House Of The Fatted Penguin

July 11, 2013

peng

Today’s big book news is Apple’s loss in the Department of Justice antitrust action alleging that it colluded with five major trade book publishers to fix prices of e-books. (The publishers themselves settled out of court; Random House, which did not adopt Apple’s “agency model” of pricing for another year, was not named.) We now await the financial penalty and the inevitable appeals. But for my money, that’s not the biggest book news of the month. Neither is Barnes & Noble’s planned abdication of its e-book reader Nook, and the related resignation of its CEO, as part of the slow, sad decline of a once mighty, even arrogant, behemoth that dictated how you get books to a mass market – if B&N didn’t like a cover, you frickin changed it – and rented out its front-of-store promotional space like the commodity this print-payola became. These are titanic events which will affect most of you who like to read books for fun, and would lead the news in any other month. But not in July 2013. Not the month when Penguin Random House was born.

As of July 1, in the wink of an eye, there were no longer a Big Six of trade publishing, only a Big Five. Later this year, we may well hear of another proposed consolidation; my old compadres at News Corp‘s HarperCollins (who sniffed around Penguin as well, but too late) are rumored to be holding powwows with CBS’s Simon & Schuster. Hachette (used to be Warner) and Macmillan are the only other Bigs, and if a Harper/S&S merger took place, they’d probably have no choice but to get married themselves.

Why?

First, leverage. The power in the book business is shifting in favor of one mega-retailer, and this shift is happening at electronic speed, a pace to which traditional publishers are unaccustomed. That ogre is Amazon, so huge that it could afford to establish its Kindle as the dominant e-reading platform by pricing bestsellers at a loss. Take pricing power away from publishers and they get mad – and DoJ asserts that five of them got even. I’ve never understood why the Big Six didn’t just say OK, these e-books are great and all, but they’re cannibalizing our hardcover sales, so tell you what: no e-editions on new titles for the six months after laydown. After all, movie marketers “window” the crap out of their new releases: premieres in theaters, pay-per-view, home video, pay cable, streaming, etc., are all staggered to squeeze out every possible dime. But the e-market was jump-started instead by “loss-leader” pricing (which even bled over into a ludicrous price war on physical books between Amazon and Wal-Mart in late 2009, when for one brief shining moment you could buy Stephen King’s thousand-page marathon UNDER THE DOME in hardcover for $9.00), after years of half-hearted, impotent, premium-priced effort within the industry. Toothpaste’s done been squz. So the only way to push back is to get bigger. Penguin Random House now controls about 25% of the U.S. trade book market – not enough to freak out antitrust regulators, but enough to stand its ground if it ever gets bullied, of which Amazon proved itself capable in January 2010 when it removed order buttons for all Macmillan books in a dispute over e-book pricing. The retailer later capitulated, but the point was made: we can take your books, and your books only, off our “shelves” in an instant if we feel like it.

Second, overhead. Whenever you consolidate, you create redundancies, because if two people do the same job at each company, one is no longer necessary unless there’s actually double the workload (sometimes not even then). And as the economies of scale continue to be threatened by emerging technology, it’s getting ever more expensive to publish a bestseller (and more inexpensive to self-publish, even in print). Hey hey, ho ho, some employees got to go. In the current wave of consolidation, babies are even being thrown out with the bathwater. There are tremendous editors and publicists out on the street today. One publisher didn’t just pare down its cover copy department, it eliminated it (now the editors have to write their own copy; they do this with with, um, let us say, varying degrees of skill, but this is not about better, only cheaper). The bottom line is the bottom line, and the older you are/more money you make, the bigger the target on your back.

Third, guarantees. If there are fewer players involved in a public auction, the winning price will almost surely be dampened. Math. I don’t know if other consolidated publishers work this way, but when I was at Bantam Doubleday Dell if there was intramural interest in the same project, we settled internally which publisher would enter a given auction; in other words, we did bid against each other, but in private. I won the right to enter the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 auction because I had the most to spend. So the author and agent indeed dealt with the house’s biggest moneybag (if I could get it for less, attaboy Tom), but they only got one bidder, not three. BDD is now part of Random House, itself now part of Penguin Random House. They can’t possibly be consolidating all bids in an organization that huge – you’d have already heard about it from braying agents – but if they ever wanted to, they could.

Fourth, and this is what has outsiders worried, who knows? With great power comes great responsibility, said either Winston Churchill or Spider-Man’s uncle. Book publishing and bookselling are intensely personal businesses, because every product is different and is consumed by individuals, one at a time. How far can you remove the ultimate decision-maker from the independent who’s faithfully trying to hand-sell a first novel before people start to notice? It’s the shapeless fear which horror writers have long employed that bothers book professionals right now: we’re all consolidating because things are changing, but I don’t have a grip on it yet. A very senior book executive told me about three years ago that s/he woke up every workday wondering, is this the day I get downsized? (Heads of houses have gone on the chopping block too; it’s not just the minions. But this person is still there, thank goodness.)

Consolidation is nothing new in the book biz. Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Knopf, Random House, William Morrow, Little Brown, FS&G, Pocket, NAL, Ballantine, Harper & Row, Scribner, Viking, Putnam, Harcourt, and dozens more – they all used to be independent publishing houses. Now they’re only imprints of larger corporations: some have separate staffs, sure, but that paycheck still reads the same at the top, and let’s face it, despite any soothing hands-off speeches, you serve at the conglomerate’s pleasure. There are still fine independent houses, like McSweeney’s. They’re just not part of the Big Five, and they’re likely not even in New York. Meanwhile, somebody (pssst: this time, why not hire some real design people?) better be working hard on a permanent logo, because for one thing, that penguin is looking away from the house — your humble observant former adman could infer maybe a little scorn if he were less generous.

Nor is disruption to the traditional business model something that’s never been seen before. Mass market editions, book clubs, superstores – they’ve all transformed the game and been decried as industry-killers. If you’re interested, here’s a quick sketch of the periodic upending of the book trade: most of it happened relatively recently. We’re a long way from Bennett Cerf and Alfred Knopf, who have more in common with MAD MEN than with Kindles.

Back when this merger was announced, I read somewhere that if you were a Penguin or Random author, you should be thrilled, but if you were published anywhere else, you should be worried. That’s the kind of smug pronouncement that sounds bold in a blog but just isn’t so because, again, who knows? If you, the customer, get more stuff to read that you like, then this will have been a good thing. But if the Big Five turn into what they’re increasingly coming to resemble, the movie “majors” – nothing but blockbusters, and indie artists can go fend for themselves – then mutually assured destruction is just around the corner. And the real creativity – the kind that builds those glorious books that throw lightning bolts – will again reside where it once did: in small, independent publishing houses.

7/20/14: A year later, here is the learned designers’ final solution. IMO they simply gave up, and threw away two of the most storied logo images in book publishing. (I hope they survive inside the actual books, but that Knopf Borzoi doggie is going extinct, pal.) Ah well, sometimes a merger produces a tepid porridge that satisfies nobody. Or am I just retro-imagining some kind of metaphor here?

prh-logo-big


E-Book Prices Headed Back Down?

April 11, 2012

The Wall Street Journal reports today that at least three of five large publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — have agreed to settlle a DOJ lawsuit alleging e-book price collusion. Part of the settlement stipulates that the publishers will not prevent discounting of e-books for two years. This means that we could soon see the return of $9.99 e-bestsellers.

Among the government’s contentions is that competing publishers regularly met with each other over this matter in restaurant private rooms. I can believe that. John Sargent of Macmillan, which denies collusion, is adamant that he made his decision to migrate to Apple’s “agency model” (in which the e-retailer takes a flat fee and cannot discount books below the publisher’s price) by himself, on his exercise bike, “the lonelist decision I have ever made.” I can believe that too. But the combined action, spurred on by Apple, unilaterally raised consumer prices across the board. Pearson, which was also named in the suit, has not responded. Random House, the largest publisher, retained the “wholesale model” (in which the e-bookseller pays approximately half the retail price and can then discount further if it likes; physical books have always been, and continue to be, sold this way), and made tons more money, for about a year, only adopting the agency model at the release of the iPad 2. Thus it was not party to this lawsuit and had no comment.

Who wins? Who loses? Well, the consumer will pay less if Amazon — which has wisely kept its corporate mouth shut during this whole affair — continues to price e-bestsellers as “loss leaders” to bolster the market share of its Kindle family. Apple, which never much cared about books anyhow (“People don’t read anymore” — Steve Jobs, quoted in the New York Times on 1/15/08), may find a way to keep the Kindle app off future iterations of its hardware, but that would truly be turning away a feature beloved by many of its users. (But then, making them mad over Adobe Flash didn’t bother the company at all.)

If book publishers are worried that a $9.99 e-price point devalues their product, they can console themselves with the fact that Amazon is losing money on every current bestseller sold at that price, and the publisher is making more on each sale than it would under the agency model. Plus, the villain in any future e-book price creep, an uncomfortable role largely foisted on the publishers by Apple, will now be the retailer: e.g., Amazon. No longer will it be able to shrug and say its hands are tied with the droll legend This price was set by the publisher.

The ultimate winner? I’m not Steve Jobs or even John Sargent, but from where I sit, it’s you.

4/12/12: The Wall Street Journal, which has consistently beaten the Times on this story, reports an aspect of the settlement that I hadn’t previously understood. Although e-retailers are allowed to discount individual titles however they want, publishers can insist that they are not allowed to sell e-books at a loss overall over the course of a year. This means Amazon may have to pick and choose if it can only discount down to the overall break-even point (an average of 30% off under this new pricing model): some books would feature deep price cuts, others smaller cuts or none at all. If I’m reading this right, this stipulation might help others approach Amazon’s price point without falling victim to the company’s deep pockets, because the worst they could do would be to break even on e-books. Of course, Amazon still holds a huge advantage, because it can break even on all books and still record a profit on everything else it sells.

4/15/12: A typically nuanced take by the savvy and articulate David Carr.

4/18/12: And another point of view.


Daisey, Changed

March 18, 2012

This has to be the week of progressives calling out their own. (Yes, poor “victimized” right-wing media, it does indeed happen.) First, Bill Maher airs a one-sided view of Mississippi and then compounds the error with an oafish election-night tweet. And Friday, the exemplary THIS AMERICAN LIFE radio program “retracts” the most popular story in its history, a piece by Mike Daisey about working conditions at Foxconn Technology in Shenzhen, China, where iPhones, iPads, and many of our other most prized devices are manufactured – mostly by hand.

The TAL piece was an excerpt from Daisey’s highly successful one-man show THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, ending its encore run today at the Public Theater (the closing date is a coincidence unrelated to this incident). We saw it down there last December. The heavyset Seattle-based monologist employs a cadence, and dynamics, that remind you of DAILY SHOW contributor Lewis Black: he’ll talk softly for most of a sentence and suddenly SHOUT OUT a word or two, so you tend to pay attention. (I had previously seen his monologue 21 DOG YEARS, about his experiences as an early employee of Amazon.com.)

This time, Daisey’s topic is Apple Inc. First, how wonderful and magical their life-changing products are; and then about the human cost of manufacturing them in China, an aspect that has escaped most Apple customers over the years. (Other companies use Chinese labor as well, but Daisey concentrates on Apple.) I don’t know about you, but I always pictured iPhones and iPods being assembled by robot arms in giant white high-tech clean rooms. Not so. The work is done by hand, with mind-numbing and body-grueling repetition, at places like Foxconn, the mammoth campus which Daisey visited. By Western standards, cheap labor is being sorely misused, and no matter how hip the company – as Nike discovered years ago – its role ought to bring shame and embarrassment, especially if executives in the supply chain are aware of the working conditions, and how could they not be?

But there turns out to be a HUGE problem. Not only can’t Daisey corroborate certain events which happened outside his purview, he also lied to TAL’s fact-checkers regarding the very identity of his Chinese translator who was first to dispute the accuracy of his account – meaning he knew there was something there to be discovered. Here is a detailed look at TAL’s objections. Also note that by Chinese standards, most Foxconn workers, mainly poor migrants, seem happy to have their jobs, even working exhaustingly long shifts for a pittance; instances of abuse and physical harm (such as hexane poisoning) certainly exist but may be rarer than Daisey insinuates; and, most seriously, he can’t possibly have seen everything he says he did in one six-day visit. He is describing something true using a fictional method. Nothing wrong there – most enduring works of art operate that way – but look at his stern assertion in the next paragraph.

Daisey’s halfhearted defense seems to be, yes, but this is theater, I shouldn’t have presented it to TAL as journalism. In response, I’d like to quote two bold-faced lines from the Playbill I was handed as I walked in the theater door (yes, Virginia, there is a straight guy who saves all his Playbills):

THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION.
SOME NAMES AND IDENTITIES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT SOURCES.

If the root issue is real, and Daisey’s heart is in the right place – he has certainly worked and succeeded, through drama, in bringing consumer-electronics labor issues into the public consciousness, and there’s reason to believe things are gradually changing at Foxconn – then why is this so important?

I can trust that Daisey’s basic premise is true not because he says so (though I took him at his word back in December, per that Playbill disclaimer), but because it’s been corroborated by independent news and labor organizations, most notably the New York Times, whose reporters have filed front-page stories about working conditions in China (arguably urged on by people like Daisey).

I can assert that his presentation is at least in part fictional because of those same independent news organizations. In fact, Times reporters in China also questioned specific points in Daisey’s piece as unlikely. Even the one with egg on its face, THIS AMERICAN LIFE, had guts enough to do the right thing retroactively after making one fatal error: they should have never allowed the story on the air after being unable to contact Daisey’s translator.

News and opinion can exist side by side. Away from its editorial pages, which of course are all opinion, The New York Times indicates the difference instantly using typography: each day, any story with a justified-right margin is reporting, truth, accuracy; any story with a “ragged-right” margin, like the one you’re reading right now, is opinion or analysis. TAL itself has a coterie of bright, thought-provoking contributors whose subjective musings are clearly labeled as just that.

But the fact that TAL has fact-checkers at all shows you they’re trying to ensure that what they present as truth actually is. Political blowhards on both sides of the spectrum (world’s most unavailable job: Sean Hannity fact checker!) spout opinion so fast and so loud that some folks probably can’t be blamed for taking it seriously. But if, say, Bill O’Reilly states that something happened today, I’m gonna need corroboration. (He earned my skepticism by inventing or adopting specious news items for his silly “War on Christmas.”)

We need independent news, and thank God we still have some of it amid all the cacophony. Meanwhile, what of the dramatist?

When the lights came up after AGONY/ECSTASY, my wife used an earthier term to say, “He’s a hypocrite.” If he’s so upset, why does he continue to use Foxconn-made gear? And the stars in his eyes during the show’s opening moments, when he’s describing his own happy Apple addiction, are those of somebody who trades in for damn near every new model. We didn’t yet know that what we’d just heard had been juiced for dramatic power. But now I can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth about Amazon in 21 DOG YEARS. So that’s something that Mike Daisey must share with Bill O’Reilly. No more trust; I now have to verify.


E-Customers Creeped Out By Price Creep

December 15, 2011

There’s a piece on page 1 of today’s Wall Street Journal about e-book sticker shock, another good job by the Journal’s book-beat reporter Jeff Trachtenberg. I’ve been railing about this issue ever since Apple persuaded the six major publishers to disallow any discounting by retailers on e-books. As Mr. Trachtenberg points out, this restriction doesn’t apply to print books, so you have the increasingly common phenomenon of e-editions equaling, and even surpassing, the discounted print edition at retailers like Amazon.com. In at least one instance (emphasis on “at least”), Ken Follett’s doorstop FALL OF GIANTS, the publisher’s e-book price is $18.99 – but the paperback edition can be bought new for $16.50.

Let’s re-emphasize what’s actually going on here. The major players in an industry which faces massive headwinds, book publishing, are deliberately overpricing their most promising and fastest-growing revenue stream, specifically to dampen e-demand and reduce “cannibalization” of “higher-margin” hardcover and trade paperback editions. Mr. Trachtenberg points out that under the “retail model,” by which Amazon was charging $9.99 for new e-bestsellers, it was the retailer who took the loss; the author and publisher still received roughly half of the full hardcover price. But under the current “agency model,” the publisher retains 70% of an e-book price which it alone can set, and the retailer gets the rest. No more “loss leaders,” and essentially no more $9.99 bestsellers.

But look closer at the Follett. Dutton’s suggested retail price for this 985-page tome in hardcover is $36. Under the “retail model,” it collected $18 per e-copy, just as it did for a hardcover, and Amazon could give it away if they liked. Of course, that’s no way to run a business: “How do we do it? Volume!” What Amazon was trying to do was to jump-start a nonexistent e-book market and worry about coaxing it into profitability later; they’ve always been forward-thinking in that way. But under the “agency model,” Dutton gets 70% of $18.99, the highest price I’ve encountered for a commercial trade e-book, which is $13.30 per e-copy, and all retailers receive the same $5.70 (I rounded both numbers to the next penny). $13.30 — and remember, this is the absolute Beluga of e-pricing — is $4.70 less than $18. But who’s counting?

My point exactly.

Now let’s consider Apple’s motives. It’s a wonderful company, but it’s no less ruthless just because its antagonizer-in-chief has passed away. When Apple was the “first mover” in digital music, it used the leverage of its huge installed iPod base to oppose the big record labels by dampening the retail price from $15-$16 for a whole CD to 99 cents for an individual song (boy, that price rings a bell. And it’s increased since then, too). But in e-books, Apple found itself, uncharacteristically, in Amazon’s wake (Steve Jobs had infamously sniffed at the Kindle’s launch: “People don’t read any more”). So now what it had to do was eliminate Amazon’s price advantage – and, amazingly, in a reversal of its effect on the music business, it succeeded in propping up the retail price of e-books! Justice is now looking into whether preventing discounting constitutes illegal collusion among the major publishers (as are European authorities), and I don’t know much about the law so can’t speculate, but it does sound fishy, and it protects retailers (guaranteed profit) at the expense of consumers (higher prices).

I have some friends in the book biz who’ve read my previous musings and have some pretty good arguments that nobody seems to be considering. For example, it’s an age-old fact that for big bestselling authors like Mr. Follett, or Stephen King or John Grisham or Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts, publishers pay way too much up front as an “advance (against earned royalties),” otherwise known as a “guarantee.” First, it’s necessary because everybody else is waving huge paychecks around, and you have to be there to compete. Second, a major author can be a tentpole for the rest of your list: if you, Ms. Retailer, want the new Grisham, you’ll have to hear about all the other great stuff we have. Third, there’s the intangible prestige factor, as authors and agents want to be with the house that publishes XXX. But these millions represent a nonrefundable sum which has to “earn out” before a book realizes its true potential for perennial profit down the road. (I’ve heard that Mr. King has a deal which plays down the guarantee in favor of a larger participation on the back end, like major movie stars sometimes do.) A surprise hit like THE HELP is very profitable immediately, but big bestsellers from well-known authors always start out deep in the red, and I’d love to know what Kathryn Stockett’s agent has in mind for her next contract.

That means you have to scramble for every penny you can find during the hot new-release period with the ads and the DAILY SHOW spots, very much like movie studios do. My question is: why aren’t the big publishers doing so?

Mr. Trachtenberg quotes a publisher as saying people are realizing the advantages of e-books and are willing to pay a premium for them. I’ve heard that too from some consumers. But $18.99? (P.S.: Book prices never go anywhere but up.) He shares more ominous quotes from others. A reader says it’s hard to justify a $10-$15 e-book when you can pick up a used print copy for $2 or $3 on Amazon. If that was the Ken Follett, the author and publisher made no money on the used-copy resale, when they could have received $18 for a “retail-priced” e-book. Also, the ability to self-publish and shop online is hitting the major publishers from the low end. As an industry consultant says, some e-buyers may opt for “five-star-reviewed” self-published mysteries or romances which are going for $2.99 or $3.99. Plus, if it’s digital it’s stealable, and remember that millions of otherwise law-abiding kids believed downloading from Napster was justifiable because CD prices were too high.

I think it’s fair to say that most e-reading devices have been purchased since “agency pricing” went into effect about two years ago, so possibly it’s only the early adopters like me who recoil against $12.99 and $14.99 books, or e-editions which cost more than paperbacks. Most new e-reader owners may think that’s the going rate you pay for not having to lug the physical book around, being able to read it on damn near every mobile device there is, etc. Yet as a “veteran,” I’d still be willing to wait, even a whole year, so the publishers have time to sell every hardcover they possibly can, if they’d only then give me a fairly-priced e-edition so I could fairly pay the author and publisher instead of ignoring them.

As it is, I have a list of backlist books that I’ll never buy in print editions; I just want to read them once. Every month or so I check on them, and every so often a publisher will experiment with a temporary lower price (this is why the publishers will probably survive any accusation of price-fixing; each one is free to charge whatever it likes). Either I will get the price I want, or the publisher will lose a sale which I would guess is sorely needed. It’s as simple as that.

EDIT, 2/7/12: I have tried Dave Slusher’s program BuyItAtThatPrice, discussed in the comments section. It works like a charm, and the email that alerts you when the price of a book (and probably anything else on Amazon, but I’ve only used it to buy e-books) has been lowered to your satisfaction also includes a link directly back to the item’s Amazon page, so it’s delightfully easy to use. I heartily recommend it. Thanks, Dave.


Kindle v. iPad, For Bookies

August 1, 2010

So Linda looks up from the paper one day and says, “We need to get an iPad.” Now she’s no early adopter. But her career is in media research, and she works for a small startup that uses proprietary technology to evaluate unconscious reactions to outside stimuli, like television programs and commercials. We pretty much skipped the smart-phone wave over carriers; we’ll get iPhones whenever Verizon can offer them. But she still needs to know how people are interacting with new media. What can apps do? How do kids multitask these days? What mundane jobs are people outsourcing to their digital pals, like they did with addition and multiplication a generation ago?

So, we bought an iPad, and we’ve spent the last few days playing with it, enough to get a feel for the device but not enough to become experts. We’ve used Kindles for going on two years now. (We own both a Kindle 1, which Linda uses, and a Kindle 2 for me.) So how do they stack up? Will we throw the Kindles away? Here’s my initial comparison based on the utility most important to me, the devices’ usefulness as e-readers, in several categories:

RAZZLE-DAZZLE. The iPad wins, hands down. The bright, colorful, touch-responsive screen is just gorgeous. Portrait / landscape orientation follows you as you turn the device (Kindle can switch orientation too, but you have to give a manual command). iPad use is intuitive, though a full owner’s manual is built in digitally. Kindle can also play audio books and has a built-in digital announcer, but he sounds like the robot on LOST IN SPACE: understandable, but, well, robotic. The iPad provides digital sound more like you’re used to. The virtual keyboard, there when you want it and not when you don’t (just like David Warner’s desk in TRON!), is surprisingly easy to use, though I wouldn’t want to have to type this entire piece that way. Winner: iPad, not even breathing hard.

SCREEN DISPLAY. The iPad is backlit, like a computer screen. That means you can read in the dark! It also means that in bright sunlight, the iPad display looks like your laptop screen: difficult to impossible to see. (Amazon is running TV spots that parody the famous Corona “lounge chair” beach commercials. The two sunbathers are using their Kindles happily; iPads would be useless.) Book text on the iPad is extremely sharp black against white, with second or third colors added to many books for cosmetic reasons. Kindle is grayscale only, against an off-white field. It will take lots of use to make sure, but for books, I’d rather spend hour upon hour looking at the grayscale; the eyes don’t get so tired so fast. For newspapers or multimedia, though, the iPad’s size and resolution give it the nod. NIXONLAND by Rick Pearlstein has just gone on sale in a multimedia version specifically for tablets. I read this fine book when it first came out, and I will certainly give the format a try on a book that I haven’t read. I watched the first five minutes of DIRTY HARRY, streamed from Netflix, and the landscape-oriented iPad screen is plenty big enough, when held close enough, to enjoy a widescreen movie. You can rent, or even buy, flicks in hi-def from Apple, so this screen must rock even harder than I realize. Books: Kindle. Anything else: iPad.

BATTERY LIFE. The iPad’s current Achilles heel. We can see the battery deplete before our eyes. There is an “airplane mode,” which presumably reduces the drain by cutting off wireless access (we are connecting to the Net through our own secure router but have the option of using 3G cellular; we’ll wait and see just how we use it), but that defeats much of the multi-use purpose; nearly everything cool about the iPad requires an active wireless connection. I have read that Apple claims 10 hours – it’s certainly far less than that in wireless mode. Our Kindle 2 can last for two weeks with wireless disengaged, even in “sleep mode” when you forget to turn it off. That’s because Kindle rarely needs the “Whispernet” to function just fine. That’s only for searching the Kindle store and downloading your stuff. The rest of the time, the wireless function is unnecessary. For plane trips, the iPad can get you coast to coast without recharging. The Kindle can get you to Australia and back. Kindle wins easily.

HEFT. Kindle is smaller and lighter. (An even smaller and cheaper version has just been announced, starting at $139 for wi-fi only.) It’s easier to read using only one hand (the other one can reach for your Corona) than with an actual paperback. With hardcovers, forget it: I’d much prefer reading a long book, like Stephen King’s UNDER THE DOME, on my Kindle. The iPad requires two hands (though turning the page with a finger-swipe is so much like using a real book that you have to smile the first time it happens), unless it’s in a sleeve that can let it rest on an angle. It’s heavier and clunkier. There’s a Kindle model with a larger screen, similar to the iPad, but I’m talking about my garden-variety Kindle 2. Round to Kindle.

ACCESS TO SOFTWARE. The Kindle store is far larger than Apple’s iBooks. Furthermore, there are free Kindle apps for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, and more. Downloading the Kindle for iPad app gave me instant iPad access to all the books Linda and I have already purchased or gotten free (nearly two million public-domain books are available for Kindle at no charge, as they also are for most other devices), the same access we have on each Kindle. In other words, if you buy an e-book from Amazon, you can read it on a variety of devices. With iBooks, as far as I can tell, you’re limited to Apple’s own stuff. There is no price advantage on bestsellers: the publishers who signed on with Apple’s “agency” model are selling newer e-books for $13-$15, sometimes even more than the physical paperback. Random House, the main holdout, still offers new bestsellers for $9.99 through its “wholesale” model – or, more accurately, the bookseller does, and as far as I can tell, Apple is matching Amazon’s prices. Advantage: Kindle.

CUTTING TO THE CHASE. The Kindle leans in and does one great thing: it makes it easy, convenient and cheap to read words. But if you want something more multi-purpose, you’re asking for something Kindle can’t do. The iPad’s very versatility hobbles it in some regards, but which device you choose absolutely depends on how you’re going to spend your time. If your main objective is to read or hear e-words, Kindle is the winner — and it’s still the best dedicated e-reader by far, even with all its new competitors, especially since we’re getting into mass-market pricing territory. $139 (for a new-generation, wi-fi-only Kindle) isn’t all that far from $99, and that’s where Santa tends to get involved. But if you want something closer to your laptop or netbook, something in between it and an e-reader, I have to recommend iPad – and they still cost hundreds of dollars. If money were no object, the solution would be simple: buy both a Kindle and an iPad. Download the Kindle for iPad app. Buy your books from the Kindle store, and take the Kindle with you on plane trips, or to the beach. Use the iPad to read those same books (or pick up where you left off on the Kindle) at home, indoors, especially late at night. However, if I have to choose only one, I still say the best value, and most proven performance, comes from the non-sexy, black-and-white, bookish, Kindle.

9/6/13: Must report that since this piece was posted in 2010, Amazon has come up with an inexpensive greyscale reading device called the Kindle Paperwhite, which solves the last remaining problem. It automatically adjusts for bright sunlight or a pitch-black room: you can use it anywhere, anytime. (Big fun in a train going through tunnels…you never lose focus!) That’s my default e-reader now and I take it everywhere. But for more sophisticated uses, it’s still the iPad.


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