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Silicon Valley Won’t Save Books

The Amazon Kindle didn’t change books ten years ago, and it won't change them in the next ten years, either.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Kindle might be the most important publishing object since the printing press, but its ten year anniversary passed with little fanfare two months ago. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who in 2008 mused that the e-reader could be the key to rebuilding our shrinking attention spans, marked the event with a tweet noting the device’s modest design change, rather than its cultural impact. His company celebrated the occasion by discounting Kindles by $30.

But last week brought the first real consideration of the Kindle’s legacy. “The Kindle Changed the Publishing Industry. Can It Change Books?” asked Wired’s David Pierce. As he noted, the introduction of e-books transformed the publishing industry in a matter of only a few years, solidifying Amazon’s dominance over publishers. Technologically speaking, the initially clunky device was rapidly perfected, mimicking and sometimes improving an analog experience that had existed for centuries. Having achieved these goals, though, the Kindle has stopped evolving in substantial ways. Yes, it’s finally waterproof, but there’s a palpable sense that it has no worlds left to conquer.

Pierce argues that the only place for Amazon to turn is to change the nature of reading itself. “The next phase for the digital book seems likely to not resemble print at all,” he wrote. “Instead, the next step is for authors, publishers, and readers to take advantage of all the tools now at their disposal and figure out how to reinvent longform reading.” It’s high time, Pierce argued, for a new kind of book to emerge, one that accurately embodies the complex audio and visual possibilities technology offers. That’s an exciting possibility: the book, after hundreds of years, is finally on the verge of entering the twenty-first century. But it’s not going to happen.

Pierce’s argument should be familiar to anyone who has talked to someone who works on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley about book publishing, or who has had a conversation about the future of books with an uncle at Thanksgiving. “As platforms change, books haven’t,” Pierce argues. Our screens have evolved to a point where they house FIFA 18 and HQ trivia and all of our most important personal information. They recognize our faces. Emoji is the language of the future. Electronic books, meanwhile, still look more or less the same as they did in 2007 because books are fundamentally out of step with the digital era. Pierce argues that this is, fundamentally, a design flaw—that jazzing books up with video and interactive features will fix it. But that assumption fundamentally misunderstands what books are.

The first Kindle was heralded as a revolutionary object. To many early adopters in media, it was a utopian object, the conduit for a new era of literary production. Writing two years after the first Kindle was produced, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg shrugged at the possibility that e-books could destroy the publishing industry, arguing that “reading without paper might make literature more urgent and accessible than it was before the technological revolution, just like [printing press inventor Johann] Gutenberg did.” Author Steven Johnson argued that the Kindle would make books populist again: “Expect ideas to proliferate—and innovation to bloom—just as it did in the centuries after Gutenberg.”

Publishers, authors, and agents, were similarly obsessed, but took on a more millenarian spirit. The rapid rise of e-book sales after the Kindle’s introduction caused panic in America’s most anxious, hidebound industry. Fear of Amazon’s growing dominance over print and electronic book sales led five of the six largest corporate publishers at the time to illegally join forces with Apple, a gambit that cost them hundreds of millions after the Department of Justice sued them for price-fixing in 2013.

Both of these responses now seem grandiloquent. The Kindle is just one screen in a culture overrun with them. While it has had a revolutionary effect on publishing, it has hardly revolutionized the world of ideas. In recent years, it has been overtaken by a host of tablets that let you do more than just read. And, while publishers still grumble about Amazon, they’ve settled into an uneasy truce with e-books, of which the market share has plateaued. The Kindle changed publishing, but not as much as many had hoped or feared it would, and certainly not on a fundamental level.

Others have tried to push the book into the twenty-first century. Pierce proposed that readers be able to “participate in the book by texting with characters, going to important locations, and even helping write the narrative.” Sony’s Wonderbook “turned a hardback book into an augmented-reality surface,” while Google’s Visual Editions has explored the possibility of “unprintable books.” But only Amazon, with its practically unlimited resources and deep experience in publishing—it is both the largest retailer and, if you count its gigantic self-publishing operation, the largest publisher in the country—can accomplish the goal. By focusing its energies on experimenting with literary production, Pierce wrote, Amazon can inaugurate a new literary era. “Only Amazon has the clout to really drive what could and should come next,” Pierce concludes. “Not by making pixels just like paper, but by embracing the difference.”

The problem with this analysis, which Pierce never really seems to consider, is that this book of the future—a participatory, augmented-reality experience that blends a number of different kinds of media—is not a book. It is certainly a different narrative-based experience, but it’s closer to an app or even a game. Telltale’s Game of Thrones iPhone game, which allows the user to choose the story’s outcome, resembles Pierce’s book of the future in many key ways and it is, most definitely, not a book. (Telltale also nearly went broke producing it and other episodic games, and laid off 25 percent of its workforce last month.) For a book to be a book, language—not video or any digital component—must be at its center. Pierce’s audio-visual book is really a new form of media that blends all types of existing media. Why it would be a “future book” and not a “future film” or a “future app” is not clear. It’s similarly never clear what, creatively speaking, this new form could accomplish that existing forms can’t or, for the matter, if a consumer base even exists for it.

Instead, as Nate Hoffelder wrote last week, the Kindle succeeded not because of its novelty, but because it gave readers more of the same, just in a (slightly) new way: a thinner, lighter, and ultimately cheaper book. “The thing that many outsiders keep missing is that Amazon won the e-book market by giving consumers exactly the same stories they were already reading, only in a new package,” Hoffelder argues. “Yes, Amazon invested huge sums in making the Kindle platform friction-free, but when you come down to it the content being delivered was the same as before—the only change was the medium it was delivered on.”

This change in medium has been revolutionary—just on an economic level, rather than a cultural one. Amazon has, with the Kindle’s help, effectively undone the cultural monopoly that book publishers had over content for decades and inaugurated an explosion in written content. In 2016, Amazon published 4 million e-books, 40 percent of which were published under its self-publishing platform. This level of control has, in turn, given it unprecedented economic power over cultural production, effectively making publishers (and, by extension, thousands of authors) beholden to its whims.

But there’s nothing novel about the cultural content that Amazon has pumped into the marketplace. Genre—romance, sci-fi, and other forms of commercial fiction—reigns supreme in Kindle Direct Publishing, making this revolution similar, in many ways, to the pulp explosion of the early twentieth century. Some of these authors are wildly successful in ways that never would have been possible before the Kindle; many have an even harder time finding an audience in such an oversaturated market. But expensive, labor-intensive publishing—non-fiction and much of literary fiction—is still largely being produced by publishing houses. The Kindle, in other words, has helped create a new set of winners and losers in book publishing, but it hasn’t changed the books being produced.

For the moment—and really for the first time since the Kindle hit the market—the publishing market seems stable. Many have noted a rise in print sales and corresponding decline in e-book sales over the past three years as a sign that people are tiring of screens: The analog nature of books, derided over the last several years, has become its salvation. But this argument, however widespread, largely misses the point. The drop in e-book sales came after publishers achieved, in 2014, a goal they had held since 2007: They got Amazon to raise prices on e-books. Many print books now cost the same (or in some cases less) than their electronic counterparts. Meanwhile, other studies suggest that e-book sales have continued to grow, just mainly via Amazon’s self-publishing platform. For the moment, at least, everyone is (more or less) getting what they want. Publishers have stabilized a volatile market and Amazon has preserved—and arguably enhanced—its dominance over the e-book market.

It’s unlikely that this relatively peaceful period will last. But that doesn’t mean that books are going anywhere soon. Yes, the written word has been in decline since the advent of film and then television, though recent technological change has undoubtedly hastened its fall. But this has led many to assume that the problem is one of form, that if the book could adapt to our multi-screen age, its cultural retreat would end. This optimistically assumes that the decline is reversible, which it isn’t. Books were overtaken by other media decades ago. The problem isn’t that books don’t have enough television in them, or enough internet in them; it’s that they are just one form of readily available cultural consumption among so many.