More on micropayements in journalism

The two Freakonomics gods of economics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, have now joined in the debate about whether or not micropayments are the future of newspapers, a debate I first pointed to last week.

Unfortunately, so far they have only sampled views from the people I’ve already linked to. I hope that means they are getting ready for their own economic analysis of the issue. A lot rides on it.

Personally, I still think that the Kindle and its ilk point to the future. Technically, it is not a micropayments platform yet (micro = thousands, not hundreds, of a dollar at a time). But it begins the process of news publications charging modest amounts for a new reading experience, and that is what this is about.

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The conservative Kindle

Just a quick follow-up to Tuesday’s post about this incredible week in matters of the printed word: The article I ended up doing for The Economist focused mostly on the Kindle and its possible effects both on books and on newspapers. My editor Tom wrote a Leader (ie, an Editorial) to go with it (as usual, there is overlap).

As you can see, I see the paper-printed word being cut by a pair of scissors with two blades: one blade is the “conservative” new medium of the Kindle and its ilk (the phrase comes from John Makinson of Penguin); the other blade is the more “radical” edge of mobile-phone apps for reading.

Like Makinson, I consider the Kindle “conservative” because it wants to preserve and improve long-form reading for people like me. Which it does, as I can attest now that I have played with the Kindle 1. So the Kindle as such cannot be something that Penguin’s imprint Riverhead (my publisher) or I as an aspiring author should fear.

I consider the apps (such as Stanza) “radical” because they are more likely to lead to new reading habits among the young, habits that may lead them away from deep immersion in long-form literature. (That is not a criticism, just a hunch.)

I have no doubt, furthermore, that traditional newspapers readers (again, like me) will subscribe through the Kindle and drop their paper subscriptions. One line that got cut from my piece (which must adhere, ironically enough, to the line-count and layout of the paper version), is this: No more soggy newspapers piling up in the rain while the subscriber is out of town on business.

I mean, what of that alleged “sensual” experience that some people claim to get from paper? The print that rubs off from the New York Times? Or the ads of ladies in lingerie next to the table of contents? I am in favor of lingerie. But is this the appropriate place for it? The Kindle saves me from all that nonsense, and gives me a much more focused reading experience, no matter where I am traveling.

Some interesting overmatter that did not make it into the piece:

The Kindle 2 “reads to you”, as Bezos proudly says. He’s not talking about audiobooks but about software that vocalizes the text when you’re, say, driving. As Penguin’s Makinson pointed out, this raises some interesting questions for authors. Is software-powered audio an audio book? Who has rights to it?

Will future Kindles make books “linkable”? The link economy is where Jeff Jarvis thinks the future lies.

And one last frivolous thought: How strange for Bezos to name the thing Kindle, which leads to an immediate association of books and fire–ie, book-burning.

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One week in the drama of the printed word

Just a quick alert to those of you who may not follow these matters as obsessively as I do: This is a cacophonous week even by the standards of the echo chamber that houses the pundits who hold forth about “the future of the newspaper” and such matters.

For once, I cannot really weigh in until The Economist‘s next issue is out (on Thursday night), because I am writing on one aspect of this. But I wanted at least to point you to various angles at whose intersection you may independently find … a thought:

  1. Amazon yesterday announced its Kindle 2 (ie, its electronic reading device for books*). I have been trying the Kindle 1 and am on the list to get the Kindle 2. I cannot say more for now.
  2. Google is making available over one million out-of-copyright books for reading on your mobile phone, thus joining many others apps, such as Stanza, that let you do that already.
  3. In case it’s not obvious*, the Kindle lets you receive (wirelessly–yucky word) and read not only books but also newspapers and magazines. In fact, I am about to unsubscribe from my last remaining print newspaper, the New York Times, in order to read only the Kindle, iPhone and web versions.
  4. Into this maelstrom, Walter Isaacson (whose biography of Einstein is in the bibliography of my forthcoming book) has written a cover story in Time Magazine in which he argues that “micro-payments” will save the journalism industry. (Here he is kidding around with Jon Stewart about it.)
  5. Other stalwarts of the industry, such as Michael Kinsley, are already busy dismantling every part of Isaacson’s argument.
  6. To summarize, for those hibernating in an igloo without WiFi: We were confused at the beginning of the week, we are confused in the middle of it, and we will be confused at the end of it.

As I said, I will today try to make sense of at least one part of this mess, and you can read the result in The Economist on Thursday night. It’s one of those rare occurrences when my private interests as a writer and aspiring author overlap with my day job of covering my beat. Yesterday, for instance, I was interviewing the boss of Penguin, John Makinson, about the topic–we began by kidding around, because Penguin, of course, owns Riverhead, where an editor is right now looking at my manuscript.

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