Hear the plea of the Kindle orphans

June 30, 2011

By James Ledbetter
The views expressed are his own.

I bought a Kindle in early 2009, which makes me an “early adopter” of tablet e-readers (translation: I overpaid).  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 America’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 I’m already a paying customer.

After all, iPad owners are treated like magazine royalty. Just open up The New Yorker’s iPad app, for example, and you’ll be immediately whisked into an elite land of witty cartoons and bon mots—assuming, that is, that you are a print subscriber or have paid for the iPad-only version. But if you’re a Kindle subscriber? As far as The New Yorker is concerned, you might as well be the old lady from Dubuque. 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 content—a few thousand souls for most titles, I’d guess—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 couldn’t or wouldn’t handle their digital progeny, cast out harshly into a world where we are powerless.

OK, that’s an exaggeration—mostly. Publishers are quick to point out it’s not like they ditched Kindle customers who upgraded to iPads at Apple’s door with a little note saying “please look after this subscriber.” The problem, publishers say, is Amazon’s refusal to let them share custody. In the Kindle’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 wouldn’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.

Amazon’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 doesn’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 “metered” 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 aren’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, “Are you a Kindle subscriber?” Surely there’s some bit of evidence Kindle orphans could offer–a faxed credit card statement, for example—that would entitle them to six months of free New Yorkers. Or a year’s access to the Web site. Or an umbrella. Or something.

I’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.

3 comments

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yeah, they know you have no choice really so you’ll have to wait until the publishers start getting squeezed again through competition before they start cutting deals for anyone.

Posted by london_pb | Report as abusive

You do realize that there’s a Kindle app for iPad, right? Nothing’s stopping you from reading your Kindle content on an iPad or an iPhone or any other of a variety of devices.

Posted by c5karl | Report as abusive

@c5karl: I use the Kindle app on both my Ipad and my Blackberry. But unless there are features I’m not aware of, it only works for book publishing. I can’t access the magazines and newspapers I subscribe to that way.

Posted by jledbet | Report as abusive