Elvis Presley Meets the Kindle

January 31st, 2012

Elvis Presley sings

I did a funny experiment in mid-January. On Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’d searched for his name in the Kindle Store — and found nearly 140 ebooks about him! Though he’d died in 1977 at the age of 42, even 35 years later, people are still talking about “the king of rock and roll!” And now self-publishing’s making it possible to share even more fond memories – by anyone with their own story to tell.

I’ve always been fascinated by the life of Elvis Presley, so here’s my list of what look like some of the most interesting Elvis-related e-books that have turned up in Amazon’s Kindle Store.


Elvis: My Best Man

It seems like everyone who ever knew Elvis has published a book, but this one was written by one of his personal friends. “George was with Elvis from the beginning,” Dick Clark notes in a blurb for the book, adding the book’s author “personally knows the story.” Elvis and George Klein met when they were both in the same 8th grade class, and both men later went on to have long careers in the music industry — Klein as a Memphis radio host. (The book’s subtitle is “Radio Days, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley.”) Yes, Elvis also served as the best man at Klein’s wedding, but more importantly, he was an authentic fixture in the Memphis music scene. When Booklist reviewed this book, they ultimately concluded that “Klein’s paean is awfully sincere but, in its folksy naivete, oddly fetching. Maybe it’s the bio the King would have most wanted.”


Flowers for Elvis

This 248-page novel is actually available for free in the Kindle Store, and it’s described on Amazon as “quirky Southern fiction with a literary edge, surprising humor and an uplifting spirit.” One of the characters is a fanactical Elvis fan, and I have to wonder if the author was inspired by the real-life story of Dolores Hart, the Hollywood starlet who at the age of 22 had already done two movies with Elvis (and also starred as a spunky teenager in Where the Boys Are). In 1963, “after completing a promotional tour for Come Fly with Me…she had her limousine drop her off at The Abbey of Regina Laudis. And she became a nun.” (And 48 years later, she still is!)

So in this novel, a girl named Olivia is born in 1956 “to a nun in an old auto parts store turned convent in rural Mississippi…” — and that’s just the beginning of this strange American phantasmagoria. Olivia is ultimately raised by the nun’s sister — the Elvis fan — who’s “a renegade Southern belle, bent on self-indulgence and desperate to safeguard her multitude of sins…” According to the book’s description on Amazon, Olivia’s life story “takes the reader on a flower strewn tour of misguided love and maternal betrayal which culminates at Elvis’ funeral, where they finally discover the truth of their parentage and unravel the generations of secrets that shadowed their lives.”


The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me

Elvis’s death was ultimately ruled a heart attack. (When the local coroner was teased about the official cause of death, he’d reply “You can say what you want, but I still think that Elvis is dead.”) Some angry fans have raised questions about the role of Dr. George Nichopoulos, the personal physician to the high-living rock star, who also his source for some prescription drugs. (There’s a rumor that he was even the inspiration for the quack physician on The Simpson’s.) For the other side of the story, you can read Dr. Nick’s own biography, and at least one reviewer on Amazon writes “I was really quite stunned by many of the revelations in this book.” It’s an odd perspective on the death of a rock star, offering real-world stories about the medical and legal debates that followed. “Was an innocent man crucified by the press in order to get the scoop…” the reviewer asks, “or was he really guilty as charged?”


Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley

I read this biography when it first came out in 1998, and I loved its personal glimpses into the highs and lows of Elvis’s rocky life. (Each chapter begins with a fascinating and revealing photograph, offering a kind of visual counter-commentary.) After Elvis’s strange tour of duty in the army in Germany, he resumed his singing career (and starred in dozens of cheap movies), and this book follows him all the way to his 1977 drug overdose. Biographer Peter Guralnick spent several years interviewing nearly every significant person in Elvis’s life, and some of the stories are really touching. (Like the way Elvis sang Christmas carols with his fellow soldiers while he was stationed in Germany, and even donated money to a local orphanage).

Now it’s finally available as a Kindle ebook – and I recommend it!

Blonde woman in new $79 Kindle ad buys one for herself

There’s a strange statistic making the rounds. British newspapers are reporting the results of study about all the people who received a new Kindle this Christmas. It claims 22% of them aren’t even using their new Kindle, if you believe the coverage in the Telegraph or the Metro newspapers. But another site filed an entirely different report on the same study, suggesting the Kindle may actually have been much more popular as a gift.

PC Advisor notes that the study first focussed only on people who were dissatisfied with something they’d received as a gift. Only then did the researchers ask the follow-up question: okay, well then, which gift was it which you weren’t satisfied with? Even then, 78% of them identified a different gift, but the Kindle was named by 22% of the people who were dissatisfied with a gift. And more than half of those people even admitted that they hadn’t even used their Kindles yet. They had yet to download a single ebook. (No wonder they were dissatisfied!)

In fact, this year the Kindle was one of the most popular Christmas gifts in England. Even The Telegraph notes a separate survey which discovered that this year, a whopping one in 40 British adults received a Kindle for Christmas. So obviously, among all those new Kindle owners will be a handful of recipients who are still techno-phobic, or who simply haven’t gotten around to using their Kindles yet. It’ll seem like there’s a lot of more of them when you calculate only what their percentage would be of those grumpy people who didn’t like their Christmas presents.

In fact, 9% of that group reported that the gift they weren’t using was…an iPad! And another 14% said they weren’t using the mp3 players they’d received for Christmas. Interestingly, an even higher percentage of this group said it was because they hadn’t gotten around to downloading anything yet to listen to — 67% of them. “It is surprising to see how many people have not used gifts they received almost one month ago,” noted the Chairman of the web site which released the study. But he added, “I think we are all guilty of putting gifts to one side now and again.”

And no matter how cynical the headlines are, the chairman actually reached a very positive conclusion. “It is likely that these gifts will be used eventually, perhaps when the owners get a chance to download books or music…” The site which conducted the study is MyVoucherCodes.co.uk — a British web site offering shopping coupons for discounts. It wasn’t a research firm filled with professional market analysts, or even an academic study from a university. (I wonder if they simply asked random people visiting their web site to make their selection from a small list of choices.)

Unfortunately, I can’t find any information online about how they conducted their study, which makes me feel a little guilty about even reporting these numbers. (At this point I’m writing an article about an article about a study — and it’s not even clear how that study was conducted!) But there’s one fact I’m absolutely sure of, and I think a lot of Kindle owners would almost certainly agree.

If we a new Kindle as a Christmas gift — we’d definitely be using it.

The Kindle killed a minister?

January 27th, 2012

It was almost two years ago that I heard a strange mention of the Kindle on the radio. There’s a news quiz show called Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! (Three stories are read to the contestants — one true but unexpected, and two which are outright lies.) And that week, the category was “technology disasters.”

The first concerned Apps-berger’s syndrome — a newly-discovered medical syndrome in which people use cell phone apps obsessively to perform tasks they could just as easily do by themselves. (I was pretty sure that story was false!) And story #2 concerned a guy who insisted to his girlfriend that the sexy text messages she’d found on his cell phone had actually been pre-loaded on the phone when he’d bought it.

So was story #3 true or false?

It concerned a minister who bought a Kindle. Actually, not just a Kindle. Late in life, the minister become a raging technophile, while also helping elderly members in his congregation learn how to use technology themselves. (And at one point, he even placed a bet on the exact date of the Apocalypse.) He bought himself a pocket-sized Kindle, to which he downloaded the Holy Bible, and he always carried it with him in his jacket’s vest pocket.

One day while hunting, a gun accidentally fires a shot. The bullet rips through his jacket – and rips through his Kindle – before passing through the minister’s is body and then out his back. Two nearby hunters heard the shots, and rushed to the aid of the fallen minister. Looking down at the scene, one of the hunters said…

“Where the hell is your pocket bible? That would’ve stopped the bullet clean!”



The name of the news quiz was “You were supposed to make me happy!” And it turns out the true story was… #2. (The pre-loaded cell phone text messages — which was my guess. It reminded me of a similar true story about a cellphone that was pre-loaded with someone else’s pornography!) Still, it’s worth noticing that the Kindle was also included in this pageant of technology folk tales.

It shows digital readers are now becoming part of the popular consciousness. The same year I’d been watching Wheel of Fortune, and as Vanna White flipped the letters, it turned out that the contestants were trying to guess the phrase:

Digital Book

Somewhere inside, I decided that we’d past an invisible milestone. I’d turned to the mass media — and I’d seen people talking about the Kindle!

The Face of an eBook Pirate

January 25th, 2012

The mask of a pirate

Within just the last 12 days, Amazon’s removed close to 100 plagiarized ebooks from their Kindle Store. They’re responding to an article in Fast Company magazine about “pirates” who were publishing other people’s stories as their own. Now the magazine’s published a fascinating follow-up article. And they’ve actually identified and interviewed one of the ebook pirates!

Our story begins with a humble security guard — a 64-year-old man who wrote a dirty story, and then published it on a sexy web site. He later discovered his story on the Kindle — or at least, available for sale in Amazon’s Kindle Store. But it had taken a strange path to get there — through the seamy online underworld where spammers trade secrets — and then eventually, to Kuwait! And according to the article’s semi-dramatic subhead, this remarkable journey “sheds light on black hat hacker forums — and the theft, taboo sex, and swindles festering in the recesses of Amazon.”

When contacted by the 64-year-old author, Amazon did a strange thing. Instead of giving him the money that the ebook had earned, Amazon simply provided him with the pirate’s contact information — their name, address, and e-mail. Amazon’s response “was, in essence, to tell the aggrieved party to work it out with the thief,” writes Fast Company, while Amazon still “kept its cut… It profits no matter what.” The writer ultimately turned to the magazine for assistance, giving the contact information to their reporter — who is also a journalism professor in New York.

And the reporter then tracked down the ebook pirate in Kuwait, who shared his own side of the story. When he’d re-published the erotic story, the pirate didn’t even know he was stealing another writer’s work. The story was purchased as part of a “starter kit” for aspiring book publishers, which included dozens of different stories that were bundled together in a small .zip file. He’d paid $100 for the file, plus $15 for some images to use as the covers of his ebooks (and another $35 to watch a video demonstrating exactly how to publish an ebook in Amazon’s Kindle Store). And that expenditure ate up almost 45% of the money he’d earned, since he’d sold just 187 copies of the ebook. He was apparently selling them at $2.99 apiece, since his net sales were $559.13 — but Amazon kept 40% of that amount, so even before deducting expenses, he’d brought in just $335.

That’s a lot of work to earn $185 — and the reporter notes that the pirate earned even less from some of other ebooks that he’d published. (“My first book was a diet guide,” the pirate says. “Total copies sold: one.”) In addition, he was creating the books in a strict Muslim country, where pornography is illegal. So Fast Company‘s reporter notes that the ebook pirate “could face dire consequences if Kuwaiti authorities found out about his sexy shenanigans.”

Maybe the moral of the story is simply that crime really doesn’t pay — or at least, not enough to make it worth the trouble. Another author in the story had published over 22 different books — using material which Amazon considered nearly identical to ebooks they were already selling in the Kindle Store. They’d removed all 22 of the duplicate titles, but altogether they’d only earned a total of $60 — about $2.72 for each book — after nearly three months in the Kindle Store. They’d created all 22 ebooks over “a long weekend” simply by formatting and publishing them, all at once.

Depending on how much time was spent, this pirate may actually have earned less than the minimum wage!

What just happened? The number of people who own an e-reader nearly doubled — in less than four weeks! That’s according to a new study from the well-respected analysts at Pew Research Center. And they’re concluding that now one in five Americans own a Kindle (or another digital reader)!

According to their just-released survey results, between mid-December and early January, the number of people who own a Kindle (or a Nook, or another digital reading device) jumped from 10% to 19%. It’s especially amazing because there’d been almost no new purchasers during the previous six months, according to their research. “These findings are striking because they come after a period from mid-2011 into the autumn in which there was not much change in the ownership of tablets and e-book readers…as the holiday gift-giving season approached, the marketplace for both devices dramatically shifted.”

I love these studies, because they provide hard data about who owns Kindles, with a chart showing a demographic breakdown. For example, 30% of college graduates now own a Kindle, a Nook, or some
other digital reader. (And 31% of people earning more than $75,000 a year!) They’re the two fastest-growing groups in the study, since just last month, only 16% of college graduates owned a Kindle (and 21% of people earning more than $75,000 a year.) If this study is correct, 14% of America’s college graduates got a digital reader within the last month — and 10% of the people earning over $75,000 a year!

The statistics are nearly identical when you ask who owns a tablet computer like the iPad or Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablets: the percentage also jumped from 10% to 19%. In fact, 31% of college graduates now own a tablet computer, according to the study — and 36% of people with an income over $75,000 a year. (That’s 14% more — for both demographics — than it was just in mid-December!) And if you ask about both devices, asking if people own at least one digital reader or one tablet computer, the numbers are even higher. In December it was 18%, but by January, it had risen to 29%!

Women are now also more likely to own a Kindle (or another digital reader) than men. Back in November of 2010, it was an even split — 6% of the women in America owned a digital reader, and so did 6% of the men. By this December, it had risen to 11% of the women vs. 9% of the men — and after Christmas, the number of women who owned a reader had nearly doubled, to 21%, while the number of men rose only to 16%.

Click here to see the study’s chart showing “the big jump in gadget ownership over the holidays.” They estimate that their survey has a margin of error of just 2%, since they phoned nearly 3,000 people to compile each set of results. The research is supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “to look at how these devices are affecting people’s relationship with their local libraries, the services those libraries offer, and the general role of libraries in communities.”

And in a few weeks, the researchers will reveal more interesting data from their survey participants — about “reading habits and their interactions with their libraries related to e-books and other digital content!”

Mark Cuban on Shark Tank
Mark Cuban published his own ebook in 2012

I’m always watching for Kindle references on TV, especially talk about how ebooks might take the place of books. But the last place I ever expected to hear that was on the season premiere of “Shark Tank.”

If you haven’t seen the show, five rich investors listen to pitches from start-up business owners who are hoping to earn some venture capital (in exchange for a stake in their company). But Friday night, the business was simply a ghost writer — and he believed he could make millions by writing and publishing the biographies of businessmen. It sounded crazy, until he revealed that he’d already written something like 100 “vanity” books. And he was charging up to $35,000 for each book (which included a run of printed copies).

The books looked slick, and investor Daymond John asked an interesting question: why aren’t you marketing this service to ordinary people? (“Because ordinary people don’t have $35,000 to spend on a book!” screamed my girlfriend at the TV!) The writer gave an answer that was much more nuanced, but essentially making the same point — that not everyone has the quality for a book. I think he danced around the specifics, but as I remember it, he said that he didn’t feel he could produce a good book for just $10,000. And that he was telling his customers that instead of expecting profits from the sales of their book, they should use them as a marketing tool, to promote their other businesses.

The presenter had a good patter, and the investors all seemed to like him, but one by one, they’d started dropping out of the bidding. Soon there was just one left — the newest panelist, the unpredictable billionaire Mark Cuban (who owns the Dallas Maverick’s basketball team, as well as the Landmark Theatre movie chain). He seemed genuinely intrigued, but then he raised a devastating critique. You haven’t mentioned the way the book industry is changing — meaning specifically the Kindle, or ebooks, or the self-publishing revolution.

It was a poignant moment. Ghost writer Michael Levin had already proven his success in the world of printed books. (According to his web site, he’s ghost-written the biographies of sports commentator Pat Summerall and Dave Winfield, a former outfielder who’s now the vice president of the San Diego Padres.) And at one point, the panel pointed out that the writer was doing what nearly every other writer had dreamed of but failed to do: he was actually making a ton of money. But unfortunately for the ghost writer, Mark Cuban had just published his own ebook — which was called “How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It.” So he was going to be skeptical about investing in a company which produces nothing but books in print.

Now the ghost writer was called out on nationwide TV, in front of a panel of cynical investors. (“If this was 1995, I would’ve said yes,” explained Mark Cuban.) As his moment of glory turned to unanimous rejection, the ghost writer came up with one more clever — or desperate — last hurrah. I saw him as an unheralded giant — an invisible kingpin — in the dying world of printed books. And maybe he just didn’t want to admit that the world was really changing. Instead, he told the panel that ebooks would only increase the relevance of his business model. Since then printed books would become even more of a curiosity — a quaint and intriguing artifact that businesses would want even more!

And the last word seemed to belong to those same ordinary people who could never afford his ghost-writing services anyways.

“Dude was clueless as hell…” posted one viewer on Twitter. And another tweeted a condensed version of Cuban’s reason for declining the investment opportunity: “no future in a hard copy book, like a weightlifting snowman.” (Which means that no matter how impressive it is, it’ll still vanish before you know it!) And ultimately, soon even Mark Cuban himself had turned up on Twitter, confirming that that’s why he’d left behind the world of printed books.

“exactly why i publish my book as an ebook.”


Check out Mark Cuban’s Kindle ebook, “How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It!”

Long John Silver vs. the Amazon logo

It’s an investigation that’s worthy of a crime novel — but it’s a crime against ebooks! (Or at least, the authors who write them.) Acting on a tip, the business magazine Fast Company researched Amazon’s Kindle Store, and discovered four authors who were hiding a secret. They’d plagiarized every single one of their ebooks from somebody else!

Like any good crime story, it begins on the seedy side of town. At midnight in Amazon’s erotica section, the magazines’ reporter discovered “a hotbed of masked merchants profiting from copyright infringement.” I’m always suspicious when a publication decides to do a “business” story about the business of pornography, mostly because I assume they’re just trying to get attention! But the site’s editor obviously had some fun riffing on that theme when they wrote the article’s headlines. “Even with anti-piracy legislation looming, Amazon doesn’t appear too eager to stop the forbidden author-on-author action…”

I think it’s worth investigating, and their reporter found a perfect way to illustrate the issue — with the story of an ebook author named Sharazade. She’s never plagiarized anything herself, but when she studied the Kindle Store, Sharazade “was dismayed that a number of books, a few with nonsensical titles, were beating hers, even though they were hamstrung by twisted grammar and perverse punctuation.” I’ve also seen some badly-formatted books in the Kindle Store, so it’s not hard to imagine what the offending titles looked like. “Some sported covers comprised of low-resolution images with no lettering,” reports Fast Company. “One author managed to misspell her own name…”

One of these knock-off ebooks, by Maria Cruz, had become the #1 best-selling erotica book one day in the Kindle Store for Amazon.UK. So Sharazade downloaded a free sample to her Kindle, and made a discovery that was even more shocking than the vampire story that the author had written. That author “had copy and pasted the text from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Curious, Sharazade keyed in phrases from other Cruz ebooks and discovered that every book she checked was stolen.” (Emphasis mine.)

But that was only the beginning. Sharazade’s discovery prompted an investigation from Fast Company, which revealed that Cruz “isn’t the only self-published plagiarist. Amazon is rife with fake authors selling erotica ripped word-for-word from stories posted on Literotica, a popular and free erotic fiction site…” In fact, Maria Cruz “had 19 ebooks and two paperbacks, all of which were created by other authors and republished without their consent.” Another author had published 31 ebooks in the Kindle store — every single word of them plagiarized. A third author had plagiarized 11 ebooks, and a fourth author had plagiarized eight more. And “she had even thought to plagiarize some five-star reviews….”

Of course, it’s not just the Kindle store. (Fast Company also discovered the same author had also published five completely-plagiarized ebooks in Apple’s iBookStore.) And the real victim here isn’t Amazon — or even their readers — but the hard-working authors who discover that their creations have been stolen. A 52-year-old math teacher complained to the magazine that “What makes this kind of theft so insidious is how easy it is to get away with and avoid getting caught.” A Canadian novelist named S.K.S. Perry even discovered that, without his knowledge, someone was already selling his novel as a Kindle ebook. “All I can assume,” he wrote on his blog, “is that someone convinced Amazon that they were S.K.S. Perry, and submitted my book for sale.”

It won’t be the first time. I remember when a friend of mine — also a technology reporter — convinced Amazon that he was the author of a book. The author he was claiming to be was Socrates, and he even ended up filling out an autobiography which was displayed on Amazon.com. This was back in the late 1990′s, so my memory of the details may be fuzzy. But I remember “Socrates” claiming that he’d had a lifelong friendship with another popular writer — Louis L’Amour. (The 20th-century author behind hundreds of cowboy western novels…)

“Self-publishing has become the latest vehicle for spammers and content farms,” writes Fast Company, “with the sheer volume of self-published books making it difficult, if not impossible, for e-stores like Amazon to vet works before they go on sale.” They note that six years ago, there were just 51,000 self-published titles, but last year, there were 133,036, “and that number is destined to climb.” That’s a good thing, and I’m always excited to see the walls crumbling between “professional” authors and the rest of us ordinary people who have a story to tell. Unfortunately, plagiarism looks like one of the unintended consequences. Some of those ordinary people just aren’t very honest.

“Writing a book is hard…” notes Fast Company. “It’s a whole lot easier to copy and paste someone else’s work, slap your name on top, and wait for the money to roll in.” But it gives me a special feeling to watch the real self-published authors taking so much pride in their work, and sharing protests from the heart about how it feels to find their words stolen. “I have no problem competing against legitimate writers and publishers,” Sharazade told Fast Company. “That’s all part of the deal.

“But I am irritated by competing with cheaters.”

Download Amazon's new Send to Kindle software app

Amazon has quietly announced a new application. There’s now an easier way to get your own documents onto your Kindle. Just download and install Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” software onto your PC (by pointing your computer’s browser to amazon.com/sendtokindle.) “Support for Mac is coming soon,” Amazon promises further down the page…

Once you’ve installed it, a “send to Kindle” choice appears whenever you right-click on a file in Windows Explorer. And “send to Kindle” also appears as a choice on the “Print” menu in Microsoft Word, “or in the print dialogue of any Windows application.” In the past, you had to e-mail your documents to the e-mail address which Amazon had created for your Kindle. Or you could also connect your USB cord to your PC, and then transfer documents by connecting the other end to your Kindle.

This was seems much more convenient, and it might get me to use my Kindle for more than just reading ebooks I’ve downloaded from Amazon.com. “Kindle Personal Documents Service makes it easy to take your personal documents with you,” Amazon explains at the top of another web page at amazon.com/kindlepersonaldocuments, promising that it eliminates the need for a print-out!

I say Amazon “quietly” announced the news, because I only found out about it from a post on their “Kindle Daily” blog. And they also suggested another way you can use Amazon’s servers to manage files that you want to store. “You can also simply archive documents in your Kindle Library for re-download later. Your last page read along with bookmarks, notes and highlights are automatically synchronized for your documents (with the exception of PDFs) across your Kindle devices and supported Kindle reading apps .”

Part of me wonders if Amazon is up to something. Once your personal documents are stored on Amazon, it becomes a part of your life – and then it’s even harder to switch to a competing digital reader! You’d have to transfer all the individual documents — and more importantly, you’d feel a personal attachment to your Kindle. “It’s not just that device where I downloaded 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. It’s also where I stored that draft of an important manuscript that I’m trying to finish…”

I think Amazon has concluded they’ve got a real business reason to encourage their customers to store documents “in the cloud.” The new, trendy concept in technology is the idea that your smartphone and your PC and your Kindle (and other tablet devices) can all access the same set of files – your own personal collection of digital content. You can buy an mp3 of your favorite song for your new Kindle Fire tablet — but you’ll also be able to listen to it on your PC using Amazon’s “cloud player.” Of course, you can also just download that mp3 straight to your hard drive, and then do whatever you want with it.

But if you’ve ever tried that, you’ll know that Amazon adds extra steps to that process. It’s like they’ve optimized their mp3 service for use with the Amazon Cloud Player, and they’re simply supporting, reluctantly, the old-fashioned custom of listening to mp3s directly from your hard drive. Maybe I’m just suspicious because “cloud storage” still feels new — and in time, I’ll wonder how I ever lived without storing everything on a universally-accessible cloud drive. But for now I still find myself wondering what’s the catch. Do I really want my personal documents to be stored in Seattle, and beamed to an orbiting satellite in outer space?

It does sound cool — like something that James Bond might do. But in any case, this capability has arrived, and how we use it is up to us. “Reading your personal documents on Kindle is now easier than ever,” Amazon explains on their web page.

“You can download archived personal documents from your Kindle Library on Kindle Keyboard, Kindle, Kindle Touch, Kindle for iPad, Kindle for iPhone and Kindle for iPod…”

Larry_McMurtry
Image courtesy of The Dallas Observer

Larry McMurtry has a question: “Will Amazon kill the book?” At least, that’s the headline for a new article that he’s written for this month’s issue of Harper’s magazine. The 75-year-old author provides a very thoughtful answer, looking for historical precedents to the rise of Amazon. But I also learned that besides being famous — Larry McMurtry also owns a bookstore!

“My own bookshop, Booked Up Inc., consists of four buildings and about 400,000 books,” he explains in the article — establishing his credentials for weighing in on the future of publishing. The store sells mostly used books, and he reports that since the dawn of the ebook, he’s actually seen an increase in orders from overseas. “Of course it’s not all roses for traditional booksellers now, and in part the downturn is due to the digital revolution. We have bought the stocks of some 26 booksellers, but it wasn’t just the e-book that caused these shops to die, it was a withering of generations.

“The owners of these shops had no one to pass them on to…”

McMurtry himself is the son of a Texas rancher, so he’s seen first-hand how the world can change. In 1986, McMurtry even won a Pulitzer Prize for his historical novel about cattle drivers — Lonesome Dove — and he’s also been involved in several Oscar-winning movies. (He wrote the novel Terms of Endearment in 1975, and co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain.) But for his article in Harper’s, he casts a skeptical eye on the claim that the death of the book is inevitable. “The culture has surged in the direction of e-books, but the surge might not go on forever,” he writes. “It might be a bubble; history grinds slowly, and despite impressive sales of the Kindle, it seems to me a bit too early for Bezos to gloat.”

McMurtry is reviewing a new book about Amazon’s CEO, called One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com. He writes sardonically that “There were rivalries, failures, and leadership crises, and Amazon is now one of the largest book suppliers in the world.” But it takes a certain amount of ego to run a $40-billion-a-year corporation, and McMurtry wonders if bookstore owners recognize something that’s being overlooked by Amazon’s CEO. “He is so accustomed to the very vastness of his own empire — 850,000-square-foot distribution centers — that he may not see the tenacity of our appetite for variety: for good books of all formats, including old-fashioned ones.”

I thought McMurtry’s assessment of Bezos was ultimately pretty fair — and it was grounded in a real sense of history. He reports that like Henry Ford, Bezos “had a single culture-changing idea that they executed doggedly until the culture came round.” And he applauds Amazon for the way that they’ve already revolutionized the purchasing of printed books. “Bezos is a farsighted merchant whose company provides an excellent service,” McMurtry writes. “Want a book? Use Amazon and you can have it the next day. Such literary expeditiousness has never existed before and all readers should be grateful that it’s here.”

But McMurtry also notes that despite the popularity of the Kindle, printed books are still competitive, and he considers the position of Amazon’s CEO to be “less attractive”. “He has pointed out that the traditional book has had a 500-year run; he clearly thinks its time for these relics to sort of shuffle offstage. Then he will no longer be bothered with old-timey objects that have the temerity to flop open and cause one to lose one’s place.”

I know that I don’t know, for sure, what’s going to happen in the future. But I do know that something big is going on, and it’s fun to watch writers — and corporations — as they try to make sense of these changes. So I enjoyed reading what Larry McMurtry had to say — especially knowing that it comes from a man who’s owned a bookstore for more than 40 years.

“Jeff Bezos and his colleagues are free to make and sell as many Kindles as they can, but Bezos shouldn’t be persuaded that our Gutenberg days are over, at least not from where I sit. One thing we offer that he can’t is serendipity — a book browser’s serendipity, the thrill of the accidental find.

“Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”


Today Amazon revealed their first statistics for the “Kindle Owners’ Lending Library”. There’s over 75,000 ebooks that can now be borrowed for free for one month by the members of Amazon’s “Prime” shipping service, who are paying an annual fee of $79. That service also offers free two-day shipping (and cheaper one-day shipping), plus free access to a selection of online movies and TV shows. But the people who may be benefiting the most are some of Amazon’s self-published authors!

The program’s “off to a strong start,” Amazon reported today, noting that in just the month of December, nearly 300,000 Kindle owners borrowed an ebook. In fact, each ebook in the library was borrowed by four Kindle owners in December, on average — though of course some ebooks were more popular than others. And Amazon had set aside a $500,000 fund for December to be shared among “KDP Select” authors (who publish their ebooks using Amazon’s tools and agree to let Amazon hold exclusive digital distribution rights). Today Amazon announced they’re bumping up last month’s fund by 40% — to $700,000 — which means “KDP Select” authors will earn $1.70 for each time one of their own ebooks was borrowed!

Self-published authors seem to have discovered a new way to measure their success. The 10 most-popular authors in the KDP Select program saw their Kindle ebooks being borrowed an average of 4,117 times, if I’m reading Amazon’s statistics correctly. They’d reported that those authors earned $70,000 from the lending library — which has to be a cumulative total, meaning on average an extra $7,000 per author. And since Amazon’s reported they’re paying $1.70 for each “borrow,” the total number of borrows is $7,000/$1.70 — which comes out to 4,117 times. “The list of top 10 KDP Select authors includes Carolyn McCray, Rachel Yu, the Grabarchuk family and Amber Scott,” Amazon announced today.

That’s especially exciting for one author — Rachel Yu — who is just 16 years old! She’s self-published five children’s books in the Kindle Store, including “A Wolf Pup’s Tale,” which she wrote when she was 15. “All proceeds will go to Rachel’s college education fund,” reads a note on the book’s page at Amazon.com. She published her first ebook just 16 months ago — “A Dragon Named Dragon” — at the age of 14, and now she’s one of the 10 best-selling authors in Amazon’s KDP Select program. “It’s so cool to be part of the success of KDP Select…,” she says in today’s press release from Amazon. “There’s truly no other opportunity like Amazon for self-publishing.”

Rachel earned $6,200 just in the month of December, according to Amazon’s announcement, and another self-published author earned even more. “Participating in KDP Select has quadrupled my royalties,” reported Carolyn McCray, who writes paranormal romance novels as well as mysteries and historical thrillers. Amazon reported today that just in December, Carolyn McCray earned $8,250.

In fact on average, all “KDP Select” authors are earning an extra 26%, according to Amazon. “KDP Select appears to be earning authors more money in two ways…,” announced Amazon’s Vice President of Kindle Content. Besides their revenue from the lending program, “we’ve been surprised by how much paid sales of those same titles increased, even relative to the rest of KDP.” Obviously Amazon is touting the experience of their most-successful self-published authors. But it’s inspiring to hear about their success. It makes you wonder if the world of publishing really has been transformed forever.

“During many decades our family is working in the Puzzle World,” reads one humble “author profile” at Amazon.com for the Grabarchuk family. Besides creating and marketing puzzles, they “produce interactive puzzles; solve hundreds puzzles a year; make puzzle researches and historical studies; and are involved into many other puzzle activities all over the World.” The Grabarchuk family also became one of the 10 top-selling authors in Amazon’s KDP Select program for December. In just 31 days, they earned $6,300. “Finally indie publishers are playing as equals with the big publishing houses in the world’s biggest eBook marketplace,” co-founder Serhiy Grabarchuk said enthusiastically in today’s press release from Amazon.

And Amazon provided one more example — romance writer Amber Scott. With seven Kindle ebooks, she’s reporting that the KDK select program “utterly transformed my career,” and her earnings for December were $7,650. She’s apparently attributing some of her success to the Kindle Lending Library, saying “I’ve experienced not only a surge in royalties but a surge in readership thanks to the increased exposure.” And she ended her comment with an exciting prediction for 2012.

“What an exciting time to be an author!”

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte

The new year always gives me a special feeling, as I think about how the last year is gone forever, and remember all those charming moments that are slowly falling away. In 2012, ebooks will continue changing our world — but that’s going to make some memories even more precious. And there’s one particular story that I’m always going to cherish…

Mark Twain once co-authored a play with a forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”

In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a free Kindle ebook)

Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (as a free Kindle ebook)

Right before Christmas, I wrote about how Harte’s words had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California…

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”

The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)

So on one chilly November afternoon, I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from a shelf at my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.

Vintage phonography gramophone record player

Amazon just announced a big sale on mp3 music files. They’ve identified 129 “one-hit wonders” — from six different decades — and they’re selling their most famous songs for just 69 cents each!

You’ll be able to listen to them on most Kindles — everything except Amazon’s new bargain $79 Kindles — and you’ll even be able to purchase them on your Kindle Fire tablet. (Otherwise, just point your computer’s web browser to tinyurl.com/69centMp3s .)

But what’s really fun is the way Amazon’s letting you hear a preview of all 129 songs automatically. Every 30 seconds, they’ll switch to a different song, creating a massive jukebox that covers the entire history of pop music — from the 1950s through the 21st century! At one point I heard Phil Spector’s very first song from 1958, “To Know Him is to Love Him” (which, according to Wikipedia, was inspired by the words on his own father’s gravestone). But towards the end, you’ll hear a song by Jace Everett — who wasn’t even born until 14 years later. (In 2005, Jace released the song “Bad Things,” which became the theme to HBO’s True Blood series in 2008.)

So what songs can you get from Amazon for 69 cents? It’s a fascinating mix!

1950s AND ’60s CLASSICS

“Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp-Bomp-Bomp)”

The original “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen

“Yakety Sax” — immortalized forever as the background music for The Benny Hill Show.

“(Do the) Loco-Motion” by Little Eva (who was Carol King’s baby-sitter!)

“Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies

“Tequila” by the Champs

“Barefootin’ ” by Robert Parker


’70s CLASSICS

The theme to Rocky (“Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti) — a special digital remaster from 2006

“Black Betty” by Ram Jam

“Ballroom Blitz” by Sweet

“Kiss You All Over (’til the Night Closes In)” by Exile

“Brandy” by Looking Glass

“(Tired of) Toeing the Line” by Rocky Burnette

“You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone

A forgotten top-10 hit by John Travolta called “Let Her In”


’80s HITS

“Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones

“Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners

“I Know What Boys Like” by the Waitresses

“99 Luftballons” by Nena

“Come on, Feel the Noize” by Quiet Riot

“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers

“Down Under” by Men at Work

Irene Cara’s “Flashdance”

“I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany

“The Promise” by When in Rome (which was later used as the closing song in Napoleon Dynamite)


’90s HITS

“No Rain” by Blind Melon (which they promoted with the famous “dancing bee girl” music video on MTV)

“Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer

“Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice

“Unbelievable” by EMF

“Cotton Eye Joe” by the Rednex

“Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star

“(I’m a) Bitch” by Meredith Brooks

“Insane in the (Mem)Brain” by Cypress Hill


21st CENTURY HITS

“Stacy’s Mom (Has Got It Going On)” by Fountains of Wayne

“(Just) Breathe…” by Anna Nalick

“Who Let the Dogs Out” by Baha Men

“Everything You Want” by Vertical Horizon

“Falling in Love in a Coffee Shop” by Landon Pigg

“Stars are Blind” by Paris Hilton


It’s a fun jumble of music, and I’ve thought about surprising my friends with an mp3 — or maybe teasing them with one of my least favorite songs. (Amazon’s page helpfully reminds you that you can also “gift these songs to your friends and loved ones.”) There’s even some novelty numbers on sale, like “Monster Mash” by Boris Pickett and “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles, or “Shaddap You Face” by Joe Dolce — and even the song “Rubber Duckie” by Ernie from Sesame Street. I like how Amazon’s offering discounts on songs that I actually remember from when I went to high school many years ago.

And I really like how they’re selling each one for what’s basically the loose change in your pocket — two quarters, a dime, a nickel, and four pennies!

Thomas S Roche - author of the zombie crime novel The Panama Laugh

As the holidays roll around, I remember my friends. I don’t want to sound like Charlie Brown, but it is a good time for some extra warmth and sharing. So today I’m sharing a special personal glimpse into the life of a professional writer — the rest of the interview with my friend, Thomas S. Roche!

He’s been working as a professional fiction writer for nearly 20 years — and just published his first novel under his own name. (A bracingly original zombie novel called The Panama Laugh.)


   *                              *                              *

Q: I was really surprised to hear you’ve actually been reading e-books for more than eleven years! That’s a lot longer than most people…

THOMAS S ROCHE: I was an early adopter of e-books; I read a couple hundred e-books on the Palm Pilot, before anyone had ever heard of a Kindle. I used to read books on a tiny monochrome display using the Pluckr ereader! I am a big fan of e-books and always have been.

Q: So how do you feel about the Kindle and the other new digital readers, and the way e-books look today?

TSR: My main gripe about e-readers in general is that is that I don’t like it when manufacturers and publishers try to make them seem like books!

E-books are not books, and I feel like the big problem with e-reading in general is that I learned how to use a certain amount of functionality with e-books very early on, and made it work for me. Then the industry changed it, and changed it again, and changed it again, and keeps changing it. This is all supposedly in the interest of providing greater functionality to the user, but it’s not; it’s about providing marketing control to corporations.

I still think that e-books should not attempt to imitate a five- or six-hundred-year-old technology (books). The people who say “But I like the way books smell!” have one perspective, and I don’t believe you’re going to win them over by providing a “page” that “turns.” E-books are something different than books, a new form entirely — the same way that online magazines are not magazines, but a new art form.

Q: But does that change fiction?

TSR: Books are not stories; books are books. The fundamental, underlying artistry of writing a novel or a short story or a nonfiction work doesn’t change when you take it out of manuscript form and typeset it. The experience of reading does, and I’m somewhat baffled by users who want to try to duplicate the experience of turning a page, when what they’re doing is nothing like turning a page.

That said, I use my Kindle a lot. And I’ve finally gotten used to the e-ink’s tendency to black out when you turn pages. I don’t need a tablet computer, so the added expense, weight, etc. wouldn’t be worthwhile for me. I prefer to have a straightforward, simple, easy-to-carry e-reader so I’ve always got a book with me, and the Kindle has satisfied that need in my life. I’ve also tried the Nook and I’m fairly impressed with its most current forms, and I’m a fan of the Sony Reader — though that platform seems to be on its way out.

Q: I know you recently bought one of Amazon’s new $79 Kindles. So what exactly do you when it’s time to read?

TSR: In addition to reading a Kindle book a week or so, I also read books quite frequently on the Kindle app for my iPod Touch. It’s advantageous because if I get caught without a book or without my Kindle, like waiting in line somewhere when I wasn’t planning to, the iPod Touch
can always be in my pocket — something that the Kindle isn’t, just because of its size and its relative fragility.

However, the advantages of the Kindle are still huge, so I use it all the time. The weight, profile and contour, the small size of the data files, and ultimately the screen are all advantageous. I hate the e-ink technology’s tendency to black out between pages. But while I’m reading a single page, I’m quite happy.

Q: You’ve been a professional fiction writer for nearly 20 years. Do you remember how you felt when you first realized that someday books might be delivered in a digital format? (And were you skeptical at first?)

TSR: I read articles about the coming wave of e-books in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, way back in the ’80s. I was only skeptical about individual platforms. I hate cell phones, and I hate smartphones…

When I finally gave up my Palm, I started using the iPod Touch as an e-reader, and it worked okay, but just didn’t satisfy me as a full-time reading device… That’s still my stopgap measure when I don’t have my Kindle.

Q: I should probably ask you how you feel about the future of the local bookstore, and Amazon.

TSR: I think it’s dangerous for publishers and readers to put all their eggs in one basket. Local bookstores are cultural treasures. They’ve been beaten out of existence not just by competition from Amazon — which was explicitly devoted to putting them all out of business from the get-go — but by a community that values convenience over building local community.

However, this is not unique to bookselling. It’s the symptom of a huge corporatist migration, which is incredibly dangerous for many more reasons than just putting local booksellers out of business.

That’s a lot of what The Panama Laugh is about, in fact — the elevation of private business above community infrastructure, with catastrophic results.

Q: I’ve read it! And I was just a tiny bit disappointed that you live in Sacramento, but there’s not a scene in your novel where a zombie throng marches through, destroying all the local businesses and taking over the state legislature…

TSR: There was a first draft of the novel that was about 100,000 words, that involved a road trip from Corpus Christi to San Francisco in a Bellona Industries armored personnel carrier. Not a single word of it got used in the final draft… It involved a trip through Sacramento, including a huge zombie attack in Lathrop and a tank battalion approaching the Bay Bridge from a (fictional) Army base in Fairfield. I don’t know if it’ll see the light of day.

Q: Fair enough. But how exactly is it that you know so much about using weapons on zombies?!

TSR: I’ve always read obsessively about guns. My father — and his father — were both seasoned hunters, and I was taken to the range as a kid. But I’m not a hunter. I could never shoot a deer, or probably even a pheasant, unless I really had to. In which case I’d probably apologize to it — which might not be a bad idea. However, guns are expensive, and shooting is an expensive hobby

Q: And at the end of the book you even acknowledge a local coffee shop where you wrote the manuscript — Temple Coffee on 28th street in Sacramento. I find it almost mind-boggling that people are in there ordering their muffins and scones, and you’re writing descriptions of the writhing undead feasting on the flesh of the living…

TSR: It just never seemed that weird to me. It’s what I write about, and if I’m at home instead of in public, then like any reasonable person I go lie down and take a nap. I have to be in public when I write, because otherwise I get so isolated I can’t stave off the depression, and I never get anything written!

Q: Spoken like a man who’s just written a 315-page zombie apocalypse story. Happy holidays, Thomas!


Click here for a free sample chapter from Thomas’s new zombie apocalypse, The Panama Laugh

Thomas S Roche - author of the zombie crime novel The Panama Laugh

Kindle gift-wrapped as a Christmas gift

Amazon won’t release specific numbers about their Kindle sales — but they made a rare exception Thursday in their special year-end press release. “2011 is the Best Holiday Ever for Kindle,” Amazon announced, pointing to the fact that this year, they’d sold “millions of Kindle Fires and millions of Kindle e-readers.”

That’s still vague, but it reveals a big number if you parse it carefully. “Millions” has to mean at least two million, and Amazon’s apparently reporting two different numbers — one for the holiday sales of their color Kindle Fire tablets, and another one for holiday sales of their family of black-and-white e-ink Kindles. That means Amazon sold at least four million Kindles in December — a fact they confirm later in their press release. “Throughout December, customers purchased well over 1 million Kindle devices per week,” Amazon announced.

Unfortunately, there’s no telling what Amazon means by “well over one million”. And it’s fun to look at other clever tricks that Amazon’s used over the years to avoid giving out a specific number. For example, last year in December of 2010, Amazon made an announcement about sales for their newly-released Kindle 3. “[I]n the last 73 days, readers have purchased more Kindles than we sold during all of 2009,” the statement read — without providing an actual number!

“Amazon has a tradition of playing these stupid mind games with the press…” complained one columnist at PC World. “Amazon really took the cake for its silly numbers game last December [of 2009], when the company announced it had sold enough 8 gigabyte iPods during the holiday season to play 422 years of continuous music. The company also claimed it had sold enough Blu-ray disc players during the 2009 holiday sales blitz that if you lined up all the players side-by-side they would stretch for more than 27 miles. Huh?”

And this year, Amazon released a press release with some even stranger comparisons.

“Amazon’s third-party sellers sold enough cameras for every fan at the next 10 Super Bowls to snap their own shots of the winning touchdown.”

“Amazon’s third-party sellers sold enough toys in 2011 to give a toy to every resident of Chicago.”

“[Third-party sellers] sold as many Lalaloopsy Dolls as there are lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City.”

I love Amazon, and I love my Kindle — but it’s for that reason that I wish Amazon would tell us how many other people have actually bought a Kindle! “Reading Amazon’s press releases on Kindle’s greatness is like having a discussion with a kindergartner or a politician,” complained one analyst at The Motley Fool. “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 at least Amazon’s press release this morning also reported an interesting phenomenon that I’d also noticed earlier this month. “[T]he #1 and #4 best-selling Kindle books released in 2011 were both published independently,” they announced, and both ebooks came from authors using Amazon’s “Kindle Direct Publishing” program for self-publishing ebooks. Amazon’s CEO called it “a huge milestone for independent publishing,” congratulating the two authors, and delivering a message for anyone who got a Kindle for Christmas. “We are grateful to our customers worldwide for making this the best holiday ever for Kindle…”