I’ve been hearing a lot of exciting things about Amazon’s Kindle recently, and as the time comes to leave for the field – and therefore leave behind all my books – its been sounding increasingly attractive. The $350+ price tag for the latest version aside, however, on doing some research I don’t think I’ll be getting one just yet. Although it sounds like it ought to be an academic’s dream, there are some serious drawbacks that, unless resolved sharpish, mean this product really won’t ever be an option for people like me.

First off though, what do I mean by “people like me”. Well academics in the humanities and social sciences whose jobs depend on reading a hell of a lot of books every day. In an average week I probably read about the equivalent of five books in their entirety, plus or minus a few hundred pages, but this is usually spread out over about 10-20 books or journal editions, each of which I might read a few chapters of. And I’m a lazy and slow reader in comparison to my friends. Most of these are library books, but in the four years since I moved to the US I’ve also collected a personal library that takes up 4 huge floor to ceiling bookcases: the essentials I just had to have my own copy of. And again, I’m lagging behind most other academics here.

So I’d assume that I’d be an ideal market for a Kindle. There can’t be that many other professions that require quiet so much book ownership and reading?

I’ve always been a little disparaging about my dear colleagues attitudes towards books. It frequently verges on the fetishistic, and tends to go hand-in-hand with a Luddite fear of computers. It amazes people that I prefer to keep all my journal reading to pdfs rather than printouts, try to write all my notes electronically rather than in notebooks, and never brought coursework books unless, having finished the course, I was really sure I’d want to read it again. Hence why my four bookcases are rather pathetic looking in most anthropologists’ eyes. I love a nice paperback to curl up with, but don’t have that dreamy-eyed attachment to the nostalgia of the printed page. (And don’t get me started about personalised name stamps…) Bring on the e-revolution, as far as I’m concerned!

But I’ve been noting a sense of palpable excitement among anthropologists about the Kindle, even though its out of most of our price ranges, and goes against the fuddy-duddy waffling about the joy of dog-eared coffee-stained 1st editions. I put it down to the fieldwork: one of the many, many things that makes fieldwork so annoying is not having access to any of your books. A Kindle could change that. Not only let you have the right reference book when you need it, or the timely copy of the book on interviewing techniques you never realised you would need.

But also the novels. The things that stop you going absolutely crazy when you’re holed up in your little house on your own trying desperately to escape from the reality that there are several more months to go and you hate everyone you’re meant to be studying. Or something like that. For when you need escapism, pure and simple, but its two days drive away from the nearest internet connection.

So anyway. Thinking this might be the answer to all my mounting anxieties, I started asking about and checking it out, and so far there seem to be two major, insurmountable problems:

1) The page numbers don’t stick.
2) The range of books on offer is crap.

The first relates to citation practices. Apparently in a Kindle book you can zoom in and out to make the font larger, but this changes the pagination of the whole book. Total disaster! Unless you can place a citation exactly so that someone else can find the same thing on the same page you are referencing, then its useless. Academic citation practices are not going to change in any hurry. I mean we still have to include the town where a book is published in citations for goodness sake! (something that always conjures up images in my mind of quaint 19th century scholars having to personally travel to New York/London or Cam:Mass to find a copy of a book I cite) Kindle’s gonna have to sort that one out before it can become usable for academics.

The second, though, makes me wonder more about whether the makers of Kindle even realise the market they are ignoring. A quick browse through Amazon’s site today revealed that, as of today, there are only 2,207 anthropology books available (not counting archaeology). In comparison, there are 3,239 books on cooking, 4,190 sports books, and 6,064 erotic fiction books (incidentally, all topics I would have assumed are better just practised, rather than read about… but there you go).

When I actually checked out the kind of books listed under “cultural anthropology”, most of them were utter crap anyway. Lots of Jared Diamond. A bit of Latour. No Sahlins.

As a quick test, I looked up everything I had on my desk at the time. So this is a roughly accurate reflection of what I’ve been reading this week, and whether I’d be able to find it on Kindle:

Biocapital, by Sunder Rajan – No
Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbiology, by Helmrich – No
Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, by David Turnbull – No
Space in the Tropics, by Redfield – No
Opening Pandora’s Box, Gilbert and Mulkay – No
Nuclear Borderlands, Joe Masco – No
Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, Stern – No
Landscapes and Labscapes, by Kohler – No
Science and an African Logic, H Verran – No.
Ella Minnow Pea, by MacAdams – No.
The Dictator’s Shadow, by Heraldo Munoz – Yes.
The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Bryatt – Yes.
Ethnography through Thick and Thin, Marcus – No!

So all I could get would be one of my novels, and the one biography I had on my desk. At the moment, then, its a bit of a let down. Ok so some of these are pretty obscure, but even the Marcus wasn’t available, and I don’t think any anthropologist can really contest that this is not a classic.

What I did find, though, is that for those that are available the price is bizarrely high. Lets say I was going to buy Latour’s Reassembling the Social. The paperback (new) price is $24, but the Kindle price is $18.56. How does that make *any* sense? Once the book is made, there’s barely any production cost at all. No paper, no printing, no shipping.

There has been a lot of discussion in academia about the demise of the academic press, the rising costs of producing the monographs that are a loss-maker for publishers, but that serve as the lifeblood of the humanities and social sciences. The print run of the average academic monograph is in the low hundreds, so the prices go up beyond the average grad student price range… . Less books are brought and production costs go up in a vicious circle.

Electronic books seem like the obvious solution out of the problem. The same few hundred hard copies would be sold to libraries and book fetishists. But the digital copy could be sent out at a fraction of the cost. It has the potential to totally revitalise the academic book market.

Yet we could take it even further. Over on the WAC mailing list in the last few weeks there has been a raging row about moving the contract to publish WAC’s journals and books over to Springer from Left Coast Publishers. The row started over whether working with Springer, a large corporation, undermined WAC’s ethical principles. (For more background on what WAC is and what it stands for: see here.) But it soon turned into a debate about the gulf in opportunity to access all academic publications between academics in richer and poorer countries. As temporarily employed adjunct faculty in the US complained they couldn’t afford WAC’s $40 books, professors from African nations pointed out they needed to take second jobs to get together the $20 membership fee.

WAC, like many anthropology organisations, tries to solve the disparity by having two tiers of membership fees, depending on where in the world you are coming from. This extends to journals as well, with two (sometimes more) tiers of pricing. With digital books, if the production costs are cut to a minimum, could we do the same thing?

Well. Only when Kindle and other e-book makers realise that we exist as a market. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for it – but I’m not holding my breath.

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