“Toys R Us” Will Sell Kindles!

Toys R Us Kindle gift card

Here’s something I didn’t expect to see. Amazon will start selling Kindles in toy stores! The “Toys R Us” chain has 1,556 outlets around the world — including 840 in the U.S., where they’ll be selling the Kindle and Kindle accessories. “The introduction of Kindle provides another compelling reason for families to visit Toys R Us stores,” a company spokesperson told me on Thursday, “for the best and broadest assortment of products for kids living a digital lifestyle.”

It’s considered the largest single toy retailer in the world, according to Reuters, and their store in Times Square is said to be the world’s single-largest toy store. And if you buy your Kindle there, the toy store will give you a bonus, a company spokesman told me Thursday. “To celebrate…customers purchasing any Kindle will receive a free $10 Toys R Us Gift Card from July 31 through August 6, while supplies last.”

But the significance is obvious: Amazon is positioning the Kindle as a gift for children! “From the department of hook ’em early,” joked a blogger at the Los Angeles Times – but I think it’s part of a deep and meaningful trend. Earlier this month, the government of South Korea declared that they’ll eliminate all printed text books in their state-run schools over the next four years — to replace them all with ebooks. It will cost $2.4 billion, the country’s education minister told the Christian Science Monitor, citing it as part of a project to create “smart schools” which incorporate video, animation, hyperlinks, and even virtual reality into a “digital curriculum.

In fact, hundreds of elementary school students in South Korea are already reading digital textbooks on tablet computers, according to the article. And it may be the first sign of a new role for the Kindle and other digital readers: educating our children. In fact, in Texas, Abilene Christian University is already experimenting with digital textbook. One sophomore told USA Today that his economics textbook somehow became more appealing when it was available in a digital format. (“Just the fact that it’s on the iPad and it’s all on there, makes me a lot more interested.”)

The school launched a “mobile learning” initiative, and 75% of the incoming freshmen said they’d be willing to buy their own tablet if they were able to use them to read more than half of their textbooks. The sophomore said he was already dreading the end of this year’s pilot program, saying that when he had to finally give up the iPad, “It’s going to break my heart.” But this isn’t the only example of ebooks being used in education. There have also been several anecdotes about Kindles being used in American high schools and elementary schools — and even in a pilot program in a village in Africa.

Florida is requiring schools to spend half their textbook money on ebooks within the next three years. And there was a sweet story about a fifth grade class in New York where the students shared eight Kindles. The teacher gushed that it made her students excited about reading, saying “If we can get them excited about reading at this age, it creates a lifelong reader.” And a charity called World Reader brought 440 free Kindles to a village in Africa.

I think Amazon sees this as the next big market for the Kindle. Maybe they’re just looking for a new source of customers so they can keep competing with the Nook. But it’s possible they’ve recognized this
as the future. I think they want to make sure that the next generation gets an early chance to start reading their ebooks on a Kindle.

The Kindle Comes to College

Amazon Kindle Textbook ebook rentals

Those poor college students. I was visiting a campus at California State University, and the textbook prices at the student bookstore were expensive! One of the textbooks actually cost $138 (new), and while there was a cheaper used edition, it still cost over a hundred dollars!

But here’s the interesting part. The cheapest option — listed on a tag on the bookshelf — was not buying a printed book at all. College students can now rent their texts in ebook format. “They’re cheaper,” a college student behind the cash register explained to me. “But you only get them for a limited period of time.”

Amazon’s trying to help — or at least, to take advantage of the situation. Last week they launched a new service called “Kindle Texbook Rentals,” now promising savings of up to 80% over the cost of a printed text-book. And there’s an additional advantage that Amazon’s technology will make possible. “Normally, when you sell your print textbook at the end of the semester you lose all the margin notes and highlights you made as you were studying,” explained David Limp, vice president of Amazon’s Kindle department. “We’re extending our Whispersync technology so that you get to keep and access all of your notes and highlighted content in the Amazon Cloud, available anytime, anywhere – even after a rental expires!”

Amazon pro-rates the cost of your e-book based on how long you rent it — for a period that can be anywhere from 30 days to 360. “Tens of thousands of textbooks are available for the 2011 school year…” Amazon promised in their press release. And you don’t even need a Kindle in order to access the ebooks. Amazon will also deliver these ebooks to any of the free Kindle apps that are available — which includes Kindle apps for Mac and PC computers, as well as Apple products like the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, and even the Windows Phone, Blackberry, and any Android-powered devices.

“Kindle Rental has the best prices,” concluded a textbook-comparison web site — but there were a couple of catches. First, Amazon only offered 18 of the top 100 college textbooks, according to CampusBooks.com. And even among those 18 textbooks, only five were available for the cheapest rental period. “Renting a Kindle book for the advertised 30-day period yielded the highest savings, often in the double-digits…” the web site explained in their press release, “but only five of 100 titles were available for the month-long range.”

“The other 13 titles available had minimum periods of 60 days, and the savings were less.”

And what happens if you wanted to rent your e-book for more than 60 days? “[I]f students were to rent via Kindle for a whole semester (120 days), only half of the time was Kindle Rental cheaper than buying and selling a used book.” Hopefully Amazon’s selection will grow as more students continue using it, but the ultimate judges will be actual students who are shopping for their college textbooks. On Tuesday CampusRentals.com tracked down an actual college student — a senior at Trinity College in Connecticut — who is currently giving Amazon’s new service a mixed review. “It’ll be great once they get more titles,” he told the web site.

“But for now, I’m stuck with other options.”

Surprises in Amazon’s New Quarterly Report?

Amazon 9.9 billion in sales for 2Q 2011

This afternoon, Amazon finally told investors what their sales were for the months from April through June — and they surprised even Wall Street’s analysts. Compared to last year, Amazon’s net sales for the period were 51% higher. It was “the fastest growth we’ve seen in over a decade,” Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement — which at times sounded more like a sales pitch for the Kindle.

“Kindle 3G with Special Offers has quickly become our bestselling Kindle at only $139,” Bezos continued, touting the convenience of not having to hunt for a Wi-Fi hotspot. But he also revealed that Kindle sales were increasing — and at a faster rate than they were last year. Of course, there might be a simple explanation for that. Amazon released the cheaper $114 “Kindle with Special Offers” in April, which you’d
expect to increase sales from the three-month lull after Christmas.

But in general, Bezos insisted, Amazon’s sales growth was being driven by “Low prices, expanding selection, fast delivery and innovation…” (It sometimes seems like Amazon is talking in code words, since they never actually reveal specifically how many Kindles they’ve sold.) Fortunately, Bloomberg News talked to an industry analyst instead, who estimated that Amazon may have sold more than 8 million Kindles just in 2010. And more importantly, they estimate that Kindle readers already account for 5% of Amazon’s total sales.

In fact, Amazon’s now approaching more than one million ebooks that are available for sale in their Kindle store (besides the millions of free, out-of-copyright books). “The U.S. Kindle Store now has more than 950,000 books,” Amazon said in a statement today, “including New Releases and 110 of 111 New York Times Bestsellers.” What’s even more remarkable is that more than 800,000 books are available for less than $9.99, “including 65 New York Times Bestsellers.” In a Tuesday conference call, Amazon spoke of a “conversion from physical to digital” in their business, and seemed to hint that those offerings had been very popular with Amazon’s customers. (“We feel very good about those investments in terms of the traction we’re getting from a customer standpoint,” an Amazon official explained.)

Sales of the Kindle and electronic merchandise “are two big drivers for Amazon that continued unabated,” one analyst told Bloomberg News. Despite some pressure from costs, “Amazon is running on all cylinders,” another analyst commented. The dark cloud is the money Amazon’s been spending to achieve all these higher sales — but even there, the Kindle’s proving to be something Amazon officials point to with pride.

“We started investing in our Kindle businesses several years ago…” one Amazon official explained on Tuesday’s call, “and those have gotten great traction…” Amazon’s now opened 15 new distribution centers — which I’m guessing will play a role when Amazon finally releases an iPad-sized tablet, possibly offering free two-day shipping as part of the deal. In Tuesday’s conference call, Amazon used the profitability of the Kindle business as an example of why that’s necessary, saying the profits didn’t happen overnight. “Those are things that have happened over an extended period of time.”

There was a 34-minute question-and-answer period at the end of the call, and somebody finally asked directly whether Amazon planned to release their own multimedia tablet to compete with the iPad. But
while the question was asked, it wasn’t answered. (“We have a longstanding practice of not talking about what we might or might not do,” an Amazon official explained, “and so I can’t — I can’t help you with that question.”

I learned something I didn’t know. More than 45% of Amazon’s sales weren’t even in North America. (Amazon also has sites for Japan, China, France, England, Germany, and Italy.) Amazon’s total sales for just the last three months were $9.9 billion — and professional investors seemed to be positively impressed.

After the stock market closed, “late trading” pushed the company’s shares up a full 6.9%

Over 900 Ebooks On Sale!

Amazon Big Deal 99-cent ebook sale

Better hurry. Amazon’s announced a big sale on ebooks — but it ends Wednesday. “Now through July 27, more than 900 Kindle books are on sale,” they explain on a special web page, “for $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, and $3.99.”

They’re calling the promotion “The Big Deal,” and it’s a nice way to highlight the wide selection of e-books that are now available in Amazon’s Kindle store. Besides fiction, I see celebrity biographies, plus books about cooking, fitness and parenting — and everything from Christian fiction to a satirical e-book called “Stuff Christians Like.” Even if the special prices aren’t available in your country, it’s still a nice way to imagine new things you could be reading on your Kindle. I browsed through the list today, and found some books that I didn’t even know existed!

One of the most-popular ebooks on sale today is “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” — which is billed as an “expanded edition” of Jane Austen’s classic 19th-century romance novel. (“85 percent of the original text has been preserved but fused with ‘ultraviolent zombie mayhem,'” explains the book’s description on Amazon.) “This parody shows that Austen’s novel has remained so powerful over time that even the undead can’t spoil it,” reads another review. But it turns out it’s just one of several strange literary mash-ups that are now available at a reduced in price.

There’s also “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls” — which is billed as a prequel by a new author — as well as his follow-up effort, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After”. Through Wednesday each ebook is available for just 99 cents — and you can also purchase a similar ebook titled “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.” Someone’s even attempted a similar re-working of a famous short story by Franz Kafka — The Metamorphosis — by changing its plot so the protagonist turns not into an insect, but a cat. Its title? The Meowmorphosis. (And apparently there’s even a zombie ebook for children, titled “That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale”…)

I’m not the only one who’s excited about the sale. “Just got my Kindle a few days ago, so the timing is perfect…” read one comment on Facebook. In fact, when Amazon announced the special prices, 538 different people indicated that they liked the deal (by pressing Facebook’s “Like” icon) — and another 101 left comments. “At $0.99, it is a perfect opportunity to try new authors,” read another comment, which added “I have found several new authors to read…”

It looks like there’s price discounts on nearly a thousand ebooks. (The best-seller list ends at #972…) But some of the ebooks are just enhanced editions where the text is already available elsewhere as a free e-book. For example, one of the special deals touts the classic Zane Grey western — “Riders of the Purple Sage” — for just $2.99, though the work is now in the public domain, and you can already find a free edition elsewhere in the Kindle store. There’s also an audio/video-enhanced version of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin for $1.99 — though if you’re looking for just the text, a free edition is also available.

I was surprised to find another ebook available for free — an indie biography (with a lot of pictures) called The Beatles: Fifty Fabulous Years by Les Krantz and Robert Rodriguez. But that just goes to show how much fun I had browsing through all of the sale-priced ebooks today. I discovered that even Roger Ebert, the famous film critic, has a funny ebook available at a special sales price, called “Your Movie Sucks” — a collection of his sharpest reviews, now available for just $1.99. And for $1.99, you can also read “Day of the Triffids” – the classic science fiction novel-turned movie that was immortalized forever in the opening song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

There’s also two food-related books seemed interesting. One was “The I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook: More than 150 Delicious Recipes Using Only Foods from the World’s Greatest Grocery Store” — specially-priced at just $2.99. And for ketchup lovers, there’s even “H. J. Heinz: A Biography” for only $3.99.

So what other interesting ebooks are on sale today in Amazon’s Kindle Store?

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland ($2.99)
Kindle 3 For Dummies ($3.99)
The Art of War by Sun Tzu ($2.99)
The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Life and Works of Stieg Larsson (99 cents)
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey ($5.99)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner ($5.99)
Old Yeller – $1.99
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary ($3.99)
Bermuda Shorts by James Patterson – $4.99
Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs – $3.79
Wuthering Heights: The Wild and Wanton Edition ($2.99)
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley ($3.99)

Click here for a complete list

My Favorite Kindle EBook Highlights

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte

I really enjoyed reading Amazon’s lists of the most highlighted passages from e-books. It got me thinking about what passages I’ve highlighted
     — and it turns out it’s a pretty strange mix!

Today I couldn’t stop myself from reading through them all again — everything I’d ever identified as one of my favorite passages in a Kindle ebook. Each one had been carefully flagged on my Kindle as a special passage — something worth saving for later — but the day had finally come when I’d review the entire collection! It was like a secret history of the world — random moments of joy and precious memories, some preserved for over a century. Some were funny, some were wise, but each one offered yet-another glimpse into the whole “human experience”.

I had a lot of fun reading them — and I decided I wanted to share them.

“It was a golden afternoon. The smell of the dust they kicked up was rich and satisfying; out of thick orchards on either side the road, birds called and whistled to them cheerily; good-natured wayfarers, passing them, gave them ‘Good-day,’ or stopped to say nice things about their beautiful cart; and rabbits, sitting at their front doors in the hedgerows, held up their fore-paws, and said, ‘O my! O my! O my!'”

     — from The Wind in the Willows

“It was on the first of May, in the year 1769, that I resigned my domestic happiness for a time, and left my family and peaceable habitation on the Yadkin River, in North-Carolina, to wander through the wilderness of America, in quest of the country of Kentucke

     — from Life and Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone

“The history of civilisation is a history of wandering, sword in hand, in search of food.”

     — from A Collection of Stories by Jack London

“Red Lake must be his Rubicon. Either he must enter the unknown to seek, to strive, to find, or turn back and fail and never know and be always haunted.

“Once in his life he had answered a wild call to the kingdom of adventure within him, and once in his life he had been happy.”

“…in the lonely days and silent nights of the desert he had experienced a strange birth of hope.”

     — from The Rainbow Trail by Zane Grey

“De Soto merely glimpsed the river, then died and was buried in it by his priests and soldiers. One would expect the priests and the soldiers to multiply the river’s dimensions by ten — the Spanish custom of the day — and thus move other adventurers to go at once and explore it.”

“Apparently nobody happened to want such a river, nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it; so, for a century and a half the Mississippi remained out of the market and undisturbed.”

     — from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

“The early colonists of Virginia were not very well fitted for such a work. Some of them were gentlemen who had never labored with their hands; others were poor, idle fellows whose only wish was to do nothing whatever… Of the first thousand colonists not one hundred lived to tell the tale of those early days.”

     — from A Short History of the United States by Edward Channing

“one of them shot a deer, great numbers of which overrun the islands and hills of San Francisco Bay… If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity.”

     — from Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana

“Last spring, 1846, was a busy season in the City of St. Louis. Not only were emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon and California, but an unusual number of traders were making ready their wagons and outfits for Santa Fe.”

     — from The Oregon Trail: sketches of prairie and Rocky-Mountain life

“Passports are only good for annoying honest folks, and aiding in the flight of rogues.”

     — from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days

“At the period when these events took place, I had just returned from a scientific research in the disagreeable territory of Nebraska, in the United States.”

     — from Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne

“My brother had, in 1720 or 1721, begun to print a newspaper. It was the second that appeared in America, and was called the New England Courant. The only one before it was the Boston News-Letter. I remember his being dissuaded by some of his friends from the undertaking, as not likely to succeed, one newspaper being, in their judgment, enough for America.”

“By the same wife [my father] had four children more born there, and by a second wife ten more, in all seventeen; of which I remember thirteen sitting at one time at his table, who all grew up to be men and women, and married”

“In the mean time, that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience…”

     — from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

“Take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.”

“she, after a while, fell in love with him because she could not understand him.”

     — from Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills

“And over this, no longer bright,
Though glimmering with a latent light,
Was hung the sword his grandsire bore,
In the rebellious days of yore,
Down there at Concord in the fight.”

     — from Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“But whatever he wrote, and in whatever fashion, Presley was determined that his poem should be of the West, that world’s frontier of Romance, where a new race, a new people—hardy, brave, and passionate—were building an empire…”

“He searched for the True Romance, and, in the end, found grain rates and unjust freight tariffs.”

     — from The Octopus : A story of California by Frank Norris

“I have observed that as a man advances in life, he is subject to a kind of plethora of the mind, doubtless occasioned by the vast accumulation of wisdom and experience upon the brain. Hence he is apt to become narrative and admonitory, that is to say, fond of telling long stories, and of doling out advice, to the small profit and great annoyance of his friends.”

     — from Wolfert’s Roost and Miscellanies by Washington Irving

“Do not forget me! Tell them in the jungle never to forget me!”

“They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten.”

     — from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

“Such a fire will keep all night, with very little replenishing; and it makes a very sociable camp-fire, and one around which the most impossible reminiscences sound plausible, instructive, and profoundly entertaining.”

“it only added to our comfort to think of those people out there at work in the murky night, and we snug in our nest with the curtains drawn.”

     — from Mark Twain’s Roughing It

Who is the Most Highlighted Author of All Time?

Suzanne Collins

Do people highlight passages on their Kindle? According to Amazon, the most-frequently highlighted passage of all time has been highlighted just 4,743 times. It’s this sentence from Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, the same novel also contains the fourth most-highlighted passage (highlighted by 3,965 Kindle owners).

“Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”

Amazon’s made a complete list available showing hundreds and hundreds of the most-highlighted passages of all time. But it turns out that Jane Austen isn’t the most-highlighted author in the top 10. That distinction belongs to Suzanne Collins — the contemporary novelist who recently became only the sixth author to sell million e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store. Three of 10 most-highlighted passages all come from her “Hunger Games” trilogy, with two from its final book — including the second- and third-most highlighted passages of all time!

“It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.”

     — from Mockingjay
        (Highlighted by 4,390 Kindle users)

“Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.”

     — from Catching Fire
        (Highlighted by 4,001 Kindle users)

“We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.”

     — from Mockingjay
        (Highlighted by 3,206 Kindle users)

Collins also has three more passages in the top 50, and another 7 in the top 100, for a grand total of 13 different passages which all made it into the top 100. And Amazon has also created a second list of the passages which were most-highlighted in the recent past — where Collins holds six of the top 10 spots!

what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that. So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”

     — from Mockingjay

“District Twelve. Where you can starve to death in safety.”

     — from The Hunger Games

“The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

     — from The Hunger Games

It’s fun reading the highlights, getting quick glimpses of new books I might want to read, and discovering which surprising sentences other Kindle owners picked out as their most-favorite sentences. Reading all the highlights can give a tiny peek into what the actual books are like. And I have to admit, after reading those highlighted passages from Suzanne Collins’ books, it made me curious to read the whole thing! But it’s also made me want to spend more time visiting kindle.amazon.com — just so I can see more highlighted passages.

Amazon’s also identified which books are the most-highlighted of all time — and it’s an entirely different set of books. Four of the top 10 are different versions of the bible, and one holds the #1 spot on the list. In fact, surprisingly, there’s just one work of fiction in the top 10 — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The other five books are self-help titles, including two by science writer Timothy Ferris. The second most-highlighted book is “The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman,” and the fifth most-highlighted book is “The 4-Hour Workweek, Expanded and Updated: Expanded and Updated, With Over 100 New Pages of Cutting-Edge Content.”

So now I have a dilemma. Should I read about rapid fat-loss — or The Hunger Games?

50% Off Kindle Interactive Fiction!

Dusk World - Amazon Kindle interactive fiction game screenshot

For the next week, eight different Kindle games have been slashed in price by 50%! The sale includes two new games — “Inheritance” and “Affairs of the Court” — both now available for just 99 cents. But Amazon’s also cut the price in half for “Dusk World”, which has always been one of the most expensive Kindle games in Amazon’s store.

I think of Dusk World as Amazon’s game masterpiece — a “noir”-style graphic novel from Amazon Digital Services in which nearly every page of text comes with an original illustration. (For that reason the game’s file size is an enormous 5.2 megabytes, making it one of the largest games in the Kindle store.) It’s a fun detective story about a superhero in jail — he’s imprisoned for a murder which he can’t remember whether he committed. The story is dark and intense, and Amazon even warns in the game’s description that “Dusk World contains content that may be inappropriate for children.” It’s almost like Amazon was trying to invent a new genre for the Kindle — a high-quality interactive choose-your-own-path comic book.

Maybe they were just ahead of their time. But I think Amazon still harbors a secret affection for the “interactive fiction” genre. In a promotional e-mail they sent me Wednesday, instead of describing them as games, Amazon’s calling them “interactive Kindle books”. (“Your choices control the story…” Amazon wrote, “in which multiple plot lines and endings promise a rich reading experience. “) In fact, one of the two new games is “Affairs of the Court” — the first interactive romance novel — in which players control the destiny of “a young noble who comes to court in search of love and power, and catches the sovereign’s eye.” It’s really two games rolled into one — “Choice of Romance” and a sequel, “Choice of Intrigues” — and it’s available for just 99 cents.

The other new game — “Inheritance” — is one of the best-formatted text adventures I’ve ever seen on the Kindle. “I don’t know how to break this to you, but your crazy uncle Ozmo has passed away,” the story begins. “…you must have made a good impression because he’s left you everything in his will.” There’s apparently eight different choices on each screen of the game, though the adventure is a little short (according to one user’s comment). It’s also part of Amazon’s “50% off sale” on interactive fiction, so through July 25 it’s also available for just 99 cents.

Here’s a complete list of all the games which are on sale for the next 10 days.

Affairs of the Court
Dusk World

The Citadel of Chaos
Warlock of Firetop Mountain

Choice of the Broadsides
Choice of the Vampire
Choice of the Dragon

Dusk World - new Amazon Kindle game

The Great Sales Tax War

Amazon referendum vs California state sales tax

Amazon’s come up a with a clever way to avoid a new sales tax enacted by California’s governor. If Amazon can collect 504,759 signatures, that law instantly goes away.

At least for a while. If Amazon can gather enough signatures to simply qualify for a “referendum” vote in California’s next election, “the new sales tax law would be suspended,” one of Amazon’s lawyers told a Sacramento newspaper. The next election probably won’t be held until June of 2012, the newspaper reports, giving Amazon almost a year before they’d have to pay the state’s sales tax. One pro-tax group argued it’s proof that Amazon “will say and do anything to maintain an unfair competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar businesses in California.”

Of course when Californians file their state tax returns each year, they’re supposed to calculate how much sales tax they owe for all their online purchases during the last year – and then add that amount in to their total tax due. But California apparently feels this “honor system” isn’t bringing in that money — and neither does a columnist at Slate.com. “Technically, then, if I buy a $1,000 laptop from Amazon, I’m supposed to pay a $90 use tax when I file my taxes to my home state of California at the end of the year,” writes Farhad Manjoo. “I’ve never done this, and I bet you haven’t either – almost nobody does, because states have no good way to enforce use tax collection.”

“The customers need to keep it honest and quit looking at shopping online as a way of avoiding sales tax,” complained one comment at Slate.com. But maybe it’s Amazon’s secret weapon. In a recent yearly report to the Securities Exchange Commission, Amazon implied that their customers simply think they’re getting a better deal than they would at offline stores. “A successful assertion by one or more states . . . that we should collect sales or other taxes on the sale of merchandise or services could . . . decrease our ability to compete with traditional retailers and otherwise harm our business.”

Amazon’s surprising admission was unearthed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-profit think tank which also took a close look at some comments from Amazon’s CEO. In 2008, Jeff Bezos told Amazon’s shareholders “The problem is that there are . . . tens of thousands of separate sales tax jurisdictions, it’s not just 50 – one for each state. It’s horrendously complicated. . . The rules to obey in all jurisdictions are overly complex, and as a result, we have an undue burden on us.” There’s just one problem with that argument, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “the company already calculates and collects sales tax in at least 44 of the 45 states that levy them for independent companies that sell their merchandise on Amazon’s website!”

Two weeks ago I wrote that Amazon’s stated their preferred solution is a uniform tax for all 50 states — but blogger Ezra Klein sent me an e-mail arguing that that’s a common delaying tactic. “[M]aybe they would prefer that. But it’s not a reason they shouldn’t have to pay the taxes assessed on all other businesses in that state. Saying you’d like to improve the income tax doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay it in the meantime.”

The state sales tax is supported by a group called “the Alliance for Main Street Fairness,” and Tuesday their spokesperson argued Californians should be worried by “The lengths Amazon will go to evade collecting sales taxes – even spending tens of millions of dollars on a ballot referendum.” Their web site argues the group only wants to eliminate a massive “anti-small business online sales tax loophole…that puts small brick-and-mortar businesses at a significant disadvantage…” And over in Berkeley California, Congresswoman Nancy Skinner tried to offer her best analogy to a reporter at Bloomberg News. “If I purchase from Nordstrom online, I pay a sales tax.

“Why should Amazon operate under a different set of rules?”

The Kindle 4 Will Be Released within 10 Weeks!

Dog licking a Kindle from Amazon TV ad

Some time in the next 10 weeks, Amazon will release two new versions of the Kindle. That’s according to The Wall Street Journal, which cites “people familiar with the matter.”

And the even bigger news is their sources confirmed what everybody already suspected. Amazon’s also going to release an iPad-style color touchscreen device, and it’s going to happen before the end of September!

One new Kindle will have a touch-screen, according to the article — while the other Kindle will be “improved and cheaper,” according to the Journal‘s sources. Neither one of the two Kindles will have a color screen, which is kind of a relief. They’ll both still have the familiar e-ink screens that we’ve all gotten so comfortable with.

The tablet will have a nine-inch screen — smaller than the iPad — and I’m assuming it will run the apps that Amazon’s selling in their Android app store. The tablet won’t have a camera, but it will be optimized for the content you can buy at Amazon — like music files, movies and video downloads, and, of course, e-books from the Kindle store. Without a camera, someone suggested in the comments on the article, the device will probably be much cheaper.

“…if i were to guess it feels like Amazon is trying to strip it down and bring it in at the lowest cost possible. They’re more concerned with their core businesses (e-books, video, and a web store) than they are with creating a video chat tool.

The Wall Street Journal didn’t have any more details, but it’s still very exciting news. And I think that excitement bodes well for the prospects for this new Android tablet. I’m not the only one who thinks so, judging by the comments on the article.

“If Amazon can streamline the device and bring it in under $300, I think it’ll sell like hotcakes.”

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Amazon Lowers Prices on Kindle!

Kindle 3G with Special Offers - an Amazon sale discount of 139

“Our best ever Kindle at a new low price!” Amazon announced today on the front page at Amazon.com. For $139, you can now get a Kindle with a 3G wireless internet connection — saving $50 over the usual cost of a Kindle 3G. Of course, it’s the “Kindle with Special Offers,” where the screen savers are slick images advertising the device’s sponsors. But Amazon had been selling this model for $169, so it’s still a new savings of $25.

My theory? Google released their own digital reading device on Monday — and they priced it at $139. It’s a price war — where consumers benefit — and the rivalry between the two companies probably means that we’ll all pay a lot less for our next new Kindle.

In a statement today, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos shared “A big thank you to AT&T for helping to make the new $139 price possible.” (AT&T is the sponsor of the device, and they said today that the Kindle is “by far the fastest-growing connected device on the AT&T network.”) But Amazon’s CEO also revealed some interesting statistics — suggesting that the wireless capability increases sales for both Amazon and AT&T. “Kindle 3G customers read 20 percent more books, and take advantage of twice as many special offers.”

I already know the advantages, and it really is great to have a Kindle that can connect to Amazon’s store anywhere, any time. But it was fun to watch Amazon try to explain it to new customers who might be contemplating a purchase. “There’s no wireless set up, and no paying for or hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots,” they wrote in today’s press release. “Kindle 3G’s always-on global wireless connectivity means that wherever you are – at the beach, on the train, or stuck on the tarmac – no problem, you can download books and periodicals in less than 60 seconds and start reading instantly!”

I didn’t realize the device had its own shortcut at Amazon.com. Just point your browser to amazon.com/kindle3G and Amazon delivers the web page about their top-end Kindle. They shared this URL in their press release, but unfortunately it’s the wrong one! That’s the URL for the ad-free version of the Kindle — while it’s only the Kindle 3G with special offers that’s been reduced in price to just $139.

Fortunately, somewhere in Amazon’s headquarters there’s a geek who’s created another shortcut to send shoppers in the right direction. I discovered this morning that there’s a second URL — amazon.com/kindlespecialoffers — which will take you directly to Amazon’s web page for the new specially-priced Kindle 3G with Special Offers.

Colleges Begin Using All-Ebook Libraries

Drexel University Library Learning Terrace

Time magazine just announced the news: “the bookless library has finally arrived.”

Last month Drexel University opened their new “Library Learning Terrace,” offering students 24-hour access to the university’s 170 million e-books, digital newspapers, magazine and journal articles, and other educational material. Everything, that is, except printed books. The Philadelphia unversity’s Dean of Libraries says the facility will let them “define a new library environment,” and they’re now considering the idea of building even more book-free learning hubs across the campus.

But they’re not the only university library without printed books. Ten years ago, Kansas State University got rid of most the books in their engineering library, according to Time‘s article. And it also notes that last year Stanford “pruned all but 10,000 printed volumes from its new engineering library,” and that San Antonio’s “ditched print in lieu of electronic material when it opened its engineering library in 2010.”

Of course, it’s only a few examples — but it suggests a big question for the future. As students get more comfortable with digital texts, will campus libraries begin stocking their shelves with e-books? Imagine a magical world where nothing’s ever overdue, and there’s always an endless number of copies for every single book. Plus, even the bookshelves could be eliminated, replaced with a few remote book servers. It’d leave more room for desks and tables for studying — some of which would inevitably be equipped with special screens for displaying e-books!

We may be witnessing the start of the book-free era without even realizing it – but at Drexel University, they celebrated with a party. It had its grand opening just last month, according to the library’s web page, with over 250 attendees marking the occasion. “As the crowd counted three, two, one…the shades of the Terrace were drawn and the attendees saw the new Terrace for the first time,” remembers a post on the library’s blog. It happened at twilight, as “their wrists aglow, the sighting of the first star kicked-off the opening remarks.” (Glow sticks had been passed out to the attendees, according to a description on Flickr, which adds that the festivities also included a DJ and snacks.) There were also prize give-aways, according to the university’s student newspaper, which reported a handful of lucky students were chosen “to have the honor of being the first to enter the facility.”

It’s stirred up a debate this week in the comments at Time magazine. “There is no guarantee that technology we use ten, twenty or fifty years from now will be capable of accessing the data we currently have stored on our CDs, DVDs, servers and hard drives,” posted one reader. But another comment argued that the only real issue was fear of change. “No one was up in arms when music began to go digital vs physical, we are seeing the same with movies, so why is this so shocking when it come to literary work?” And another comment agreed, arguing much of the resistence is “an entirely emotional and nostalgic reaction. Future generations will be just as inspired by the media they encounter; it’s the content, not the format, that counts.”

And whatever else you can say about Drexel’s new book-free library — it looks really nice!

Drexel University Library Learning Terrace picture

Nook vs. Kindle – the Battle Heats Up

Amazon two-screen Kindle Android tablet

Blogger Dave Katz imagines Amazon’s next device

The Nook outsold the Kindle in the first three months of 2011.

That’s according to the research firm IDC — though there’s more to the story. Sales for all digital readers dropped dramatically — by nearly 50% — in the first three months of 2011, according to their analysis, from 6.5 million readers to just 3.3 million. And apparently, it’s normal for sales to drop after the big spike in buying before Christmas.

“IDC analysts blamed the shipment drops on a normal first-quarter seasonality,” notes one article, which also cites “slow economic conditions and supply constraints” as a possible reason for the slow-down in sales. But the research firm is still predicting 16.2 million readers will be shipped in 2011 — 24% more than the year before. “IDC sees the first quarter as an aberration, with e-reader sales picking up during the remainder of the year.”

There’s two things that make this really interesting. First, IDC says the Nook outsold the Kindle partly because they have a color version of their digital reader. And second, they note that tablets with an Android operating system actually increased their share of the tablet market to 34% — more than 8.2% higher than it was just three months earlier. Does this suggest Amazon’s future should be a color, Android tablet? If these statistics are true, Amazon’s facing real pressure to deliver an exciting new product when they release their next device.

It’s an anxious environment — filled with eager anticipating, and the delicious mystery of what Amazon will do — and it’s led to new whispers about how the next Amazon device will look. One blogger heard it will have two different screens, an e-ink screen on one side and a color/LCD screen on the other. “File this one under unsubstantiated rumor,” joked blogger Dave Zatz — and reactions to the idea were mixed, judging by the comments left on his site. “This is awesome!” wrote one reader. ” Essentially, it is a hybrid ereader tablet. Perfect for the Amazon brand.”

“Sounds absurd,” wrote a second reader. “If Amazon’s first tablet is dual screen monstrosity, there won’t be a second Amazon tablet.” And another commenter even dubbed it the Franken-Kindle. “This seems like a bad idea and/or hoax. There is no need for Amazon to mess with a good thing…”

“This is a rumor that you can write off as an impossibility…” read a post at another blog called The Kindle Reader. “I’m sure Amazon played with the concept, but I don’t see how they could plan to release one.” But on that site, another comment offered a theory that was even more interesting. “It may simply be that Amazon is developing a tablet that can in fact drive an e-ink panel and an LCD using the same motherboard, firmware, battery, etc.” Of course, they also proposed a third theory. “It may also be that someone at Amazon (Bezos?) is having a bit of fun off the rumormongers.

“I know I would if I were him.”

A New Kindle Game – and More 99-Cent Specials!

Electronic Arts releases Yahtzee on Kindle

First, I want to apologize to everyone in England. For over a year, I’ve been talking about games on the Kindle — but apparently, you’re not able to download them if your Kindle’s in England. “I want my Fighting Fantasy…!” joked one British Kindle owner, in a comment at Reddit.com. And he added, “What’s more annoying is that the books are from a U.K. company and they can’t even sell their products on the U.K. market!”

Yes, ironically, two of the most popular games are Kindle versions of the “Fighting Fantasy” series of books — The Citadel of Chaos and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain — where readers choose from multiple paths through a Dungeons and Dragons-style adventure. But this series was created in 1982 by two British authors — Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone — and the rights are now owned by the British publisher, Wizard Books, according to Wikipedia. Warlock of Firetop Mountain was first published in 1982 — the first book in a 59-book series. But nearly 30 years later, when it’s finally made its glorious debut on the Kindle — nobody in England’s able to buy it!

But meanwhile, American customers have more and more games to choose from.  Tuesday Amazon released a new free game called Pixel Perfect Puzzles. And last week Yahtzee Yahtzee finally appeared in the Kindle store — the classic dice game originally marketed by Hasbro. Best of all, it was created by Electronic Arts, the digital game-making powerhouse behind big Kindle best-sellers like Scrabble and Monopoly. Founded in 1982, they’ve continued making digital games for nearly 30 years, and they’ve also released three more popular Kindle games — Texas Hold ‘Em, Sudoku, and Solitaire. But Yahtzee is the first new game they’ve released since 2010 — and because it’s new, they’ve slashed its $4.99 price to just 99 cents!

And if you’ve spent any time exploring Amazon, you’ve noticed their teaser for another special announcement. “For a limited time, select Kindle game customer favorites–including Scrabble, Solitaire, and NY Times [Crossword Puzzles] — are on sale for just $0.99 each.” The offer ends on Sunday, July 10, and there’s 11 different games to choose from. Just point your browser to tinyurl.com/JulyGameSale to browse the games’ pages on Amazon.com. Below is a complete list of all the games currently reduced in price to just 99 cents.

EA Texas Hold’em
EA Solitaire
Word Soup
Mahjong Solitaire
Hangman 4 Kids
EA Sudoku
True Backgammon
NY Times Crosswords Vol. 5
NY Times Crosswords Vol. 6

And of course, don’t forget Yahtzee!

How Many Americans Now Own a Kindle?

Kindle package manufactured on Amazon assembly line

Nearly 1 out of every 8 adults in America now owns a Kindle or another digital reading device! And what’s even more amazing — that’s twice as many as there were just six months ago, in November of 2010!

That’s the conclusion of a new study from the Pew Research Center — which is significant, because it’s a research firm that I’ve actually heard of. (They’re a Washington D.C. think tank, and they’re credited as sponsors on some public radio programs.) Looking at the population of U.S. adults, “This is the first time since the Pew Internet Project began measuring e-reader use in April 2009 that ownership of this device has reached double digits,” the group’s associate director announced in a statement. And what’s even more interesting is according to this study, Americans are buying digital readers much faster than they’re buying tablet-sized computers like the iPad!

“Tablet computers …have not seen the same level of growth in recent months,” writes Kristen Purcell in today’s announcement. While 12% of U.S. adults have a digital reader, just 8% of them own a tablet, according to the study — and it suggests the popularity of tablets might have reached a plateau. In January, 7% of U.S. adults already owned a tablet computer, so very little has changed over the last four months, and even back in November, 5% of U.S. adults had already bought a tablet. Over the next five months, tablet ownership increased from 5% to only to 8% — while digital readers jumped from 6% to 12%. “Prior to that, tablet ownership had been climbing relatively quickly,” the study notes — but apparently now only the Kindle (and other digital readers) are attracting lots of customers in the U.S.

There’s a little overlap between the two groups. 3% of America’s adults own both a tablet and a digital reader, according to the study. (And of the remainder, there’s 5% who own just a tablet, while there’s 9% who own just a digital reader.) Of course, 83% of American adults don’t own either device — which means there’s still potential for a lot of new Kindle (and tablet) owners in the years ahead. And another interesting statistic points in the same direction.

“[T]his survey marks the first time that laptop computers are as popular as desktop computers among U.S. adults…” writes Purcell, “further confirming the overall trend toward adoption of mobile devices.” Last November there were more Americans who owned a desktop computer (61%) than who owned a laptop (53%) — but now, an equal number of Americans reported owning each kind of device — around 57%. Plus, among younger Americans (under the age of 30), “laptops have already overtaken desktops in popularity…” the study reports, noting that laptops now also “appear poised to do the same among older adults.”

So who’s buying a Kindle or another digital reader? In the last six months, there’s been a huge jump in the number of American college graduates — from 8% to 22%. And reader ownership has doubled in the last six months for adults living in a household earning more than $75,000 a year, to 24% — which is almost double the ownership rates for households earning between $30,000 and $75,000 a year (now at 13%). But the study also found some other groups of people who were also very likely to own a reader.

  • Adults younger than age 65 (37%)
  • Parents of children under the age of eighteen (16%)
  • Hispanic adults (15%)

I’m stumped on how to explain those demographic trends. Some suggest the Kindle and other readers have been adopted by more mainstream middle-aged consumers over the last six months. (“[O]wnership among adults ages 18-49 grew more rapidly than any other age group,” the study reports — from 11% to 24%.) But the study’s other data seems strangely specific — for example, that “in the past six months ownership of these devices among parents [now 16%] has grown more rapidly than it has among non-parents [now 10%].” And the study’s data is even more striking for Hispanic owners of Kindles and other digital reading devices. “E-reader ownership grew at a faster pace among Hispanic adults over that time period [from 5% to 15%] than it did among white adults [6% to 11%] or African-American adults [from 5% to 8%].”

There’s one other interesting statistic. In November, men and women were equally likely to own a digital reader, but by May, there were slightly more men. 11% of the women in America now own a reader (according to the study), compared to 12% of the men. But it’s even more interesting that just six months ago, only 6% of men and women owned a digital reader.

I want to believe this all means something — that e-books are now achieving a special “critical mass”. We’re past the “early adopter” stage, when digital readers seemed like exotic but expensive luxury items that only a geek would buy. Now a significant share of Americans owns a digital reader, and the size of that share has doubled in just six months. Soon nearly everyone will own a Kindle (or a Nook) — and we’ll all be reading ebooks instead of printed books.

There’s always been changes happening in the world, but it’s usually hidden somewhere beyond our own day-to-day life. So it’s very exciting when you can see the signs of a big change…while it’s still happening!

Celebrate Independence Day with Three Free Ebooks

Thomas Jefferson

Last year I found a fun way to celebrate the America’s “Independence Day” with my Kindle. On the 4th of July, I’d pointed my Kindle to Wikipedia’s web page with a fascinating history of the Declaration of Independence. Just seven months before the famous document was signed, author Thomas Jefferson had written “there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do.

“But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America…”

Wikipedia walks you through all the events that led up to July 4, 1776 — but you don’t have to content yourself with a Wikipedia for your American history fix. When he was 65 years old, another American patriot — Benjamin Franklin — began writing a fascinating autobiography of his own life. More than 200 years later, it’s become one of the best-selling free e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store. Franklin had continued working on his biography over the last 20 years of his life, until his death at age 84 in 1790 — noting wryly that “the Affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the Interruption…”

It’s especially poignant that Benjamin Franklin began writing it in 1770 as a loving letter to his son. But soon Franklin’s son had sided with the British druing the American Revolution, and Wikipedia notes that they were hopelessly estranged by the time Franklin sat down to write part two in 1784. Now he was 78, and laying down his thoughts in the year 1784 about his the ideas for…a public library. And in part three — written in 1788 at the age of 82 — Franklin also remembered inventing his famous Franklin stove…and then declining to patent the invention because he’d created it for “the good of the people.”

His biography is currently one of Amazon’s top 30 free ebooks, so I’m obviously not the only person who’s reading it this weekend. It’s a great way to answer the question: What kind of men launched the American Revolution? And it just goes to show you that with a little research, the Kindle can give you an almost magical glimpse into the realities of our past…

Last year I’d discovered that it was impossible to find a free copy in Amazon’s Kindle store — but in 2011, there’s now a free copy available for downloading (as well as a free copy of the U. S. Constitution). Currently the Declaration of Independence has received two five-star reviews from Amazon customers (“As a graduate student in philosophy and history, I heartily recommend this timeless classic to anyone who is interested in political philosophy, and history…”) — while the free version of the Constitution received only four and a half. (“Accurate reproduction and free, but does not include any amendments…”)

But there’s also a fascinating story about how the Declaration of Independence first came online. 40 years ago, a student at the University of Illinois launched a mission to make the great works of literature available for free to the general public. Remembering the man who’d revolutionized the world of reading by inventing the first mechanical printing press, he named his collection “Project Gutenberg”. By 2009, they’d created over 30,000 free e-texts, according to Wikipedia. And it’s a cause that’s near and dear to the hearts of a lot of geeks online.

But here’s my favorite part of the story. He’d launched this lifelong campaign back in 1971, anticipating all the great literature that he’d be sharing with the entire world, and even making available for new generations to come. So on that first day, 40 years ago, which great work of literature did he choose as the very first one?

The Declaration of Independence.