Hear the plea of the Kindle orphans
I bought a Kindle in early 2009, which makes me an â€śearly adopterâ€ť of tablet e-readers (translation: I overpaid). Â In addition to downloading books, I eagerly signed up for some heavily discounted subscriptions: The New Yorker, $2.99 a month; Fortune, $2.49 a month; New York Times, $13.99 a month (it later went up); etc. I did this knowing that most of the time the content was free online. But the digital subscriptions were often much cheaper than print and the Kindle provided many conveniences, particularly when traveling.
This year, my wife bought me an iPad2, and my Kindle now feels like a cassette tape in a CD world; I think I last spotted it gathering dust on my desk a few months ago. You might think, though, that years of paying for digital content from Americaâ€™s publishers would translate into goodwill on the shiny new platform. I envisioned publishers leaping at the opportunity to help me make a seamless transition from the Tablet 1.0 era, especially because they know Iâ€™m already a paying customer.
After all, iPad owners are treated like magazine royalty. Just open up The New Yorkerâ€™s iPad app, for example, and youâ€™ll be immediately whisked into an elite land of witty cartoons and bon motsâ€”assuming, that is, that you are a print subscriber or have paid for the iPad-only version. But if youâ€™re a Kindle subscriber? As far as The New Yorker is concerned, you might as well be the old lady from Dubuque.Â In general, having a Kindle subscription buys you very little in the iPad world, except an unshakable feeling of second-class citizenship.
This is perverse; we pioneers who showed ourselves willing to pay for digital contentâ€”a few thousand souls for most titles, Iâ€™d guessâ€”are now cut off by the very publications we supported (during pretty tough times in the newspaper and magazine business, incidentally). Consider me a Kindle orphan. Soon there will be millions like me, abandoned by publications that couldnâ€™t or wouldnâ€™t handle their digital progeny, cast out harshly into a world where we are powerless.
OK, thatâ€™s an exaggerationâ€”mostly. Publishers are quick to point out itâ€™s not like they ditched Kindle customers who upgraded to iPads at Appleâ€™s door with a little note saying â€śplease look after this subscriber.â€ť The problem, publishers say, is Amazonâ€™s refusal to let them share custody. In the Kindleâ€™s early days, Amazon insisted on absolute control over the subscriptions that it sold. So in addition to taking a big chunk of all subscriber payments, Amazon wouldnâ€™t give any customer data to publishers: no names, no e-mails, et cetera. Even if The New York Times wanted to e-mail an offer to its Kindle subscribers, they would be no easier to find than the people who plunked a few quarters into a blue metal box on the sidewalk.
Amazonâ€™s data-jail policy is clearly not a sustainable path to tablet glory. Indeed, publishers tell me that the competition provided by Nook, iPad, and other tablets has pressured Amazon to the point where almost no one is cutting the all-or-nothing deals that dominated 2008 and 2009.
For publishers, that may be progress, but it doesnâ€™t entirely get them off the hook. They are pointing a finger at Amazon and Apple, while simultaneously trying to cash in on their digital offerings. I have only to go down the list of my Kindle subscriptions: The New Yorker has long kept much of its content behind a pay wall; The New York Times introduced a â€śmeteredâ€ť system this spring and is betting heavily on it; one hears that Fortune will move its stories behind a pay wall later this year, and is already charging for its iPad app; etc.
Not that I automatically begrudge any publisher attempting to charge for content; everybody is trying to figure out the right balance between maximizing audience and getting some portion of that audience to cough up money. But my experience tells me that publishers arenâ€™t going out of their way to reward early adopters, either.
How hard would it be, say, for The New Yorker to put some button on its Web site that says, â€śAre you a Kindle subscriber?â€ť Surely thereâ€™s some bit of evidence Kindle orphans could offer–a faxed credit card statement, for exampleâ€”that would entitle them to six months of free New Yorkers. Or a yearâ€™s access to the Web site. Or an umbrella. Or something.
Iâ€™m not holding my breath. It seems far more likely that in their quest to spin tablets into gold, publishers will continue to abandon those readers whose only sin was to support them through a rapidly obsolescing platform.