Owen Smith - BART Call of the Wild book poster

Something very special happened this morning on a commuter train in to San Francisco. I was reading my Kindle, but I looked up to see a surprising poster on the walls of the train station. It was a painting of someone who was reading on a commuter train in to San Francisco. And the characters from the book were riding along on the train with them!

It’s a great series of art posters that was commissioned by the administrators for San Francisco’s BART trains, and it apparently celebrates the joy of reading during your commute. A spokesperson says they’d asked the artist to consider what was special about the experience of riding the trains — “and then bring to it their own interests.” And in a small island town in the San Francisco bay, artist Owen Smith had a very personal idea. That “You can spend your time reading…whether it’s a book or on your Kindle or iPad.”

I love the way his paintings imply that we’re all somehow magically together. While a woman reads The Joy Luck Club, she’s sitting right in front of the older Chinese mother from the book, who’s watching over the daughter who appears in the foreground. The 1989 novel was set in San Francisco (and author Amy was from the Bay Area), so if its characters were here today, they’d probably be riding along with us on the train. Plus, the novel also told it’s story through the perspective of several different generations. It’s almost like the artist’s choice is suggesting that somehow, we can even transcend time itself — while commuting in to work!

Owen Smith - BART Joy Luck Club book painting

A Kindle can definitely brighten up your commute — and it’s something I noticed on my last visit to San Francisco. I’d worked there in the last 1990s, and as I’d looked around during my morning commutes back then, I’d seen lots of people reading newspapers. Today you notice a big difference: now almost no one is rustling around through a newspaper, trying desperately to find the right section. But there’s lots and lots of handheld devices — lots of Kindles, a few tablets, an occasional Nook, and even people reading on their cellphones!

But there’s something more to it than that, since we’re all still sitting there together, in a spontaneous moment of community. I feel like the artist understood that feeling, and just took it in another direction. Because while we’re silently sharing a space, we’re also sharing it with those unseen people who wrote the books that we love the most. Somehow on the train, your personal space fills up with all the characters from their stories…

For example, in another poster the artist celebrates Dashiell Hammett, who wrote the gritty detective novel The Maltese Falcon. Hammett lived in the city himself, and in the novel his detective conducts an investigation throughout the city stress of San Francisco. But on the poster, that detective is riding on the commuter train, looking alertly over his shoulder at a suspicious femme fatale who’s sitting by the train’s doors. Through the window, you can even see a neon sign for John’s Grill — a real San Francisco restaurant which also appears in the novel.

BART Maltese Falcon book poster by Owen Smith

In a way, there’s one more person who’s sharing our space on the train – the artist who created these posters. Artist Owen Smith didn’t try to add any more overt message, saying “If it’s a little mysterious, that’s OK…” But he’s reminding us of the precious things we can experience while riding a train. Even when we’re reading quietly to ourselves, we’re still connected to lots of people – both real and imaginary!

Alot Was Been Hard by Janetlw Bauie from YouTube Comments

It’s not often I get excited about an ebook that was this bad. But it was so bad, it was good. In fact, this particular Kindle ebook was so surreally awful, that it became a work of art. It was the one ebook so horrible that Amazon had to hunt it down and kill it.

The book’s title was “Alot Was Been Hard”. Its author’s name was Janetlw Bauie. But there was no author — just an unseen presence lurking silently on the web. It was inhuman and utterly unpredictable — but in another sense, the book’s author was us.

“Where does authorship start and end?” wondered two artists in Berlin. So as a digital project, they created a software program which automatically performed every step in the publishing process for an ebook in Amazon’s Kindle Store. And then two weeks ago, in a special press release, they revealed their project’s dark twist. “Our bots are compiling and uploading hundreds of ebooks on Amazon.com with text stolen from the comments on YouTube videos.”

The books had titles like Wierd song you cute by Timsest Pitigam. The fake names were also generated by the computer, so you’d end up with ebooks like Sparta my have by Loafrz Ipalizi. A writer at MIT’s “Technology Review” blog identified those as two of his favorite titles, calling the whole project “a masterpiece of machine-generated unintentional comedy.” But behind it all, the artists insisted, they were trying to make a point.

No one ever gets paid for writing comments on YouTube videos, they observed in their press release. “The creators of user-generated content work for free,” they pointed out, while YouTube distributes their comments — and then earns a profit on it. Apparently their project does the same thing on a much grander scale — but they also saw another message in their project. Professional artists are paid for the works they created, but the 21st century has seen the rise of something different, where paid labor is displaced by “what the artists call the ‘nonsense economy.'” Ultimately they see the comments area on YouTube as a kind of “communication-junk factory.”

But they asked a more fundamental question: how is an ebook different than a traditional book? I’ve often thought that someday, there’ll be someone who invents an entirely new artform which could only happen in a digital book. One of the artists already experimented with this idea, creating a pop-up book whose pages magically incorporate real-time footage of whatever the author happens to be doing right now. The book actually receives live updates over the web, if I understand their description, and “The reader is invited to navigate freely in the between of material and virtual worlds.” (The book appears to be written entirely in German…)

Of course, they also raised some other unintended questions with their book of YouTube comments. “My first thought was about how long it would be until they were sued for copyright infringement,” wrote a blogger at TechDirt. But eventually, someone else got to the artists first. Amazon has apparently deleted all their ebooks — presumably because every book in the Kindle Store should, at the very least, have an actual human author.

It’s a sad end to a wild burst of what can only be called pure craziness. But is it really the end? In a secret fortress on the web, the artists are apparently still brewing up new schemes. Tuesday on their Twitter feed, they pointed to a web page announcing that “Our bots are up and running. Be ready for new releases …” And by this morning they were cranking out new ebooks for Amazon’s Kindle Store, still based entirely on comments stolen from YouTube. Their titles?

     This is of woke and half show
     Saw click sure but
     Usually love what soo

Jessica Park - author of Flat-Out Love

It felt like something happened last week. A writer dared to speak the truth — spilling the beans about how hard life is for a professional book author. Jessica Park finally revealed how much real writers can hate their publishers, and how much happier she is now that she’s publishing her ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle Store. “The funny thing is that I feel more like a real author now that I self-publish than when I had the (supposed) support of a publisher behind me.”

The article was just published on the 15th at a web site called IndieReader.com (and it was later republished on The Huffington Post). But by that Tuesday, Amazon — in what’s almost an act of war — featured her article on the front page of Amazon.com! It seems like now everyone is noticing it. Three of my friends each decided to share that same article last week on Facebook.

The top Kindle blogs are also buzzing about it, and it’s almost starting to feel like a revolution. “One of the major reasons that I write is to connect with readers, not publishers,” Jessica explains. “The truth is that I couldn’t care less whether New York editors and publishers like me. I don’t want to write for them. I want to write for you.” Publishers had rejected her newest novel, Flat-Out Love, because its main character was a few years older than they’d wanted the character to be. “It clicked for me that I was not the idiot here.

It’s hard to ignore Jessica when she reveals just how much more money she’d earned after leaving behind the traditional publishers. (In one especially good month, she sold close to 50,000 ebooks.) And despite her role as an author, Jessica writes that “I have to credit Amazon with giving me such a strong platform with such overwhelming visibility. I can be a writer. I am a writer….”

“It’s heartwarming,” Amazon’s founder wrote on the front page of Amazon.com, saying that Jessica’s article “tells a powerful story about what Kindle Direct Publishing makes possible. Kindle Direct Publishing empowers serious authors to reach readers, build a following, make a living, and to do it on their own terms.” And he points out that it’s not just the authors who are benefiting. “Readers get lower prices, authors get higher royalties, and we all get a more diverse book culture (no expert gatekeepers saying ‘sorry but that will never work’).”

Is it a trend? Maybe. Amazon’s founder also notes that of the top 100 best-selling ebooks in the Kindle Store for all of 2012, there are 22 that came from Amazon’s “Kindle Direct Publishing” program. (“[A]nd more great stories are being published every day…”) But I think there’s an even more compelling piece of evidence — the real passion that seems to glow in every single word of Jessica’s article. “We get to bring you our stories in the way we want to tell them, without the dilution and sculpting from publishing houses. And the fans? Oh, the fans are simply unbelievable…Their support and enthusiasm breathes life into days when I feel particularly challenged.

“I’m in a circle of authors who have been dubbed The Cancer Warriors because our books have become saving graces for people going through cancer treatment. Readers are escaping hell on earth through our books. …books that never would have reached these readers without the ability to self-publish. We get to do our small part to help them fight. Getting to be part of something like this is at the top of my list for why I write.

It makes me want to face New York publishers head on and scream, “You see that? Do you see what we’re doing without you?”

Throw in the Vowel - a Kindle word game

If you own a Kindle Touch, here’s two very important announcements.

First, Amazon’s Kindle Store finally got a Kindle Touch version of a new word game this week. It’s called “Throw in the Vowel” — I’m the game’s co-author — and it was released in February for all the other Kindle models. But this Kindle Touch version is even easier to play, since you just tap your finger to make choices on the screen. And unlike some games, you don’t even have to type in the letters in the words to submit your guesses!

You can find a copy at tinyURL.com/ThrowInTheVowel , and the game represents a real milestone. For the last four months, we’ve been fine-tuning this touchscreen version, so it was a real thrill to finally see all the letters jumping happily around the screen in response to my fingertip! And while we were preparing this game, we also learned a lot about the Kindle Touch. For example, we’ve already adapted our game for the next generation of Amazon’s Kindle Touch software!

That software is already “available” for Kindle Touch owners, but right now you have to install it yourself. Eight weeks ago, Amazon’s created a special web page where you can download the new software, along with some easy instructions for how to perform that upgrade. (Just point your web browser to tinyurl.com/KindleTouchUpgrade ). I imagine that Amazon will eventually send this software out automatically over the wireless connection, and they’ll start including it with the Kindle Touches that they’re selling in stores. But after working with it for a few weeks, I learned that this new software includes some really cool features!

For example, it allows you to translate any word in any book into another language, just by pressing your fingertip onto the word (and then selecting “Translation” from the menu that pops up.) You can even customize the Kindle itself, so all of its menus appear in one of six foreign languages. (Besides English, there’s German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Brazilian Portuguese.) And you can also read ebooks in “landscape mode” as well as portrait (a feature which wasn’t available on earlier versions of the device.) Best of all, whenever you’re searching for something, the new software tries to guess what you’re typing! That way, you can just select from one of its on-screen choices rather than having to finish typing out all of the words yourself!

Anyways, these two announcements have a common theme: there’s now new ways to enjoy your Kindle Touch! And I hope you’ll try out “Throw in the Vowel.” We spent over a year identifying 750 challenging words for our game, and polishing up the game’s “look and feel” just for the Kindle.

Now that it’s finally available for the Kindle Touch, it’s your chance to join in the fun!

Throw in the Vowel - a Kindle word game

Vintage phonography gramophone record player

Remember when I said that Amazon was giving away $2.00 worth of free downloads from their music store? I’d said hurry, because the offer originally ended at midnight on Monday – but now Amazon’s extended the offer until this Saturday (June 23rd) at midnight! To claim your two free songs, just point your browser to tinyurl.com/TwoFreeSongs

You can upload the files to your Kindle, and then listen to them in the background while you’re reading (or playing a game)! And here’s what I’d written when I first heard about Amazon’s offer. Basically, I was surprised how many people don’t have music on their Kindles. Almost two years ago, I’d asked people in a Kindle Forum to share the songs they were listening to on their Kindles. Some people responded with some unexpected answers.


“wow, you can listen to music on your kindle!!!???? okay, so I read that I had that capability somewhere in my manual, but just glossed over it since, I prefer to read in silence.”


Even then people who were listening to music seemed to want to do it on another device.


“Nothing. I got an ipod where I can choose which song to listen to.”

“In the end I stopped loading music on the K2. I just listen to music on my iPhone where I have my entire music library.”

“I have an iPod Classic with over 13,000 songs on it as well as an iPod Touch with music and the Kindle app.”

“I would probably use my iPhone for that anyway, but I don’t listen to music while I read.”


But there was at least one user that shared my enthusiasm for listening to music straight from your Kindle. Especially when I’m reading on the patio and about to doze off, I’m sometimes too lazy to go get another device and it’s nice to already have some music choices on the reader.”

“I actually prefer quiet while reading though, so when I do play music, it’s usually to minimize someone else’s noise, such as from the jerk neighbor who thinks he can play the drums!”

Amazon Kindle Fire tablet plays apps

What would you say if Amazon lowered the price on their Kindle Fire tablets, to just $149? I’d say “Wow! That’s a 25% discount! And it’ll probably help the tablets attract a huge, new audience…” Well, Amazon actually is considering a new $149 price-tag for the Kindle Fire. At least, according to a rumor that’s being reported on several technology blogs…

Digitimes cites sources “from the upstream supply chain” who expect Amazon to release a new Kindle Fire tablet in July with a higher screen resolution (1280 x 800). And since the new tablets will cost $199, Amazon will offer a discount on the earlier models (which have a slightly lower screen resolution of 1024 x 600). According to Digitimes, Amazon sold less than 800,000 Kindle Fire tablets in the first three months of 2012, after racking up sales of close to 5 million when it was first launched at the end of 2011. So Amazon’s hoping to grow the user base for the Kindle Fire by offering a big drop in the price!

That might help Amazon’s tablet fight off some new competitors, according to a technology blog at ZDNet. They noted that Google may even be planning to release a tablet of their own soon to compete with the Kindle Fire, and in May they cited another threat after Apple reduced the price of an iPad 2 to just $399. To remain competitive, Amazon may soon lower the price of the Kindle Fire to just $149. “The strategy is straight out of Apple’s playbook: dropping the price of the previous generation’s hardware in order to expand its market share. It worked with the iPod and iPhone…”

Of course, Amazon hasn’t forgotten their other Kindles, and the “upstream sources” also shared their thoughts about the next generation of devices. Later this year, they expect Amazon to release some brand new versions of the black-and-white Kindle e-readers too, possibly in different sizes. And towards the end of this year, they even expect Amazon to release a larger Kindle Fire, with a 10.1-inch screen.

So if you’re shopping for a new Kindle this year, it looks like Amazon will have some exciting announcements for you soon!

Father's Day Kindle discounts

I just noticed that Amazon’s offering some great new prices on many of their Kindles. For example, there’s now a $20 discount that’s available for the Kindle Touch. Normally it costs $99, but now Amazon’s selling refurbished (previously-owned) models for just $79! And doing some more checking, I found lower prices on some of Amazon’s other Kindle models too…

You can find all the discounted Kindles at tinyurl.com/FathersDayKindles. And it turns out that Amazon’s also offering the same discount for a Kindle Touch that has built-in 3G connectivity. Though it normally costs $149, the refurbished model is just $129. But remember, the 3G connection only works for the Kindle Store and Wikipedia. For surfing the web, you’d still need to provide your own WiFi connection.

And I was really surprised by the lower prices on some of Amazon’s other Kindle models. The Kindle Keyboard page doesn’t show any refurbished models for sale — but they’re advertising used Kindle Keyboards starting as low as $109. (Normally, they’ll cost you $139.) And there’s some even better deals on a large-screen, Kindle DX. Normally they cost $379, but there’s several used Kindle DXs available starting as low as $250!

If you’re interested in a Kindle DX, Amazon’s also offering a terrific price as part of a special Father’s Day promotion. Through this Sunday, June 17, Amazon will let you purchase a Kindle DX and a black cover to go with it for just $262! This is a brand new Kindle DX, and to get one with the cover would normally cost $419. But through this Sunday, Amazon’s selling them together for just $299!

I’m guess that at least a few lucky shoppers will place their order on Friday, pay Amazon for overnight shipping, and end up with a great Father’s Day gift — at a great discount!

United_States_Department_of_state.svg

Amazon has a new customer: the U.S. government. According to an article in Information Week, “The State Department plans to award a contract to Amazon to purchase thousands of Kindle e-readers for use in its offices around the world.”

They’re spending $16.5 million for the Kindles, according to the article, and they’re spreading out the purchases over the next five years. But the terms of the deal allow them to acquire up to 7,000 Kindles, which by my math would come out to $2,357 for each Kindle. Apparently it’s not just the Kindles that the State Department is buying, but also the ability to deliver their content to other non-Kindle devices, including Blackberries, PCs, Android phones, and Apple devices. Plus, the contract also includes an Amazon-hosted repository of government documents (and statistics on how often the content is actually being accessed), and of course, all of the necessary software upgrades.

If I’m reading this correctly, the State Department had already bought 6,000 Kindles last year in a pilot program for less than one million dollars. (The $980,000 program means that each Kindle cost an average of $163.)But this new contract is an even bigger “win” for the Kindle, because they beat out a lot of other devices which were being considered for the contract, including the iPad, the Nook, and the Sony Reader. (In a statement, government official said they’d identified Amazon’s Kindle as “the only e-Reader on the market that meets the government’s needs…”) One of the features they cited was the extended battery life of Amazon’s Kindle, as well as the availability of international power adapters.

One of the state department’s requirements was a text-to-speech feature. The reason? They want to use it to help teach English in classes! But it seems like a big part of their plan is to offer Amazon’s digital readers in the department’s own libraries, cultural centers, and reading rooms, which a spokesperson described as their “American spaces”. (“These are kind of like little American information centers, where they can look at copies of magazines, U.S. reference books, books on the American political system, history…”)

It seems like quite a perk. That’s almost enough to make me want to get a job in the State Department!

India

A public library in India tried a wonderful experiment to attract new members. They’re not just loaning out ebooks. They’re actually loaning out Kindles!

“We started the initiative after we got five Amazon Kindles as donation…” explained the president of the Desaposhini Public Library, in an article in the Times of India. “We think that by embracing the digital revolution we can make the library more attractive to the tech-oriented younger generation!” So far, the results have been encouraging, according to the library official. He described the early feedback as “very promising,” saying they’ve been flooded with new membership requests, mostly from young readers — and the community has been very enthusiastic. “It’s like walking home with a library,” one patron told the newspaper, saying the Kindle’s screen provided “a very comfortable reading experience.”

In fact, nearly a quarter of a million ebooks are already available, with over 200,000 copy-right free books or books purchased from Amazon. But they’re also planning to digitize rare books — a great way to preserve some cultural treasures. To expand their program, they’re even considering a plan where they insure their Kindles against damage — maybe by taking a deposit from members each time they check out a device!

It’s fascinating to watch Amazon’s new technology carving out a place for itself all around the world…

Mastering the Grill book cover

I love it when Amazon discounts ebooks for the Kindle — especially when there’s one hundred ebooks. I finally took a good look at Amazon’s big selection of discounted ebooks for June. They’re broken into five categories — Literature and Fiction, Nonfiction, Kids & Teens, Biographies & Memoirs, and “More Great Deals”. You can browse through them all at tinyurl.com/399books — and this month’s selection seems even more eclectic, with a nice variety of discounted books.


Whistle by James Jones

From Here to Eternity was only the first in a trilogy of World War II novels by James Jones (which also included The Thin Red Line). Jones actually witnessed the Pearl Harbor attacks at the age of 20, according to Wikipedia, and later based all three books on his war-time experiences. Whistle was his final novel – he was still working on it before his death in 1977, promising “Just about everything I have ever had to say, or will ever have to say, on the human condition of war.” And this fascinating book’s final three chapters were completed by a friend and fellow author named Willie Morris.


Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming by Peter Seibel

Geeks writing computer programs share their most interesting insights in an intriguing 2009 collection. The book’s description promises that the author tracked down “15 of the most interesting computer programmers alive today,” including the creator of Unix, Ken Thompson, and Jamie Zawinski, an early coder at Netscape and the author of XEmacs. It’s both entertaining and inspiring, according to one reviewer at Amazon, who writes that “If you are a person who cares at all about the art, craft, or science of software development, you will not be able to put this book down!”



Def Leppard: The Definitive Visual History by Ross Halfin

This 1980s metal band sold more than 65 million records, offering up their iconic “anthem rock” in albums like Pyromania and Hysteria. But rock photographer Ross Halfin has been photographing them since 1978, and according to the book’s description at Amazon, delivers “candid and definitive pictures” of the hard-hitting band in action, along with his own up-close recollections, ultimately creating a “fully authorized visual history.” The print edition of this book normally costs $35.00 – but in June, it’s Kindle edition is just $3.99!


Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin by Leon Uris

In Berlin after World War II, “an American Army officer bears witness to the aftermath of one historic tragedy and the rise of another,” according to this novel’s description on Amazon. Soviet forces blockade the city, the historic airlift begins, and Leon Uris’s compelling military commander watches helplessly as an “Iron Curtain” rises which would divide Europe for the next 46 years.


Mastering the Grill by Alison Miksch

Summer’s almost here – it sure feels like summer already – and I like how this book’s description at Amazon promises it’ll become “a sauce-stained, well-thumbed classic.” It notes that the authors dig into the key facts of the grilling process, offering a “master class” in cooking. “In addition to hundreds of tips and techniques, this ultimate guide is packed with how-to illustrations and mouthwatering photographs plus 350 surefire recipes – everything from rubs and marinades to appetizers, entrees, side dishes, and desserts!”

Hot desserts from the grill? I can’t wait!

Dilbert and Doonesbury Kindle ebook anthologies

For the first time ever, you can read Kindle anthologies for two of the most popular newspaper comic strips — Doonesbury and Dilbert! They’re available now for Kindle Fire tablets, though you can also read them on any of Amazon’s Kindle apps. Check out the books at these “shortcut” URLs — tinyurl.com/DoonesburyEbook and tinyurl.com/DilbertEbooks. “These remarkable volumes represent a tremendous body of work from two exceptional cartoonists,” announced the publishing company behind the two books, “and we are delighted to make them available to a new audience.”

These exclusive Kindle editions don’t just include a few of the famous newspaper comic strips — it’s a lot of them! The Dilbert collection includes 2,000 different strips, nearly 30% of all the Dilbert comic strips that have ever been published. And the Doonesbury collection has everything — every single newspaper strip from the last 40 years. (If my math is correct, that means there’s 3,650 comic strips in each of the four editions, or nearly 15,000 comic strips in all!)

The Doonesbury collection is split into four separate volumes that each cover one entire decade, so the first volume starts with the 1970s. (There’s a famous series of strips in 1971 that pokes fun at young anti-war activist John Kerry, 33 years before he became the Democrats’ candidate for President in 2004.) Two more volumes collect all of the strips from the 1980s and 1990s, respectively, covering the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, and the final volume almost catches up to the present, covering the years 2000 through 2010. (Cartoonist Garry Trudeau titled the collection simply “40: A Doonesbury Retrospective.”)

When the Doonesbury collection was released in print, each edition weighed almost 10 pounds, but the digital editions fit right into your Kindle apps (and each volume apparently takes just one-tenth
of a megabyte.) In a special introduction at Amazon.com, the cartoonist jokes that “I’ve come to appreciate that many readers prefer to forego the risk of herniation while picking up a book – no matter that the risk is slight if you push up from your knees and have someone spot you.” And he remembers the time crooks actually hijacked a truck which had been delivering print copies of the book. “I’ve tried to imagine the reaction of the hijackers’ supervisor when he broke into the trailer and discovered 13,000 pounds of Doonesbury where palettes of hi-def TVs should have been!”

Dilbert’s anthology has more descriptive titles for its four volumes, starting with “The Early Years, 1989 to 1993.” (It’s followed by “The Boom Years, 1994 to 1997,” and “The Dot-Com Bubble, 1998 to 2000.”)
But there’s seven whole years crammed into the final volume –“The Modern Era, 2001 to 2008.” “I tried to find the strips that were the funniest,” cartoonist Scott Adams explains in an interview at Amazon.com, “while also having some meaning, or a funny story attached.” Each strip was personally selected by the cartoonist himself, and it looks like he put a lot of care into the final anthology. In the interview, Adams remembers that “it felt like I was a mother with triplets and someone told me I could only keep one of them!”

He also reveals that he’s hoping for a Dilbert movie (though “A lot of elements have to fall in place.”) And he has big plans, some of which involve the comic strip’s web site, and even distributing the comic strip directly to mobile devices. “It’s an exciting time to be a cartoonist,” But in some ways, Dilbert has already made a very grand entrance for the Kindle. Dilbert himself makes a special appearance on the ebook’s page at Amazon.com — explaining exactly how to read the comic strip on touch screen. (“Hi, Kindle Fire Users,” the strip begins. “Double-tap on any panel to enlarge it…”)

By the end of the strip, Dilbert’s joined by his pet dog — Dogbert — who asks an even more important question…

Dilbert and Dogbert explain Kindle Fire ebook