Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man | 24 October 2009

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

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Judging by my fellow passengers on trains or planes, I am in a minority in being more addicted to words than music. While perfectly fond of music, on long journeys I am slightly unnerved by the many people in headphones who can sit for three hours at a stretch staring vacantly into space. I could easily survive that long without an iPod, but would start foaming at the mouth if I had to last 20 minutes without anything to read.

I also admire wordsmiths more than tunesmiths. Until his verbal assault on his brother (‘He’s the angriest man you’ll ever meet. He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup’), I never had much time for Noel Gallagher; now I think he’s a genius. And I respect John Lennon more for saying, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’, than for being the Walrus.

Anyhow, this week is an historic moment for oddballs like us, because it has seen the long-overdue arrival on our shores of the reading man’s iPod — the first UK-ready Kindle e-reader from Amazon. I shall describe this fully in a fortnight’s time (at the time of writing, mine is awaiting shipment) but I am already confident that in a decade we shall look back on its arrival as one of those pivotal, iPhone-style moments that changes the course of whole industries.

The Kindle is different from other e-book readers in being permanently connected to a mobile phone data network. This seems to me a great advantage over the competition. It means you can stand in the middle of a field in perhaps 50 countries in the world and order a copy of any of 350,000 digital books to arrive through the ether in 60 seconds. More important, this connectivity makes it a potent news-reading device — it automatically receives digital copies of chosen newspapers and magazines the instant they hit the newsstands.

Given that a small percentage of people buy most of the world’s books, even 100,000 Kindles landing under British Christmas trees this year will pose vital questions for the future of publishing. What can you charge for an electronic book ($4-10 seems the current norm)? How much of this money will go to Amazon, which created the Kindle and owns the rights to the Kindle file format? How much will go to the publisher? How much will be lost to piracy? And what about the poor old author (Alexander Waugh, writing in the Literary Review, warns that many writers are at risk of being digitally short-changed)?

On a more cheerful note, could this new device lead to a revival of poetry? To a new era of the short story? Or to novels once again being published in serial form, as with Dickens? Will it salvage the future of newspapers and magazines?

Already, browsing Amazon’s Kindle store in anticipation of what to buy has led to some happy discoveries. The Spectator is already available in Kindle form. So are a few hundred other periodicals, including the TLS, the Telegraph and the New York Times. Ninety P.G. Wodehouse novels and stories can be bought as a bundle for less than $8. A digital King James Bible is about $5. Better still, the works of Dan Brown are currently unavailable.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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