Is Target Editing Amazon's Books?

November 30th, 2010

Target store logo

Want to know the dirty secrets of the book publishing industry? Boston Review just published a shocking but very well-researched article that seems to finally lay it all out.

The article starts with some disturbing bookstore history. During the 1970s and the 1980s, new independent bookstores continued appearing, but “this trend came to a halt when chain superstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders began taking over in the late ’80s.” Over the next 20 years, the number of independent bookstores dropped from 6,000 to 2,200, which the author blames on their ability to negotiate bigger discounts from book publishers. In a fight for the future of the bookstore, the American Bookseller’s Association even filed two lawsuits — one in 1994 and a second one in 1997.

“In 2001 this lawsuit, too, was settled, on the condition that a large amount of the evidence the ABA had collected against the chain stores be destroyed,” the article reports. It seems a little ironic that the chain stores beat the local stores by drastically discounting their books — only to face the threat of even cheaper competition today from the ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle store. But this episode reveals another big way that chain bookstores changed the book industry. Now publishers earmark about 4% of their net revenue to pay for special promotions within chain bookstores, including special price discounts and prime placement at the front of the bookstore (which apparently retails for $20,000 for a two-week display).

Smaller publishers are hurt, since they can’t compete with large promotional budgets — and that’s only the beginning, according to the article. Now large retailers “weigh in on everything from book covers to sample chapters of manuscripts,” and “In some cases, retailers even demand changes.” Am I reading that right? Is Target calling the shots in what’s appearing in our books? The article cites information from an editor at “a major publishing house, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of employer sanctions.” And he reveals that yes, frequently there’s representatives from Target, Borders, and Barnes and Noble when potential books are discussed.

“Without their buy-in, the publisher is unlikely to go forward with a book,” the article reports. “Ideas that excite [independent book stores] might be scrapped if they don’t get a chain’s stamp of approval.” What’s disturbing about this is that’s ultimately also affecting shoppers at Amazon.com. Amazon can only sell printed books after print publishers make them available. But if Target gets a veto on which books are printed, then Amazon will never get a chance to sell them.

At first it seems like we should be cheering for Amazon’s Kindle Store. Anyone can self-publish an ebook — so isn’t that a positive development? Yes, in the sense that unlike a bookstore, Amazon stocks every book that a publisher sells. The only question now is: what happens when Amazon acquires the same massive negotiating power as the major chain bookstores?

Will they ultimately use their newfound power for good, or for evil?

John Lennon record mp3 album cover - Power to the People
Who says nothing’s free in this world? I just found out that Amazon’s giving away $3.00 worth of free mp3 downloads from their online music store. And they’re also making the offer even sweeter – by selling entire mp3 albums for just $1.99! It’s a great chance to stock up on music if you’re looking for background music for reading on your Kindle.

For example, they’re selling Pink Floyd’s famous album, Dark Side of the Moon for just $1.99. (According to Wikipedia, it stayed on the best-seller charts longer than any album in history, for more than 14 years – from 1973 to 1988!) Amazon’s also discounted a few new releases, like the band Weezer’s new album, Hurley. And Amazon’s also selling $1.99 albums by John Lennon, Lady Gaga, Spoon, John Mayer, and Robert Plant — and several other artists.

“At least some of these (including John Mayer and Pink Floyd) are on sale today only,” warns C|Net, “but they’ll be replaced tomorrow with at least five more $1.99 albums.” So how do you claim Amazon’s $3.00 gift certified for mp3 downloads? Just click on this link, and enter the code GET3MP3S.

Although I have a confession to make. The first mp3 I downloaded was the theme from Amazon’s Kindle commercial! (“Silver moons and paper chains, faded maps and shiny things…”) I’ve always loved the bouncy song by “Little & Ashley” — and it turns out the mp3 offers a much longer version of the song. By the third verse, there’s a trombone part, and there’s also an unexpected bridge with even more enthusiastic lyrics. Although like the rest of the song, it’s hard to tell if the singer is singing them to her boyfriend, or to her beloved Kindle.

“Can hardly think what life was like
before I had you by my side.

Can’t say what I’d do without you
knowing what it’s like to have you…”

The Best Thanksgiving eBooks

November 24th, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving Curious George book and Kindle ebook cover

Thanksgiving’s almost here!

If you’re traveling for the holiday – or just have some extra time to relax — I’ve picked out a few Thanksgiving-related ebooks. With all the excitement around Amazon’s big Black Friday deal — $89 for the Kindle 2 — I’m already feeling grateful… that I own a Kindle already!

Here’s some of the best ebooks — in different categories — that I found for Thanksgiving in Amazon’s Kindle Store.

The Best Romance
“Thanksgiving” by Janet Evanovich

Best-selling author Janet Evanovich wrote several funny mystery novels — but she actually began her career writing romance novels at the age of 45. One of her first books was “Thanksgiving,” written in 1988, describing how overworked Megan Murphy meets a good-looking doctor at historic Williamsburg, Virginia. (Megan’s enjoying a cup of hot cider and two sugar cookies from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop when she discovers the doctor’s giant pet rabbit is eating a hole through her skirt!)

According to the book’s description on Amazon, “she meant to give its careless owner a piece of her mind, but Dr. Patrick Hunter was too attractive to stay mad at for long,” and soon “the two are making Thanksgiving dinner for their families.” And 12 different Amazon’s reviewers gave it five-star reviews, including one who wrote that “If you’ve enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, you’re going to get a kick out of her stories for the Loveswept Romance imprint…”

The Best Cookbook
Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers

Perdue Farms sells over $4.6 billion worth of poultry every year, and for eight years, Rick Rodgers was their media spokesman. He traveled the country giving classes, according to Amazon’s description of the book, and delivers “everything, absolutely everything, you would want to know about buying, thawing, prepping, and roasting a turkey.

“You needn’t look any further. There’s a long question-and-answer-style section that anticipates any questions you might have. Then it’s right on to everything from Perfect Roast Turkey with Best-Ever Gravy to Holiday Meatball Lasagna.” And in addition, there’s lots of recipes for stuffings, side dishes, appetizers, and even leftovers. 29 of the book’s 34 reviewers on Amazon gave it five stars, while the other five
awarded it four. It’s a classic — Amazon’s first review of the book was written in 1998 — but even today, it’s become one of Amazon’s best-selling holiday cooking books.

The Best History Book
On Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford

Who better to tell the story of Thanksgiving than the pilgrims who lived through it? (My favorite chapter was the one about the very non-Puritan antics of Thomas Morton…) William Bradford began writing his history of America’s most famous pilgrims back in 1630 (according to my anthology of American literature), and he continued chronicling their life up to 1647. But the invaluable manuscript was never published in his lifetime, and after Bradford’s death, his family passed it down through the generations.

The precious unpublished memoir traveled its own complicated journey, down through Boston’s Old South Church, and eventually even back to England. Finally it was published in 1856 — a full 200 years after it was written. And now today, thanks to the Kindle, we can take peek into the lives of the very pilgrims who first started celebrating Thanksgiving.

The Best Children’s Book
Happy Thanksgiving, Curious George

Just 12 weeks ago, a new Curious George book appeared, and this one has a special surprise. Yes, you may have read other children’s books about the playful and accident-prone monkey… But this one rhymes!


George wakes up in the morning.
Something smells quite nice.
He knows for sure he wants some –
A piece, a smidge, a slice.

He rushes to the kitchen
and there he sees the man –
with yellow hat an apron,
A turkey in the pan.

The turkey’s in the oven.
It takes some time to cook.
But every now and then
George can’t help but take a look….

Uh-oh, I bet there’s going to be trouble.

Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!

It’s true! Amazon just announced they’ll sell Kindle 2′s for $89 on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving!)

A few minutes ago, they snuck the announcement onto their Facebook page for the Kindle, and confirmed it on their Twitter feed. I’d thought it was just a rumor, but here’s the complete text from Facebook of what Amazon announced!

Black Friday Deal: This Friday, 11/26, you can get our previous generation Kindle for $89!

Our previous generation Kindle uses the old E Ink technology (the same E Ink as in the current Nook). Our all-new Kindle uses the latest generation E Ink (Pearl) for 50% better contrast, and is available at the everyday low price of …$139.

Black Friday Deal: This Friday, 11/26, you can get our previous generation Kindle for $89! Our previous generation Kindle uses the old E Ink technology (the same E Ink as in the current Nook). Our all-new Kindle uses the latest generation E Ink (Pearl) for 50% better contrast, and is available at the everyday low price of ...$139.

Amazon included a link to Amazon’s Kindle page, though it points to the newest $139 Kindle rather than the earlier edition that they’re selling for $89. But within an hour, over 100 people had clicked the Facebook button to indicate that they “Liked” the news — and 47 of them left enthusiastic comments.

And then Amazon added a comment themselves with a crucial “buying window” for their special offer.

“Hi Everyone. This deal will be featured in the Lightning Deals section of our Black Friday page, beginning at 9am PT on 11/26. Here’s a link to the page: http://amzn.to/heVUFX

There’s no Kindle on that page yet, but presumably it will be updated right at 9 a.m. on Friday. Later in the day they actually deleted that comment, but they did add another one to encourage their prospective buyers.

“Please note that all second generation Kindles offered through the Lightning Deal on Black Friday will be new devices – not refurbished.”

And in case you missed it, I’ve also just discovered today that an Amazon blogger has “leaked” a calendar showing exactly when Amazon’s short-term special deals will appear online! I see movies for just $1.99 on Wednesday, including Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Identity. In a post (titled “We’re leaking”), Amazon’s “Armchair Commentary” blog revealed the link, adding that “In addition to the doorbusters below, you’ll find over 2,700 titles at up to 70% off during our Black Friday Week deals…”

Turkey reading a book
I’m trying to get into holiday spirit – and I was really touched Monday by a story about a stroke victim who was re-learning how to read using a Kindle…

61-year-old Tom Calteux was a former photo editor at a Milwaukee newspaper, but at the age of 49 — 12 years ago — the stroke took his ability to read. He’s spent over a decade in therapy, and “When he had trouble, you could see tears develop,” remember one of the pathologists. She reports that now using the Kindle has been “uplifting” — both emotionally and psychologically — and an Amazon representative confirms that there are “a number of stories about stroke patients across the country using Kindles to help with their reading.

I guess I felt like I should take a moment this year to be thankful — and to think about all those people, somewhere around us, who are very thankful for their Kindles.

* Thanksgiving always holds a special meaning for the families of soldiers who are stationed overseas. And some of those soldiers are now reading on their Kindles, according to stories being shared on the Kindle online discussion forums. Author Edward C. Patterson organized “Operation eBook Drop” in 2009, in which authors agreed to provide free ebook coupons to “any deployed Coalition Armed Forces member with a Kindle.”

In a little more than a year, they’ve now distributed over 440,000 coupons to the soldiers for at least 2,000 different ebooks which were contributed by over 522 authors. And earlier this month, they received a thank-you e-mail from a medical sergeant named Dakotah Hayes. “This means so very much to myself and my entire team… This is our job and we do it because we enjoy helping others at home and over seas, so to receive even a word of thanks is more than we could ever want. Thank you for your support and your generous gifts.”

* Two optometrists in Texas write a web blog about optometry, and report that Amazon’s Kindle “holds a lot of promise” for people with serious eye conditions, including glaucoma, macular degeneration, and retinitis pigmentosa. Last year one of the eye doctors told Publisher’s Weekly that “Numerous people contact me about it — some are legally blind, some have a hard time seeing…” The Kindle can obviously convert any text into an instant large-print book, but its screen may be even better, because “contrast and brightness are very important for someone with low vision.” In addition, some arthritis or MS patients have trouble even holding a book — and the Kindle’s lighter size is making it easier for them to read.

* Finally, I’ll never forget the story of a concerned mother in North Carolina who wandered into Amazon’s Kindle forum and posted “I could cry…I am so happy.” Her 14-year-old daughter had struggled in school, and never read any books for enjoyment. But one day she picked up the family’s Kindle 2 — and surprised them all by suddenly starting to read. “After hours of reading I asked what the difference was between the regular book and the Kindle. She said she would get very overwhelmed by all the words and the size of the book which would make it difficult for her to stay focused. For whatever reason putting the font size up one notch has done the trick!”

Now somewhere in America, there’s a mother who’s happy because her child finally found a way to enjoy reading, and “She hasn’t put the Kindle down since!”

Amazon's Black Friday deals

BIG UPDATE: Amazon is selling Kindles for just $89 on Black Friday! The surprise announcement came Tuesday afternoon. It’s been a very big day for Kindle news.

The same day, I discovered that an Amazon blogger has “leaked” a calendar showing exactly when Amazon’s short-term special deals will appear online! I see movies for just $1.99, including Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Identity. In a post (titled “We’re leaking”), Amazon’s “Armchair Commentary” blog revealed the link, adding that “In addition to the doorbusters below, you’ll find over 2,700 titles at up to 70% off during our Black Friday Week deals…”

And here’s more details from my original blog post. Just after midnight on Sunday, Amazon had revealed their special “Black Friday” week web page, trying to lure online shoppers with new tempting holiday deals.”You shouldn’t have to stand in a long line to get a great deal,” the web page suggests. “We’re searching for the best Black Friday deals everywhere — including deals other stores are planning — so we can meet or beat their prices and bring them to you even earlier.”

Amazon warns that there’s a limited supply for many deals, but “we’ll add new ones throughout the day, every day this week, so you can skip the long lines and still save a bundle.” There’s deals in every category — from electronics to books, and from clothes to video games. But surprisingly — at least so far — there aren’t any deals for the Kindle. Not only is the actual device being sold at full price — Amazon isn’t even advertising any special deals on ebooks. (Less than two days later, Amazon announced
their special Black Friday deal: for just $89!

On the web, there’d been hopeful rumors that Amazon might lower the price of the Kindle. Barnes and Noble will sell the Nook on Black Friday for just $99 at Best Buy, so it seemed like Amazon might want to lower the Kindle’s price to compete. (Though the Kindle was apparently selling just fine at its current price of just $139.) And if for some reason you miss their special deal on the Kindle, Amazon will also sell you a 32-inch TV screen for just $249.

There is at least one other special offer on a Kindle. Amazon is giving away a free Kindle every day to one person selected from their fans on Facebook. (Just click the “Like” button on Amazon’s Facebook page, and then supply your phone number to be entered in their giveaway.) You can also start receiving Amazon’s deal announcements on your Facebook page. And there’s also a special Twitter feed called Amazon Tech Deals.

I’m disappointed that there’s not more Kindle offerings, but I have to admit I was fascinated by an unusual new feature on Amazon’s “Black Friday week” page — their special “Black Friday Week lightning deals.” Amazon’s been doing these for a while, but this is the first big week of the holiday shopping season, so I feel they’re going to be a lot more interesting. “Lightning Deals” are only available to a limited number of purchasers, and even then for just a very short period of time. Amazon’s Black Friday page is counting down the seconds until the exact moment when each item is available for purchase. You can choose to see only items that are available now — or only new deals that are coming up — and you can even narrow the display to the specific kinds of products that are being sold.

Some of the items appear to be mystery treasure chests — instead of a picture and a product name, there’s just the words “upcoming deal” and a giant orange question mark. But it looks like Amazon wants you to guess what’s for sale, since it’s usually pretty clear from the descriptions. For example, “The Griswold family goes on vacation over and over again” suggests it just might a DVD pack of Chevy Chase’s “Vacation” movies.

Ironically, if I remember correctly, the Griswold family actually had some pretty miserable holidays. But I’m planning to avoid the holiday shopping stress altogether this Friday — and just curling up with my Kindle!


Just a few hours ago, Amazon activated their new “gifting” feature for ebooks, saying they were “thrilled” to make it even easier to share Amazon’s ebooks. “We’re making this functionality available in time for the holidays to offer an easy, stress free holiday shopping option,” Amazon explained in a press release, adding that the feature was “for anyone – not just Kindle owners.”

If you’re browsing through the Kindle store on the web, you’ll notice there’s now a new button on each book’s page — “Give as a Gift” — which appears to the right of the screen. But strangely, this button doesn’t seem to be appearing now on the book pages when you browse the Kindle Store with your Kindle! On the web, the button appears just below Amazon’s purchasing buttons (like “Buy now with 1-Click”), and clicking the “Gift” button pulls up a screen where you can add a 300-character message. Still, it would be even more useful if it included an option to delay the delivery date — say, until December 25th? — but instead, they’re delivered almost instantly. Amazon explains at the top of the page that gift notifications “are delivered to the recipient via e-mail…typically within 5 minutes.”

There also seems to be an error in the “legalese” which appears at the bottom of the page. “If this title isn’t available for your gift recipient,” it warns in tiny grey letters, “we will exchange your gift for an equivalent value Amazon.com gift card.” Er, but how could a digital ebook suddenly not be available? It’s not like they’re going to run out of copies, and have to wait for a second printing of fresh-off-the-press ebooks!

It seems like Amazon rushed this out in a hurry, to make sure it was available before the start of the holiday shopping season. And all the extra news stories will also keep people thinking about the Kindle –
right as they’re considering their big “Black Friday” purchases. On that massive shopping day after Thanksgiving, Barnes and Noble will be discounting the Nook to just $99 at Best Buy. Maybe Amazon wanted
to try to stir up some extra news coverage for the Kindle!

But mostly it’s just another way to shop in Amazon’s store, especially since you don’t have to own a Kindle in order to give an ebook as a gift — or even, to receive it! (“Kindle ebooks can be given and received by anyone with an e-mail address,” Amazon explains, noting they offer ebook-reading apps for nearly every operating system and smartphone.) In Amazon’s Kindle forum, one user worried about receiving gift ebooks that you’re actually not interested in reading. But if that happens, Amazon has a new procedure in place where you can exchange that unwanted ebook for an Amazon gift card.

From a business perspective, this is a very smart move for Amazon, because they’ve created a whole new way to buy ebooks. And to take advantage of the new enthusiasm, Amazon has already created a special page on the web with the words “Give Kindle Books” in enormous grey and orange letters. (“Choose from over 725,000 books,” it says below the headline. “Give to anyone with an e-mail address!”) They designed the page to make the ebooks as tempting as possible, listing the best Kindle ebooks of 2010 and links to the best-sellers in several other intriguing categories. There’s Mysteries, Biographies, Science Fiction, and Romance — along with “Editor’s Picks,” New York Times bestsellers, religion, and young adult.

I’ve been reading the reactions in Amazon’s Kindle forums, and users were either excited or skeptical. One user appreciated the new features, saying some family members felt that giving a blank gift card was “too generic.” But another user complained that they wanted to disable the intrusive “gift notifications,” saying they’d already contacted Amazon’s customer support requesting the feature. And the biggest complaint is that currently, free ebooks apparently can’t be given as a gift at all. For example, though many classic works of literature are available in both free and paid editions, the “Give as a Gift” button only appears on the paid editions.

Apparently Amazon only wants you to gift those books from which Amazon will be earning a commission!

Stephen King autograph on a Kindle

“Writers will begin signing e-books,” a headline promises at the web site TechEye. Er, wait a minute — then where are the writers going to put the pen?

But it turns out there’s a new technology — and also some other possibilities that I hadn’t thought of. For example, one PR professional suggested that instead of a signature, authors at a book-signing could pose for a digital photograph with all their fans who waited in line. (And yes, you could e-mail that photograph to your Kindle, where you could then access it from your home page.) And the photos could also be uploaded to Facebook or posted on weblogs — or even uploaded to your cell phone, so it’s next to the apps where you’re reading the author’s ebook!

Of course, it’s also possible to use a pen-shaped mouse to draw a digital signature onto the photograph, so the fans could still get their autograph after all. But according to TechEye, there’s an even more interesting possibility. A developer named Tom Waters teamed up with an IT contractor for NASA to create an application called “autography,” which captures a writer’s autograph on a digital blank page so that it can be inserted directly into ebooks! This could spread a new tradition throughout the world of ebooks, according to an insider for the publishing industry who was interviewed by the web site. “Autography has initially been developed as a iPad app which works with the iBookstore, although Waters says the final service will be device and format agnostic…”

This might be a better way to handle ebooks when authors are promoting their new releases at a bookstore. (I’ve already collected several stories about fans who asked the authors to simply sign the outside of their Kindles.) Last year at a Manhattan bookstore, this happened when humorist David Sedaris was promoting a new collection of essays called “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” — and he came up with the perfect inscription. “Mr. Sedaris, in mock horror, wrote, ‘This bespells doom’,” the New York Times reported, adding that the event “may have offered a glimpse of the future.” When the Times contacted Sedaris later, the author revealed that actually, he’d already signed “at least five” different Kindles — as well as “a fair number of iPods…for audio book listeners!”

William Gibson, the famous science fiction author, also experienced the same phenomenon — during a special book-signing at the Microsoft campus. (Gibson acknowledged to the fan that this was a first, and then autographed their Kindle with big, black letters using a permanent marker.) Later, the fan discovered that William Gibson was also talking about the incident on Twitter. “Signed very first Kindle at Microsoft,” Gibson announced to his fans. “Actually, *touched* very first Kindle.

“Appealing unit, IMO,” added the science fiction writer.

Gibson’s new book ultimately became Amazon’s best-selling science fiction book in September, and it’s possible that the extra publicity helped. It’s fun to think about this as two worlds colliding — that it’s the virtual world of ebooks confronting the real-world physicality of printed books (and their authors). But while this ritual may be undergoing simple changes, it could offer hints about something larger.

One fan even confessed to the New York Times that she actually felt embarrassed as she’d approached the author, because “if you’re asking for your Kindle to be signed, you’re taking the bookstore out of the process!”

Kindles for Christmas?

November 16th, 2010

Kindle giftwrapped as a Christmas gift
Is the Kindle about to explode in popularity? Yesterday the New York Times reported “great holiday expections” for e-readers. (This year Kindles are available at lower prices than they were last year — and with more places to buy them!) Last month the Kindle began appearing at Staples, and in June they’d already started turning up at Target (where a senior VP said the response was “overwhelmingly positive.”) Plus, now they’re also available at Best Buy, where the senior VP says “there’s no question that e-readers have found their rightful place in today’s digital lifestyle.”

One researcher told the Times that currently one out of every five Kindles were purchased as a gift, and because prices have come down, the Kindle should be even more popular this shopping season. (A new study by Consumer Reports finds that this year, 10% of adults plan to give a digital reader as a gift.) In fact, the Times cites a prediction that over the next six and a half weeks, the number of people who own a Kindle or other digital reading device will increase by 14%! Only nine million people have a digital reader now, according to Forrester Research statistics, but by the end of the year it’s expected to jump to 10.3 million…

Is this the moment when digital readers finally start to achieve “critical mass”? A British web site called PC Advisor has discovered that 32.8% of their audience already own a digital reader — while another 26.5% of them were interested in owning one. With 300,804 registered users, they represent one of Europe’s largest online communities, according to Wikipedia. Yet in February of 2009 (the last time they’d conducted a similar poll) just 5.2% of their audience had said they owned a digital reader, while only 11.6 percent more even said that they’d wanted one. “The combined group of interested voters, then, has rocketed from 16.8 to 59.3 percent…”

But if the the Kindle ultimately becomes the big winner, there’s also going to be a few losers. The Times cites a book researcher who predicts that we’ve finally reached the tipping-point for ebooks — which is bad news for bookstores. And the U.S. Census Bureau confirms the bad news, reporting that this year bookstores sold 7.7% fewer books in September than they’d sold just 12 months earlier — registering their lowest sales for any month in 2010. For August, sales were also lower, but the difference was just 6.5%, suggesting bookstores are continuing to lose even more customers every month. Yet in the larger economy, retail stores actually reported a 7.6% increase in sales for September — suggesting that it’s specifically just bookstores which are having trouble attracting customers!

I’ve been asking myself if the ebook revolution is real — so I tracked down new statistics from an actual book publisher. Between July and October, “Comparable store sales of new books declined 9.3%,” reports Hastings Entertainment, adding that it’s “certainly the case that electronic book readers are impacting new book sales.” I love books, but I love reading even more, so I’m glad to be here to witness this great transition. This next six weeks may prove to be that once-in-a-century change, when a new technology radically transforms our world.

We may have reached that fork in the road when the majority of book-buyers finally switches over to ebooks…

The Presidents and the Kindle

November 15th, 2010

President Abraham Lincoln reading a book
I remember 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 14 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.” That same month, former vice president Dick Cheney revealed he also had a Kindle, and a few weeks ago, even Laura Bush told an interviewer that she has one too.

But it’s not just that the Kindle is being used by a handful of White House occupants. After receiving a $7 million advance, former president Bush released his new autobiography on Tuesday. 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 demonstrate the “rapid growth” of the ebook market. (I calculate that that’s over half a million dollars worth of ebooks sold in a single day!) The publisher also revealed that 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 seven books by Jimmy Carter…

And tomorrow even president Obama is releasing a new book — and has also decided to make it available on the Kindle. It’s 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 10 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 10 years — both for politicians, as well as the rest of us!

Ping book cover and funny Amazon review of UNIX ping

This week hundreds of users submitted fake one-star reviews throughout Amazon’s Kindle store (as a protest of high ebook prices). But there’s also a tradition of random pranksters spontaneously slipping fake reviews onto the site — simply to amuse their friends.

And some of their most famous fake reviews can still make me laugh…

1. I was as surprised as anybody that Amazon was selling a plastic bottle of “Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 Gallon, 128 fl oz.” And I was even more surprised it had received 759 five-star reviews (and a total of 1,215 reviews).

“So Tasty the Monkeys of Tuscany Weep as it’s Exported”
“Has anyone else tried pouring this stuff over dry cereal?”
“Can fight zombies.”
“Warm.”

There’s something strange going on here — the gallon of milk was priced at $160. And don’t forget to click on the “related images,” which apparently show a satisfied Tuscan customer, bicycling with a refrigerator on his back. Instead of investigating the milk itself, the reviews become miniature satires, calling attention to the absurdity of selling milk through a Seattle-based web site.

“My milk came by UPS via Amazon Super Saver shipping (great value!). Unfortunately, it arrived warm and mildly chunky. As such, I’ve had to downgrade my rating to only four stars. It’s still the best milk $700 can buy

Eventually, even The New York Times ended up writing an article about the fake reviews, noting wryly in their headline that “all of a sudden everyone’s a milk critic.”

2. It was an even stranger day when Amazon’s educational science supplies finder turned up Uranium Ore. “So glad I don’t have to buy this from Libyans in parking lots at the mall anymore,” wrote one reviewer (who awarded the product 5 stars.) “The quality of this Uranium is on par with the stuff I was bying from the Libyans over at the mall parking lot, but at half the price!”

And amazingly, 1,377 of 1,437 people found the following review helpful.

“Ok for cleaning teeth, not so great for killing ants…”

In the mix are some finely-tuned jokes about the half-life of radioactive materials. (“I purchased this product 4.47 Billion Years ago and when I opened it today, it was half empty.”) And there’s also some advice for suggested implementations. (Like “Don’t use in a teleportation device!” and “DO NOT USE AS LUBRICANT!!!”) But one user issued a warning not about the product, but about the shipping.

“I was very disappointed to have my uranium confiscated at the airport. It was a gift for my son for his birthday. Also, I’m in prison now, so that’s not good either.”

3. Over 200 different reviews have turned up for the Bic crystal ballpoint pen. (“Worked fine with my right hand, but when I came to use my left hand my writing came out looking like the work of a complete imbecile…would caution left-handers to ‘try before you buy’.”) Within 24 hours, a link to one review actually drew over 1,000 positive votes on Reddit. (“Since taking delivery of my pen I have been very happy with the quality of ink deposition on the various types of paper that I have used…”) One reviewer was delighted to discover the product, because “I have been meaning to upgrade from my HB2 pencil for some time, but I have been wary of making the jump.” But someone calling themselves “Flabbergasted” instead wrote an outraged review complaining of “Blatant false advertising…

“I ordered 300 of these individually gift wrapped for a client’s wedding and was horrified to learn 14 minutes before the reception that this is NOT REAL CRYSTAL!!!”

4. I have a personal fondness for some of the first fake reviews ever submitted. Once upon a time, back in 1995, there was a web site where random wise guys submitted alternate captions for the newspaper comic strip “The Family Circus.” It continued for over four years, until Bil Keane’s lawyers finally showed up and purged them from the internet — but the site’s contributors had also apparently slipped in some fake Amazon reviews of the cartoonist’s books. (“Since Bill Keane’s extradition from Guatemala, his work has not been the same…”) One amazed author at the literary site Feed honestly suggested the reviews were “revolutionary”, protesting the “insipid commentary” that usually clogs Amazon’s review section.

He noted Amazon had just faced a controversy about whether they were accepting bribes for listings in the staff-driven “What we’re reading” section, then suggested the fake reviews were “poetic justice.” An embarrassed Amazon quickly deleted the funny Family Circus reviews, but eventually some quotes also turned up in a Village Voice article asking the ultimate question: who’s reviewing these reviewers?

“While I agree that Daddy’s Cap Is on Backwards has its moments of drug-inspired poetry, frankly I was disappointed that Keane appears to have abandoned the thematic thread that ran through earlier classics including . . . the quintessential Don’t Bother Mommy When She’s Drinking.”

5. It’s also been more than 10 years since John E. Fracisco submitted his review of a famous children’s picture book — but it has to be considered one of the most famous, since 9,846 of 10,193 people marked his review “helpful”. The picture book tells the story of a fish-catching duck who works on Chinese fisherman’s boat — though Fracisco’s review apparently mistakes “The Story About Ping” for a manual on the UNIX operating system command for testing connection latency. But he still enthusiastically plows through his review, describing the book as “an insightful and intuitive explanation of one of Unix’s most venerable networking utilities…[though] I would have expected a more detailed overview of the ICMP packet structure.”

“Even more stunning is that they were clearly working with a very early beta of the program, as their book first appeared in 1933, years (decades!) before the operating system and network infrastructure were finalized…”

Amazon vs. The Motley Fool

November 11th, 2010

The Motley Fool logo

Last week, The Motley Fool site had a harsh message for stock investors. “Is Amazon Lying To You?”

“Reading Amazon’s press releases on Kindle’s greatness is like having a discussion with a kindergartner or a politician. They all tell you what they think you want to hear in glowing superlatives, but lack the details you really need to know before drawing your own conclusion.”

But fortunately, a new study may answer their question…

To this day Amazon has never announced how many ebooks they’ve actually sold, or even how many Kindle devices! So while the Kindle is a wonderful reading device, the investment site was challenging Amazon’s vague substitute claim that their ebook sales “continue to overtake” the sale of printed books. Amazon announced that in October their ebooks outsold print books for all titles in the top 1,000. But the investment site argued Amazon’s statistic is comparing ebooks only to the most expensive of the hardcover-only, new print books. (For example, the new autobiography of President Bush is selling for $18.90 as a hardcover book — but just $9.99 as a Kindle ebook.)

The Motley Fool concludes that Amazon “appears to be trying to mislead you,” though they leave open the possibility that Amazon is even more successful that it’s letting on. “[I]f you’re the best then rest on your laurels…” they advise Amazon. “Come on, Amazon. Show us the numbers!” But in July, one analyst calculated that actually Amazon still sells twice as many printed paperbacks as they do ebooks. (And in September, citing the same analyst, MIT’s technology blog reported that e-book sales “represent ‘only six percent of the total market for new books.’”)

Fortunately, there’s some encouraging new statistics on ebook sales from the Association of American Publishers. Wednesday they announced that compared to the previous year, book publishers sold 12.1% fewer printed books this September. The sales of adult hardcover books were down 40.4% in September, while there was a 23.6% drop in the sales of adult “mass market” books. And yet, the sales of ebooks continues to increase, racking up a year-to-date sales figure that’s nearly double what it was one year ago! They’re a trade association representing over 300 publishers, and collectively they’d reported $39.9 million in ebook sales just for the month of September…

At that rate, ebook sales for the next year would come out to a whopping $478.8 million! And there’s a few other conclusions you can draw from these statistics. The Motley Fool may be right in guessing people are more likely to buy ebooks instead of expensive hardcover and mass market books. And Amazon (and Barnes and Noble) have both sold more digital readers, so it’s not surprising that their owners are now buying more ebooks, creating an increase in this year’s ebook sales.

And yet, watch what happens when you calculate the current percentage of ebook sales to all book sales. Here’s the table of all the figures they’d reported in their press release

$180.3 million for hard
$111.5 million adult paperback
$76.6 million for hardcover children’s/young adult books
$67.8 mass market sales
$53.3 million children’s/young adult (paperback)

$39.9 ebook sales

It looks like ebook sales still represent just 7.53% of all book sales. So while ebook sales could reach half a billion dollars over the next 12 years — that’s still a small fraction of the $6.3 billion dollars in total book sales!

Consumer Reports buying guide cover

There’s been some excitement in Amazon’s Kindle forum. Consumer Reports magazine just chose the Kindle as the best e-reader in an early December issue. But I discovered that there’s even more good news for Amazon. At my local bookstore, I scoured the magazine rack, and found an even more positive comparison in the Consumer Reports Electronics Buying Guide!

And the Kindle had already won high marks in their special “Best Products of the Year” issue in November. It was the Kindle — and not the Nook or the iPad — which was listed in a special section called “Great Gifts for $250 and Under.” Consumer Reports wrote enthusiastically that the Kindle “offers crisp text, fine performance, simple controls, and a pleasurable reading experience.” It was just a short blurb — but the Electronics Buying Guide offered a very detailed comparison.

It costs a whopping $10.99 for that special Winter issue — but watch out. There’s a funny typo in its section on digital readers. They warn readers that prices typically range from $1150 to $500. Er, I’ve never seen an e-reader that costs $1150!

The guide starts with a section for people who have never seen a digital reader before, but are considering whether to buy one. (The magazine gave low marks to the experience of browsing the web on all the digital readers, calling them “very limited” and “virtually unusable”.) And they also warn shoppers to “be wary” of a reader which can’t connect to a wireless 3G network. But their biggest negative comment about the Kindle is just about file formats. (“With Kindles…Word documents and photos in JPEG format must be sent to Amazon for conversion before than can be loaded.”)

You have to flip towards the back of the magazine to find their detailed comparison table, where the Kindle was ultimately declared the winner. Consumer Reports named the Kindle DX “Best for Reading Lots of Textbooks with Diagrams,” while the newer Kindle 3G won the other honor — “Best for Most People”. Ultimately the Kindle came up with an overall score of 63 (or 65, for the larger Kindle DX). In fact, the Nook came in #3, racking up a score of just 52. In the number two position was the Sony Reader, which scored a 60, or a 56 for the smaller version. (Also tested were the BeBook, the iRex, and the Alluratek Libre.)

Of all the readers that they compared, only the Kindle received their special endorsements. The Kindle DX was listed as “Recommended,” while the Kindle 3G was awarded a “Best Buy” check mark. The Kindle scored the best for “readability” — receiving the second-highest possible score of “very good” (while the Nook’s readability was a rank lower, rated as “good” — along with every other reader.) The testers defined “readability” as which device is the easiest on your eyes.

In fact, the only two categories where the Nook scored higher than the Kindle were in “file support” and “versatility” (defined as the number of features available).The Kindle also bested the Nook in ease of navigation, page turning, and responsiveness. The Nook’s lowest score was for responsiveness — how quickly the screen becomes functional after powering up or returning from sleep mode. The Nook received the second-lowest possible ranking there, while both versions of the Kindle scored a rank higher — a middle rating of “good.” The reviewers also noted that for some users, the Kindle’s text-to-speech features could also come in handy. (They specifically mention the sight-impaired, but if you’re taking a long car trip, the Kindle could even read to you from the passenger seat!)

It’s a big deal, because Consumer Reports has been around since 1936, and I’ve always thought of it as one of the most well-respect consumer organizations. Their annual budget for testing is $21 million, according to Wikipedia.

But ironically, you still can’t read Consumer Reports on your Kindle!

The Onion mocks the Kindle

November 8th, 2010

Last week The Onion made a funny, fake announcement about the president of Amazon. “‘The Kindle Is Easier To Read In Bright Sunlight,’ Amazon CEO Shouts At Customers In Apple Store.” It’s a nod to Amazon’s war with the iPad, but the fake headline got a real rise from Twitter’s assortment of geeks, Apple fans, and Kindle lovers. The headline appeared on The Onion’s Twitter feed, which has over 2.4 million followers — and by Monday, over 100 people had “re-tweeted” the message to their own followers on Twitter.

But I discovered it wasn’t the first time the humor site had joked about the Kindle. When Amazon released the Kindle 2, The Onion was there with a quick list of its new features.

- A lot fewer dangling wires
- …is not just a hollow box with a clear plastic window that you insert books into…”

And in January, at the Consumer Electronics Show, they’d also joked that for nostalgic users, the Kindle now “signals a logging crew to cut down 10 trees for every book purchased with the device.”

But it’s hard to tell whether they’re making fun of Amazon’s digital reader, or if they’re secretly fans of the Kindle. For example, in July their “American Voices” segment showed the heads of three people, responding to the news that ebook sales were [almost] surpassing sales of printed books. One of them announced that he wasn’t surprised by the popularity of ebooks, because “…if you’re reading a hardcover book, strangers try to start conversations with you. If you’re reading off a Kindle, people just stare at your awesome Kindle.” And the same fake people were also there in March, ready to react to the news that Amazon had temporarily pulled all the books from Macmillan publishing house.

“Publishing house? I thought Stephen Coonts just typed all the books right into Amazon!”

In May, they even offered opinions about Amazon’s foray into the market for college textbooks. “It does make sense for students to keep all the books they’re not going to read in one device, rather than lugging a big heavy bag around.”

But interestingly, you can now buy entire ebooks with humor from The Onion. For $9.99, you can buy Homeland Insecurity: The Onion Complete News Archives, Volume 17. (“This collection features the entire archive from November 2004 to December 2005…”) In print it came out to a whopping 320 pages, but the ebook edition was just released in May — and judging by one review, now its fake news headlines are even more timely. (“Cost of Living Now Outweighs Benefits… Bankrupt U.S. Sold to China.”)

And just last month The Onion released an ebook by their columnist, Jean Teasdale. It’s called A Book of Jean’s Own!: All New Wit, Wisdom, and Wackiness from The Onion’s Beloved Humor Columnist, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek newspaper column that’s apparently written by a cheerful yet secretly unhappy housewife.

I’ve been enjoying The Onion’s skewed take on the news for over 15 years, but I have to admit that they finally got me. Reading through their fake news stories, I discovered their announcement of a new “U2 Edition” of the Kindle, which ships pre-loaded with all of the favorite books by the rock band U2. For half a second, I wondered if Amazon really had released a special Kindle edition, and I actually spent a few minutes frantically searching for it in Amazon’s Kindle store.

Zing!

And remember, you can also subscribe to The Onion on the Kindle for just $1.99.

Amazon smile logo
It’s on everybody’s Kindle — an e-mail address for contacting Amazon’s Kindle team. (It appears as one of the screensavers: “We love to hear your thoughts on the Kindle experience… send us your input at: kindle-feedback@amazon.com) But last week, something very special happened. Amazon’s Kindle team announced on their Facebook page that they’d decided to share “a few of the messages that made us smile.”

I’ve met people who are skeptical of the Kindle’s popularity — but there’s a lot of real excitement and enthusiasm. (“If my house was on fire,” wrote a user named Alberta, “I would grab my purse, my cat, and my Kindle.”) And another user named Jan reported cheerfully that “now I can read and scratch my cat’s head at the same time. I do not have to stop for page turning.” (She adds that Sam — presumably, her cat — “is happy and thinks this is the greatest invention…”)

The positive comments kept coming, although a few cited specific and practical advantages. Someone named A. Y. e-mailed Amazon to tell them that “the Kindle makes me want to read more.” And Brenda B. thanked Amazon for letting her replace printed books with ebooks. “My husband says I’ve saved his retirement fund because of all the money I’ve saved buying my books on Kindle instead of the bookstore.” (She added that without her Kindle, “I am like Linus without his blanket…)

It’s always fun to hear how other people feel about their Kindles. I tried the same experiment once — and discovered just as much enthusiasm. Last month author Elif Batuman wrote a funny article about how the Kindle lets her indulge in the books she considers guilty pleasures. (“The Kindle is wonderful for drunk people…”) All the positive stories made want to say that there’s obviously “a lot of love out there” for the Kindle.

But then I read something that was actually about love itself. Amazon shared a remarkable e-mail from a young man named Scott, telling the story of a very special night when “the Kindle was going to help me pop the question.”


I began writing down ideas and memories of our relationship and all at once, it hit me. I wrote a short story about how we met and highlighted some of the things we’ve done over the last two years. After a few weeks of writing and editing, I had a pretty solid story saved the file as a PDF, loaded in on the Kindle, and waited until our anniversary.

On the night of our two year anniversary, she opened the Kindle’s box, her face lit up and I could immediately tell that I had bought a winning gift. She was so excited to receive the Kindle, and I was so nervous knowing that I was about to propose using said Kindle. I walked her through how to use the device and then opened up the story I had written. She read the story aloud and I waited for the end of the story. As she finished reading the story, I pulled out the engagement ring’s box, opened it, an proposed.

Obviously, since I am writing this story, she said yes! We’re now planning our wedding for 2011 and I could not be happier.”