Friday, 11 January 2013

Falling out of love with the Kindle

An article in last weekend's Observer brought into focus my growing ambivalence about my Kindle. When the Kindle was launched I gleefully joined the early adopters, revelling in the fact that I could read without consuming paper and, with lifelong 3G included, get new reading material on demand without relying on WiFi. But over the last year or so, I've lost some of that early enthusiasm. I'm no longer the eager advocate that I once was, for several reasons.

Disquiet about labour standards in the factory where the Kindle is made. Kindles are manufactured at Foxconn in China, which has been criticised for its poor labour conditions and its high suicide rate - and is now the subject of bribery allegations. I've avoided buying Apple products for several years because it manufactures there but only recently I was dismayed to discover that the Kindle is made there, too.

Concern about Amazon's tax status. Recently, Amazon has been criticised for its policy of tax avoidance. I now try not to buy from organisations that don't pay their fare share of tax but, once you've acquired a Kindle, it's not so easy to acquire your ebooks from another source.

Reluctance to trade with monolithic corporations. The problem with massive corporations like Amazon is that they squeeze smaller operators out of the market, reducing choice and damaging competition. By buying from them, we perpetutate a business model that will ultimately undermine our power as consumers.

Of course, other e-readers are available and may not suffer from the issues outlined above, but one inevitable drawback remains:

Ebooks remove the ability to share. One of the joys of paper books is that they can be freely loaned, borrowed and sold on - sadly not the case with ebooks. In my experience, most paper books are read only once by each person, but the more people that have the opportunity to become a pass-on reader, the more environmentally efficient the original production of that book becomes. Authors may, for this reason, prefer the ebook model but the passing on of paper books went on for many centuries before the invention of ebooks without any apparent damage to the livelihood of authors.

The pass-on readership of paper books has the potential to make them vastly more carbon-efficient than might otherwise be the case. And while the lending library quite rightly gets the final word as the most eco-efficient way of reading, it has the potential to erode the earning potential of authors. Maybe it's time to move to an entirely new business model for reading material - the rental of paper books, with a royalty paid to the author each time the book is rented. Circular economy thinking applied to the written word.

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