vacation. Van Nostrand contented herself with the paperback edition of “Cholera.”

But Kindle is easy to hold and read and use, be it in bed, on a train or in a chair. The screen doesn’t light up, which means people who read in bed still need reading lights, but it’s legible in full sunlight, and you can adjust the font size. Ordering, downloading and reading a book is a cinch. It saves your place in the text, and clicking the “next page” bar comes naturally. You can look up words in a dictionary, or highlight or make notes in the text.

And for busy Hollywood execs and creatives, the Kindle also offers a clutter-reducing feature: It’s possible to email text material such as manuscripts and scripts to read on the Kindle, although in practice PDF files sometimes get scrambled.

Mark Urman, distribution head of Senator Entertainment, and his wife, author Debra Davis, are a two-Kindle family.

“We’re both English majors,” Urman says. “We have thousands of books, and we’ve wasted thousands of dollars buying books and killing trees. We’d get buyer’s remorse from buying books off reviews and then these giant things would sit on the night table.”

With Kindle, you can sample the first dozen pages of a book, and then buy it — for substantially less than a $25 hardcover.

“It was love at first sight,” writes Davis in an email. “Now I buy what I want to read and, more to the point, read what I buy. And Kindle delivers instant gratification. There’s always that moment at the airport when you don’t want to read the book you own — I can purchase something else from my seat!”

There are times when Urman and his wife even read the same book at the same time on separate Kindles.

But the Kindle — at least in my use — does not hold a charge as long as promised (days and days); it needed constant recharging and ran out of juice on the plane, just like my iPod and laptop.

While my vision of canceling all my magazine and newspaper subscriptions and instead loading all that tree-wasting printed matter into one easy-to-carry device isn’t yet a full reality, it looks like the traditional publishing biz faces an evolutionary leap.

But for Kindle to be the new iPod, it’s going to need to be a more flexible, less expensive, multi-functional device.

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