What Neil Gaiman likes about the Kindle, and why you should care

by Chris Walters

Hopefully you don’t need a Famous Author to validate your purchasing decisions, so I’m not posting about Neil Gaiman’s opinions on the Kindle just to make you feel better/worse about your new ereader. Instead, I thought it might provide some useful things to think about when you shop for your next device, or when you buy ebooks in the years to come.

The Kindle, he writes in a forthcoming article for Locus magazine, “wins” over print in two areas. First, it’s easier to read than a printed book if you need larger sized text, because it can make any book a large-print edition without requiring any real knowledge of how the device works; this is both a crucial feature and usability requirement for the current 40-and-over set. Second, its “buy once, read anywhere” approach makes reading big books a pleasure instead of a task. (Gaiman writes that he still prefers paperbacks for smaller, pocketable books.)

That first achievement–ease of use–sounds like common sense, but it’s actually pretty hard for companies to pull off these days, which is why you should always try out an ereader in person before you buy it. In my opinion there are only a handful of truly easy-to-use consumer electronics in the world: the iPhone, the Tivo (with the original menu, not the unusable HD interface), the Keurig brewer, the Flip videocamera, and the Kindle. Although Amazon’s web interface for the Kindle is nothing to brag about, it’s possible to avoid it almost entirely and still get full use out of your Kindle.

This simplicity really hit home for me last week, when I took advantage of Borders’ “please give us some revenue” sale and bought the Kobo Wi-Fi for $100. I bought it for my mom, because I figured even though she’d miss out on cheap Kindle books, she’d be able to access library ebooks on a Kobo. But I wanted to give it a test run first to make sure it would be easy to use. I immediately fell in love with the hardware, but I kept running into problems with the usability. First, I hated how it was pre-set to connect only to the Borders ebook store and not to the general Kobobooks.com website (actually I hated that there were two shopping destinations at all–Kobo should just be Kobo). I also didn’t like how you had to navigate down through multiple screens just to toggle wireless access, when that’s the very first menu item on the Kindle. I hated that you have to install a desktop app if you want to wirelessly sync the Kobo with your library. And then there was the Adobe Digital Editions program requirement for authorizing library check-outs.

In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to send my mother an ereader that was looking suspiciously like it would require many hours of technical support. I took it back and spent the extra $40 for a Wi-Fi Kindle. She’ll never have to connect it to her aging iBook or think of it as a PC peripheral for as long as she uses it. She can buy a new book while she’s at work, or I can email her a file, and it will appear on her Kindle automatically when she gets home. Hooray for simplicity.*

The second achievement Gaiman describes–the ability to access a book across multiple devices–isn’t unique to Kindle, and I think it’s more of a general benefit of reading ebooks, at least if you’re a Nook, Kindle, Kobo or Google eBooks customer. In fact, it’s one of the innate benefits of storing your books in the “cloud”–they’re easy to access from multiple devices, no matter where you go.

But in theory, at least, cloud storage has a heavy potential cost you should be aware of, which is that it forces consumers to give up control over their purchases.

Publishers would love to see the cloud become the only way to sell ebook licenses to readers, because they could finally get rid of unprofitable consumer behavior like passing books along to friends or shifting formats–the kinds of privileges that consumers demand when they feel like they “own” something, but that are easier to kill off when a customer grows comfortable with simply paying for access to the cloud. Cloud access also makes it easier for publishers to enforce their interpretations of fair use, and to block any applications of technology that they haven’t yet monetized.

For that reason, even though I share Gaiman’s pleasure at being able to pick up my reading where I left off as I move among devices, I always download and save backup copies of my ebooks. That way I will have at least a fighting chance of preserving access to them in the future, no matter what the publisher or retailer decides.

The bad news is, the type of consumer who takes care to make backup copies of ebook purchases probably isn’t the same one who needs an easy-to-use device, so I fear the cloud approach will win out in the years to come. The good news is that the topic is moot right now, because today all the major ereader stores let you download copies of your purchases. But as long as we still have a choice, I suggest that you patronize retailers and publishers who offer file downloads as well as cloud storage.

This isn’t just a pro-Kindle post. I would have happily bought my mom a Nook Color instead of a Kindle had it been in my budget. I wouldn’t have bought an original Nook, though, because I find its interface too clunky. (Return to the post.)

(Neil Gaiman photo: Jutta @ flickr; cloud image: akakumo)

reposted from BookSprung


  1. Barb18 January, 2011

    This gets tiresome–“why I have a Kindle.” Do I care why someone has a Kindle. No not really. Lets find a new topic.

  2. Richard Adin19 January, 2011

    I’d be significantly more impressed by Gaiman’s perspective if he wrote that he had purchased all of the major devices and actually used and compared them before making a decision. Simply buying a Kindle and saying how pleased you are is a lemming activity. Having never really compared the device against competitors by giving competitors a thorough using makes the article simply a justification for how he spent his money.

    As for your buying and returning the Kobo, you really only considered cheap and Kindle. For what you paid for the Kindle, you could have tried the nook — or let your mother try it. What fits you or me doesn’t necessarily fit mom or friend.

    My complaint with all reviews — including my own reviews of ebook readers — is that the focuses are rarely compelling. For example, you complain about where Kobo has placed the wireless access in the navigation scheme. But did you first figure out how frequently your mother would need to change it or access it as opposed to how the device would feel to her when she was using it to read? (I think you made the right choice because of the screen difference between the two devices, but that was not your stated reason.) It’s like the focus on wireless. Wireless is nice but I’d rather have a Pearl screen than wireless, yet to read the reviewers, it is wireless that is the most important feature. I think we all do a disservice to future ebook device buyers by not focusing on the reading experience and instead focusing on peripheral — albeit not wholly unimportant — features that most readers either will not use or will access infrequently.

  3. Andrew Durham19 January, 2011

    Sorry, but the author completes discredits himself to me when he says he would have “happily” bought his mom a Nook color over the Kindle or Kobo had it been cheaper. LCD over E-Ink for reading? Four years and professional writers on the subject still don’t get the significance of e-ink. Which is that it holds perfectly still and thus does not disturb the eye, mind, or emotions.

    Whose fault is that? The e-ink device producers, most of whom themselves don’t seem to get it, judging by their marketing copy (“No backlighting! Readable in sunlight! 30 day battery life! and other secondary characteristics.)


  4. Chris20 January, 2011

    @Rich: I was looking for the best overall user experience for my mom at that price point. The lack of library access on the Kindle is a huge strike against it for my mom’s needs. But I was interested in finding a device that required the least user input to operate, since in my experience that seems to be the biggest obstacle most people over 40 have with consumer tech. (Example: my mom loves her iPod Touch, but can’t figure out how get the Overdrive app installed and working properly.) As for wireless, my concern was that if the toggle was buried too deeply in the menu, it would be too inconvenient or she’d simply forget it existed, which would cut down on battery life and impact user experience. As strange as it sounds–I felt weird making this decision, but I stand by it–the Pearl screen wasn’t as important to me in this particular case.

    I suspect, based on reading some of your other comments and posts, that I’m selling the Sony Reader line too short. I really need to get my hands on the latest models and test them out some day (but I’m doubtful they’d be “mom-friendly” enough for my needs.)

    @Andrew: I know people still have passionate feelings about this topic, but it’s a non-starter for me. Eink is great and I have no qualms buying ereaders that use the technology, but I do just as much reading on LCD screens of all sizes and resolutions and have never experienced any of the discomfort that the anti-LCD crowd describes. As far as the other tradeoffs, I think they balance each other out.

  5. […] begins! The ebooks-in-the-cloud concept that I warned against earlier this week, the one publishers say is the ideal future marketplace (for them, not for […]


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