mazon announced on June 2 that it will shut down its Kindle e-bookstore services in China by June 2023, adding that Kindle users inside China will be able to download purchased books before then, but will no longer be able to purchase new e-books after that. Kindle entered the Chinese market in 2013, and Amazon has sold e-books in the country since 2012. China’s e-book market has grown, worth 62 billion yuan annually (US$9.27b) in 2020, according to the China Digital Industry Report (2020-2021) published by the China Press and Publication Research Institute in October 2021. Despite this, the once very popular Amazons e-reader has been sidelined in highly competitive e-reading market.
The first generation Kindle was launched in 2007. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos projected the e-reader might be able to change the whole world.
The first Kindle was priced at a hefty US$399 in the US. It sold out within six hours. Supported by Amazon’s online platform which boasted popular e-books offering discounted prices, Kindle created a new kind of reading paradigm.
Ahead of its China launch, Amazon laid the groundwork by contacting Chinese publishers. When the Kindle Bookstore opened in China, it had 24,000 e-books, including popular titles from well-known Chinese publishers.
A publishing industry source told NewsChina that almost everyone from the industry thought it had a promising future.
For the first few years, the brand maintained double-digit annual growth. By 2016, China became the world’s largest market for the Kindle. At that time, Kindle was as popular as the iPhone. An industry insider told NewsChina that Kindle’s entry into China was a way to revive the already dwindling global e-reader market since 2011 after hitting a production high of up to 23.2 million units.
In 2018, according to data released by Amazon, millions of Kindles and some 700,000 e-books were sold in China. Amazon did not release sales data since then.
Kindles in China cost about the same as overseas, ranging from 500-2,000 yuan (US$75-300). The price is similar or even less compared with certain domestic e-readers produced by Xiaomi, iFLYTEK and Huawei. For example, prices for certain iFLYTEK and Huawei models can reach over 2,500 yuan (US$371). E-book prices are generally lower in the Chinese mainland.
According to a former employee of Amazon China who spoke on condition of anonymity, Amazon started to close its Chinese e-commerce division in 2018, leaving only two businesses including Kindle and cross-border Amazon e-commerce sales.
Speculation about Kindle’s exit from China began when its Kindle flagship store on e-commerce platform Taobao shut down in October 2021. Soon after, consumers started to notice that Amazon’s Kindle store on JD.com, the second-largest domestic e-commerce platform, only offered the Kindle 10 released in 2019. Other signature models were out of stock. However, Amazon China did not announce it was preparing to exit China, although it did not say why it had closed the flagship store either.
E-reader consumers had different reactions to the news. Zhao Ran, a 42-year-old white collar worker told NewsChina that he has used Kindles for eight years and has three. “I’ve read hundreds of books on Kindle, and I keep one just for Chinese books and another for English ones,” Zhao said. “Although it’ll end its services in China, I’ll keep using it to read my previously stored e-books.” One of Zhao’s colleagues, Chen Jie, feels differently, preferring to read books on her smartphone. “It’s more convenient to read anywhere, anytime. It allows me to make good use of my fragmented time,” Chen said, adding that while she has a Kindle, she rarely uses it now.
According to Yuan Bo, an industry insider for e-readers, Amazon’s Kindle is not well-suited to the Chinese consumer market. There are a significant number of e-book stores on smartphone apps with some popular options including Douban Read, JDRead, Baidu Read and WeChat Read.
A number of domestic enterprises including Xiaomi, iReader, iFLYTEK, Huawei and Boox also launched their own e-readers. Wang Biao, director of the Digital Publishing Institute of the China Academy of Press and Publication, told NewsChina that domestic e-readers are comparable to Kindle in performance, function and user experience. Some are even more suited to the needs of Chinese readers.
For example, WeChat Read has launched its own e-ink reader, along with an unlimited annual reading membership. According to WeChat data, WeChat Read has 210 million users. Yuan pointed out there have been no major changes in Kindle’s technology, products or business model in recent years. When it first came out, the Kindle was easy to carry and the screen was big enough. But advances in the mobile internet, 3G and 4G technology-enabled smartphones, tablets and other devices gave users more options.
According to statistics obtained by NewsChina, China’s digital reading rate (online reading, mobile reading, e-reader reading) among total population rose from 50.1 percent in 2013 to 79.6 percent in 2021. The number of Chinese adults who read on mobile devices rose from 41.9 percent in 2013 to 77.4 percent in 2021, and they read on average 101.12 minutes a day, up from 21.7 minutes a day over the same period, a significant increase. However, only 27.3 percent use e-readers, and another 21.7 percent use tablets, with the rest using smartphones only, although there is overlap.
“Mobile phones and domestic e-readers win over Kindle,” Yuan Bo said. In terms of functionality, Kindle loses out to Huawei and Xiaomi, as it only supports limited text formats. “In terms of marketing, Amazon e-readers are outdated compared to many companies that engage in things like reading challenges and social reading apps and in terms of content, the e-book selection on Amazon is limited,” Yuan said.
Some domestic e-reader companies offer customers apps that record daily reading achievements, a way to share and communicate with online friends, which is attractive to readers, but Kindle does not have this function.
Kindle once stood out for its e-ink technology, which allowed books on screen to look like the printed page to enhance readability. Now e-ink screens are everywhere. In 2017, Hisense launched its first e-ink smartphone the A2, and has launched a new model every two years. On December 22, 2020, it released the A7, the industry’s first 5G color e-ink smartphone.
Recently, Huawei entered the e-ink screen market with the Mate-Pad Paper. Other enterprises including Hanwang Technology have launched new e-ink screen devices.
Many domestic e-reader companies have expanded their single-purpose reading hardware into a multi-functional working tool, making the product far more appealing to more consumers.
Gao Shuang, an English teacher in Beijing, said he uses the iFLYTEK reader over other brands because it offers notetaking and transcription tools.
Among Chinese Kindle owners, a joke has been going around for a while that it is only useful as “a lid to cover an instant noodle cup.”
Zhu Tao, a Kindle user in Beijing complained about his user experience. “If you stop using a Kindle reader for a few months or more, it’s hard to charge and get it going again, so I have to keep charging it every so often even though I don’t use it much,” he told NewsChina.
Yan Li, another Kindle user told NewsChina the brand is not environmentally friendly. “I used to have a Kindle 3, but the screen got crushed. I contacted Kindle customer service and was informed that they don’t provide screen changing services. The staff told me to buy a new one, so I had to get a new Kindle 5,” Yan said.
The profitability of digital reading has shifted from a single payment model to multiple methods such as advertising revenue, copyright, publishing and even online tips. During the first National Reading Conference held in Beijing in late April, Migu Digital Media, an online cloud e-book service provider, said it has some 18 million users that spend an average 65 yuan (US$10) per person and a 90 percent active user rate.
Free reading is extremely popular, with apps like Tomato Free Novels and Seven Cat Free Novels with up to 50 million active users. Most free reading platforms derive their value from collecting user data.
“Kindle’s withdrawal is a sensible business move. It’s difficult to make it profitable, and China’s digital publishing market is maturing, weakening Kindle’s competitiveness even more,” Wang Biao said.