When Amazon released the Kindle ebook reader, it was available for purchase only to those in the United States. Amazon had made a deal with only a U.S. phone company to provide 3G wireless connectivity, and, most likely, Amazon hadn't managed to work out the licensing issues related to selling U.S. ebooks in other countries.
As of 19-Oct-09, an international version of the Kindle 2 will be available for $279 - $20 more than the U.S.-only Kindle 2 - plus shipping and duties (it's shipped from the United States). So readers in 100 countries will be able to purchase English-language books, as well as various magazines and newspapers, for display on the Kindle. The larger Kindle DX, which can display PDFs, has no international version as yet, although Amazon has promised such a device sometime in 2010.
At the moment, those books, magazines, and newspapers must be purchased from the U.S. Amazon store, but this is an improvement; until now, you had to have a U.S. account and address even to use Amazon's Kindle app on the iPhone and iPod touch. Now, users of those devices who are outside the United States have access to Kindle ebooks as well, but at a higher price.
International Availability -- As noted, all Kindle books must be purchased through U.S.-based Amazon.com, rather than Amazon's international Web stores. Even customers of Amazon UK must buy their Kindle books from Amazon's U.S. store, though the company says it will soon offer direct UK purchases.
Wired's Steven Levy extracted the detail from Amazon head Jeff Bezos that publishers are paid based on the "territory of purchase." A non-U.S. publisher with the rights in a given country or region gets the royalties instead of a U.S. publisher.
Because of this complicated rights issue, not all Kindle books are available internationally; many, but not all publishers have agreed to Amazon's terms. The Amazon Web site says, "Due to copyright restrictions, certain Kindle Titles are not available everywhere. Kindle Titles that are available in your country or region will be displayed." Amazon touts a total of 350,000 books in the United States, but readers in other countries will have access only to 160,000 to 290,000 titles, depending on country.
In particular, no mention is made on Amazon's French store of future plans for French-language books. My guess is that Amazon is negotiating with publishers in major countries.
Canadians are also out of luck in purchasing a global Kindle at all. The Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail couldn't get Amazon to explain why.
Second, a number of the titles that currently top the bestseller list for U.S. Kindle books are unavailable to me in France: "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown, "Last Song" by Nicholas Sparks, books by Steig Larsson, and many more.
So Europeans pay a $3.80 premium and lack access to many popular books. That's troubling.
To be fair, this price includes VAT (in France, VAT on ebooks is a whopping 19.6 percent, though paper books are taxed only 5.5 percent; in the UK, it's 15 percent on ebooks but no surcharge on paper books), and shipping books from the United States is more expensive, so the $13.79 price is still substantially cheaper than the equivalent hardcover with shipping.
But since shipping a digital book costs nearly nothing, this price hike seems excessive. Looking at the prices of a few paperbacks - Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series, for instance - shows similar abusive pricing. For a book that costs $7.99 in the United States ("Dark Tower VII"), Amazon is charging $11.49 to Europeans.
Granted, the U.S. dollar is quite weak these days, so the paperback for the same book costs roughly the equivalent amount in euros from Amazon's French store, but it's enough to make me think twice. And it's certainly not the VAT that explains the $3.50 difference; at the current exchange rate, VAT for that $7.99 paperback would be only $0.44.
Newspapers and Magazines -- The pricing for newspapers is surprising as well. The New York Times, sold in the United States to Kindle users for $13.99 a month, costs $27.99 here in Europe. Even the International Herald Tribune, which is actually published in France, is more expensive here: $9.99 in the United States compared to $19.99 for Europe.
There's no reason to charge twice as much for European customers; after all, one of the Internet's major advantages is that distance doesn't matter. I thought newspapers were trying to survive, but if the Kindle is their big chance, it looks like they're going to blow it.
As far as magazines are concerned, there are only a total of 34 available to European customers, so far. And worse, as with newspapers, many magazines cost twice as much when purchased by European Kindle customers. Asimov's Science Fiction runs $5.99 per issue in Europe, but only $2.99 in the United States, and the Atlantic Monthly is $2.49 per issue compared to just $1.25 in the United States.
International Roaming Fees -- One final gripe: Kindle users in the United States are happy that many classic titles - in the form of public domain books - are available for free from Amazon. These same books, here in Europe, are sold - yes, sold - for $2.30.
Interestingly, when using the international Kindle, U.S. customers must pay $1.99 for every download they make when roaming outside the United States. Newspaper, magazine, and blog subscriptions will cost $4.99 per week to access when roaming. (U.S. users who travel a lot internationally can purchase the international Kindle to have access to Kindle content when overseas; the U.S.-only Kindle cannot download new content when outside of the United States.) $1.99 seems a high price to pay to download a file, closer to text messaging rates than cellular data rates.
Speculation on the Internet suggests that this "roaming fee" is what Amazon is paying AT&T to use AT&T's worldwide data network, rather than using individual cell phone networks in the countries where the device works. (Previously Amazon worked solely with Sprint in the United States, but an AT&T spokesman told Ars Technica that the international version of the Kindle also uses AT&T's network in the United States. AT&T and Sprint use incompatible cellular standards; AT&T uses GSM, which is the dominant flavor worldwide.)
This roaming fee could explain the difference in book prices I mentioned above. If I take the $9.99 base price for a book, add the $1.99 roaming fee and France's 19.6 percent VAT, I come to $14.22, which isn't much higher than the $13.79 price for most books. And $1.99 plus 19.6 percent works out to $2.38, right about the cost of those public domain titles.
While this roaming fee may explain the higher cost of the books - and may explain why "free" books are not free when downloaded outside of the United States - it seems ludicrous that international Kindle buyers must pay a hidden delivery fee for every title. After all, you can download Kindle books to your computer and then transfer them to the device via USB; obtaining these books from sites with public domain books in Kindle-compatible formats is therefore the best way to get such titles. Perhaps Amazon should offer a lower price for computer downloads, and make people pay the full price only for wireless shopping.
The Future of Books -- I'm convinced that ebooks are the future of books in general (they won't supplant them, but will replace dead-tree books for many people), and I'm glad that Amazon has finally managed to release a Kindle for use in other countries.
I've used the Kindle app on my iPod touch and have been very pleased with the experience (see my hands-on review and further thoughts blog posts). Still, I'm very tempted by the international Kindle itself, and I may spring for one.
However, I'm hesitant because I feel its content costs too much and with all the rumors about Apple's tablet coming out soon, I'm afraid that I wouldn't use the Kindle for long. After all, if Apple's tablet uses the iPhone OS or something similar, Amazon's Kindle app will work on it, and that experience will likely be better than using the Kindle device itself. Or, maybe Apple is preparing its own ebook distribution system using the iTunes Store. We can only wait and see.
[Kirk McElhearn loves books. He has just created a new Web site about his favorite author, Henry James.]