Kindles Are Nice...
Monday, June 25th 2012
A couple of weeks ago the State Department announced plans to enter a 16.5 million dollar, five-year agreement with Amazon to purchase Kindle tablets and assorted services for public diplomacy. There is a lot of enthusiasm these days about tablets, e-readers and electronic books.
The contract reportedly will deliver an initial tranche of 2,500 Kindles to American libraries, cultural centers, American Corners, and other kinds of reading rooms and “spaces" operated by embassies for public diplomacy purposes. As part of the deal Amazon also will manage “content distribution,” as well as support an online bookstore, international 3G services, device registration, and a help desk. It is unclear whether those services are more than what Amazon already does for its customers outside the U.S.
Under the contract, the State Department can acquire up to 7,000 Kindles annually. Amazon will be responsible for upgrading software and enabling a text-to-speech capability on the Kindles. That latter requirement is aimed at integrating the Kindles into embassy-supported English teaching programs.
Amazon will be required to make government documents available by either 3G (aka Whispernet) or Wi-Fi. Content on the Kindles will be sorted into “collections identified by the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.”
Most interesting however is the contract’s statement that Amazon will maintain metrics on how content is accessed on all the devices. The data will include “content accessed, content not accessed, length of time that content is viewed, e-reader features used and content downloaded. The format for reporting will be developed with and approved by the Department of State but will include reporting by country and e-reader serial number.” Done well, with a healthy application of Amazon’s considerable market analysis capability, this aspect of the deal could provide some new and unprecedented insight into the public diplomacy audience’s habits.
After all, being able to analyze how each Kindle is used could begin to enable the Department to adjust and improve its content offerings. If the Kindle usage data is cross tabbed with qualitative public diplomacy audience research in a given city or region, embassy officers could begin to make data-driven decisions. This would be big.
But I wonder why the Department did not address content in this deal with Amazon? Public diplomacy has a long and successful record of supporting the translation and distribution of key books and documents around the world.
Book translation and distribution might not be sexy, but it is a model of public-private cooperation that has worked in many parts of the world, year after year. Embassy officers approach a publisher with an attractive offer: we’ll underwrite the translation from English to the local language, or other preparatory costs, if you (the publisher) will distribute the book at a price that makes it accessible to the target audience. In some cases the deal might include a certain number of copies for the embassy to present to reviewers or other influential folk.
The book translation program worked so well because it incentivized the publication of American texts in local languages, and because it utilized the already existing commercial network of book distributers, booksellers and libraries.
Today, there is a fast-growing, global marketplace for e-books.
In 2011, more than 68.7 million tablet devices (Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.) were shipped by all manufacturers worldwide. The strong-than-expected growth in the fourth quarter of 2011 was an increase of 155% over the fourth quarter of 2010. The estimate for 2012 is 106.1 million units, according to IDC.
In other words, worldwide media tablet sales are going like gangbusters.
Shouldn’t State’s public diplomacy make a content deal with Amazon? Shouldn’t we get books like Michael Lind’s “Land of Promise,” or some of the classics from the American bookshelf, into foreign languages? Shouldn’t they be available to all our audiences as e-books?
Kindles are nice, but content is king.