February 5th, 2014
Brad Stone wrote a new book about about Amazon, and it’s already stirred up a controversy. I enjoyed Stone’s radio interview on Marketplace, but apparently Amazon isn’t one of Stone’s fans. “He had every opportunity to thoroughly fact check and bring a more balanced viewpoint to his narrative,” complains Amazon’s Vice President of Global Communications, “but he was very secretive about the book and simply chose not to.” And one of Stone’s detractors turns out to be the wife of Amazon’s CEO!
In an interesting twist, Mackenzie Bezos is expressing her displeasure with a negative one-star review of the author’s book on Amazon! And it opens with her own vivid and heartfelt perspective on the man she’s been married to for 20 years. “I worked for Jeff at D. E. Shaw, I was there when he wrote the business plan, and I worked with him and many others represented in the converted garage, the basement warehouse closet, the barbecue-scented offices, the Christmas-rush distribution centers, and the door-desk filled conference rooms in the early years of Amazon’s history…”
Her review is titled “I wanted to like this book”, and it’s already received 3,154 “helpful” votes from other Amazon customers. er first complaint is there’s inaccuracies in the book which contradict her own her firsthand memories of the Amazon story. And her second complaint is the negative quotes about the tension in executive meetings create a “lopsided and misleading portrait” of the culture at Amazon. So for balance, she presents some warm and positive quotes drawn from a personal collection — “an archive of the thousands of thank you messages written to Jeff over the years”.
I cried as I read the Career Choice announcement on Amazon today. What Amazon is doing to help its employees is affecting lives in the most meaningful way I can think of. It restores my faith in humanity…
Mrs. Bezos acknowledges that some people in the book describe a “supportive and inspiring culture”, but argues that the author dismisses them as robots throughout the book. And her third complaint is the book speculates about what Jeff Bezos was thinking or feeling, writing that “Hollywood often uses a more honest label: ‘a story based on true events.’” But in the end she points out one of the miracles of life on the internet. Since this book is about real people, the “characters” in the book can step forward “and speak for themselves!”
For example, she cites another review of the book posted on Amazon by Rick Dalzell, who was Amazon’s Chief Information Officer at Amazon for 10 years starting in 1997. “Brad Stone did a lot of research and the result is a glimpse into the history of one of the world’s most exciting companies,” Dalzell acknowledges, though he’s titled his review “Intriguing stories, incomplete and unbalanced history,” and awarded the book just three stars. Dalzell was actually interviewed for the book (along with 300 past and current Amazon employees), and he devotes a whole paragraph to debunking Stone’s interpretation of what it means when Jeff Bezos laughs. “Jeff’s laugh is spontaneous, sincere, warm and endearing. It diffuses stressful situations.” In Stone’s book, Dalzell is cited as saying that Bezos “often” wields the laugh to punish people who aren’t meeting his high standards…
“While I found [the book] rather interesting, lots of stories are missing or just inaccurate. Brad painted a one-dimensional picture of Jeff as a ruthless capitalist. He completely missed his warmth, his humor, and his empathy — all qualities abundantly present in the man.”
And Mrs. Bezos also applauded another review of the book posted on Amazon by Jonathan Leblang, who actually went to high school with Amazon’s founder, and has since become the director of the company’s Lab126 in Menlo Park. He awarded the book four stars, calling it “Interesting, but flawed,” saying it was interesting to see how the company where he worked would be seen by an outsider — but that there were mistakes.
“[A]s with any book where the subject is not an active participant, the book is slanted toward those episodes where Stone can find someone to talk about them. And of course, he includes that which supports his thesis… Overall, from the parts that I know about, about 80% is correct and 20% isn’t (often in details, but incorrect nonetheless). That, of course, taints my view of the book as a whole, because I have to assume that 20% of the stuff I don’t have personal knowledge of is also incorrect.
But even with his concerns about accuracy, he still managed to find something positive (and funny) about The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.
“That said, I would still recommend the book (and especially the picture of Jeff in High School!)”
Check out the book (and the reviews) for The Everything Store:
Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
January 25th, 2014
Amazon’s hiring engineers to build a brand new product, which they’re predicting “will be bigger than Kindle!” I didn’t even know there was a department at Amazon that was called “Kindle New Initiatives” — but there is, and they’re hosting a meet-and-greet event at their lab in Massachusetts just next Friday. “I hate to help Amazon hire even more people in Cambridge who will no longer return my phone calls or e-mails,” joked a Boston technology columnist, “but this is a pretty intriguing description of what they’re up to…”
He quotes an earlier invitation from Amazon promising that they’re building “a new revolutionary Version 1 product that will allow us to deliver Digital Media to customers in new ways and disrupt the current marketplace.” And the clues are starting to pile up. When Amazon opened this lab in 2011, they announced new hires would be working with Amazon’s “digital products” team — the group responsible for Kindle ebooks, as well as Amazon’s Instant Video (and all the mp3s in their digital music store), plus Amazon’s “cloud” storage service.
So who’s in Amazon’s crosshairs? Some have suggested it’s “an A-Phone” — Amazon’s own version of an iPhone (which woould play digital media like music and videos, but would also let you access your library of Kindle ebooks). While I believe Amazon will enter the phone market at some point, I just don’t think they’d use the word “disruptive” to describe it. A better slogan for what Amazon’s working on might be…
“I Want My A-TV”
It started with a question. Why is Amazon producing TV shows? For the past few years they’ve been “greenlighting” new shows, which are only avalable on the web and on Kindle Fire tablets. It’s a weird business model — unless Amazon was already secretly envisioning a much larger audience for the shows they’re creating. So maybe Amazon is releasing a device that plugs right into your TV, letting you stream all the movies and TV shows that are available from Amazon.
It could be just like Google Chromecast — except Amazon has a lot more video to distribute. Instead of YouTube videos, you could watch all of the shows in Amazon’s “Instant Video” library — everything from Duck Dynasty and The Daily Show to new movies (along with Amazon’s original programming). Amazon would instantly become “the new NetFlix”, and The Motley Fool is already arguing that Amazon “is in a better position to compete with Netflix for the 49 and up age group, which is where much of the remaining growth of streaming video will occur.” Plus, people wouldn’t even have to sign up for the new service (since most of them would probably have an Amazon account already). And this opens up a fascinating new possibility: TV shopping.
Imagine browsing Amazon’s site on your wide-screen, high-definition television set. Amazon’s already encouraging ontent providers to include videos for the products they distribute — which may suggest they’ve been thinking about video shopping. In fact, one Amazon page already points out that the products that see the biggest increase in sales tend to have “innovative or complex features” — and they give the example of several expensive pieces of technology. Customers may be more likely to purchase a product if they’d seen video footage about the way it works, which would mean even bigger sales for Amazon. It seems like they’d have to be intrigued by the prospect of an even better way to sell things to online shoppers, and for customers it’d be an exciting new 21st-century kind of expaerience — watching giant video demos of the products you want to buy.
And then completing the purchase with your remote!
January 14th, 2014
I love listening to the radio — and last month I heard a wonderful interview about the man who founded Amazon. Brad Stone has just written a new book about the company (after interviewing more than half a dozen senior Amazon executives). And it was really fun to hear him talking about what he’d learned with Kai Ryssdal, the enthusiastic host of Marketplace on public radio.
Amazon “is a force — maybe the force — in the retail economy today,” begins the segment. But soon the interviewer has honed in on a fascinating personal detail about Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. “There’s a thread that runs through this book — you mention it early, and you mention it often. It’s part of Bezos’s personality, I guess you would say. And since this is radio, we’re just going to hit you with a little bit of it here, and then I want to talk about it.”
And then he played the sound of Jeff Bezo laughing…!
” ‘Jeff Bezos’s laugh,’ you write, ‘precedes him down the hallway. You hear it in meetings, it will come after a volcanic outburst of temper. I mean, it’s this defining thing for him.’ ”
It’s a great way to start they’re discussion, and the author points out that Jeff’s laugh is unusual in another way. Brad Stone has personally spoken to Jeff Bezos, and “He’s not always laughing with you. It’s difficult to put your finger on, but one of his colleagues literally said, ‘He’s punishing you.’ It’s that his standards are so high, and his intellect is so fierce, that sometimes it’s you’re not catching up with him. And that is what he finds funny!”
I wonder what he talked about with Jeff Bezos (since reportedly the book is based more on his interviews with other Amazon executives). And the radio interviewer moves to a second observation — that for people who work at the company, it’s not always pleasant. “He doesn’t want it to be a country club for his employees,” the author counters, saying that the extra pressure is “by design… [Bezos] wants everyone giving the proverbial 110% percent.”
And there’s a good side to that too, the author points out in the interview. Besides Amazon’s slightly elevated turnover rate, “It also might be why this is a company that has achieved so much over the last two decades.”
But the most interesting part of the interview was about Amazon Web Services, the massive online platform which lets companies offer services and storage from “the cloud” — all hosted on Amazon’s own servers. “You say — and I agree with you — that [Jeff Bezos] has changed the world, and he’s done that just with Amazon.com, the retail shopping site, and he’s changed our behavior. But there are a couple of things that sort of have come from that that arguably have changed the world even more… This idea of us all living in ‘the cloud’ — which now we take for granted — started with Bezos and Amazon, in some degree.”
The author notes that NetFlix uses Amazon Web Services, but then brings up an even more impressing customer — the CIA! “Amazon just won a contract against IBM. The CIA will soon be running its operations on Amazon’s servers. A bookseller! And now they’re running the government!”
“Wow… Think about that for a minute,” the interviewer responds….
Next, their conversation turns to Amazon Prime — and both the author and the interviewer admit that they’re already subscribers. “It makes it really easy to buy stuff off of Amazon,” the interviewer says.
“It turns you into an Amazon addict,” the author responds (to which the interviewer agrees). “I think it’s a little CostCo, in a way, buried inside Amazon. CostCo magically has this business model where you have to pay to shop there — a good business, if you can get it. And now the same is true of Amazon. You’re paying $79 a year for the luxury of spending even more money on all these add-on services!”
The interviewer actually mutters, “Now you’re making me feel stupid, man.”
And the author just replies, “Well, I pay it too…”
The book is called The Everything Store:
Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
November 14th, 2013
Amazon’s gearing up for the big holiday shopping season — and they’ve just made two surprising new announcements.
Your Own Photos on Kindle Cases!
You can now upload your own favorite photo to Amazon, and they’ll make it into a case for your Kindle! You can also convert the photo into a Kindle skin — a thin, rubber wrap-around protector. And Amazon’s also got their own selection of designs to choose from, including illustrations of Snoopy and the other characters from Peanuts. Amazon’s press release promises they can even put images from Star Trek and other popular TV shows and movies onto your Kindle’s cover — and even characters from Breaking Bad!
Unfortunately, they’re only supporting Kindles from the last three years — as far back as the Kindle Touch, but not as far back as the fourth-generation “Kindle” (or the Kindle Keyboard…) But that still leaves a lot of Kindles that are now eligible for customer covers. “With this new service, we’re making it possible for customers to dream up virtually any design and seamlessly turn it into a Kindle cover — at no cost…” explained one Amazon Kindle executive. “We’re excited to bring this all-new technology to Kindle accessories and we can’t wait to see what customers come up with.”
This holiday season, some people may wind up receiving some very creative gifts! And Amazon’s also announced another new service that will make it even easier to finish your shopping…
Sunday Delivery of Packages!
I couldn’t believe it, but Los Angeles and New York City are now both getting packages delivered from Amazon on Sundays! And Amazon plans to expand the service to more cities in the next year, including Phoenix, New Orleans, Dallas, and Houston! “We’re excited that now every day is an Amazon delivery day…” announced Amazon’s vice president of worldwide operations and customer service. (It’s only available to members of Amazon’s Prime shipping program, which offers one year of free two-day shipping for a flat fee of $79 – and as a bonus, includes free access to Amazon’s online library of movies and TV shows on the web and with your Kindle Fire tablet)
To make this happen, Amazon’s teamed up with the U.S. Postal service. One business site pointed out that the post office could use the money, since traditional paper letters have been declining, now that more people communicate with e-mail. The post office actually beat out Federal Express for the right to deliver Amazon’s package, as well as U.P.S., but in the long run, the real winner may be Amazon. A business analyst at The Motley Fool points out that people who join Amazon’s Prime program ultimately use Amazon for the majority of their online shopping, and end up spending more than twice the amount spent by non-Prime members. In fact, on average prime members spend $1,200 a year on Amazon’s web site.
So it’s no wonder Amazon’s willing to try Sunday deliveries as a way to attract even more Prime customers. And The Motley Fool predicts that soon, Amazon may be offering Sunday delivery service to the entire country!
October 23rd, 2013
Sometimes I’m just a big kid — and I love how Amazon’s created a special page with their “top picks” for new holiday gifts. (For a shortcut, just point your browser to tinyurl.com/AmazonToyList ) And last week Amazon finally announced their 2013 picks — adding that for the first time ever, it’s including toys that were voted on by “Amazon Moms”, a free program that offers discounts to parents on supplies from their children. Amazon’s goal, of course, is to create what they’re calling “a one-stop destination for holiday shoppers.” But it’s still fun to browse through their selections…and window shop for all the fun toys!
For example, did you know that a large Kindle Fire HD (with an 8.9-inch screen) now costs just $229? It’s one of Amazon’s top gift suggestions in their “Electronics” category (of course) — though it’s competing with nine different Furbies. But the coolest electronic gadget is, strangely enough, a new digital Barbie Doll from Mattel. She’s wearing a dress with real flashing LED lights, “combining fashion, sound-activation and on-trend technology” (according to Barbie’s web page on Amazon.) Little girls can punch in their own rhythms, or use one of Barbie’s built-in light shows — and here’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear. “Barbie doll’s black dress uses a 4.5 square inch resistive touch panel and 114 tri-color LEDs…”
Amazon’s also selling — and I’m not kidding — an Angry Birds Advent Calendar. There’s little gifts behind each square, and the game comes with little Angry Birds that you can actually shoot at stacks of little blocks — using a real-life version of that catapult from the Angry Birds phone app! “Now you can bring the Angry Birds experience from your smartphone to real life,” explains the web page at Amazon, which identifies it as one of the best gifts for children of 2013. It’s also an Amazon exclusive, and according to at least one reviewer on Amazon, “If you are a fan of Angry Birds, you absolutely MUST have this set. It is so adorable!”
Amazon’s also selling a speaker that you can plug in to your Kindle Fire that’s shaped like Minnie Mouse! It’s got a standard speaker jack, so it works with any audio source, and its web page on Amazon promises a “size-defying sound”. There’s also one shaped like Iron Man from the Avengers — or Captain America, and even Spongebob Squarepants.
And I thought it was cool that now you can even buy your daughter a pink journal that’s protected by digital technology. It only opens when its owner speaks a password into a microphone — and the journal even uses voice-recognition technology to make sure that the password was spoken by the right person! It’s manufactured by Mattel, and the Password Journal also comes with an “invisible ink pen” — so girls can write messages which can only be seen when they’re light up with the journal’s built-in ultraviolet light. And behind the journal (built into its pink plastic case), there’s a hidden “secret compartment” which has its own second password. Girls can even record a greeting, which is played back every time they open it up!
But the most exciting thing about Amazon’s “Holiday Toy List” is the fact that they’ve incorporated one of my all-time favorite Amazon features — the “Lightning Deals”. Every day for a few hours, they sell a small quantity of a specific item at a big discount. Amazon tracks exactly how many seconds are left for the offer, and what percentage of the item has already been sold! (Right now they’re offering a 40% discount on Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles — a hardcover book giving you all the backstory on your that little Yoda “minifig” from Lego — and with 20 minutes and 43 seconds left to go, they’ve already sold off 47% of them.) Like I said, sometimes I’m just a big kid — especially when it comes to cool, cutting-edge toys.
And now Amazon’s collected them all together into one place — and started selling them at a discount!
September 10th, 2013
We’ve had a lot of fun laughing at the funny fake reviews people have posted on Amazon. And I was really impressed when Amazon joined in the fun last month, posting their own list of their favorite funny customer reviews. But this month, it’s taken an even stranger turn. Because customers are now leaving fake reviews on works of fine art, which are being sold on Amazon for millions of dollars!
“Is shipping extra?” joked one review. “Not expensive enough,” joked another — one of many reviewers pretending to be the kind of people who could actually afford to purchase a $4.5 million painting. “I was debating between this and a Minnie Mouse poster for my daughter’s room,” joked another reviewer located in San Jose.”Bought this one and put it up.
“I don’t think she quite likes it, so I will probably have to still buy the Minnie Mouse poster…”
The $4.5 million painting is by Norman Rockwell, and Amazon describes it as a recently discovered oil-on-canvas — part of a series of paintings about a young U.S. soldier named Willie Gillis. (“According to the Wall Street Journal, it ‘hung in the headquarters of an undisclosed local company since 1968, when heirs of the painting’s original owner gave it to the corporation during a merger’…”) The Journal notes that it’s rare when a new painting by the artist actually becomes available for purchase. But it’s probably even more rare for them to be sold through Amazon.com.
“After years of living with this ugly crack in my basement wall I finally found the right size painting to cover it!” joked another fake review of the $4.5-million painting. (It was voted “Helpful” by 17 out of 27 reviewers…) And it’s not the only expensive painting which is drawing some sarcastic comments about its price tag, since Amazon’s also selling an original painting by Andy Warhol for $1.45 million. “Pick up two or three if you can get your hands on them,” suggested one reviewer. And another reviewer even told a longer story about “improving” the painting with a bottle of Lysol.
“I looked closely at it with a flashlight, but I didn’t see any numbers so they must just leave it up to the buyer to add his or her favorite colors wherever…”
Amazon entered the art marketplace just last month, announcing that “We’re thrilled to bring the excitement and emotional connection of art to our customers…” They’ve lined up more than 40,000 works of fine art from over 150 galleries and dealers, and more than 4,500 artists, according to Amazon’s press release. (“We are excited to bring one of the largest selections of fine art direct from galleries to our customers…”) Though it still makes me laugh when paintings with a multi-million dollar price tag are listed with the same buttons as other Amazon products — like “Add to Wish List” and “Add to Cart”.
Most of the paintings are actually listed for less than $10,000, so it’s not just millionaires who could consider a purchase. And to be fair, at least one of the galleries — Paddle8 Editions — actually sells their artworks solely to raise money for non-profits and cultural institutions, and they’re actually pretty excited about the opportunity to reach even more customers. But it’s hard to overlook the oddity of selling fine art on the same web site that sells rubber horse masks and educational uranium samples — and to let random shoppers leave behind their reviews. When they first launched their fine art page, Amazon was even offering a chance to purchase a Claude Monet painting — L’Enfant a la tasse — for $1.45 million.
“Very amateurish quality,” joked one reviewer who called himself Art Guy. “My 9-year old son could do a better job…!”
June 27th, 2013
There was a startling announcement on Monday. An Amazon employee is selling a book about their life at the company. But if you purchased it as a Kindle ebook, he’d also mail you a free print version of the same book! It’s the first time I’ve seen a print book relegated to the “bonus” give-away when purchasing a digital ebook — and it turns out he’s not the only former Amazon employee who’s come up with some new twists on Kindle ebooks…
This offer was described at unusualPromotion.com, and a press release claims it “marks the beginning of a turning point in the Book 2.0 evolution.” But there’s at least three other Amazon employees who have also done some extra thinking about books and ebooks – and the ways that we’ll find them!
21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com
In 2002, Mike Daisey released a 240-page memoir about his own time at Amazon. In fact, he’d already created a one-man theatrical show in Seattle about his experiences, according to a review by Library Journal, which jokes that Amazon may be haunted by their decision to hire Daisey back in 1998. (Daisey writes that “Amazon and I started in Seattle at about the same time,” and addds that “To give you an idea of how clueless I was, I had originally assumed that Amazon was a lesbian Internet bookstore, owing to the historical origins of the word Amazon along with the company’s reputation for being ‘progressive.’”) Daisey appears to have been one of the first few hundred employees at Amazon, and his book is a fast-paced and funny read, with lots of very entertaining gossip. Here’s how he remembers a presentation for potential new Amazon employees.
“The four Amazonians who came to speak with us had the clearest, cleanest skin that I’d ever seen… I would never see those people again in my entire time at Amazon. I assume they worked for a black-ops section that specialized in providing fake employees who are startlingly sharp, attractive, and painfully fit.
“We settled back and they began to talk about Linux tools and server uptime, and I suddenly realized that these people were geeks. Serious computer geeks who looked and smelled great…from the way the sexy tech workers talked about Amazon.com, it appeared I’d really missed the boat….
“These tech-savvy, attractive, and well-spoken workers appeared blissfully happy… The opportunity to be near them, surrounded by their coolness and learning from them while being paid, sounded like heaven in itself. If I couldn’t be a geek, at least I could be in their company. And what a company! Though I hadn’t known who they were until that day, I was convinced they were making history… I had a vague sense of riches, of future glory…”
But soon he’s talking about his inevitable disillusionment. (“Doing Time @ Amazon.com” was the book’s original subtitle, though it was later apparently changed to “A Cube-Dweller’s Tale.”) Library Journal calls his book “an eye-opening testament as to how truly dysfunctional a dot-com can get,” noting that Daisey describes his work environment as “gothic” and spills the beans on some unusual phone calls that came in to Amazon’s customer service. And they acknowledge that his insider stories about life at Amazon are all “quite funny.”
Interestingly, that book isn’t available as an e-book on Amazon’s Kindle — though you can buy it as an audiobook.
Burning the Page
This book just came out in April, and it was written by Jason Merkoski, who was actually the program manager for the Kindle on the day that it launched. I thought it was fascinating memoir with some interesting insights into the future of reading. But more importantly, the author came up with some clever new ebook tricks to help make his book more appealing to Kindle owners.
On Twitter and Facebook, Merkoski revealed part of “the brave new world of what I call ‘Reading 2.0′”. At the end of the first chapter of “Burning the Page”, he’d included a link to a social app offering his readers a way of connecting to not only the author, but to other readers — plus “surprises all along the way.” He promised it would be a combination of a virtual book club, offering a chance to interact with the book’s author as he became “a thoughtful friend who brings you special notes and treats.” Each chapter ended with a new link, and when readers clicked on it, there was always another new surprise waiting. Once it was a link to an unannounced bonus chapter, and another time it was a personalized digital autograph. And Merkoski promised that when you finished reading his book, you’d receive a personalized message from the author himself.
Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut
James Marcus remembers interviewing for a job in “a low, inauspicious building south of the downtown, next to a barbecue joint whose vinegar-scented fumes I could smell the moment I hit the sidewalk.” Marcus was Amazon employee #55, back when Amazon’s yearly sales were just $16 million a year, and he provides “a captivating, witty account of how the fledgling e-retailer transformed itself,” according to Publisher’s Weekly. At the age of 37, he was the oldest person in the room when he arrived at what he describes as a book warehouse with offices, and the book opens with a fascinating description of how ambitious Jeff Bezos had likeably interviewed him. (“He had none of Bill Gates’s pasty paranoia…”) Marcus even tours the warehouse — snooping on individual customer orders. “Forget heterosexual, plain-vanilla porn (of which there was a great deal)… In cyberspace, I could see, there was no love that dare not speak its name…”
It’s an inspiring read, because even back then he could see that Amazon was intent on changing the world, and “Their sense of having grabbed history by the horns was almost palpable.” Publisher’s Weekly even noted a kind of nostalgia in his book for the early days of Amazon, as Marcus writes about their warehouse across from the world headquarters of Starbucks and the exhiliaration they seemed to feel. “It made them slightly giddy and enormously tired.”
And as he walks his future co-workers back to their offices, “The breeze had shifted and the barbecue fumes were again in evidence.”
Inside the Giant Machine
“Behind Amazon’s quirky smile logo lurks a cold and calculating giant machine,” claims the book’s description, promising an e-book filled with poetry that “makes us feel the vitality of the Hi-Tech worlds of California and Seattle.” The first section of “Inside the Giant Machine” is an e-mail the author had sent in 2002 to his friends, describing a late-night success at his own startup company. That company’s success leads to a merger, after which “we ended up with two VPs of Technology — which was one too many,” and soon he’s also looking for a new job in Seattle. This is the book that was “developed” from blog posts, though at times it feels like it might’ve been inspired (if not modeled) after some of the earlier books by Amazon employees.
In fact, one of the author’s most interesting revelations is that when he was hired Amazon actually mailed him copies of Daisey’s book “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com” and James Marcus’s
“Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut” (along with three books about Seattle). This book was was written using a pseudonym (“Kalpanik S.”),so there’s no way of knowing for sure that it’s really by an Amazon employee. But he does sound like a true “Amazonian” when he writes that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos “sincerely believed that his cult was changing the world and I wanted to be part of this revolution, and change the world!”
It’s a short book — when I first bought it in 2011, the print edition was just 128 pages, and at times it felt a little bit skimpy. (The last 10% was just “back matter” — copyrights, “works cited,” a selection of “acclaim” for the book, and a list of the author’s other books (including an excerpt). There was also a “color interior” paperback edition with “approximately 80 color photographs, including several panoramic shots of Seattle!” I notice that the new version on sale today comes in at 220 pages.
But at least one reviewer at Amazon.com noticed the same thing that I did: that the book itself has a higher-than-usual number of typos. (Example?” Amazon’s young, sharp minds still want you prove to yourself to them.”) I was intrigued by the chapter titles (like “The hacker who loved me” and “things start to fall apart”), and some of his photographs (like the Seattle skyline) look very attractive on the Kindle’s black and white screen. But sometimes it felt like the author just re-published some of his old e-mails to friends.
I asked myself if I should ultimately see that as a bug or a feature. You could argue that it makes the book feel more like one man’s personal story — and it’s genuinely fun to read the moment when the former Amazon employee has a revelation, that “suddenly publishing a book was easily within my reach.
“All I needed to do was combine those various pieces, fill in the gaps, polish the material, and hire an editor!”
There were a few lines that made me laugh out loud, but the author’s first chapter about his startup also rises to a poignant conclusion. “We want to change the world, though, and that is never easy. The world is usually very reluctant to change, especially at the pace startups want it do so.”
And then another future book-author headed off for his fateful two-day job interview at Amazon.com…
June 21st, 2013
Amazon’s created a special web page reporting their best-selling Kindle ebooks of 2013 (so far). But what’s fascinating is how different that list is from Amazon’s other list of this year’s best-selling printed books. In fact, only two of the top 10 best-selling print books also appear on Amazon’s list of the best-selling Kindle ebooks.
The best-selling Kindle eBook of 2013 is Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks — a novel of love and intrigue by a best-selling fiction writer. Yet amazingly, it’s not even in the top 100 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed books! And the exact same thing is true for the #10 best-selling Kindle ebook of 2013. It’s Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel by Matthew Quick — and despite its massive sales as a Kindle ebook, it’s not even in the top 100 of Amazon’s list of print best-sellers. (Since both ebooks were recently made into movies, you might wonder if Kindle owners are more in tune with the fast-moving world of popular culture? Or maybe they’re just younger readers who go to the movies more often…)
Meanwhile, there’s more surprises on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed book this year. It’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath — a non-fiction book that helps readers assess their personal talents and weaknesses. In fact, five non-fiction titles made the top 10 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed books of the year. How many non-fiction titles made Amazon’s list of the 10 best-selling Kindle ebooks of 2013?
Here’s Amazon’s list of their top 10 best-selling ebooks of 2013
Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
Inferno: A Novel by Dan Brown
Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn
Hopeless by Colleen Hoover
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Hit by Will Robie
Wait for Me by Elisabeth Naughton
Alex Cross, Run by James Patterson
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia
The Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel by Matthew Quick
And now here’s Amazon’s list of their top 10 best-selling
print books of 2013
StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Inferno by Dan Brown
Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence by Sarah Young
The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
The 5 Love Languages: The Secrets to Love That Lasts by Gary D. Chapman
A Song of Ice and Fire, Books 1-4 by George R. R. Martin
So the two books that both lists had in common were both works of fiction — Inferno: A Novel by Dan Brown (the author of The Da Vinci Code) and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But of course, Dan Brown’s books have always been phenomenally popular — and The Great Gatsby was released this year as a major movie picture. But then again, Safe Haven was also released as major motion picture in February, and became the #1 best-selling Kindle ebook of the year — while not even making it into the top 100 on Amazon’s list of the best-selling printed books!
So what’s going on? There’s another clue when you look at the ebooks which didn’t make it onto Amazon’s list of the top 10 best-selling printed books. For example…
#4. Hopeless by Colleen Hoover
One of 2013′s best-selling ebooks came from a self-published author living in rural East Texas — a 33-year-old social worker who published her first novel just 18 months ago. Thanks to the power of viral marketing — and Amazon’s Kindle Store — Colleen Hoover was able to find an appreciative audience online, and her books are now also available in print. But the print world is still struggling to catch up, apparently, since none of the print editions of Colleen’s novels have even made it into the top 100 of Amazon’s best-selling print books of 2013.
Of course, two of the 10 print best-sellers aren’t available as Kindle ebooks.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Maybe the lesson there is that some books just work better in print — like books with lavish illustrations and a complicated layout. But it’s interesting to note that all of the top 10 best-selling Kindle ebooks are also available in print editions. Is it possible that publishers now consider the ebook market to be the most important one?
Anyways, I’m finding it fascinating to compare the two lists. It’s like catching glimpses of two different universes, which exist side-by-side in this moment in time. And they offer hints about the way that we read — and how it’s starting to change…
April 12th, 2013
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!
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.”
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.”
March 5th, 2013
America’s Parent Teacher Association includes millions of parents and teachers — but this year, they’re letting Amazon’s Kindle be the exclusive partner of a new program. To improve the reading skills of grade school students, the program will teach parents some fun ways to get involved in their children’s reading — and for the rest of the year, the program will officially be called The PTA Family Reading Experience, Powered by Kindle.
Besides ebooks, “The progam also encourages use of real books,” notes Fast Company magazine, “but it’s definitely a PR coup for Amazon, whose rival Apple has also been moving to increase its e-book educational appeal.” Amazon’s even created a special web page identifying themselves as “the official e-reader of the National PTA”. The page argues that the Kindle “was designed to make great books as accessible and engaging as possible, and kids say their enthusiasm for reading increases with e-books.”
“Parents love to see their children inspired to read more, especially with a device like Kindle that’s focused solely on reading.
It’s fascinating to see the way Amazon has now started marketing their e-readers as a family-friendly educational tool, with a pitch that the Kindle is “the perfect complement to children’s print books.” (Their web page also notes the Kindle’s storage capacity of over 1,000 books, “making heavy backpacks lighter,” and that each Kindle has a built-in dictionary which “supports real-time vocabulary development, while adjustable fonts and text sizes make each book just right for a child’s eyes and reading ability.”) Amazon’s even titled their page “Kids and Parents Love Kindle,” and they’ve also lined up an enthusiastic quote in the press release announcing their endorsement. “National PTA is honored to work with Kindle to provide parents with proven techniques for improving their child’s reading fluency, comprehension and passion…”
But the real question isn’t just whether this will help Amazon sell more Kindles, but also whether it help them sell more ebooks. So to that end, Amazon’s also created a new web page of “PTA Family Favorites”, which also touts their relationship with the new organization. “Kindle and the National PTA are working together to help families get more involved in their children’s reading and enhance their emerging interest in books, Amazon writes at the top of the web page. “These featured titles were most frequently cited in a survey of PTA members as books they love to read together as a family.”
I admit I enjoyed browsing the selection, to see if there were any books I recognized from my childhood. Amazon’s highlighting their ebook versions of “PTA Family Favorites”, separated into ebooks for different reading levels, with The Magic Treehouse series recommended for first and second graders (along with the Junie B. series and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day)). For third and fourth graders, the page recommends the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, along with Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona. Their selection for fourth and fifth graders includes C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and their older-reader selections include The Lightning Thief, The Hobbit and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.
I could think cynical thoughts about how Amazon’s involvement with the PTA is just another new way to promote the Kindle and Amazon’s Kindle Store. But mostly I’m just glad to see children being encouraged
to read some very good books.
February 15th, 2013
it’s not as crazy as it sounds. Amazon has already been testing same-day delivery in 10 cities since 2009, according to the Christian Science Monitor, and last month they reported rumors that Amazon might be expanding the program. And meanwhile the post office is already offering same-day delivery capabilities to businesses — at least in San Francisco. For the last eight weeks, the post office has been quietly testing this service (as a way to offset the money they’re losing from deliveries of traditional mail). It’s expected to raise up to $50 million after its first year just in San Francisco, according to an article in the Associated Press., which reports that “If things run smoothly, the program will quickly expand next year to other big cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York.”
The post office has noticed that package deliveries are actually increasing at a rate of more than 10%, according to the article. (Maybe because people are ordering more things online?) And it also notes that Walmart — a major competitor to Amazon — is already offering same-day deliveries. Meanwhile, Amazon has been building more and more distribution centers in more and more states. Are we looking at the beginning of a war, to see which retailer can deliver packages the fastest?
But Wired asks a more interesting question: who’s going to be doing the delivering? FedEx and the other delivery services seem to insist on an intermediate step where all the packages are first collected together at their own distribution centers before being re-routed back out for deliveries. “To make same-day work, the orders must travel straight from the distribution centers to customers,” Wired notes — adding that post office seems to have a lot of carriers now with fewer and fewer letters to deliver.
To get a definitive answer, Wired even called a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal service, who seemed enthusiastic when he agreed that “We already have the existing infrastructure in place. That’s what sets us apart.” He wouldn’t speculate about whether the post office was going to end up offering same-day delivery services for Amazon’s packages, but he did hedge that traditional mail carriers can offer an attractive choice for companies who are exploring the same option. And to that possibility, he had one more hopeful thing to say.
“We’d never close the door on ways to expand our revenue.”
January 29th, 2013
I always enjoy hunting for nuggets of information when Amazon makes their big announcements to stockholders. Today Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, revealed something new to think about. Amazon did sell more printed books this December than they had the year. But it was the smallest increase ever in the 17-year history of Amazon — a rise of just 5%.
Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble announced plans to close 200 bookstores over the next 10 years — about one-sixth of all stores. That’s America’s single-largest chain of bookstores — and Borders bookstores already declared bankruptcy in 2011. It’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s not a lot of growth now in the sale of printed books. Today Amazon’s CEO identified this trend as “the transition we’ve been expecting.”
And for comparison, he added that after 5 years, “eBooks is a multi-billion dollar category for us and growing fast – up approximately 70% last year.” After that stunning statistic, there wasn’t much left to say — except a big thank-you to all the people who’ve started buying ebooks from Amazon. “We’re excited and very grateful to our customers for their response to Kindle and our ever expanding ecosystem and selection.”
Amazon also shared some other interesting bits of trivia about the Kindle. For example, since it was introduced in September, the Kindle Fire HD has continuously remained Amazon’s #1 best-selling, most gifted, and most wished for product “across the millions of items available on Amazon worldwide.” And by the end of the year, Amazon’s worldwide best-seller charts showed that the top four spots had all been claimed by Amazon’s digital readers and tablets — the Kindle Fire HD, the Kindle Fire, the Kindle Paperwhite and the Kindle.
Amazon has always insisted they’re willing to lose a lot of money over the short term, as part of a grand master strategy of growing their customer base over the long-term. So they probably want investors to focus on this number: in just the last three months of 2012, Amazon’s sales totalled $21.27 billion. That’s up more than 22% from the same period a year ago — an increase of $3.84 billon. And Amazon’s sales figure would’ve been even higherif it hadn’t been for fluctuations in the world currency market, which cost Amazon another $178 million.
I don’t know how Wall Street is going to react to Amazon’s numbers, but I’m impressed. For the last three months of 2012, they averaged over $236 million in sales every single day. And as Kindle owners, we’re all part of that number – and a big piece off Amazon’s long-term strategy.
The Kindle makes it even easier to buy things from Amazon — even when you’re lying on your couch!
December 12th, 2012
I laughed so hard on Saturday night. And I’ve got a great little story about Amazon’s customer support. I don’t usually share personal stories, but this one feels like it’s worth an exception. It all started because it had been a long weekend, and I’d just wanted to curl up and watch a video on my Kindle Fire…
Unfortunately, the Kindle’s video store ended up warning me that the video I’d ordered was taking longer than expected to download – and then never delivering it! It wouldn’t let me place the order again, but the video still wasn’t showing up. I’d tried Amazon’s web site, but got the exact same error message. So I clicked on the “help” link — and that’s when the fun began…
Now let me explain something. It was raining, and after running around town doing holiday errands, I’d just wanted to relax. And I’d rememered that Amazon gave me a $3.00 credit for videos for my Kindle Fire, but I only had one more day to use it. I’d spent $2.00 to watch an episode of South Park, but there was still $1.00 left. And I’d wanted to watch something comforting, maybe an old favorite from my childhood…
It turns out that one of Amazon’s options for customer support was to have an online chat in real-time. And yes, I wanted my video and I wanted it now, so it seemed like the best solution. Besides, I could test Amazon’s customer support, to see just how good they are at troubleshooting. And I was impressed that someone turned up right away — though since it was 7 p.m. on a Saturday, I suspected he might be in India…
“You are now connected to Saransh from Amazon.com,” explained the text that Amazon displayed in a chat window on the screen. And I was a little embarrassed about having to admit what I’d been trying to watch to a live person. “I ordered a Tom & Jerry cartoon on my Kindle Fire,” I explained sheepishly, “but it keeps giving me an error about how it’s taking longer to arrive than expected…”
“A member of our Amazon Instant Video team will need to help you with this,” Saransh typed, adding “Please hold while I transfer you. One of our Amazon Instant Video Specialists will assist you shortly.”
All this fuss over a cat-and-mouse cartoon from the 1940s, I thought to myself. But I was really impressed at the instant customer support Amazon was providing. And I didn’t have to wait too much longer before another support association started typing in the window. His name was Sneha, and he typed hello, then added, “I will look into this straight away for you. May I place you on hold for two minutes, while I look into this?”
“Hi Sneha,” I typed, not sure how friendly I was supposed to be. “Sure. Go ahead.” And he began researching the problem.
His first search seemed to come up empty-handed. “I do not see the order on your account pertaining to Tom and Jerry,” Sneha typed. “Were you able to place to place the order or you were in the process of doing that?” But then he typed, “Okay. I see the order now. Sorry…” Unfortunately, by then I was already typing away.
“I placed the order on my Kindle Fire, and also tried again on video.amazon.com.” I realized that I hadn’t given him the exact title, so I also typed in. “It’s called ‘Puss Gets the Boot.’ Tom & Jerry are just the name of the characters…” But then I realized he didn’t need anything that I’d typed. Look at me, I thought, jabbering away with all this extraneous info…
“Yes, I got it ,” Sneha typed. “Thank you :)” So then, just for laughs, I typed…
“Tom is the cat, and Jerry is the mouse.”
I described the whole surreal moment to my girlfriend, and then joked about even more extraneous things I could’ve typed into the chat window, if I’d wanted to seem like even more of a clueless user. “They chase each other around. The cat is grey. See if you can find a cartoon like that. Because it’s probably them…”
And we laughed and laughed…
But I really have to hand it to Sneha, because he did solve my problem almost instantly. He told me to log out of the Instant Video page on Amazon, and to basically try turning my Kindle Fire off and on. My girlfriend joked that it was like the catch-all advice that was always offered by the geeks in a British sitcom called The IT Crowd — but in this case, it really worked. The video page on my Kindle Fire now showed one more video in my library: the Tom and Jerry cartoon Puss Gets the Boot.
And not only did Amazon solve my problem immediately, but Sneha also endeared himself to me with the way he responded after I’d explained that Tom was the cat, and Jerry was the mouse. He typed back into Amazon’s support window…
“Its my favorite cartoon show…”
November 5th, 2012
My friend Nate lives in New York City — and he’s really grateful to Amazon. On Friday Nate told a remarkable story about life in the water-damaged city after it was hit by Hurricane Sandy. It was the largest hurricane ever to come out of the Atlantic Ocean, and it had had a huge impact on the millions of people who lived in the big city.
New York’s subway system wasn’t providing any service below 34th street “for an undisclosed period of time,” Nate posted on his Facebook page, “and cabs cost about $25 each way to work right now (and sometimes more).” But Nate felt guilty using any gas-powered vehicle, since it was obvious that there was going to be an ongoing shortage of gasoline. The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple: Nate decided to get a bicycle! “I tracked down a decent folding bike for less than it’ll cost in taxis next week alone,” he eventually posted on Facebook.
But here’s the funny part. Nate just placed his order on Amazon.com, around 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon. “I’ve got Amazon Prime, so the order shipped for free…” he posted the next morning on Facebook. And his bicycle had already arrived! “In 16 hours,” he posted in amazement. “A BIKE. To Post-Sandy NYC. For Free.
And Amazon was also delivering supplies to other New Yorkers, too. (“Take a guess,” joked The Huffington Post. “Why were two-gallon gas cans one of the most popular items sold on Amazon this week?”) People were also ordering gas-powered generators and even lanterns from Amazon, according to the Post‘s article. Difficult times called for creative solutions, and to get the supplies they needed, at least some people turned to Amazon.com for things they couldn’t find locally.
In fact, in a comment on the article, someone reported that my friend Nate wasn’t the only person who was riding a bicycle across the gas-starved city. “There are thousands of them on the streets of New York City right now.” New York’s transportation department estimated that just on Thursday, there were 17,000 more bicyclists crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and the three other biggest bridges in Manhattan, Queensboro, and Williamsburg. Most of the bikes were probably in New York before the flood, but Nate was delighted that he could actually get one shipped in!
After the hurricane, people began to look at the world a little differently, and it was nice to hear stories about people reaching out to help others. One fitness center even posted a sign offering free hot showers or an outlet for recharging cellphones to anyone who needed it, Nate posted on Facebook. “I’m trying to figure out how I can order stuff from Amazon to be delivered to the people who need it on Staten Island or the Jersey Shore,” he added later, “because apparently Amazon are the only people who can get things places right now.” It’s nice to see Amazon’s expertise in shipping having a positive impact on people who really need it.
One of Nate’s friends even joked, “Maybe the government should commandeer Amazon until the crisis is over.” But Nate wasn’t even sure that was a joke, because he’d been so amazed by the way Amazon performed after the hurricane. “That was kind of my point. I was looking at getting some solar panels or generators shipped out using Amazon Prime. They have them.
“Apparently they could deliver them in 16 hours if I ordered them!”
October 3rd, 2012
If you’re trying to buy the new Kindle Paperwhite, there’s a surprising message today on Amazon.com. “Due to popular demand, orders placed today are expected to ship in 4 to 6 weeks.” Apparently one day after its official release, Amazon had already burned through their whole inventory of the new Kindle Paperwhite. Plus, for now, they’re limiting new orders to just two Kinde Paperwhites per customer.
It was just Monday that a Kindle executive acknowledged that pre-orders for their newest version of the Kindle “have far exceeded our expectations.” Amazon didn’t reveal how many they’ve actually sold, but their press release did include some excerpts from positive reviews of their newest Kindle. Time magazine called it “the best e-reader yet,” for example, and the technology site Gizmodo adds “Forget everything else, this Is the e-reader you want.”
At first I’d wondered whether Amazon had just manufactured their first batch of Kindle Paperwhites in a smaller-than-usual quantity. This would help create the perception that their new device has already become so wildly popular that it was selling out – when in fact, Amazon just hadn’t built that many of them in the first place. But I had to admit that the Kindle Paperwhite has been getting a lot of genuinely positive reviews from some high-credibility technology sites. A headline at CNN even declared Monday that the Kindle Paperwhite “is king of the e-readers.”
And the technology site Engadget called the Kindle Paperwhite simply “the best e-reader out there,”
So what’s the big deal? I thought the best explanation came in this review from The Huffington Post. “A luminescent e-reader screen is one of those new technologies, like HDTV or the bidet, that spoils you so badly, and so thoroughly changes your preferences and expectations, you won’t want to go back to a device without it once you’ve tried… ” They do note that Barnes and Noble has already released their own digital reader with a built-in light for the screen — more than five months ago — but then goes on to say that Amazon’s is better, spreading the light much more evenly across the entire screen.
Maybe that explains why the Kindle Paperwhite is getting such positive reviews. The Technology and Science Editor at NBC News Digital notes that it’s about more than just built-in lighting. The glowing screen increases the contrast between the black letters on the screen and their background, which is now a glowing white. That’s a big improvement, and he ultimately gave the Kindle Paperwhite one of it most emphatic endorsements.
“It can be declared hands down the best e-reader yet, without any need for qualifiers.”