There are different reasons to get a Kindle. Purists like the fact that the electronic reader’s screen is black-and-white so it doesn’t require a backlight and reads more like a paper book than a computer screen, for instance. And its fans almost never have to worry about the device running low on power, as battery life can extend for weeks instead of hours.
In China, however, Amazon’s electronic reader is serving another purpose that has nothing to do with the pleasures of reading. The best use for the device, some netizens have joked, is as a cover for a cup of instant noodles.
The fact that the Kindle has been relegated to the role of keeping noodles warm might hint at how the device isn’t as popular as it once was. That’’s why when rumours started circulating that Amazon was pulling Kindle out of China, few people were shocked. Mind you, that hasn’t stopped the news from becoming a big trending topic on social media.
“Is it because everyone is getting takeaway and no one is making instant noodles that people have stopped buying Kindle?” one mocked.
“It wasn’t until I read the news this morning that I remembered that I have a Kindle at home,” another wrote.
Kindle closed its official store on Alibaba’s Tmall in October and most of the Chinese versions of the e-book device are currently out of stock on sales platforms like JD.com and Amazon.cn. Even still Amazon subsequently denied that it was dropping Kindle as a product line in China, explaining that inventories were low due to supply chain challenges. “We remain committed to our customers in China,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Customers can continue to purchase Kindle e-readers from offline and third-party online retailers.”
It then posted on its official Weibo page that it expects to receive more stock by March.
Nevertheless, as the Chinese proverb goes, wind doesn’t come to an empty cave without reason. Geek Park, a Chinese tech news site, had reported Amazon was conducting market research on whether to withdraw hardware and content from the China market and speculation spread in November that the US e-commerce giant had laid off the local Kindle hardware team.
Amazon first introduced the Kindle to China in 2013. At the time, the Kindle bookstore was offering a wide range of books, including bestsellers like The Flowers of War by Yan Geling (later adapted into a film starring Christian Bale), as well as translations of English-language material, like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Kindle and its related services featured prominently on the Amazon China homepage and the unit was said to have been in profit within a few months.
But the good times were short-lived. The electronic reader was considered something of a niche product in the Chinese market and sales started to taper off. Kindle also ran into competition with domestic rivals Palm Reader and Hanwang for what was already a small pie to begin with (see WiC35).
Its biggest challenge, however, was the rapid rise in popularity of smartphones and tablet computers. Users were more inclined to choose multi-functional devices that integrated social media, photos, video and other functionality with a book reader, making the single-purpose Kindle a much harder sell.
Internet giant Tencent, which owns China’s largest online reading platform China Literature, then launched WeChat Reading, a mobile app, in 2015. Much of its content is free, which put Kindle under even more pressure. Liu Cixin’s bestselling novel The Three Body Problem is priced at Rmb39 ($6.14) on Kindle but costs nothing to download on WeChat Reading, for example. “In the end, Kindle lost out to the law of ‘nothing tastes better than free food’. After two years, many former Kindle users have been switching to WeChat Reading,” Duojiao, a TMT blogger, reported of the challenge from Tencent.
Publishers around the country don’t want to see the Amazon reader disappear, however. “If Kindle withdraws from China, no matter which platform takes its traffic, what it means for publishers is that they will all lose an important source of revenue,” one industry insider lamented to Duojiao.
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