Oh this warms my heart:
That original Kindle, code-named “Fiona” after a character in Neal Stephenson’s futuristic novel The Diamond Age, was finally ready to go in the fall of 2007.
For the uninitiated: The Diamond Age is a novel premised on a world where books are transparently online and totally alive, redrawing words and images before your eyes. Imagine all the potency and fidelity of an iPad on every thin, crinkly page.
Anyway, I’m sure many writers would disagree, but for me, this is a serious reason to write futuristic fiction: sometimes, people actually make this stuff.
The blockquote is from this long, super-detailed Businessweek piece on Amazon’s Lab126 and the development of the Kindle from 2004 ’til today. It’s worth the read if you’re interested in this stuff.
Honestly, I think Amazon is such a great company. Not as austere as Apple, you know?—somehow still a gang of nerds reading science fiction, throwing stuff together, making it all work.
As somebody who uses his Kindle (and Kindle apps) approximately 100X more often than his iPad, I’m excited at the hazy prospect of some tablet competition from Amazon.
You know, it’s funny—I feel a real rooting interest for this company, and I think it’s largely based on spillover sentiment from two services:
- Amazon Prime, which continues to make random everyday purchases feel basically like magic.
- Amazon EC2 and the rest of the Amazon Web Services family, which have become such an amazing engine of growth and experimentation. You might not realize it, but half the new-ish web services you use and enjoy are running on EC2. Apple has nothing like it; they’re not participating in the modern internet ecosystem in any remotely comparable way.
Publishers trying to sell ad space inside their books is like the producers of a TV show selling the commercials that air during the show, or the director of a film picking the previews that appear before the movie starts.
I mean, maybe there are some interesting, creative things you could do with that on a case-by-case basis, that would really add something to the total experience. And product placement (in books, TV, or movies) is something else altogether, because it needs to be incorporated into the narrative flow. But there’s a reason why we have TV networks, movie studios, and theater programmers. They’re really good at these things. In fact, some of them, like Nick Jr, are really good at marketing and incorporating ads in books and DVDs, too. So are Apple and Amazon. People on the creative side aren’t. (And yes, I’m including book publishers in the “creative” camp.)
If anything, even as traditional broadcast television might be beginning a slow decline, we’re seeing the metastasis of the television network model. Netflix, particularly since Watch Instantly, is more like HBO than it’s like Blockbuster. People talk about it the same way; “ooh, did you see that they’re showing all three Die Hards on Netflix?” Someone pointed out recently that Netflix has started producing their own original content. Zach Galifinakis had a comedy special released on DVD exclusively to Netflix. You could say the same thing about Hulu, which is trying to figure out whether it should be Showtime or Fox.
Amazon and Apple are like TV networks too, and not just for video. They’re the channels you tune to to get what you want. The difference is that in the digital age, content frequently appears in more than one place. But 1) that’s usually NOT true for what Apple sells, and Amazon’s been pushing for more exclusive deals too.
Twitter, too, isn’t microblogging or an archive of content — it’s a broadcast channel that carries its own water-cooler. And in blogs, Gawker (which already actually is a media network, including Gawker TV) is redesigning itself for bigger screens. highlighting “must-see” content to catch casual drop-in readers, a synthesis of blogs, magazines, and television
So that’s the new world: no more dot-coms, no more blogs, no more revolutionary retailers.* Instead, it’s all channels. We TiVo a handful of favorites and let ourselves flick through the rest.
* Obviously, all of these things will continue to exist and thrive. It’s just these are no longer the only metaphors/terms of art we have to talk about these emerging powers.
Paul Carr at TechCrunch has the best take on the “ads in books” hysteria kicked up by the WSJ (original article conveniently paywalled) I’ve read yet. It’s even smartly titled “Eat Pay Love”:
The crux of the argument is this: books are the only word-based medium currently free of advertising (unless you count the pages full of ads for other books at the back of most mass market paperbacks). This isn’t – as you might think – because ads kill our enjoyment of literature (many magazines publish fiction surrounded by commercial messages) but rather because until now it’s been difficult to sell ad space in books. The lead times in publishing – and the shelf-life of paperbacks – are simply too long to deliver timely commercial offerings: who hasn’t experienced the amusement of picking up an old paperback and being invited to send off for the previous title in the series for just 25c?
But now, thanks to e-readers, all that is changing. With electronic books, ads can be served dynamically, just like they are online – not only does that remove the problem of out-of-date ads being stuck in old books, but it also allows messages to be tailored to the individual reader. Those reading the Twilight books at the age of 14 can be sold make-up and shoes and all of the other things teenage girls need to attract their very own Edward. Meanwhile, those still reading the books at 35 can be sold cat food. Lots and lots of cat food.
Why, that sounds fantastic! What’s the problem again?
It’s a compelling argument, but like so many compelling arguments made about the future of books, it’s also hampered by consisting almost entirely of bullshit. For one thing, publishers are really not geared up to sell ads: they’d have to recruit armies of ad sales people who would be forced to actually sit down and read the novels and historical memoirs and chick-lit-churn-outs that they’d be selling against. Not going to happen.
Now that’s very true. That scenario will not happen.
If only there were some large company with a dominant position in the e-book business that had lots of demographic data about what you read and other things that you buy online who could whip up a smart software algorithm that automatically generated product recommendations based on this information, who’d be willing, I don’t know, to electronically host and deliver these ads in the e-books on behalf of the publishers, in exchange for a fee, or better terms on each sale of a book.
Yep, if there were a company or three like that in the e-book market today, then we’d be talking about something.
The moral of Cablevision vs. ABC as far as the publishing industry is concerned is that consumers have no patience for such arcane issues as windowing, loss leader pricing or agency business models. They expect their book when they hit Download and they want it at a reasonable price. Educational initiatives are a waste of time. We need to get our pricing act together. Though there is no Academy Awards show to bring us to the brink of catastrophe, the e-book industry will not realize its full potential until we provide our products reliably and at prices that make sense to customers.
Likewise, Nat Torkington sees a similar squeeze in Amazon’s recent decision to discontinue its Associates program in Colorado, in response to the new sales-tax-for-online-retailers law there:
So let me get this straight: I’ve done nothing, and Amazon just fired me? Now, I haven’t used referrals a whole lot so it doesn’t hit me in the pocketbook but this should send chills down the spine of anyone who thought they were building a business, or at least an income, around Amazon services. It’s one thing to be fired for something you did (hey doofus, don’t cause a heap of MPAA infringement notices to land on Amazon’s desk because you were running the new Pirate Bay on EC2) but it’s entirely another to be fired for something outside your control.
A farmer friend told me that the goats to keep are female goats: when one doe headbutts another, the recipient then turns to the next in the hierarchy and headbutts them. With male goats, though, you get prolonged headbutt battles that are loud, intimidating, and potentially damaging. Amazon is obviously hoping the female goat scenario plays out: Amazon headbutts me, so I’ll go headbutt my representative— punish Amazon’s associates and hope they’ll pass the pain on. I wonder whether any of Amazon’s (former) Colorado associates will turn out to be male goats who, grumpy at being set upon, retaliate.…
I guess I might contend that what’s new about this, if anything, is that 1) disputes between corporations and governments are playing themselves out in consumers’ living rooms and 2) consumers are newly empowered to wreak havoc on… somebody (and it’s not always clear whom). I think Curtis’s take on this is basically right, because in the Kindle windowing cases, we’ve already seen Amazon’s customer base retaliate for this kind of e-gamesmanship — and that was without anyone moving to cut off their income stream. There is no clear hierarchical logic to follow. Just more heads to butt.
I’m quite taken with George H Williams’s ProfHacker write-up of his experience using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to transcribe some audio, all the more so since he followed FOS (Friend of the Snark) Andy Baio’s methodology. I don’t have any audio to transcribe, but if I did, I’d definitely give this a whirl.
Counterintuitive hypothesis: The most significant thing that Amazon and now Barnes & Noble have done for e-books hasn’t been the creation and updating of their dedicated reading machines. It’s the creation of a genuine marketplace for e-books, where consumers can pick up titles easily, publishers can offer them and make at least a little money, and [in Amazon’s case] even little guys can get their stuff out there. You might have needed the reading machines to push the marketplace, but the marketplace will continue to be relevant even if everyone decides tomorrow that they don’t actually want a Kindle anymore. You can already read e-books on computers, smartphones, and pretty soon video game consoles. Amazon sold the razors, sure, but they can sell you the blades even if you don’t buy a razor at all. That’s big.
But creating a marketplace isn’t just about syncing to a device and matching readers’ eyeballs to content. You also have to establish, respond to, and eventually stabilize readers’ and publishers’ expectations about sales, especially about price.
This is harder than it sounds. How much should an e-book cost? How much should publishers have to share with the retailer? Just what are you buying? For hardcovers and paperbacks, these expectations have built up over a long time. This tweaked a bit when online sellers and big-box retailers started offering moderate-to-steep discounts over cover. None of this makes establishing norms for digital sales any easier.
For music, Apple pulled this beautifully in the early days of iTunes. At the time, CDs sold between 10 and 18 dollars for a typical album. This was actually really frustrating, because percentage-wise, it’s a huge variation. It was also an uptick from cassettes, which had rarely cost over $10.
Apple just perched on the low end: every track is 99 cents, every album is $9.99. They were competing with the free (P2P or friend copies) and the physical (real discs with better sound quality that you could play in your car), and they found a way out. Round numbers (good retail numbers for any product), close to what we were used to paying (but still offering competitive advantage). And they held it there, even when big media companies huffed and puffed because they wanted to charge more for high-demand (or high-cost) products. Apple’s establishment of trust with the music-buying public won out. And held out. Singles still cost a single. Which makes the digital music marketplace oddly pure.
At Booksquare, Kassia Krozser argues that the same price-stabilization is beginning to happen with e-books:
At Digital Book World, I’m going to do a brief presentation called “The Case for the $75 eBook”, because there is a marketplace for high-priced ebooks. In fact, I think there’s a robust marketplace for higher priced digital books, and I believe I can make a strong case for these price points.
That being said (ha!), I don’t believe the publishing industry can make a valid, solid, logical case for pricing most narrative fiction (and some non-fiction) ebooks above $9.99. Not only is this price point being cemented in the minds of readers by retailers, but, let’s be blunt, publishers have done a lousy job of making the value argument. The near-cynical approach of publishers to producing and selling ebooks has backfired. The process, the pricing, the product has been weighed by consumers and they are not amused. They like the $9.99 and below price point. It makes sense to them.
So, yep, I’m predicting publishers will have no choice but to swallow this one and figure out how to make their business work with ebooks priced below $10. It’s better to initiate this change rather than scramble when the retailers start demanding better terms. You can do it, publishing industry, you can do it!
It’s true! Maybe it’s just because we’re already primed by iTunes albums, or because $10 is the low-end price of a good trade paperback, or that $9.99 is one of those psychologically great retail numbers (Just dollars and cents! Not tens of dollars!), but it’s got real power.
For instance, I priced Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon. The book lists in hardcover at $27.95. At Amazon, it sells for $18.45 in hardcover and $14.76 for the Kindle. At Barnes and Noble, it’s $20.12 (huh?), or — yes — $9.99 for the e-book.
Now this was easier because I like the B&N app for the Mac and I preordered the Nook. But if B&N sells its e-book for $18, I either buy the hardcover from Amazon or pass altogether. At $9.99, I bought it right away. I did the same thing for China Mieville’s The City and the City: Kindle $13.73, B&N $9.99. On the other hand, I sprung for The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for almost $18 and still feel like I got hosed.
Now, digital books also offer the possibility that books, like CDs, can be split and sold separately. Maybe I just want to buy a copy of “The Undefeated” and “In Another Country” — a taste of Hemingway, not the whole short-form corpus. Big publishers haven’t really done this yet. But among independents and self-publishers, the other price point that seems to be emerging — the symmetry with iTunes is astonishing — is the 99 cent short story. And again — this feels just about right, especially appealing to folks reading these things on their iPhones, who don’t want to leaf through a whole novel or anthology, right around the same price as a cheap iPhone app or a single song.
hypothetical $75 e-book suggests that there are still plenty of other price points and formats to be hammered out. Maybe $25-$40 is the perfect price for an e-textbook. Maybe a short, indie nonfiction pamphlet — 2011’s version of New Liberal Arts — could sell well for $3.99. Maybe digital copies of new books will be free for readers who buy the hardcover (factored into the sale price). It’s still wide open. But with competition between sellers and tug-of-war between customers and publishers, we’re bound to figure it out.
I think I’ve mentioned before how much I like Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog; it’s good by any standard, but especially by the standard of a “house blog” at a big retailer.
Case in point: This neat post that synthesizes Amazon’s best books of 2009 list, Publishers Weekly’s list, and the NYT’s notable books list—and shows the books that are listed on all three. There are only eleven.
I, for one, was delighted to see that Asterios Polyp was one of the books in the Venn diagram bulls-eye. (Previous love.) I read a lot of good books this year—though not all books published in 2009, of course—and I think it’s the one that left the deepest impression. It made me want to do everything better!
When it came out that NASA was going to shoot some rockets into the moon so they could see what would happen, I immediately thought of this classic sketch from Mr Show with Bob and David:
The obvious climax of the sketch is when Galileo the monkey wisely asks the scientists who plan to destroy the moon, “Why? Why do you want to blow up the moon?” Of course, NASA quickly replaces Galileo with a circus monkey who doesn’t know sign language, “who will do the job, no questions asked.”
Why am I reminded of the fat people in the movie Wall E when I read about this electronic book stuff??? Is there some thing wrong with an actual book? Other than that nasty paper wasting thing, and the toxic ink, oh yeah.…the list goes on. But isn’t a Kindle or a Nook going to end up in a landfill too when the newest, latest and greatest gadget hits the scene???? So I guess turning into a blob staring at a TV screen is our future.….nevermind!!!
“Is there something wrong with an actual book?” This is a serious question, and deserves a serious response.
For my part, obviously, the answer is no. As I wrote in my reply comment:
Hey, look: here at Snarkmarket, we love printed books so much, we made one our selves. We love them so much, we write love let ters to 16th-century Venetian print ers. I love books so much that when I broke my arm and couldn’t hold onto a heavy paperback with two hands, I cried.
I’ll expand: I’m a PhD in Comparative Literature and a postdoctoral fellow who teaches freshman how to write about literature, philosophy, and science. I teach a class called “From Scroll to Screen: The History and Theory of Writing.” I insist for this class that my students BUY THE BOOKS, and bristle at any suggestion that the books cost too much or pose too much of a physical burden. I study the history of the book (and of other material texts) and write papers and attend conferences on the same. I wrote my dissertation on something I call “Paper Modernism.”
But books just aren’t my professional life; they’re my life. As I say routinely, books are my drug of choice. I can’t imagine living without them.
But I don’t feel entirely like Galileo the monkey. I’m full-on into new media too; I teach cinema and media studies ALONG WITH books and newspapers — part of my thesis argues that we actually can’t entirely separate these media streams from one another, because they’re created and circulated and especially EXPERIENCED together, not identically, but as part of a total media system. And I have become, somewhat surprisingly, a computer person: a blogger and blogreader who totes around a laptop and smartphone. Just as I can’t imagine my life without books, I can’t imagine it without screens either.
Part of what we do at Snarkmarket — as screen people talking largely to other screen people — is to chart and celebrate and critique screen culture, and above all, to try to figure out where it’s going. I think we do this in a way that’s reflective and ethical, understanding that every technological change is in turn an anthropological change, one that both says something about and directly informs our fundamental values.
And yet — on something like electronic readers, where it’s so easy to ooh and aah at the new tech, or to snipe on janky designs or “old-media” people who “don’t get it” — I don’t want to be Koko the monkey either, mindlessly cheering the scientists on as they blow up the moon! Let me say that I don’t think we will ever totally lose books, or print — but even the loss of influence that the printed word that we’ve seen over the last century has been a genuine loss.
More precisely: there are people, and industries, and experiences, that HAVE LOST; that will CONTINUE TO LOSE; and this will be because digital media will gain in influence, partly at print’s expense. Anyone doubting this, or expecting otherwise, is like Mitt Romney telling voters in Michigan that if they keep working hard enough, the industrial jobs will come back. An era is passing. We have to treat it accordingly.
So. Why reading machines?
1. Because readers are already there. We are already reading more on electronic devices, on screens ranging from TV to computer to cellular phone. What’s more, while book-reading and newspaper and magazine subscriptions are down across the country (and across the world), electronic reading is GROWING. It’s growing in share, it’s growing in readers, and it’s growing in influence. If you are in a reading-intensive business, you want to get your content on a screen, because that’s where the readers are, and will be in the future.
Dedicated e-book readers have emerged because booksellers couldn’t get into that market, onto those screens. First and foremost, there was no real marketplace. And, there are several things about both computers (in any form factor) and smartphones that make them less than ideal for long-form reading. Readers needed a device, and they needed a store; Amazon wasn’t the first to offer both, but like the iPod before it, the Kindle was the first such device and store to be taken seriously, even as its total numbers haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Barnes and Noble saw a different way to approach the same market, and created a device and a software and store model to take advantage of it. But essentially, even as they’re inticing old readers in, booksellers and publishers are playing catch-up to the rest of the reading market.
2. Because otherwise publishers may not survive. It’s ironic that booksellers, especially online booksellers, have done so much to push e-reading, because they’ve already solved the problems of storage and circulation of material, discovering the long tail of content, etc. Electronic books are just one more step in Amazon’s reconstruction of retail — but they would have been okay anyways.
Really, it’s publishers who are screwed. Paper and printing costs, plus the expense of storage and transfer and delivery, are killing publishers — in books, magazines, journals, and newspapers. They can either raise prices or cut standards or go completely exclusive, high-end, luxury — and watch their market shrink even further — or turn to electronic delivery as the last best way to cut that knot. If we want to continue to have inexpensive books, news, commentary, and entertainment, we as readers and producers of media have to embrace digital delivery. The status quo is unsustainable.
3. This one is a little more metaphysical, but: Something has to be next. Our current forms of media, and our current interfaces for them, are exhausting themselves. Much of this is purely economic. But it’s also ideological and cultural. If books and newspapers and magazines and movies and television and radio and even blogs and web pages have slowly but inexorably calcified — and I think the signs are good to suggest that they have — then something has to happen next. Or, we resign ourselves to it, playing out the string, until elderly people die off, and the kids forget that there was such a thing as vitality in culture.
That’s when you wind up in the Wall-E universe, Ami Marie; when we forget that we can change things, when we stop exploring.
Let me return to something I wrote a few months ago, about the surprising rekindling (no pun intended) of literacy in the digital age:
As recently as 2000, it seemed inevitable that any minute now, we were going to be able to turn in our quaint keyboards and start controlling computers with our voice. Our computers were going to become just like our telephones, or even better, like our secretaries. But while voice and speech recognition and commands have gotten a lot better, generally the trend has been in the other direction — instead of talking to our computers, we’re typing on our phones…
The return to speech, in all of its immediacy, after centuries of the technological dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. Film, radio, television, and the phonograph all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communication technologies where writing and reading played an increasingly diminished role. I think the most important development, though, was probably the telephone. Ordinary speech, conversation, in real-time, where space itself appeared to vanish. It created a paradigm not just for media theorists and imaginative futurists but for ordinary people to imagine tomorrow…
This is where most of the futurists got it wrong — the impact of radio, television, and the telephone weren’t going to be solely or even primarily on more and more speech, but, for technical or cultural or who-knows-exactly-what reasons, on writing! We didn’t give up writing — we put it in our pockets, took it out side, blended it with sound, pictures, and video, and sent it over radio waves so we could “talk” to our friends in real-time. And we used those same radio waves to download books and newspapers and everything else to our screens so we would have something to talk about.
This is the thing about literacy today, that needs above all not to be misunderstood. Both the people who say that reading/writing have declined and that reading/writing are stronger than ever are right, and wrong. It’s not a return to the word, unchanged. It’s a literacy transformed by the existence of the electronic media that it initially has nothing in common with. It’s also transformed by all the textual forms — mail, the newspaper, the book, the bulletin board, etc. It’s not purely one thing or another.
The word is transforming, and being transformed. If you wanted to stick your hand in the dike, to stop what is happening to the book, you need to go back a century or more.
For my part, I find myself continually grateful for and delighted by what is happening, because while reading in some individual media is falling off, reading as such is actually flourishing. As I tweeted a week ago:
The revelation of the present isn’t that the printed word is in decline; it’s that reading and writing haven’t been destroyed along with it.
It is to keep reading and writing alive, and to keep them innovative, reflective, and exploratory, that I do everything — let me say it again, EVERYTHING — that I do.
To every reader of Snarkmarket, let me say: thank you for letting me do it here; and above all, for doing it with me.