Why the Kindle Is the Most Disruptive Invention of Our Time

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I believe that the Amazon Kindle will be seen by history as one of the most economically disruptive inventions of our current century and possibly the next five hundred years. Let me explain. Since the invention of the printing press, 500 years before the Kindle, publishers have almost always mediated between creators and audiences. If you wanted to find an audience for your written work you had to please a publisher and get their backing. In the modern era, it has become worse—the mediators have mediators.

Today if you want to publish a book in the traditional method, you first have to find a literary agent who then sells your work to a publisher. Then there are the editors, graphic designers, copywriters and marketing personnel, all of whom influence the way in which your book is presented and received by the public. None of these people come cheap. On a typical $25.00 hardback an author can expect to earn $1.15 after the publisher and their attending angels take their cut. The economics of traditional publishing demand that publishers seek one kind of book—the mega-hit. This means your book can’t stray too far from the lines, or it won’t get published at all.

Amazon effectively changed the relationship between the creator and their audience when they released the Kindle. Using their Kindle Direct Program, it is now possible for an author to effectively communicate in full book form directly to their audience without having to go through a publisher. Wildly successful with consumers, the Kindle is in the process of demolishing 500 years of publishing tradition and history. Whether the new reality will end up being better for consumers and authors remains to be seen, but for better or worse the genie is out of the bottle.

However, Amazon’s ebook success isn’t only due to the success of their device with consumers; it also comes from their pricing structure. An electronic book costs almost nothing to distribute, and it is this fact, as much as anything else, which has made the Kindle so disruptive to publishing. Not only can an author publish directly to a Kindle, they can also offer their work at a price which traditional publishers cannot match. On a book priced at $2.99 a Kindle author makes around $2.00. That is nearly double what they can expect from a $25.00 hardback.

So with the ebook system of publishing, consumers can purchase eight ebooks for the price of one hardback and the author makes twice as much money on each sale. This is truly a revolution in the economics of being a writer. A writer can now make a living from a much smaller audience than in the past. This allows self-published ebook authors to pursue what Chris Anderson, the founder of GeekDad, called “the long tail.” Ebook authors can write books with niche appeal and still make money. They don’t have to chase the mega-hit, and that has only served to increase the breadth and depth of the stories and books available.

There are certainly problems with the self-publishing model. Most notably, history shows that it is always a scary proposition when one company gathers all the power in a single industry for itself. However, it isn’t exactly Amazon’s fault that they ended up winning this race. That is kind of like blaming the underdog for beating up on the favorites. When the Kindle was released, there were competitors that should have been able to offer robust alternatives.

For one, Google owns Android, but to this day hasn’t offered a viable means for authors to publish their own books. Then there is Microsoft, which has missed the tablet revolution altogether. But it is Apple which has completely dropped the ball when it comes to the publishing revolution. After all, when the Kindle first came out, it was Apple’s iTunes which had just overturned the music industry. They should have recognized the power of an electronic device for books and the publishing revolution it could create. For whatever reason, Apple was too cozy with the big publishers to recognize the value of indie publishing like they did indie music. (I suspect this has something to do with the cool factor at Apple. Indie music is cool. Indie publishing isn’t.) So instead of seeing the threat, they ceded the book publishing field to Amazon, and Amazon simply took Apple’s playbook from music and replicated it in book publishing.

To this day, Apple has misunderstood the role indie authors have played in the rise of the Kindle. They have yet to offer any substantive support for indie authors and they have made no effort to compete with Amazon for indie authors’ business. This despite the fact that a huge part of the success of iTunes has come from their support of indie musicians and indie app creators.

Instead, when it came to book publishing, what did Apple decide to do? Rather than bringing a viable competitive marketplace to the table which could directly compete with Amazon, they colluded with five of the six big publishers to artificially inflate ebook prices and got slapped with a major fine from the United States Justice department for doing so.

The end result? Amazon’s Kindle Fire is now making serious inroads into areas which were once dominated solely by Apple. The Kindle Fire is becoming a viable media platform for mobile gaming and video content. (If Amazon were smart, they would release a Kindle aimed directly at music.) By rights, it should be that the iPad—which is a far superior product—is making inroads into Amazon’s book business, but that won’t happen until Apple takes seriously the role of indie writers in creating the Kindle revolution. I’m not holding my breath.

Thus, while the rest of the publishing world worries about Amazon’s influence, those of us in the new indie writing community are quietly cheering them on. Hopefully someday, someone will decide to compete with them. That will only benefit consumers and writers alike. Until then, they will continue to be the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room and the Kindle will remain the most disruptive force in publishing since the printing press.

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2 thoughts on “Why the Kindle Is the Most Disruptive Invention of Our Time

  1. Great post Erik even though I’m a victim (a former B&N on-line moderator)
    Also if the big chains like B&N and the former Borders would just focus on what put them in business in the first place and stop trying to compete with Amazon they would have been better off.

  2. Interesting thesis, but it has some flaws. One big flaw is that Apple didn’t succeed in music sales by working with indies, it succeeded by managing to build the first online store to get distribution deals with the five major labels. You could already get your fix for indies through the likes of emusic.com; the iTunes Music Store gave you a one-stop shopping experience for all the majors. And yes, any indies that tagged along, but that was nothing new.

    If anything, Apple’s work with major book publishers mirrored what it did in music more than it deviated – work out deals with major distributors and let the minors follow along.

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