The Perfect Free eBook for Summer

Wind in the Willows - Rat and Mole on the River

I just finished reading The Wind in the Willows, a wonderful classic tale about the society of animals that lives along the riverbank — including a mole, a badger, a rat, and a toad. It’s available as a free e-book in Amazon’s Kindle store. But I want to share one of my favorite stories ever about a famous author — especially since his book left me smiling and full of a feeling like summer-time bliss. And it turns out the book has a fascinating history almost as good a story as the book itself.

Author Kenneth Grahame was the secretary of the Bank of England until the age of 49. He hadn’t written a work of fiction in 10 years, but based the book’s most memorable character, Mr. Toad, on his enthusiastic eight-year-old son, Alastair. The book would become a fondly-remembered classic, mixing its funny story with adult allegories celebrating the joy of springtime and the beauty of the great outdoors. “When I was very young…” remembered one reviewer on Amazon, “our school master used to read to us from Wind in the Willows. The stories had a magical quality and a few weeks ago, as a somewhat older person, I got to wondering whether they would still have that sense of enchantment that held us so captivated all those years ago.

“I was NOT disappointed….”

Later A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, joked that “Reading these delicately lovely visions of childhood, you might have wondered that he could be mixed up with anything so unlovely as a bank; and it may be presumed that at the bank an equal surprise was felt that such a responsible official could be mixed up with beauty.” Grahame was in his mid-60s by the time Milne first published his first Pooh story, though Milne once wrote that “I feel sometimes that it was I who wrote it and recommended it to Kenneth Grahame.” Later, when Grahame was 70 years old, A. A. Milne adapted Grahame’s book into a stage play (called “Toad of Toad Hall”), and one night the two men even shared a theatre box together.

He sat there, an old man now, as eager as any child in the audience, and on the occasions (fortunately not too rare) when he could recognise his own words, his eyes caught his wife’s, and they smiled at each other, and seemed to be saying: ‘I wrote that’ — ‘Yes, dear, you wrote that,’ and they nodded happily at each other, and turned their eyes again to the stage.

Milne later wrote an introduction for the book, remembering that it “was not immediately the success which is should have been.” But he also remembers that almost instantly Grahame had attracted some impressive admirers. In 1909, in one of his last month’s in office, Theodore Roosevelt, the president of the United States, took time to write a personal letter in 1909 thanking Kenneth Grahame for his book. (“I felt I must give myself the pleasure of telling you how much we had all enjoyed your book…”) He’d been a bigger fan of Grahame’s earlier books at first, but wrote that “Mrs. Roosevelt and two of the boys, Kermit and Ted, all quite independently, got hold of The Wind in the Willows and took such a delight in it that I began to feel that I might have to revise my judgment.

“Then Mrs. Roosevelt read it aloud to the younger children, and I listened now and then. Now I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends… Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the seafaring rat did when he almost made the water rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering.”

Six weeks later, Roosevelt left office — and embarked on a safari of Africa.

Theodore Roosevelt and elephant on African safari

Americans may remember that when Disneyland opened in the 1950s, one of its first rides (“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”) was inspired by Disney’s cartoon version of Grahame’s book. But what’s less-known is the trouble that Walt Disney had in filming the story. It was intended to be one of his studios first animated movies, just four years after Snow White (their first feature-length cartoon), according to Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the story’s plot violated the Hays Code, the notorious film-production guidelines which covered all American movies.

In the book, Mr. Toad ultimately steals (and crashes) a motor car. And while he goes to jail, he escapes, and remains a misguided but sympathetic character throughout the story. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” the Hays Code insisted. Disney’s version ultimately had to be re-written so that Mr. Toad was instead wrongfully framed of stealing the motor car.

Unfortunately, World War II then interrupted the film’s production (as many of Disney’s animators were drafted into the military), while also putting a strain on the studio’s finances. In the end, it took eight years until a shorter version of the cartoon was released instead, with Mr. Toad’s adventures bundled with the animated version of another classic story — The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Mr Toad from cartoon

The seventh chapter of Grahame’s book — “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” — proved to be especially popular. It describes the mole and rat searching for a lost animal, and instead having an almost religious experience when, off in the woods, they hear the distant music of Pan. It was the favorite chapter of A. A. Milne’s wife, remembers his son Christopher, who wrote that she “read to me again and again with always, towards the end, the catch in the voice and the long pause to find her handkerchief and blow her nose…” And 60 years later, in 1967, the rock band Pink Floyd used its title as the name of their debut album.

But here’s the most lovely piece of trivia about the life of Kenneth Grahame. Apparently because of the popularity of his children’s book’s, Grahame was eventually able to retire to the countryside by the River Thames.

And he was finally able to enjoy the idyllic county life that he’d described so lovingly for his own characters.

Wind and the Willows - Ratty and Mole on the river

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How Popular Are Amazon’s Kindle Singles?

Covers of Amazon Kindle Singles

The New York Times ran a fascinating profile of David Blum, the editor of Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” store. But along the way, they also took a look at the whole phenomenon of Singles — and what it means for the future of books. Amazon has sold nearly 5 million Kindle singles over the last 27 months, according to the article about Blum, who tells the newspaper that “Every day I become more obsessed with how brilliant the concept is…” But it’s got me wondering just how popular the Kindle Singles really are…

Blum tells the newspaper he’s now receiving more than 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts each month, from which he “cherry-picks” the best ones (and helps select their cover artwork). There’s also a gushy sentence where the Times writes that Amazon’s Singles store is “helping to promote a renaissance of novella-length journalism and fiction.” But I like how they ultimately identified Kindle Singles as “a small, in-house publishing brand – analogous to a grocery store that makes an in-house brand of salsa to compete with other manufacturers.” They make the point that Amazon is trying to establish its own publishing imprint partly because traditional bookstores are refusing to carry Amazon’s printed books.

I just assumed Amazon was selling the Kindle Singles because it gave them a way to sell ebooks at a cheaper price. But apparently authors like them too, because they get to keep 70% of the money the Singles earn. “The idea that writers would participate in the publishing model is just very bold,” Blum tells The New York Times proudly. Yet it’s all happening against the backdrop of a massive struggle-to-the-death in the larger publishing industry.

“With magazines folding or shrinking because of financial pressures, long-form storytelling has few places to flourish,” the Times reports, adding that along with some other digital publishers, Amazon “has leapt firmly into that void…” They’ve published Kindle Singles by best-selling authors like Stephen King, Susan Orlean, and Lee Child, and this article intrigued me for two reasons. First, I hadn’t thought about how “Kindle Singles” fit into the larger publishing industry. But secondly, the Times was actually able to dig up some real numbers about just how many Singles Amazon was selling!

Yes, they’ve sold 5 million Kindle Singles since they launched the program back in January of 2011 (which breaks down to 185,000 Kindle Singles a month, or just 6,000 a day). But what makes this more interesting is that Amazon has only published a total of 345 Kindle Singles. That means each one has sold an average of less than 14,500 copies. And Amazon confides to the Times that in fact, more than 245 of those 345 Kindles Singles have actually sold less than 10,000 copies.

This suggests that the remaining 100 were unusually popular — which seems to be the case. Amazingly, 5% of the 5 million sales all came from just one Kindle Single — Second Son by author Lee Child. (It was a 40-page story about Jack Reacher, the character from his best-selling series of action novels, set when Reacher was just 13 years old.) According to the Times, Amazon sold more than 250,000 copies of just that one Kindle Single.

Amazon also tells the newspaper that they’ve had 28 Kindle Singles which sold more than 50,000 copies. Doing some quick math, that leaves 72 Kindle Singles which sold between 10,000 and 50,000 copies. (And 245 — about 71% of the total — sold fewer than 9,999 copies). Still, writer Mishka Shubaly was able to publish one of the best-selling Kindle Singles ever — a “mini-memoir” titled The Long Run which according to Amazon is about “his transformation from alcoholic drug abuser to sober ultrarunner.” The author tells the Times that he’s currently living off the money that he’s earned from his Kindle Singles. And I like what a rival publishing house told the Times about Amazon’s program. “They actually make a concerted effort to find something great…”

Ironically, just as I was reading the article, Amazon sent me a promotional e-mail about their Kindle Singles. (“Nothing tastes better than a bite-sized piece of writing, and these best-selling Kindle Singles offer high-quality writing meant to educate, entertain, excite, and inform.”) Amazon’s e-mail ended with a dare I’m used to hearing about potato chips — “We bet you can’t read just one.”

And I have to admit that I’m getting curious what all the excitement is about…

Coming Soon: Kindle TV?

Amazon TV logo

Amazon’s exploring a new technology, according to a new article by Business Week. It will send content to your TV screen, streaming the same movies and TV shows that you watch on your Kindle Fire. But what’s really interesting is it’s being developed in a California research facility known as Lab126. It’s the same lab that developed Amazon’s Kindle — and it’s got me wondering if someday, we’ll be seeing ebooks on our television screen!

In the article, one venture capitalist also raised another interesting possibility: maybe Amazon’s set-top box could also display the video from the Kindle Fire apps Amazon’s selling in their Android app store. Imagine playing Temple Run or Angry Birds on a wide-screen TV. “They have a ton of content,” the venture capitalist tells Business Week, plus “an existing billing relationship with millions of users, an existing Android app marketplace that could be leveraged on the box, a reputation for solid hardware products and a terrific channel through which to promote the product…” And if Amazon is displaying all digital content on the box, it’d also be easy to stretch out the text from your Kindle ebooks so they fit on the screen.

Business Week suggested that “Kindle TV” was the obvious name for Amazon’s product, and they interviewed three different people who were “familiar with the project”. Amazon themselves refused to comment, and did not approve any of the interviews — but the article notes that Amazon has been building up its library of video content. Besides securing the exclusive online rights to popular TV shows “Downton Abbey”, Amazon’s obviously been working hard to create their own original TV shows, which they’re currently broadcasting online. (See ) Monday Amazon even bragged that the most-watched TV shows in their Instant Video store this weekend were these “Amazon Originals” — which claimed 8 of the top 10 spots!

There’s a funny story about Lab126, the facility where Amazon is reportedly developing their new set-top box. “[T]here was never a Lab125 or a Lab124…” remembers Jason Merkoski. In his recently-released memoir about the launch of the Kindle, he calls the name of the facility a “geeky in-joke” by the founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. “The ‘126’ part stems from the fact that ‘A’ is the first letter of the alphabet and ‘Z’ is the 26th, a techno-geeky homage to the ‘A to Z’ development center!”

But Amazon’s newest project will have some highly-experienced people on their team, according to Business Week, including a former top engineer from TiVo and a former hardware architect from ReplayTV (one of the first companies in Silicon Valley to release a DVR). Ultimately Amazon’s new set-top box will compete with Apple TV, the Roku, and even the video capabilities that are built into the Playstation 3 and Xbox, so it’s a competition with some very high stakes. Business Week suggested that “Kindle TV” was the obvious name for the product, but I still remember the slogan that MTV used when they were trying to earn a place on cable TV services. So maybe Amazon should just replace the M with an A, and hope that their customers think it’s just as catchy in the 21st century.

“I want my A-TV.”

Amazon Launches 14 Free TV Shows

Amazon Originals TV shows

Amazon’s been offering videos through an online store that you can watch on your Kindle Fire (or in a web browser, or even in an Amazon video app). The service launched in 2006, but Friday Amazon took a big step in a new direction. They released 14 new TV shows which were all created by Amazon. The first episode of each show is available for free in the Kindle Fire’s video store, and online at a special “Amazon Originals” web site.

To watch the shows online, just point your browser to

“You decide which shows become a series,” Amazon promises on their web site. There’s eight different original comedies, including one from the Onion News Network, plus an intriguing new comedy called Browsers, created by David Javerbaum, a writer for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. His show follows a group of interns at a daily news show called The Daily Gush, and it’s directed by Don Scardino, who also directs another popular TV show that’s set behind-the-scenes at a comedy show: 30 Rock. I’m impressed that for the show, Amazon got an actress I’ve actually heard of — Bebe Neuwirth — and there’s even some hip songs scattered throughout Browsers episodes. (The show’s trailer describes it as a “streaming workplace comedy musical”.)

There’s also a new comedy starring John Goodman, and written by Garry Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip. It’s called Alpha House, and it follows four Senators in Washington D.C. who all end up living together in the same rented house. A disclaimer in front of the first episode warns that it contains graphic language and content that “may not be suitable for all audiences,” but the photography is really good, and I laughed out loud at John Goodman’s first scene, where he wakes up one of his roommates — played by Bill Murray — to ask him about the police cars and television news cameras that are swarming outside their apartment. “Hey Vern, were you by any chance scheduled to turn yourself in to the Department of Justice today?” Goodman asks — and the oversleeping Senator responds with a long stream of anguished profanities…

Amazon’s original TV shows also include two new animated series. Dark Minions is written by two actors from The Big Bang Theory — Kevin Sussman and John Ross Bowie — and it’s a comedy about two slackers who just happen to work on an intergalactic warship. (The show’s tagline is “Rules, reports, a Galactic Overlord… just another day at the office.”) And another animated original show, Supanatural, follows “two outspoken divas who are humanity’s last line of defense against the supernatural, when they’re not working at the mall,” according to the description at Amazon. It’s co-produced by Kristen Schaal, a commentator on The Daily Show, and a quote from the first episode suggests it’ll be delivering some very unusual plots. (“It’s not just an ancient doomsday artifact, it’s a hater. That’s why it must be destroyed.”)

There’s a total of eight new comedies, including one set in Silicon Valley, where according to ambitious app developer, “investors are buying napkin sketches from high school drop-outs”. (I like that Amazon’s creating a show that’s about new technologies — or at least, the people who try to build them, with a preview that teased “These aren’t alpha males, they’re betas…the little guy with the big idea.”) There’s also another comedy which follows the lives of teachers with a very clever title — Those That Can’t. And believe it or not, the last comedy is a continuation of the 2009 movie Zombieland, which Wikipedia points out was America’s top-grossing zombie comedy of all-time.

Amazon’s also released six different TV shows for children, most of which seem to be animated. But some of them seem use Pixar-style computer animation, like Tumbleleaf which follows the magical life of a character named Fig the Fox. I have to admit I was intrigued by Positively Ozitively, which promises new adventures in the land of Oz. And One of the creators of Blue’s Clues has created a new show for Amazon called Creative Galaxy, while another Blues Clues creator teamed up with a producer from Arthur and Curious George to create an educational mystery show called Sara Solves It!

There’s just two live-action childrens show — Annebots — about a little girl who builds three robots in the back of her dad’s junk yard, in a show that “aims to introduce kids to science and technology in a fun, new way.” But there’s also a new one from the Jim Henson Company which is using muppet-like puppets, called Teeny Tiny Dogs. It’s preview is fascinating, promising that the show taps into the latest research on educating children, to create a show teaching the essential life skills for happiness. Its first episode is 12 minutes long, offering a “work in progress” glimpse at what the series would look like, mixing footage of puppets with some animated place-holders for what the final scenes will eventually look like. But it’s really fun to see their puppet doing all the things that real dogs do, and the overall tone of the show looks very sweet.

So now besides Kindle ebooks, Amazon’s also offering you TV shows!

How Four Classic Children’s Books Came to the Kindle

Georgie the Ghost and other children's picture books by Robert Bright

I love children’s picture books — especially the classic, old-fashioned ones with their big, grand illustrations. (Maybe it’s what we think of when we think of a book, in some ways, because it reminds us of the first books we ever read as a child.) So I was really excited when the Kindle actually rescued four of my favorite children’s books from their out-of-print status. And then this week, the granddaughter of their original author/illustrator even agreed to do an interview!

“You reviewed a few of my grandfather, Robert Bright’s books in the past,” read her mysterious e-mail. “It was so wonderful to know that the books are still loved…” Now Sara Ruffin is reviving her grandfather’s books, both in print and in digital editions, and to do it she’s launched her own publishing company, which is selling a lovely print edition of her grandfather’s very first children’s book, The Travels of Ching, originally published in 1943. But because of the low cost of publishing on the Kindle, she was also even able to release digital Kindle editions for four more of her grandfather’s books — including two about Georgie the Ghost!

“Kindle is indeed helping to keep Georgie in circulation!” she told me this morning, adding “I love that about this technology. It seems this must be true for so many writers and illustrators. I have this belief that electronic books will complement the physical book.

“I hope, anyway…”

It seems to be true, because I’d first discovered Robert Bright through a hardcover edition at my local public library of a delightful book he wrote and illustrated about Georgie the Ghost. Sara remembers that originally, her grandfather’s idea for the Georgie books “started when my mother and my uncle [then small children] were caught peering under the bed one evening in Laguna Beach in 1941. They were looking for the little ghost that lived in the house – they weren’t scared at all, only extremely curious!” And nearly 70 years later, that book (and a sequel, Georgie’s Halloween) are now available again on the Kindle!

For a shortcut, just point your web browser to…

Georgie was the first in a 13-book series about the ghost – and I liked Sara’s answer about what made her grandfather’s books so popular. “I think my grandfather wrote and illustrated his books for children,” she wrote. “Sometimes children’s book authors write for adults as well as children but from what I have been told, Bobby had only children in mind when he created his books.” Bright ultimately shared this imaginative approach in more than 20 children’s picture books over the next 40 years. “The drawings are simple and direct and humorous,” Sara explains. “I don’t think he felt he needed to ‘scream’ at children with lots of color nor did he patronize them with simple forms.”

“The drawings are full of detail and each time you read his books you discover a wonderful new element, like a little mouse in the corner or a funny poster on the wall, so the illustrations always feels fresh.”

Georgie the Ghost

Georgie’s Halloween was always one of my favorites, because the illustrations are colored with orange and black, giving them a special holiday feeling. (“Bright really outdoes himself with this book’s illustrations,” I wrote in my review, praising the way that light and shadows were suggested in the scenes with moonlight or a night-time party.) All the white space on the page seemed to become the gleam of moonlight on Halloween. And the dark lines turn into stark and shadowy highlights — complemented by the orange in the children’s costumes – so I’m really looking forward to reading its Kindle edition in color on my Kindle Fire!

Of course, there’s also a Kindle edition of the first book in the series, Georgie the Ghost, where we first meet the shy, magical character who hides in Mr. and Mrs Whittaker’s attic. But you can also buy Kindle editions now for two fun picture books that Bright wrote about children and animals — My Hopping Bunny and Me and the Bears. Amazon’s created a web page listing all the picture books written by Robert Bright — but unfortunately, they’ve all since gone out of print.

That’s why it’s inspiring to see that his granddaughter is keeping the books alive – with a little help from the Kindle!

Browse Amazon’s selection of Robert Bright’s ebooks at…

How an Amateur Author Became a NYT Best-Seller

Colleen Hoover, bestselling author of Slammed

I love stories like this. A 33-year-old social worker in rural East Texas — working 11-hour days — finds the time to write her first amateur novel about first love, and self-publishes it in Amazon’s Kindle store. “I was just writing it for fun,” Colleen Hoover later told the Associated Press. She’d published the book and a quick sequel in January of 2012, and “By June, both of her books hit Amazon’s Kindle top 100 best-seller list.

“By July, both were on The New York Times best-seller list for e-books. Soon after, they were picked up by Atria Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint. By fall, she had sold the movie rights…”

Colleen had been living in a mobile home for seven years when she started to write, along with her husband and three kids. (In the summer, the temperature never dropped below 90 degrees, according to a post on her blog.) That June, she wrote “It’s surreal. Seven months ago, we were struggling to make ends meet.” But her ebook sales provided enough money to move herself and her family into “a real house,” which they’re renting until they finish building a home of their own. “[T]his post may be a bit personal,” Colleen writes, “but I don’t really care. I just want you all to know what a difference you’ve made in my life….”

Colleen’s first ebook was a novel called Slammed, and it opens with funny stories about growing up in a crazy family, only to lead to a story with “all the magic and confusion of first love,” according to the book’s description on Amazon. (“Not long after a heart-stopping first date during which each recognizes something profound and familiar in the other, they are slammed to the core when a shocking discovery brings their new relationship to a sudden halt…”) That book begged for a sequel, which Colleen published in February of 2012 , titled Point of Retreat. (“It will require something truly extraordinary to keep this couple together…”) But her story also offers hints about the future of the ebook publishing industry.

The story of her success is preserved in a wonderful series of blog posts where Colleen shares the surprise as her self-published ebooks start passing higher and higher milestones. (“5,000 reviews? Holy crap!”) Colleen had actually given up on finding a publisher for her books — more than six years earlier. In fact, there’s a remarkable story buried deep in Colleen’s blog. Her mother didn’t have a computer, so Colleen actually printed out her posts from a blog on MySpace, and delivered the hard copies to her mother. Going through them now, nearly seven years later, she discovered one that she’d written in 2006 in which she announces that she’s giving up on her dream of ever becoming a famous author!

Colleen had actually researched the publishing industry in 2006, and “The time spent writing and editing and trying to sell your book to a publisher and the actual money you make working on all of this calculates to earning about .50 cents a day for an average writer.” But 17 months later, Amazon released their first Kindle — and suddenly aspiring authors had a new way to find their own audiences. “Good thing I didn’t listen to myself,” Colleen wrote on her blog this February, adding “It also says a helluva lot about how much the publishing industry has changed.”

She’s still writing new books, and will be releasing two more novels over the next month. (This Girl on April 30th and Losing Hope on July 9th.) And last week she announced she’d signed a new two-book deal with Atria Books for two novels to be released in 2014. The first one will be Maybe Someday, an adult contemporary romance, and the second one, Ugly Love falls into a category(which she describes as “OH MY DEAR GOD! COLLEEN IS GOING TO HELL FOR WRITING THIS!”

“So yeah, this should be FUN…!”

Free Comic Books on the Kindle — and More

Free Kindle Comic Books include Superman

I just discovered several free comic books in Amazon’s Kindle Store. D.C. Comics is giving away a free issue of Superman by John Byrne — a “famous first” issue from 1987, released as issue #1 when the publisher “re-booted” all the story lines in their comics. But there’s also some “special preview” editions of several comics in the Kindle Store, and Amazon’s also giving away a free comic book of their own, a supernatural “horror” comic that’s set during the Civil War. Plus, Amazon’s also just announced a new tool that will let you draw your own comic books for the Kindle!

For shortcuts, just point your web browser to:

Amazon’s comic book is called Blackburn Burrow, and they’ve released four free issues since it first launched in September. (It’s about a reknowned fighter of the supernatural, who has to confront new rumors about the walking dead…) But in an interesting move, Amazon’s letting the readers pick the plot twists! “Each release will be accompanied by a poll…that encourages readers to give feedback and provide comments,” explains the comic’s web site.

I wondered if there’d be any more free comics in the Kindle Store besides Superman #1 and Blackburn Burrow — and that’s when I discovered that the comic book publishers were way ahead of me. D.C. Comics now releases special “preview editions” of their hot new releases. For example, for the new Batman: Earth One series, they’ve released a free 15-page sampler (which also includes 6 more pages from Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls.) And D.C. has also begun releasing a regular free comic book that includes lots of samples from around their whole “universe” of characters. It’s called “D.C. Comic Digital Sneak Peeks”, and several issues have made it into the top 20 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling free comic books…

Amazon’s actually started a new list of the top 100 best-selling free Kindle comic books. For an easy-to-remember shortcut, just point your browser to:

But you could be the author of the Kindle’s next best-selling comic book — at least, according to a special announcement that Amazon made last week. Their “Kindle Publishing Team” snuck into Amazon’s online forum for digital publishers, and announced the surprise launch of the Kindle Comic Creator, “a free tool for authors & publishers to turn their comics, graphic novels and manga into great looking Kindle books.” It includes all the layout tools you’d need for a comic book, including two-space spreads and the ability to import artwork from the standard image file formats (like .jpg, .png, .tiff and .ppm), and once a self-published artist/author is satisfied with their comic, Amazon’s inviting them to “share their story with millions of Amazon customers worldwide.”

Wouldn’t it be great if an undiscovered amateur fiction writer ended up creating the next great superhero?

Three New Ways to Save Money on a Kindle Fire Tablet

If you’re shopping for a new Kindle Fire tablet, I’ve just discovered some great new ways to save money. For example, if you’re just shopping for a basic Kindle Fire tablet, you can buy one now from Amazon for just $134. It’s a refurbished Kindle Fire, a previously-owned device that Amazon promises has been “refurbished, tested, and certified to look and work like new.” That’s a savings of $25 — and Amazon’s also offering similar discounts on some of their other Kindle Fire tablets!

This means that you can also save $30 on the high-definition versions of Amazon’s 7-inchKindle Fire tablets. A refurbished model now costs just $169 — a nice discount from its usual price of $199. These tablets come with 16-gigabytes of storage space, but Amazon’s also offering the same discount on the tablets with more storage. For $199, you can buy the 32-gigabyte version of a refurbished Kindle Fire HD tablet — though the new ones would normally cost you $229!

That may actually feel like a $50 savings to some people, because up until this month, Amazon was charging $249 for the 32-gigabyte version of their Kindle Fire HD tablets. But sometime in April, they quietly discounted its price to just $229. Now they’ve discounted that another $30 if you’ll purchase a refurbished version. And if you opt for the 16-gigabyte drive instead, you’ll save $80 over what the 32-gigabyte version would’ve cost you in March!

I was hoping Amazon would also discount some of their black-and-white, e-ink Kindles. But when I checked this morning, they were still on sale at their regular price. In a way, that makes these refurbished tablets seem that much more special. The only thing better than a multimedia Kindle is one that Amazon sold you at a big discount!

“Every Certified Refurbished Kindle is backed by a full one-year limited warranty,” Amazon explains, “just like a brand-new Kindle.” (Before shipping them to customers, Amazon performs a full diagnostic test, install the latest software, give the devices a thorough cleaning, and even re-package them in a new box.) It even comes with a free month of Amazon Prime, so you can watch thousands of movies and TV shows in Amazon’s Instant Video library without having to pay for them individually. Amazon Prime also qualifies you for a discount on faster shipping of any products you purchase from Amazon — but it also earns you some fun Kindle freebies, like the ability to access new books for free in the “Kindle Owner’s Lending Library”!

And as a last selling point, Amazon’s even created a new web page where they compare their Kindle Fire tablets to Applet’s iPad mini. The page’s slogan…

“Don’t you love getting more for less?”

Secrets of Amazon’s Kindle Team

Cover of Burning the Page

I’ve read some books by former Amazon employees, but this one is special. It’s written by one of the founding members of Amazon’s Kindle team, who “wanted to change the world,” according to the book’s first chapter — “and we did!” In fact, Jason Merkoski was actually the program manager for the Kindle on the day that it launched. This week he’s released a fascinating memoir titled “Burning the Page” with some interesting insights into the future of reading. And to celebrate the launch of his book, Jason’s also demonstrating some brand new ways to blur the boundaries between ebooks and the internet!

For a shortcut to the ebook, point your browser to

Merkoski’s describing his book as recollections of “the time I spent working on the front lines of the ebook revolution.” (On his first day on the job, he’d been treated to “an overhead projection of Jeff Bezos’s head welcoming me to work, telling me to have fun and make history.”) When he later ends up waiting for a meeting in Bezos’s office, Merkoski gazes out the window, and tries to imagine the way Amazon’s founder sees the world. (“He had a telescope in his office and pictures of his kids on the wall…”) At one point Merkoski even calls his book “the true story of the ebook revolution”, and there’s some fun details about life inside Amazon.

But he really digs into the meaning of reading. Merkoski writes at one point that “by crossing the chasms of culture and language [through ebooks], humanity itself becomes connected.” Later he even says boldly that “I think there’s really just one book, the book of all human culture,” and then he describes his own vision of a Facebook for Books, “where all books can interact and link to one another. But it’s not just talk, and over the last three days he’s actually put his ideas into action.

On Twitter and Facebook, Merkoski has already revealed some new experimental tricks that his ebook can perform online — part of “the brave new world of what I call ‘Reading 2.0′”. Friday afternoon Merkoski had a big announcement on Twitter. “Amazon dropped the price on my book – get it now for your weekend reading if you’re interested…” In fact, they’ve lowered the price to just $7.69 (a 23% discount). But it was later that I discovered that Merkoski has also found a unique new way to connect Twitter to his book.

At the end of the first chapter of “Burning the Page”, Merkoski included a link to a social app offering his readers a way of connecting to other readers and the author, plus “surprises all along the way.” He promises it’s a combination of a virtual book club, a chance to interact with the book’s author, and “a thoughtful friend who brings you special notes and treats.” Each chapter ends with a new link, and when readers click on it, there’s another new surprise. It could be a link to unannounced bonus chapters, a personalized autograph, or even “unexpected objects falling out from between the ‘pages’ of the book…” And Merkoski promises that when you finish reading his book, you’ll receive a personalized message from the author himself.

“I look forward to talking to you, because the greatest revolutionaries in the ebook revolution are the readers.”

From Jason Merkoski's Burning the Page
When you click a link in the ebook, it takes you to your Kindle’s web browser, displaying a message about what your next surprise will be!

The book has some fun passages that make the story of the Kindle seem even more colorful. Later in the book he imagines the workshop where Gutenberg published the first book in 1453 as being a lot like the newspaper printing plant where his own father worked. And soon he’s wondering if Amazon’s Kindle project in the 21st century was also its own high-tech version of Gutenberg’s workshop, “an alternate, over-caffeinated, sugar-high universe.” But I think he sums up the whole experience nicely in one wonderful sentence.

“Yes, I did have fun at Amazon, and I made history.”

Annette Funicello on your Kindle – and more

Annette Funicello_Desert Inn Mystery

Another celebrity died on Monday — Annette Funicello — though if you’re past a certain age, you may not remember her. As a teenager in the 1950s, she became famous on Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, and in the 1960s found new popularity in drive-in comedies like Beach Blanket Bingo. By the 1970s she was probably best-known as the spokesperson for Skippy Peanut Butter, but she still achieved the status of an icon just by symbolizing a more innocent time. And there’s two ways that she’ll always be connected in my mind to the Kindle — and the world of books.

Annette released a fun and inspiring biography in 1994 — called A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. She describes the picture-perfect life that she’d had growing up, working with Walt Disney himself, and getting to meet all of her favorite teen idols. She actually spent her 16th birthday with the actor who played Zorro, who carved a big ‘Z’ in the frosting of her birthday cake! There’s some funny stories about her family and her grown-up life too, but the sweet surprises turned dramatic when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

As big as the shock was, “the outpouring of love and support was just overwhelming.” Annette said later she was also gratified to hear from others with the same condition that they’d taken strength from the way she’d come forward about her illness. “They’re not embarrassed to use their canes or to be in a wheelchair because if I can do it, they feel they can too,” she says — building up to the big quote that always brings a tear to my eye.

“Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.”

Her biography was never released as a Kindle ebook, but it’s available as an audiobook, which in some ways is even better. It’s remarkable to hear the familiar voice of Annette Funicello coming out of my Kindle and telling the story of her life — especially one day after she died. This audiobook even has some background music, so it’s very well produced. But Annette actually appeared as part of another strange series of books — nearly 40 years before!

Whitman books about Hollywood movie stars

Yes, there was the time in the history of publishing when authors cranked out entire novels — often close to 200 pages long — about movie stars, like Shirley Temple, Gregory Peck, and even Lucille Ball. These were fictional stories, usually mysteries, where one of the characters actually was the movie star. (Take a look at some of these titles…)

Betty Grable and the House of Cobwebs
Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak
Gregory Peck and the Red Box Enigma
Judy Garland and the Hoodoo Costume
Dorothy Lamour and the Haunted Lighthouse
Shirley Temple and the Spirit of Dragonwood
Shirley Temple and the Screaming Specter
Lucy and the Madcap Mystery

Later, there were even books based on TV shows, like The Munsters: The Great Camera Caper and The Monkees: Who’s Got the Button? There was even a comic novel based on Gilligan’s Island. But I think Annette Funicello probably holds the record for appearing in the most celebrity mysteries — and each one was set in an intriguing location like the Arizona desert, the California mountains, or a glamorous estate.

Annette: Sierra Summer
Annette: Desert Inn Mystery
Annette: Mystery of Moonstone Bay
Annette: Mystery at Smuggler’s Cove
Annette: Mystery of Medicine Wheel

The plots are predictable. (Annette has a friend whose parents will lose their hotel unless Annette can discover the legendary lost treasure — or something like that.) “Each book capitalized on the star’s popularity by featuring a colorful picture of her face on the front cover,” one
collector remembers
, “along with eight silhouettes of Annette on the inside covers.” The books were published between 1960 and 1965, and I like how the article notes that Annette “played her part in a forgotten era in American book publishing.”

Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful…

Annette Funicello book cover Sierra Summer

Roger Ebert’s Greatest eBooks

Roger Ebert in 1994

I really loved Roger Ebert. I started watching his movie reviews on TV back when I was in high school, and for decades to come I thought he had the greatest job in the world. He’d just watch movies, and then tell people whether he’d liked them! But Roger Ebert was also an excellent writer, and fortunately, he’s left behind some fantastic Kindle ebooks!

In fact, Ebert was a pioneer in Kindle ebooks. Just two days before his death on Thursday, Ebert announced that he was re-launching his popular web site as “Ebert Digital” — and he’d already begun marketing his movie reviews through Amazon’s Kindle Store. He was always “the people’s critic,” and he’d found a clever way to keep his prices low. Ebert started releasing his movie reviews in special smaller collections which he called “Ebert’s Essentials.” Each ebook had a unique theme, which somehow made them that much more appealing.

For example, six months ago Roger released “30 Movies to Get You Through the Holidays”, a 94-page collection reviewing movies “to watch together to celebrate the season or movies to watch alone to survive the season!” And less than a year ago, the theme was “25 Great French Films” — which included a special treat. If you read the ebook using one of Amazon’s Kindle apps on an iPad, iPod, or iPhone, it included video clips from most of the movies (taken from their promotional trailers). And best of all, both of these ebooks cost less than four dollars.

There were other interesting bargain-priced collections too. Ebert titled his collection about film noir “27 Movies from the Dark Side.” If you wanted something more inspirational, there was also “33 Movies to Restore Your Faith in Humanity”. Even if you’d just been dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend, Roger Ebert had recommendations for you. Last May he released a special collection of reviews which he called “25 Movies to Mend a Broken Heart.”

Of course, my favorite book by Roger Ebert was probably his collection of negative reviews — “Your Movie Sucks” — and there’s a funny story about where that title came from. Comedian Rob Schneider had taken out full-page ads in Hollywood newspapers back in 2005 just to attack movie critic Patrick Goldstein, who had sharply criticized Schneider’s recent movie Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Schneider mockingly suggested that Goldstein wasn’t qualified to critique the movie, since his movie reviews had never won a Pulitzer Prize. “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize,” Ebert wrote in his own review in the Chicago Sun-Times, “and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.”

Roger Ebert - Your Movie Sucks

I purchased a copy of the ebook, and soon found I was tempted to highlight nearly every single sentence, because each one of them made me laugh out loud. In a forgotten movie called The 51st State, Samuel L. Jackson played a character named Elmo McElroy. Ebert couldn’t resist warning jokingly that “Only eight of the seventy-four movies with characters named Elmo have been any good…” And writing about The Fantastic Four, he asks, “If you could burn at supernova temperatures, would you be able to stop talking about it? I know people who won’t shut up about winning fifty bucks in the lottery!”

But the best thing about Roger Ebert was that he could make me laugh and smile while simultaneously making some very thoughtful points. In one of his last books — a memoir titled “Life Itself” — he wrote a warm and poignant passage with his theory on why dogs beg for food at the table. “I never met a dog that didn’t beg at the table. If there is a dog that doesn’t, it has had all the dog scared out of it. But a dog is not a sneak thief like a cat. It doesn’t snatch and run, except if presented with an irresistible opportunity. It is a dinner companion. It is delighted that you are eating, thinks it’s a jolly good idea, and wants to be sure your food is as delicious as you deserve. You are under a powerful psychological compulsion to give it a taste, particularly when it goes into convulsions of gratitude. Dogs remember every favor you ever do for them and store those events in a memory bank titled Why My Human Is a God.”

Of course, that passage suggests some of the fondness that went into the cookbook he released in 2010 — which represented a new kind of triumph for the film critic. Ebert’s personal web site had also become hugely popular, and in 2008, a post about rice cookers had generated hundreds of comments. So the 68-year-old writer collected together the best recipe suggestions and comments into a charming 128-page book which, according to its description on Amazon, also includes Ebert’s “discerning insights and observations on why and how we cook”. The book was published just two years ago, showing the famous critic could share his enthusiasm about more than just movies. And a writer at Salon also shares a story about the book’s other significance.

Four years earlier, Ebert fought a fight against cancer which included the removal of his lower jaw. This left the writer unable to speak or eat, which he wrote about openly, treating it like another life experience which held its own fascination. Writing a cookbook “became an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion,” he told Salon’s interviewer in 2008. He added that “I think I was somewhat frustrated by not being able to eat and I wanted to live vicariously” — and she notes that he typed the words into his laptop computer, which then spoke them out loud on his behalf.

ABC News ran an article Thursday which added this too onto Roger Ebert’s list of lifetime achievements. “By showing the ups and downs of cancer over the last decade, Ebert…illustrated that cancer patients can continue with life, even if that life is forever changed, said Dr. Michael Neuss, chief medical officer at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, who was not involved with Ebert’s care.

“I think he broadened our understanding of cancer based on his incredible courage and incredible strength and genuine demeanor through this tough time.

“It has to show people that we do treat cancer patients and that things do happen, but you keep going.”

All of Roger Ebert’s Kindle ebooks are available at

A Kindle that never needs charging?

Kindle display system never needs to be recharged

Here’s a new rumor about a truly amazing possibility, like something straight out of a science fiction story about futuristic new technology. Amazon may be working on a super-light Kindle — which may never, ever need to be charged — and which could even be incorporated into transparent surfaces like the windshield of your car! And crazy as it sounds, at least part of the story has already been confirmed. You can actually read Amazon’s description for this new technology online in a patent application that they’ve filed with the U.S. government.

The magic happens by transforming the Kindles that you’d hold into your hand into a simplified “portable display” device, according to the patent. These lighter hand-held Kindles would just need to communicate with another larger “station” which would handle all the heavy computational tasks (like transmitting the text of your Kindle ebooks). This ultimately means your hand wouldn’t have to hold up all the extra computer circuitry that’s required now for displaying ebooks on your Kindle’s screen. But besides transmitting data to your Kindle, these stations might even be able to transmit electricity to your Kindle, meaning that while it’s receiving the text of an ebook, it’s also receiving the power to display it!

But Amazon may have some even bigger ideas besides making lighter Kindles that never need to be charged. The patent was first discovered by the technology blog GeekWire, which first pointed out another big advantage of moving the extra processing power away from the hand-held Kindle devices. “It goes unmentioned in the filing, but another benefit of this approach would be to drive down device costs and prices – a topic near and dear to the heart of Bezos and Amazon.” There’s still a question about who’d pay for those larger stations that transmit the ebooks and electricity, but Amazon’s patent provides the example of a college with “multiple primary stations” installed, so that all across their campus, students could access digital text books, “and may no longer need to carry multiple, heavy books around campus.”

And there’s some even crazier ideas further down into Amazon’s patent — like transmitting data directly into the windshield of your car! The display would be “at least partially transparent or opaque, such that no portion of the windshield is completely blocked and…complies with local traffic laws.” I’d been thinking Amazon would transmit the text of ebooks to the passenger side of the window, but they’re thinking of other kinds of information, according to their patent, including “caller ID information, the temperature outside the vehicle, traffic alerts or any other appropriate information (e.g., nearest gas station, hotel)…”

Even your eyeglasses could start receiving data transmitted from Amazon’s system, according to their patent application. Having a light, simplified device means that “the user can utilize the glasses as a display screen when desired,” Amazon writes. And since that display is receiving data, Amazon’s imagining more than just ebooks being transmitted, and suggests that their devices could ultimately become “an earpiece that allows a user to hear audio information and/or provide audio input.” That sounds like a new kind of phone/Kindle combination that doesn’t even require a phone or a Kindle. And Amazon points out that the station could also transmit power to these devices — possibly creating a new mutant kind of phone which would never need to be re-charged.

It’s a fascinating reminder of just how quickly our world has been changing. (One technology blog speculates that Kindles might even become “as thin as the paper they replaced”.) But it’s even possible that Kindles might disappear altogether, leaving nothing behind but the words from your ebooks, being transmitted into your eyeglasses, your watch, or the windows of your car. I love these “what if” moments, where you wonder what new technologies might be coming in the future.

And it looks like someone else is wondering very seriously about that too. The multi-billion dollar company that invented the Kindle….

April Fool’s Day and the Kindle

Funny men laughing cartoon - you want it when

I thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke. But instead I got caught disbelieving three strange stories that were actually true!. It just goes to show you how wonderfully unpredictible our world has become since the invention of the Kindle. The first unusual story even involved the President of the United States.

A friend sent me a link to a video on YouTube, saying that if I clicked on it, I’d hear the president of the United States reading a book called Chicka-chicka boom boom. This seemed really unlikely, especially since it was April Fool’s Day, but when I clicked on the link, there he was. Barack Obama was reading the children’s picture book to entertain kids who’d come to the White House yesterday for the traditional Easter Egg Roll. The president even described it as one of his favorite books!

“A told B and B told C, I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree,” the story begins. (“Clearly the alphabet is full of a bunch of trouble-makers,” the president ad libs later, as the rest of the letters crowd into the tree, eventually causing them all to come toppling down.) “Skit skat scootle doot, flip flop flee,” the story continues. But of course, the real message of the day was that it’s important for children to read. “If you know how to read, then the whole world opens up to you,” the president tells the children. “So I want everybody to read hard, okay? Read as many books as you can…”
And sure enough, it turns out that book is available as a Kindle ebook.

Story #2 also seemed unlikely. Last week someone claimed that Amazon had thrown around its huge budget, and purchased a book-recommendation web site called I’ve used the site — it lets you tell your friends what books you’re reading, and you also suggest books or start discussions about them. Author John Locke even identified it as one of the sites where he promoted his thriller novels — and Locke ultimately became the first self-published author to sell a million books in the Kindle store. (At the time, he was only the 8th author ever to sell one million Kindle ebooks).

I was skeptical that Amazon even knew the site existed — but again, it turns out that I was fooling myself by not believing it. In fact, Amazon had even put out a press release announcing the news just four days before. “Amazon and Goodreads share a passion for reinventing reading…” Amazon’s Vice President of Kindle Content said in the announcement. “Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike.”

I was also dubious of one more story that later turned out to be true — and surprisingly, it came from a site that was actually called I knew that Amazon was rumored to be working on a combination Kindle/smartphone, but it was their headline that really threw me, warning that Amazon might be working on a “Kindle Phablet.” If this were a movie, I would’ve spit coffee all over my screen, blurting out that “Phablet” was the most ridiculous name ever for a new line of products. I know tablets are popular, so every company wants to invent the next generation of tablets, but surely no one would ever merge the words Phone and Tablet, just to imply that a new class of device was absolutely fab-ulous. But it turns out people have been using that term since at least 2012, according to Wikipedia, which even has a whole section with links where technology columnists debate the appropriateness of the word.

Fortunately, I didn’t get them all wrong. When I visited Google today, I noticed they had links not only to Google News, but also to Google NOSE!. (“Google Nose BETA leverages new and existing technologies to offer the sharpest olfactory experience available…”) But don’t worry. My friends assure me that if you fall for an April Fool’s story that turns out to be true, it means that spring will come six weeks earlier this year. Or something like that.

Happy April Fool’s Day, everybody!