March 7th, 2014
I’m fascinated by the Kindle, and the way that it’s actually revolutionized how we’re reading and purchasing books. But Amazon’s always been very cautious as they’ve introduced this device into our world. For years their TV advertisements have worked very hard just to seem casual and relaxed, offering only a few simple lines of narration (often with fun and funny visuals). The real key to Amazon’s ads might be their music — which give each spot its special friendly and playful tone.
So which songs did Amazon choose to represent the Kindle?
Ad: Vacation Getaway with Kindle Paperwhite
Song: Chupee by Cocoon
“We have gone to the country, in your old car…” begins the gentle duet by the French band Cocoon, as a strumming ukelele is joined by an acoustic guitar and the sound of hands clapping. The complete song also featured a flute — and some lyrics about how that car trip ultimately went awry. “We have lost our way so many times…”
Eating your Chupa Chup,
A plane is making a loop.
The beavers are so cute.
A tree gave me a fruit…
I take you on a trip…
It’s a good choice for an ad about relaxing in the sun reading your Kindle. And there’s a lovely music video for the song on YouTube, which shows the two singers relaxing in the forest — when they’re suddenly discovered by animated creatures who dance on their keyboard — and walk off with their acoustic guitar! (For a shortcut to the video on YouTube, go to tinyurl.com/TheCountrySong )
Ad: Pack Your Kindle
Song: “When They Fight, They Fight” by The Generationals
I’d first refered to this as Amazon’s “Secret Summer Commercial,” since it first aired in England in the summer of 2012, showing “lots of happy people enjoying their Kindle while they’re ‘on holiday’ at the beach.” The first words on the screen are “Pack Your Kindle,” before a montage of cheerful scenes shows scenes from a fancy summer resort (all of which include a Kindle) — like a tall glass of lemonade on a table, or a woman reading by the pool.
The playful song that sets the tone for this ad even opens with a “wolf whistle”, and it’s by a Louisiana band called The Generationals. Though the ad only used two of their song’s lyrics — “I love you baby,” and “Oooh, ooh ooh….” — the parts of the song that Amazon left out are actually much darker (and would actually have completely contradicted the ad’s cheerful message!)
When they fight, they fight!
And when they come home at night they say,
”I love you, baby.”
Was it too much too soon,
Or too little too late?
He got the message she left on his car, in the rain.
And then the words they come to you,
You just can’t let it go…
And when it all comes crashing down,
what can you do,
to find what you’re looking for?
And then the words will come to you,
driving through the rain.
But there’ll be no one there to say them to anyway…
Ad: “From Kindle, Fire is born”
Song: “Words” by The Givers
When Amazon released their first Kindle Fire tablets, they created some excitement with an ad that depicted the entire history of the written word. “The instruction we find in books is like fire,” began the narration — reading a quote from Voltaire — over footage of a quill pen. “We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes property of all…”
And Amazon found the perfect song to accompany that ad. (To listen to the entire song on YouTube, go to tinyurl.com/KindleFireSong ) The Givers, another band from Louisiana, begin with an echo-y harmonica mixed with some aimless synthesized notes and a violin, before it’s transformed by a pounding beat into a howl about how “The words we say today. We’ll say, and we’ll see them again. Yes, we’ll see them again…”
So I choose my words so carefully,
like the sun, make it glow, or they glare at me.
Well, I choose light.
I like that warm,
keep me up at night.
And I pry that door of honesty
And as the warmth shines in, it dawns on me
That I choose light
To guide me through my actions at night…
So just hold up. Don’t fold up.
Before you know, before you know, before you know, you’ll know
You’ll see it again.
Yes you’ll see it again
And if your notion is in motion
Before you know, before you know, before you know, you’ll know
You’ll see there’s no end.
Yes you’ll see there’s no end, end, end, end…
And if the waves ride high, then so will I.
Before you know, before you know, before you know, you’ll know.
And you’ll see them again.
You’ll see them again…
March 4th, 2014
Today only, Amazon will sell you a Kindle for just $49! And they’ve also reduced the price of their Kindle Paperwhite to just $99. “Celebrate National Reading Month” reads the headline next to the offer on Amazon’s front page – and when you click through to the offer, they reduce the offer to just six word. “Today Only: Get $20 off Kindle!”
Monday was “Read Across America” Day, a special event where schools (and schoolteachers) take time to celebrate the joys of reading. Last year movie star Uma Thurman read The Cat in the Hat to more than 250 schoolchildren to promote the event (which saw over 45 million schoolchildren participating!) Every child in Manhattan got a free copy of The Cat in the Hat as part of the special celebration. But today, Amazon’s celebrating the joy of reading by giving big discounts on their most popular Kindles!
The $20 discount for Amazon’s smallest Kindle comes out to a 28% savings (since it’s usually priced at $69). But the Paperwhite has consistently been one of Amazon’s more popular Kindles, so it’s nice to see Amazon’s also lowering its price.
Remember, this sale is for one day only. So if you’re in the market for another Kindle — and you want to save $20 — today’s your day!
March 3rd, 2014
I love the beginning of each month, because it’s when Amazon announces new discounts on a special selection of Kindle ebooks! It’s one of the best things about being a Kindle owner — there’s always plenty of bargains to explore, which makes it easy to try out new authors and explore some new genres. And this month, Amazon’s discounted some relatively new ebooks — including an Agatha Christie story that’s never been published before!
Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly by Agatha Christie ( $0.99)
It’s a new, never-before-published mystery by Agatha Christie — and it’s available only as an ebook! Just released in November, this novella was originally authored in 1954, and it holds a special place in the Agatha Christie canon. She slipped in references to her own local neighborhood into this story — including her very own home of Greenway — and she’d planned to donate the money earned by this story to her own local church’s fundraiser for a stained glass window. But in the end, the novella itself took a strange turn, according to the book’s page at Amazon, when Christie decided to enlarge its 75-page story into a longer, full-length mystery (which she released in 1956 as Dead Man’s Folly ). Instead the church received the proceeds from another mystery story featuring her Miss Marple character. And now the original novella version of this Hercule Poirot mystery has finally also been published!
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut ($3.99)
This is the very first novel ever written by Kurt Vonnegut, just seven years after he’d been liberated from a Nazi P.O.W. camp in 1945, and 17 years before Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut first studied anthropology, then became a technical writer (and publicist) for General Electric — which inspired this startlingly imaginative piece of science fiction, according to Wikipedia. Vonegut had witnessed some computer-operated “milling machines” that were already cutting the rotors used in sophisticated engines and gas turbines. “Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes…” the author told Playboy Magazine in a 1972 interview. “To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs!”
Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende ($1.99)
Isabel Allende wrote the novel “House of the Spirits” in 1982, and she’s also won numerous awards, including induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But just three years ago, at the age of 68, she applied her “magic realism” to the city of New Orleans, delivering this rich piece of historical fiction that’s set in the late 1700s. “Allende is a master storyteller at the peak of her powers,” reads a quote from the Los Angeles Times on the book’s page on Amazon. It’s exciting that Amazon’s included this among this month’s selections for discounted Kindle ebooks. But I was really surprised they included it in the “Romance” section — “What the Duke Desires” and “How to Discipline Your Vampire”!
What the Duke Desires by Sabrina Jeffries ($1.99)
Last year I wrote wryly about how Amazon had discounted five different romance novels which all contained the word “Duke” in their title! But give some credit to Sabrina Jeffries, who has was chosen last month to be the first romance author interviewed by USA Today for their new column about historical romance novels. Her historical romance novels reached the New York Times best-seller list — she’s written 36 of them, with titles like Never Seduce a Scoundrel and Married to the Viscount. Fans of historical romance will be pleased that a new Jeffries novel was released just six weeks ago — When the Rogue Returns — and that Amazon has discounted her previous novel to just $1.99!
February 28th, 2014
We live in an interesting time. In less than 20 years, Amazon’s grown from a no-profit bookstore into a giant that sells everything. And yet, is the company really earning a profit? I always enjoyed the analysis at The Motley Fool, which make questions like these sound like a fun bar-stool conversation. And this month they published a brand new article about Amazon’s Kindle tablets — revealing that when it comes to selling ebooks, movies, and TVs, Amazon has finally found a sweet spot.
“A year or two ago, it was hard to find much evidence that Amazon’s Kindle strategy was working as expected,” writes Adam Levine-Weinberg (a senior analyst for the Fool web site). Back when Amazon first launched their Kindle Fire tablets, it didn’t result in a massive increase in their sales of movies and ebooks. “Amazon’s North American media sales rose just 15% in 2012,” writes the analyst, “slightly below the 2011 rate and well below the growth rate of most of Amazon’s other segments.” And in fact, through June of last year, the growth in Amazon’s media sales actually seemed to be decreasing from what it had been in the previous year.
But by December, the year-to-year comparisons were telling a happier story. Over the previous 12 months, Amazon’s sales of e-books, movies, and TV shows grew by a whopping 21%. There’s an interesting caveat. Apparently Amazon actually earns three times as much money on “electronics and general merchandise” as it does on ebooks and media sales. But as things start to cool off on the gadget-selling business, investors will be delighted to see that Amazon’s actually selling more media to view on those gadgets…
Of course, the Fool hasn’t always been bullish about everything Amazon does — and it’s really fun to look back at what they’ve written about the company over the years. Back in 2010, they complained about the metaphors Amazon used to avoid giving specific numbers about how many Kindles they’d actually sold. One article complained it’s “like having a discussion with a kindergartner or a politician. They all tell you what they think you want to hear…but lack the details you really need to know before drawing your own conclusion!”
So it was a big deal in December of that year when Amazon finally did reveal a number — sort of. “Amazon still isn’t coming clean with how many Kindle e-book readers it’s selling,” the site reported, “but at least now we know that it will be in the ‘millions’ this holiday quarter alone.” They headlined their article “It’s Raining Kindles!” and soon there was even more big Amazon news. Last year a business analyst at The Motley Fool pointed out that people who join Amazon’s Prime program ultimately use Amazon for the majority of their online shopping, and end up spending more than twice the amount spent by non-Prime members!” (The average Prime member spends $1,200 a year on Amazon’s web site….) And with their latest increase in the sales of digital media, The Motley Fool reached the only conclusion possible.
“Amazon’s quest for long-term dominance in the market for books, music, and movies is back on track!”
February 23rd, 2014
Watching TV, I just spotted a brand new ad for the Kindle. (Amazon’s touting the Kindle Paperwhite, so their ad shows a woman in a bikini enjoying an ebook in a beach chair — while the unhappy people around her struggle to read their own tablets in the bright sunlight.) There’s a short shot of the clear, crisp letters on her Kindle’s screen, and it always makes me want to ask the same question.
So what ebook is she actually reading?
Fortunately, you can pause the video long enough to read some of the sentences — and if you type them into Google, you can reveal the secret answer. It turns out that the woman at the beach is deeply engrossed in a 434-page thriller by Gillian Flynn. It’s called Gone Girl, and it became a best-seller in 2012 just a few weeks after it was released, ultimately selling more than two million copies.
It tells a darkly intriguing story about an unhappy couple that’s been married for five years — when the wife suddenly goes missing on their fifth anniversary. That’s why the book is titled “Gone Girl”, and the title of the chapter being read in the Kindle ad is “THE DAY OF…”
“…through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?
My eyes ﬂipped open at exactly six a.m. This was no avian ﬂuttering of the lashes, no gentle blink toward consciousness. The awakening was mechanical. A spooky ventriloquist-dummy click of the lids: The world is black and then, showtime! 6-0-0 the clock said—in my face, ﬁrst thing I saw. 6-0-0. It felt different. I rarely woke at such a rounded time. I was a man of jagged risings: 8:43, 11:51, 9:26. My life was alarmless.
At that exact moment, 6-0-0, the sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-god self. Its reﬂection ﬂared across the river toward our house, a long…”
You can read the whole chapter online — NPR Books published a much longer excerpt back in May of 2012 when the thriller was first released. I cheated and read a summary of the book’s plot on its page on Wikipedia, and I’ll just say that as expected, this book definitely has a lot of plot twists! And apparently there’s also a movie version that’s in production starring Ben Affleck as the possibly-murderous husband!
But best of all, you won’t have any trouble reading this page-turning thriller in the bright sunlight at the beach — as long as you’re reading it on your Kindle!
February 17th, 2014
All across of America, it’s “President’s Day”, and it’s got me remembering the day when I almost met President Clinton. He was helping a school in my town install the cables for internet access in 1996 — along with Al Gore — and I was covering the event for a local alternative newsweekly. Some of the volunteers that day wore t-shirts that said “I connected our kids to the future.” And in the teacher’s lounge, I’d found the left-behind remains of sandwich from a local deli, with the word “president” written on a plastic cover. (It was left behind under a sign which read “Your mother doesn’t work here, so clean up after yourself!”)
It was a weird moment, when I realized that when there’s a new technology, we’re all “pioneering” our way towards it together. And 16 years later, when that future finally arrived, I feel like we’d ended up doing it again, moving together as an invisible group, this time towards a new reading technology. Shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, CNN reported that former President Bush had returned to Texas, where he was “meeting the neighbors, making trips to the hardware store, and catching up on some reading via a Kindle.” The same article notes that his wife Laura had a Kindle too. And that same month, former vice president Dick Cheney revealed he also had a Kindle.
But it’s not just that the Kindle was being used by a handful of White House occupants. After receiving a $7 million advance, former president Bush soon released his new autobiography. By the end of its first day — counting pre-orders — he’d sold 220,000 copies and delivered nearly $4 million in book sales. But the former president also discovered that nearly 23% of his readers were buying it as an ebook!
A new world may be emerging — an accidental community of early adopters — since the publisher’s spokesman said the figures demonstrated the “rapid growth” of the ebook market. (I calculated that thatwas over half a million dollars worth of ebooks sold in a single day!) The publisher also revealed that at the time, it was their highest one-day sales in six years — since they’d published the autobiography of former president Bill Clinton. But there’s also something significant about the fact that even Clinton’s biography is now available as a Kindle ebook, along with several by Ronald Reagan, and even more by Jimmy Carter…
And in 2011, even president Obama released a new book — and also decided to make it available on the Kindle. It was a children’s book called Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters, and it’s got its own perspective on the way America has changed. It looks back to past presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but also ordinary citizens who made a difference, likeMartin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackie Robinson. It’s fun to think that this will be the first generation of children who may be reading these classic stories of American history on a Kindle!
The world keeps on changing, both in big ways and in small. (One political blog reported that President Bush now seems more interested in his iPad than his Kindle, and according to his wife Laura, he’s “constantly” playing the Scrabble app.) But 14 years ago, The Washington Post once reported, there was an even bigger challenge confronting ebook author Barack Obama: obscurity! “In the summer of 2000 when he flew from Chicago to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention and no one knew him, his credit card bounced, and he left after a forlorn day hanging out as an unimportant face lost in the power-lusting crowd.”
It all goes to show that a lot can change in 14 years — both for politicians, as well as the rest of us!
February 14th, 2014
It’s Valentine’s Day all around the world — and some of the celebration has even found its way to the web. Amazon is sharing some fun ideas for last-minute Valentine’s Day gifts, and there’s also an ebook sale at Barnes and Noble, plus some special offerings from Google and O’Reilly Media!
“It’s Not Too Late” read a headline this morning on the front page of Amazon. They’re offering specially-designed gift cards with a Valentine’s Day theme that you can print out (today!) as a gift for your sweetheart. (And for some of the cards, they’ll even let you include your own picture!) But for an even fancier twist, they’ll let you deliver your digital Valentine’s Day gift certificate via Facebook — and one of their choices is a full-motion “Video Starring You”. You upload photos of yourself and the ones you love to, in Amazon’s words, “Create a hilarious JibJab video starring you or your friends.” (One of them features Sonny & Cher’s classic ’60s love duet “I’ve Got You Babe” — and the video splices your photos onto the bodies of two hippie flower children! )
Some of the other digital gift cards are also animated (like this lovely cartoon from Hallmark showing two doves kissing…) In fact, there’s more than 350 cards to choose from — though that’s their entire selection for the year, so some have a “birthday” theme or make specific mentions of other holidays. Of course, Amazon’s also offering a discount today on their Kindle Fire tablets. Amazon’s giving an $80 discount today on their big 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD (or $40 off on their newer Kindle Fire HDX). And the smaller 7-inch tablets have also been discounted, too — a Kindle Fire HD now costs just $124 today, and the Kindle Fire HDX is just $199…)
But Amazon’s not the only one who’s getting into the holiday spirit. If you visit the web site for O’Reilly Media today, you’ll discover that their technology ebook sale has a special Valentine’s Day twist. Their offering a 50% discount on any of their books which have a cover that’s pink! “This year, forego the mushy cards and chocolates and get to the heart of your passion,” reads the tongue-in-cheek message on their web site. (“From Python to Git to Erlang to C — and everything in between — these titles are sure to excite….”)
And if instead you’re the kind of geek more interested in mobile gaming, the Nook Store is giving away a free app today that plays 12 different card games — all for single players — “now including special Valentine’s Day graphics!” (And their discounted ebook of the day is complete box set of the Stars of Mithra trilogy by best-selling romance author Nora Roberts — all three volumes for just $2.14.)
This morning I noticed that even Google’s getting into the fun. Their Google Play Store has discounted five “romance reads” to just 99 cents, and they’ve also got a free video from Walt Disney studios with a Valentine’s Day theme. They’re also touting a “75% Off” sale on inspiring biographies that lasts all weekend long. But there’s also a very special animation on the Google home page with a very touching message. There’s six candy hearts, but when you click on them, a poignant audio clip starts to play. “For Valentine’s Day, as people everywhere search for love — something a search engine might not be the ideal tool for — each of these candy hearts brings you a true story of love,” begins the narration by “This American Life”. But then it switches to the voices of real people, who describe when they first fell in love.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!
February 9th, 2014
It’s always fun when the Kindle works its way into the public discussion — and Amazon too. Right now Kindle Fire owners can watch a new sitcom starring John Goodman just by going to “Videos” on their Kindle Fire tablets. It’s called Alpha House, and that same show is also available on the web. (For a shortcut, point your web browser to tinyurl.com/GoodmanShow )
The first three episodes are free for anyone, and the whole series is available free to members of Amazon’s “Prime” shipping service. But this all led to a fun conversation that I’d like to stow away in a time capsule. John Goodman appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote this Amazon-only series. And it perfectly captures that moment in time when the world realized: wait, Amazon is producing TV shows?!
Jon Stewart was baffled…
JON STEWART: How does this Amazon thing — I didn’t know Amazon did — did, uh, uh, television shows. Is that a…you click on the site? (Audience laughs) Is that — how… Is that how it happens? Can you use –
JOHN GOODMAN: I don’t know! (They both laugh) I don’t know! I’m selling their product…I’m just a cog in their machine of world domination! I just — as long as they out-point Walmart, I’m cool. No, I uh — there’s a gizmo you buy with Amazon, and then you get free TV with it.
STEWART: Oh this is — so it runs only on the Amazon?
GOODMAN: Yes, as far as I know. (Eyes dart nervously. Audience laughs…)
To watch their whole interview online, you can point your web browser to tinyurl.com/AmazonDailyShow. But what’s really interesting is that John Goodman was wrong! You can also watch Amazon Instant Video on the web (where the first three episodes of his show are already available for free)… The first episode even opens with a funny cameo by Bill Murray!
But then the interview gets into an interesting discussion about how the show is created — and the differences between online and broadcast television.
STEWART: Did they — let me ask you a question. If we go on real TV, we gotta bleep all the **** words out. And that’s the only pleasure of doing television these days, let’s just face it.
GOODMAN: It really is.
STEWART: So here’s how you know if it’s real or not. Do they pay you in Amazon points? If they pay you in Amazon points…
GOODMAN: Who doesn’t get paid in Amazon points?
STEWART: How did they — who was the creator of this program? How did this all…
GOODMAN: Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury
STEWART: (Audience applauds). Tremendous. That’s wonderful.
GOODMAN: He writes these incredible scripts. They’re very funny, and, uh, Jonathan Alter…
STEWART: Oh yeah!
GOODMAN: Yeah, The great political writer.
STEWART: Writer for Newsweek, and he’s written many different books…
GOODMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s a producer, he’s got the political angle on everything, he’s great to have around.
STEWART: That’s awesome. Trudeau is one of those guys, like my heroes, that — growing up and reading Doonesbury and just marvelling at the way he would take these storylines and carry them all the way through with the — you know, the quarterback who’s — working in — all the way through, in Vietnam and everything else. Remarkable guy.
GOODMAN: With the disabled veterans now. It’s an incredible ear. He’s a great writer.
STEWART: Is he on the set? Because I, you always…
GOODMAN: Crossing T’s and dotting I’s!
STEWART: Is he really?!
GOODMAN: Yeah! Yeah… “Well, you left an ‘and’ out of that sentence, John.”
“Hey man, you went to Yale. I don’t argue with that!”
The interview winds down — Goodman says fondly that he went to a state college, and Jon Stewart ends the segment with a burst of enthusiasm. “There you go, brother! John Goodman — never bad in anything.” But maybe because we’re in a unique place in internet history — or because online shopping has become such a phenomenon — they still couldn’t resist making one last joke about Amazon.
STEWART: Alpha House premiers on Amazon.com November 15th, you can watch the first three episodes for free! That’s not a bad deal.
STEWART: And then, uh, you ultimately end up, uh, ordering a power washer! For no apparent reason.
GOODMAN: But they’re damn good power washers!
February 5th, 2014
Brad Stone wrote a new book about about Amazon, and it’s already stirred up a controversy. I enjoyed Stone’s radio interview on Marketplace, but apparently Amazon isn’t one of Stone’s fans. “He had every opportunity to thoroughly fact check and bring a more balanced viewpoint to his narrative,” complains Amazon’s Vice President of Global Communications, “but he was very secretive about the book and simply chose not to.” And one of Stone’s detractors turns out to be the wife of Amazon’s CEO!
In an interesting twist, Mackenzie Bezos is expressing her displeasure with a negative one-star review of the author’s book on Amazon! And it opens with her own vivid and heartfelt perspective on the man she’s been married to for 20 years. “I worked for Jeff at D. E. Shaw, I was there when he wrote the business plan, and I worked with him and many others represented in the converted garage, the basement warehouse closet, the barbecue-scented offices, the Christmas-rush distribution centers, and the door-desk filled conference rooms in the early years of Amazon’s history…”
Her review is titled “I wanted to like this book”, and it’s already received 3,154 “helpful” votes from other Amazon customers. er first complaint is there’s inaccuracies in the book which contradict her own her firsthand memories of the Amazon story. And her second complaint is the negative quotes about the tension in executive meetings create a “lopsided and misleading portrait” of the culture at Amazon. So for balance, she presents some warm and positive quotes drawn from a personal collection — “an archive of the thousands of thank you messages written to Jeff over the years”.
I cried as I read the Career Choice announcement on Amazon today. What Amazon is doing to help its employees is affecting lives in the most meaningful way I can think of. It restores my faith in humanity…
Mrs. Bezos acknowledges that some people in the book describe a “supportive and inspiring culture”, but argues that the author dismisses them as robots throughout the book. And her third complaint is the book speculates about what Jeff Bezos was thinking or feeling, writing that “Hollywood often uses a more honest label: ‘a story based on true events.’” But in the end she points out one of the miracles of life on the internet. Since this book is about real people, the “characters” in the book can step forward “and speak for themselves!”
For example, she cites another review of the book posted on Amazon by Rick Dalzell, who was Amazon’s Chief Information Officer at Amazon for 10 years starting in 1997. “Brad Stone did a lot of research and the result is a glimpse into the history of one of the world’s most exciting companies,” Dalzell acknowledges, though he’s titled his review “Intriguing stories, incomplete and unbalanced history,” and awarded the book just three stars. Dalzell was actually interviewed for the book (along with 300 past and current Amazon employees), and he devotes a whole paragraph to debunking Stone’s interpretation of what it means when Jeff Bezos laughs. “Jeff’s laugh is spontaneous, sincere, warm and endearing. It diffuses stressful situations.” In Stone’s book, Dalzell is cited as saying that Bezos “often” wields the laugh to punish people who aren’t meeting his high standards…
“While I found [the book] rather interesting, lots of stories are missing or just inaccurate. Brad painted a one-dimensional picture of Jeff as a ruthless capitalist. He completely missed his warmth, his humor, and his empathy — all qualities abundantly present in the man.”
And Mrs. Bezos also applauded another review of the book posted on Amazon by Jonathan Leblang, who actually went to high school with Amazon’s founder, and has since become the director of the company’s Lab126 in Menlo Park. He awarded the book four stars, calling it “Interesting, but flawed,” saying it was interesting to see how the company where he worked would be seen by an outsider — but that there were mistakes.
“[A]s with any book where the subject is not an active participant, the book is slanted toward those episodes where Stone can find someone to talk about them. And of course, he includes that which supports his thesis… Overall, from the parts that I know about, about 80% is correct and 20% isn’t (often in details, but incorrect nonetheless). That, of course, taints my view of the book as a whole, because I have to assume that 20% of the stuff I don’t have personal knowledge of is also incorrect.
But even with his concerns about accuracy, he still managed to find something positive (and funny) about The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.
“That said, I would still recommend the book (and especially the picture of Jeff in High School!)”
Check out the book (and the reviews) for The Everything Store:
Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
January 30th, 2014
Amazon is giving away a free new audiobook edition of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s read by Ben Stiller, the star of the big Hollywood remake of the story that was just released in December. “Discover the story that inspired the film,” reads an announcement posted on the front page of Amazon — and it looks like the whole project was a labor of love.
You can listen to it on any Kindle Fire tablet, or even on your smartphone, using Amazon’s “Audible” app. And I thought the audiobook was surprisingly effective, with Ben Stiller giving a thoughtful performance and showing some real affection for the characters. He not only starred in the new $90-million film — he was also the movie’s director. I wondered what it must’ve felt like to be involved in such an elaborate project that’s all about realizing your dreams – and you can tell from the audiobook that Stiller’s given this a lot of thought!
He’s reading the very first version of this story by James Thurber, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1939. But it’s interesting to remember that Hollywood spent the last 20 years trying to create a worthwhile movie remake for this classic American short story. Steven Spielberg was interested in the project, according to Wikipedia, and so were other famous Hollywood directors like Ron Howard and Gore Verbinski. Actors considered for the lead included Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Owen Wilson, and even Sacha Baron Cohen… But when all the dust had finally settled, it was Ben Stiller who was starring in the movie — and directing it.
“We all have something inside us waiting to get out,” Stiller says, adding that “all it takes is the courage to stop dreaming and start living.” And then there he is, at the center of a story about a man who spends his life looking at photographs of other people’s journeys — and daring to imagine something more. I just have to say that having seen the movie, I really loved all of its new plot twists. (And especially the way Stiller used the song “Major Tom”…)
One of the most inspiring things about the movie was its artwork, and it’s nice to see it used as the icon for this audiobook. But there’s something special in this audiobook, as the narrator seems to show a special fondness for the same character that he’d played himself. It must’ve been fun to read, since you get to act out all the dialogue from Mitty’s elaborate fantasies. (Stiller delivers a good reading of the line “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa….”) But as his voice changes to suggest the transition from daydream to reality, I also thought I detected some real affection for the gentle domestic moments of the 1939 couple.
“Not too fast! You’re driving too fast,” says Mrs. Mitty. But whether you’re hearing the original story or watching the 2013 remake, the message is the same.
“We all have something inside of us waiting to get out…”
For a shortcut to the free audiobook, just point your browser to
January 25th, 2014
Amazon’s hiring engineers to build a brand new product, which they’re predicting “will be bigger than Kindle!” I didn’t even know there was a department at Amazon that was called “Kindle New Initiatives” — but there is, and they’re hosting a meet-and-greet event at their lab in Massachusetts just next Friday. “I hate to help Amazon hire even more people in Cambridge who will no longer return my phone calls or e-mails,” joked a Boston technology columnist, “but this is a pretty intriguing description of what they’re up to…”
He quotes an earlier invitation from Amazon promising that they’re building “a new revolutionary Version 1 product that will allow us to deliver Digital Media to customers in new ways and disrupt the current marketplace.” And the clues are starting to pile up. When Amazon opened this lab in 2011, they announced new hires would be working with Amazon’s “digital products” team — the group responsible for Kindle ebooks, as well as Amazon’s Instant Video (and all the mp3s in their digital music store), plus Amazon’s “cloud” storage service.
So who’s in Amazon’s crosshairs? Some have suggested it’s “an A-Phone” — Amazon’s own version of an iPhone (which woould play digital media like music and videos, but would also let you access your library of Kindle ebooks). While I believe Amazon will enter the phone market at some point, I just don’t think they’d use the word “disruptive” to describe it. A better slogan for what Amazon’s working on might be…
“I Want My A-TV”
It started with a question. Why is Amazon producing TV shows? For the past few years they’ve been “greenlighting” new shows, which are only avalable on the web and on Kindle Fire tablets. It’s a weird business model — unless Amazon was already secretly envisioning a much larger audience for the shows they’re creating. So maybe Amazon is releasing a device that plugs right into your TV, letting you stream all the movies and TV shows that are available from Amazon.
It could be just like Google Chromecast — except Amazon has a lot more video to distribute. Instead of YouTube videos, you could watch all of the shows in Amazon’s “Instant Video” library — everything from Duck Dynasty and The Daily Show to new movies (along with Amazon’s original programming). Amazon would instantly become “the new NetFlix”, and The Motley Fool is already arguing that Amazon “is in a better position to compete with Netflix for the 49 and up age group, which is where much of the remaining growth of streaming video will occur.” Plus, people wouldn’t even have to sign up for the new service (since most of them would probably have an Amazon account already). And this opens up a fascinating new possibility: TV shopping.
Imagine browsing Amazon’s site on your wide-screen, high-definition television set. Amazon’s already encouraging ontent providers to include videos for the products they distribute — which may suggest they’ve been thinking about video shopping. In fact, one Amazon page already points out that the products that see the biggest increase in sales tend to have “innovative or complex features” — and they give the example of several expensive pieces of technology. Customers may be more likely to purchase a product if they’d seen video footage about the way it works, which would mean even bigger sales for Amazon. It seems like they’d have to be intrigued by the prospect of an even better way to sell things to online shoppers, and for customers it’d be an exciting new 21st-century kind of expaerience — watching giant video demos of the products you want to buy.
And then completing the purchase with your remote!
January 21st, 2014
Amazon’s just announced a big sale on their Kindle Fire HDX — a $30 discount. But it expires at midnight today, and they’re offering the sale for what appears to be a very surprising reason. “Game on, $30 off,” reads the text linking to Amazon’s discounted tablet, next to a doodle showing three NFL football players.
It’s like they’re celebrating Seattle’s victory Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle’s biggest opportunity yet to finally win the Super Bowl.
For a shortcut to Amazon’s special offer, point your browser to tinyurl.com/GameOn30 . (Enter the promotional code “GameOn30″ to claim the $30 discount). It’s for the 7-inch model, bringing its price down to just $199. Earlier this month a reviewer for ZDNet even declared Amazon’s newest tablet was “far better than an iPad”!
But I had to laugh when I saw Amazon’s doodle of the football players, because most of my friends were rooting for San Francisco! For the third year in a row, the 49ers suffered yet another heartbreaking defeat in their post-season, each one capped with a spectacularly unsuccessful play that left them missing out on Super Bowl glory yet again. So I wonder what my friends would think if they’d logged onto Amazon.com this morning. Its front page was taunting them with a playful doodle of two hapless tackles from the San Francisco 49ers trying in vain to stop Seattle’s charging running back!
To be fair, I’ve heard other football fans saying they’re delighted that a team who has never won the Super Bowl will be getting a chance this year. (Seattle also has the distinction of being the only team to play in championship games for both the AFC and the NFC.) According to Wikipedia, their stadium even holds the Guinness World Record for the loudest crowd noises ever recorded. The team acknowledges their loyal and noisy fans as “the 12th man” on the field, and even raise a flag in the fan’s honor before the start of ever home game. But maybe they’ve also got another secret fan.
Maybe the 13th man is Amazon!
January 20th, 2014
Today all across America, people are celebrating Martin Luther King Day. And it’s interesting to see how this national holiday even seems to find its way into the Kindle. I was surfing the web on my Kindle Fire when I found the complete text and video of King’s most famous and inspiring speech. And searching Amazon’s Kindle Store also turned up 14 different ebooks that let you remember the words of the famous 1960s activist for civil rights — most of them now available for just than $10.
For a shortcut to Amazon’s Martin Luther King ebooks, go to tinyurl.com/KindleMLK. But not only can you read the “I Have a Dream” speech on several free web pages. One site even accompanies the speech’s text with an actual audio recording of King himself delivering the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963! It’s wonderful to hear his voice rise and tremble with emotion, as the audience joins in with encouragement.
In front of a crowd of 250,000 marchers, King was reading from his prepared text, when a moment happened that changed his speech into something even more powerful. On the stage with him was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and as he read from his prepared remarks, Mahilia shouted out “Tell them about the dream, doctor…” She repeated it, one participant remembered later, and King was moved to improvise a more powerful message. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’…
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day…
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Martin Luther King was a truly inspirational speaker. (According to Wikipedia, it was ranked the greatest American speech of the 20th century in a survey of 137 American academicians who study public speaking.) But it’s important to remember that was just one speech in a longer career of activism. One of King’s most eloquent works was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. It’s part of a longer book — titled Why We Can’t Wait — which became a best-seller when it was released in 1963. And 50 years later, it’s now available as a Kindle ebook.
There’s also two collections of King’s speech — A Knock at Midnight and A Call to Conscience. Both books include introductions for each speech written by other spiritual and political leaders, including the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Senator Ted Kennedy. I’m tempted to purchase the audiobook version, so I can listen to it on my Kindle Fire.
There’s also an audiobook version of Martin Luther King’s autobiography — read by Levar Burton — as well as a Kindle ebook. And it does give me a warm feeling to see people remembering his life and his works. Browsing Amazon’s selection of the works of Dr. King, I even discovered a poignant children’s picture book that was based on his “I Have a Dream” speech. It opens with a lovely watercolor of the crowd gathering around the Lincoln Memorial on a sunny day, and excerpts some of the speech’s most important passages. “I say to you today, my friends, that even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…” the book begins.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’… ”
January 16th, 2014
When the New Year started in 2014, I’d wanted to honor a Kindle tradition I started nearly four years ago. It’s remembering one of my favorite memories about books, a special moment when time itself seemed to magically turn into something that you could hold in your hands. It gave me a feeling that I’ll never forget about books…and about the authors who write them. And for a second “history” seemed to be another word for a special glow that you could actually feel…
And it also led to a few fun free Kindle ebooks!
This adventure all started a few years ago, when I was surfing the web and discovered that Mark Twain had once co-authored a play with a forgotten writer named Bret Harte. (Once their legendary meeting was even depicted in the ad for Old Crow whiskey pictured above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.
“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”
In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”
Bret Harte’s short story (as a free Kindle ebook)
Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (as a free Kindle ebook)
Right before Christmas, I wrote about how Harte’s words had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California…
But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”
So on one chilly November afternoon, I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from a shelf at my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.
Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” ultimately became the very first ebook that I’d ever ordered on my Kindle. (I’d been looking for print editions, but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc.) It was several days later that I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.
“SEP 21 1905.”
I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.
More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.
I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.
January 14th, 2014
I love listening to the radio — and last month I heard a wonderful interview about the man who founded Amazon. Brad Stone has just written a new book about the company (after interviewing more than half a dozen senior Amazon executives). And it was really fun to hear him talking about what he’d learned with Kai Ryssdal, the enthusiastic host of Marketplace on public radio.
Amazon “is a force — maybe the force — in the retail economy today,” begins the segment. But soon the interviewer has honed in on a fascinating personal detail about Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. “There’s a thread that runs through this book — you mention it early, and you mention it often. It’s part of Bezos’s personality, I guess you would say. And since this is radio, we’re just going to hit you with a little bit of it here, and then I want to talk about it.”
And then he played the sound of Jeff Bezo laughing…!
” ‘Jeff Bezos’s laugh,’ you write, ‘precedes him down the hallway. You hear it in meetings, it will come after a volcanic outburst of temper. I mean, it’s this defining thing for him.’ ”
It’s a great way to start they’re discussion, and the author points out that Jeff’s laugh is unusual in another way. Brad Stone has personally spoken to Jeff Bezos, and “He’s not always laughing with you. It’s difficult to put your finger on, but one of his colleagues literally said, ‘He’s punishing you.’ It’s that his standards are so high, and his intellect is so fierce, that sometimes it’s you’re not catching up with him. And that is what he finds funny!”
I wonder what he talked about with Jeff Bezos (since reportedly the book is based more on his interviews with other Amazon executives). And the radio interviewer moves to a second observation — that for people who work at the company, it’s not always pleasant. “He doesn’t want it to be a country club for his employees,” the author counters, saying that the extra pressure is “by design… [Bezos] wants everyone giving the proverbial 110% percent.”
And there’s a good side to that too, the author points out in the interview. Besides Amazon’s slightly elevated turnover rate, “It also might be why this is a company that has achieved so much over the last two decades.”
But the most interesting part of the interview was about Amazon Web Services, the massive online platform which lets companies offer services and storage from “the cloud” — all hosted on Amazon’s own servers. “You say — and I agree with you — that [Jeff Bezos] has changed the world, and he’s done that just with Amazon.com, the retail shopping site, and he’s changed our behavior. But there are a couple of things that sort of have come from that that arguably have changed the world even more… This idea of us all living in ‘the cloud’ — which now we take for granted — started with Bezos and Amazon, in some degree.”
The author notes that NetFlix uses Amazon Web Services, but then brings up an even more impressing customer — the CIA! “Amazon just won a contract against IBM. The CIA will soon be running its operations on Amazon’s servers. A bookseller! And now they’re running the government!”
“Wow… Think about that for a minute,” the interviewer responds….
Next, their conversation turns to Amazon Prime — and both the author and the interviewer admit that they’re already subscribers. “It makes it really easy to buy stuff off of Amazon,” the interviewer says.
“It turns you into an Amazon addict,” the author responds (to which the interviewer agrees). “I think it’s a little CostCo, in a way, buried inside Amazon. CostCo magically has this business model where you have to pay to shop there — a good business, if you can get it. And now the same is true of Amazon. You’re paying $79 a year for the luxury of spending even more money on all these add-on services!”
The interviewer actually mutters, “Now you’re making me feel stupid, man.”
And the author just replies, “Well, I pay it too…”
The book is called The Everything Store:
Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon