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« Why wireless | Main | Emotional reactions to the Kindle »

Can the Kindle pay for itself?

plasticbooks.jpgHere are the last three books I've purchased and their relative costs in paper and as Kindle-readable e-books:

  • Stephen Hunter's The 47th Samurai. Hardcover $17.16; Kindle edition: $9.99 Cost savings: $7.17
  • Laurence Bergreen's Marco Polo. Hardcover $19.11; Kindle edition: $9.99  Cost savings: $9.12
  • Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Paperback $9.60; Kindle edition: $6.39 Cost savings $3.21.

So, let's add this up...  Carry the two, add the five... $19.50 less for the Kindle book versions. Let's tack on another conservative $4.50 for postage for these three purchases. I'll have saved $24 on my three purchases or an average of $8 per book. That means my Kindle should pay for itself after purchasing about 50 books.

A few observations:

  • I could not find 2 of the last five books I bought in Kindle format (Don Norman's The Design of Future Things and The Rough Guide to First-Time Around the World.) This limits the economic viability of the device. Will availability increase?
  • If I am willing to wait for the book to appear in paperback, the costs of the two products are more similar.
  • I can't re-gift, donate, or display my erudition and fine taste via my physical bookcases.
  • (On the other hand, I could read trash on the Kindle, free from worry that others may think less of me because of my reading tastes.)

It would probably take me at least two years before I broke even economically on the Kindle. A pretty long pay-back time even for a regular book buyer like me. There are "value-added" benefits that should be factored in: lower carbon footprint for the e-book format than the paper book format; convenience of ready access to both my collection and new materials; the search/annotation feature of the e-book.

What if one did the math, however, with textbooks? Say we could buy (or lease for five years) a textbook for a fourth of its $80 cost? The typical five $80 textbooks at a $60 savings would be $300. Hand that 7th grader an e-book reader with all texts, novels, supplementary materials that have been updated, leveled for reading ability, customized for the curriculum, supported by a built-in dictionary/encylopedia/atlas. Cut out the printing costs of worksheets, lessen clerical costs of tracking, inventory physical texts, eliminate school lockers, etc. Do I smell a sea-change?

Maybe a blend of the OLPC or ASUS eee and the Kindle - readability, interactivity, portability, productivity and affordability. Can't we have it all? Tomorrow wouldn't be too soon. 

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Reader Comments (21)

Yep, i was surprised that after 3 years of work Amazon didn't really consider the innovation associated with these cheap laptops. But i did read about attempts to build a mini-tablet based on the OLPC technology. Maybe we will eventually get that blend...

November 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDima

My gut reaction is this product is a disaster. Even if the screen reading is improved the inability to share books is a huge drawback. Plus it seems like Amazon's efforts to monopolize the book industry. $400 is way too pricey. I can already read newspapers with nice screen reading software but I'm not convinced this is a great need. Perhaps it's a nice device if you have a spare $400 but not a necessity.

The book is still a pretty good technology..

November 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

Hi Dean,

I agree that the initial cost of this device is way too high for most of us. Like most new products and services, it will probably take awhile before a price point is reached.

Were they selling the device for $50 would you buy one?

All the best,


November 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I might buy one at $50. Still, not being able to share bugs me. But if I lend a book to a friend and I don't get it back, it's not the end of the world. (an occurrence I'm sure familiar to all). Leaving a $400 device in an airport certainly would be a bit of an issue. A $50 device is nearly disposable.

You're right in that it's an early technology but it will have to have more features that it currently posseses to make it a "must have toy".

Laptops might have been in the same boat a few years ago. Today, the advent of wireless and lower pricing to me makes the laptop a must have technology.

November 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDean Shareski

Hi Dean,

My understanding is that a copy of one's library is stored on the Amazon website. If you lose or break your reader, the library can be re-downloaded. When I leave my book in the seat of the airplane, I have to buy a whole new one (if I can find a copy!)

I understand what you mean about sharing. Loaning books has been a part of the human culture for a long time. I hope Amazon makes some sort of arrangement with libraries so that the e-books can be in some way circulated. Who knows/

Thanks for the reply,


November 24, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

"I hope Amazon makes some sort of arrangement with libraries so that the e-books can be in some way circulated."

The relationship between Amazon and libraries doesn't mean much at all. Typically, libraries obtain copies of books, not the copyrights to books. And typically, Amazon is a distributor - not a copyright holder - of books. Therefore, I don't see how what you hope for can happen. Do you mean, "I hope Amazon can make some sort of arrangement with copyright holders so that e-books can be in some way circulated"?

November 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Rock

Hi Peter,

Based on current agreements with other e-book providers such as NetLibrary, Follett, and Thompson-Gale, libraries are able to provide and circulate copyrighted books in digital formats.

All the best and thanks for commenting,


November 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

What do you mean by "circulate"? You also seemed to use the word "sharing" synonymously in your comment ("I understand what you mean about sharing."). I'm confused. What is "sharing/circulating" to you?

November 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Rock

The XO already is an ebook reader. It includes a high-resolution low- monochrome display mode and the screen can be flipped over into a tablet configuration. The only difference is that in reflective mode the XO display requires fairly bright light (sunlight) to be easily readable. Of course, then you can just turn on the XO's backlight like a regular laptop.

November 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman

That should be "high-resolution low-power" in my previous comment.

November 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman


See also

You don't need a blend of the XO and Kindle. You just need the XO.

November 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman


The XO (as originally made) runs only free software. This means you can't implement effective DRM on an XO. Those who think DRM is a useful tool to "protect" publishers wouldn't want books (under All Rights Reserved) to function on the XO. They would want another device that stops people (through DRM backed by laws like the DMCA) from sharing their books without permission first - like Kindle.

Of course, there will be pressure to get proprietary technology onto the XO so maybe there is "hope" for the XO to become more like Kindle.

November 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Rock

Hi Tom,

Unfortunately the video you suggested has been removed from YouTube (buy the user, it says).

I have my XO on order and I hope you are right about it being a good e-book reader. I still have a couple concerns about this being as good a device as the Kindle.

My understanding is eInk which Kindle uses is much friendlier on the eyes than a traditional LCD or CRT screen since eInk does not constantly scan the image. Seems I remember reading that someplace.

It looks like the battery life on the Kindle will be suitable for extended periods of use, but not necessarily the XO.

Finally, the books I actually WANT to read will be sold for the Kindle and not the XO.

Still hoping for a blend, but I am not holding my breath (nor am I ordering a Kindle just yet!)

All the best and thanks for writing,


November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Peter,

My definition of sharing/circulating materials is that the library would purchase a license for an item that could then be used by all patrons. (Sort of what libraries are all about.) Like purchasing a book, restrictions might apply regarding the number of synchronous users and whether it can be accessed only in the library or outside of it as well. Different e-book suppliers at this time have different policies.

Hope this clarifies.

All the best,


November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson


I am thankful "Design of Future Things" is one of your recent purchases and appalled that this book is not available on the future thing -- an electronic book reader. I'm working hard to correct this. The publisher, Basic Books says they are willing. I am willing. Turns out the book contract is vague on "electronic or performance" rights, but because all the parties are willing, I hope to see this corrected soon.

I have long proclaimed that books will someday mostly be electronic. Amazon's Kindle looks like the best reader out there, but it's DRM is still onerous. Why can't I copy and paste (small) excerpts. Why can't I loan the book to others (perhaps with a DRM that says only one reader can display it at a time). Still, one giant step for book readers. Someday I hope to be able to buy books while on the airplane, downloading it directly into my reader.

Don Norman

November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDon Norman

Sorry, I munged the link above (or something). Try:

Regarding readability, CRT's scan and flicker, LCD's don't. The Kindle display is more readable than LCD because it is reflective and high resolution. The XO's display has a reflective mode. A little casual Googling seems to indicate that the Kindle can display 167 dots per inch and the XO can display 200 dpi in monochrome mode (less in color), so in theory the XO display is sharper. I'm not sure those numbers are perfectly authoritative, though.

My subjective memory of my experience is that you'd need brighter ambient light to read an XO in reflective mode than a Kindle-style display, but I've not done close to a side by side comparison, so I may be wrong. If the display Kahle is holding in the video above is in reflective mode, then my memory would seem to be faulty, but you can't really tell.

As far as battery life goes, when used as an ebook reader with the battery off, the XO is designed to essentially go to sleep with the display on and wake up only when the display needs to be updated, so this should provide very long (all day) life. With the backlight on in ebook mode, it'll obviously take more power, but it will still have longer life than a conventional laptop. The power consumption on the XO should improve (from very good to outstanding) over the first year as the final kinks in hardware drivers get ironed out.

On the other hand, you can do vastly more with the XO's display than with Kindle's. As Tim Lauer explains, there is a pause between each refresh of the screen, so not only can you not display video or any animation, as you can on the XO, you can't even draw a conventional mouse cursor! And of course, the Kindle can't display color, but the XO can.

If you're ok with buying your own books for use on the Kindle, it is no skin off my nose. However, I think that, as I explain in this post, it is important to differentiate in this conversation between what you think is ok for your personal use and what you think kids should be taught and what good public policy is.

I'm sure, for example, textbook publishers would be elated to support the kind of DRM the Kindle uses. It would give them more control than they have now with paper textbooks. I would expect, for example, textbooks to be licensed for a specific period of time, which would stop working when the new edition came out. What we really want to see is publically funded, freely licensed textbooks and curriculum of the sort Bob Tinker outlines here. That would save far more money and produce better results than buying DRM-laden digital texts from the big publishers.

November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman

"Finally, the books I actually WANT to read will be sold for the Kindle and not the XO."

Yes, because Kindle will keep you from copying those books and sharing them with your friends.

November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Rock

Hi Mr. Norman,

Wow. This is like getting a message from Elvis Presley!

I have to say you have been one of my personal "heroes" since I read your book _Things that Make Us Smart_ many moons ago. Your ideas about making technology design user friendly have been very formative in my own thinking about using technology with students and teachers.

Thanks much for your thoughtful reply and expect a review of The Design of Future things on this blog soon. I am enjoying it very much.

All the very best,


November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Oops. I meant "but", not "because" in my last comment.

November 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Rock

It's amazing reading these old Kindle blog posts - people seemed to think that the Kindle was doomed to failure. Now in 2010 the situation looks very different. Kindle has now over 600,000 books available and the new kindle 3 is out this month costing less than $140. I wonder if the blog post author has changed his mind on the economic choice of owning a kindle?
Danny - Kindle Cases

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDanny Ashton

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