Helium.com logo

Amazon started in a garage, and grew into an enormous web superstore — and the home of the Kindle. Soon it was attracting amateur authors, and a new world suddenly appeared where everyone could self-publish. But there was another web site offering its own version of the thrill of self-publishing — online.

And last week, they announced that they were going out of business…

Helium.com actually paid its writers in advance — though it was a very small amount. But they also shared any profits earned from online advertising, and guaranteed that however strange your articles were, they would always be read and rated by the other writers at Helium. The best articles for each topic were always listed first, which is where they came up with the name Helium. The very best writing would rise to the top — like a balloon filled with helium.

The thrill of writing was contagious, and several of Helium’s authors ended up publishing (or self-publishing ) Kindle ebooks. And at one point in time, their community included thousands of writers who were earning more than $100 a month. In 2009 Helium’s CEO told a cable news interviewer that Helium could even save the newspaper business. He argued that newspapers could outsource some of their local coverage to Helium’s low-cost community of amateur writers.

It all ended suddenly. “After eight years and well over one million articles, we regret to announce that Helium Publishing will be closing,” they informed their members last week. Google was sending less traffic to the site, and when Helium moved their pages to a new set of domains, it had gotten even worse. Ironically, the founder still made lots of money — by selling his site in 2011 to the big print publisher, R. R. Donnelly. It was rumored that the sale price was $57 million, though they were never able to make the site profitable enough to continue.

Which means that on December 14th, a million articles will instantly vanish from the web.

Gary Busey promotes Amazon Fire TV

Amazon’s been tinkering for years, and this month they finally revealed some very big new products. It’s blurring the lines between your Kindle Fire tablet, your TV, and even your kitchen. We’re living in a new world — as evidenced by the fact that state attorney generals have now actually procured refunds for customers affected by alleged price-fixing by the publishers of ebooks. Here’s four of the biggest news stories I’ve seen that convinced me thing some very big changes have started happening right now — another collection of my favorite recent Kindle (and Amazon) news stories. And for each one, I’m awarding “cheers” if the story is a genuinely exciting development — and “jeers” if it feels like another funny misstep!

Cheers for Amazon Fire TV

I was stunned when I heard the news. For $99, Amazon would sell you a device that streams Netflix, Hulu, and other video services directly to your TV. “Tiny box, huge specs, tons of content, incredible price,” bragged the CEO of Amazon, and they’ve even optimized it to pre-download the shows it thinks you’ll want to watch next for faster streaming. Plus, you can broadcast video from your tablet or phone directly onto your big-screen TV (as well as your own home movies and photographs), besides renting new movies from Amazon’s own video store, and there’s also free streaming of music from popular music apps like Pandora (and of course, Amazon’s Cloud Player). There’s even a feature that gives you the option of displaying a song’s lyrics while you’re listening to it — and with an optional controller, you can even play popular games on your TV — includine Minecraft and Despicable Me: Minion Rush!

Jeers to Amazon’s Gary Busey Campaign

Amazon’s CEO also pointed out that if you’re looking for a specific show, their Amazon Fire device comes with “Voice search that actually works means no more typing on an alphabet grid!” Fair enough — but they’ve unveiled a truly bizarre ad campaign to promote their new device…starring Gary Busey! (“If you’re like me, you like talking to things. Like, ‘Hello Lamp…’ “) The ad shows the 69-year-old actor — who was nominated for an Oscar in 1978 — as a crazy and volatile, yelling at his TV to “find Gary Busey,” only to reveal that that’s now actually possible with the new Amazon Fire device. It’s a good way to convey Amazon’s point — that “it’s frustrating when things don’t listen. Especially high tech things…” But I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable with their use of Gary Busey , who really did suffer a serious head injury during a 1988 motorcycle accident.

Cheers to Amazon Dash

Amazon is still quietly invading our homes — and with more than just Kindles. They’re testing a new handheld device called the Amazon Dash, a small device that lets you scan bar codes in your own home. If you’re in one of the lucky cities that has Amazon’s same-day grocery service, then this device has some truly incredible potential. You swipe it over the bar code of any product that you want to re-order, and it’ll magically appear in your queue of items for delivery! Most of the items will actually arrive the next day, according to Amazon’s promotional video — but it’s not limited to just grocery items. In one case, they show a woman ordering a new set of guitar strings, and promising that it’s “shopping made simple,” Amazon has complemented its functionality with a slick tablet app!

Jeers to My 73-Cent Refund

I’d been excited when I saw the announcement. “In December 2013, a federal court approved legal settlements by publishers Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin in antitrust lawsuits filed by State Attorneys General and Class Plaintiffs about the price of eBooks.” The end result was a refund to customers like me, and we received a credit right in our Amazon accounts to compensate for any financial hardship we’d suffered from illegal price-fixing by ebook publishers. (Click here to see your refund.) That’s all very well and good, but what wasn’t good was the amount of my credit: just 73 cents!

Maybe I can use the credit to go buy myself 73% of 99-cent ebook!

Amazon announces shipping delays for new Kindle Paperwhite

I noticed something funny this morning when I went to Amazon to buy a Kindle Paperwhite. I couldn’t do it! Amazon isn’t able to ship the new Kindle Paperwhite any time this week, and is warning customers that if they purchase one, Amazon’s warehouse will actually ship it out “in 7 to 10 days”.

If you want to get your order in now, go to

What’s really interesting is the new Kindle Paperwhite has only been available for nine days. But Amazon had been taking pre-orders since September 3rd, when they first announced the next-generation of their popular high-contrast (and glowing) screen. (“World’s best-selling e-reader now even better,” read the headline on Amazon’s press release…) And what’s even stranger is the 10-day delays may actually be an improvement. Friday one technology blog reported that Amazon was warning customers that the new Paperwhites would be shipping from their warehouses “in four to six weeks!”

Amazon prefixed Friday’s warning about a shipping delay with the words “Due to popular demand”, according to the technology blog — a nice way to acknowledge that their newest Kindle has been very popular. But Amazon also put a new restriction on Kindle purchases: “Limited to two per customer.” I no longer see that restriction on the Kindle Paperwhite page today — which is almost even more disturbing. Does this mean that Amazon has suddenly caught up with the initial onslaught of orders, and now has enough Paperwhites to last through a delay that they thought would last three weeks? Or did one of their suppliers suddenly resolve a problem getting the components to build the devices — so they can now start producing them at a faster rate. This is good news for Amazon’s customers — since their “countdown to Kindles” is now much shorter.

Still, you might want to get your order in early if you’re thinking about buying one of Amazon’s newest Kindle Paperwhites. There’s no guarantee that the shipping delay will remain at 7 to 10 days — and the delays could be even longer when more people start purchasing Kindles as a gift for Christmas. Maybe the new Kindle Paperwhite will be this year’s “Cabbage Patch Kid” — a gift so popular that it’s impossible to get, which makes more people want to buy them just so they can re-sell them at a profit. If that actually happened, then the delays get longer and longer — and you’d have a much harder time getting your own Kindle Paperwhite any time before January!

I wondered if Amazon might sell the previous generation of Kindle Paperwhites, but they obviously want to make sure their customers are only getting the very latest technology But what’s more interesting is that even before the new Kindle Paperwhite was released, Amazon was already sold out of the previous model. In fact, I have to applaud the technology site Geek.com, which reported in August that Amazon was already sold out of the WiFi-only Paperwhites. Because they correctly recognized that this was a sign that Amazon was about to release a new model of the Paperwhite — and that prediction was spot-on, because Amazon did just that, just six days later. (“Get your wallets ready,” Geek.com had urged their readers….)

And that’s still good advice — especially since supplies may be running out, at least temporarily, for the new Kindle Paperwhite.

If you want to get your order in now, go to

More Fun Kindle News

September 23rd, 2013

Books inside an Amazon warehouse

Sometimes there’s so much interesting Kindle news, it’s hard to know where to start writing! Here’s a “lightning round” of some of the most interesting new developments in the Kindle world…

Amazon’s Discounting Kindle ebooks if You’ve Already Purchased a Print Edition!

I hadn’t really grasped the full significance of this, until Amazon’s Kindle Content Vice President turned up in an article about the upcoming upgrade to the Kindle Paperwhite. There’s a new service from Amazon called “Matchbook” which will let you buy the Kindle ebook version of print books you’ve bought from Amazon — even if you bought the book sometime long ago over the last 18 years! “If you logged onto your CompuServe account during the Clinton administration and bought a book like Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus from Amazon, Kindle MatchBook now makes it possible for that purchase—18 years later—to be added to your Kindle library at a very low cost,” explained Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president of Kindle Content.

What The Kindle Paperwhite Really Means?

Everyone’s speculating on what clues we can learn about Amazon’s future plans from their upgrade to the Kindle Paperwhite. I thought The Huffington Post came up with a fairly skeptical take.. (“The upgraded Paperwhite comes at a time when sales of tablets — from companies like Apple, Samsung, Asus and Amazon itself — have eaten into sales of ereaders. Sales of Kindle ereaders — which make up almost half of ereader sales worldwide — peaked in 2011 and are expected to continue to decline over the next five years, according to IDC. The technology research firm predicts a drop in all ereader sales from a peak of 26.4 million worldwide in 2011 to 11.7 million in 2017.”) Although towards the end of their article, they talked to an analyst who says Amazon underestimated just how popular color tablet computers would become — but that ultimately, this may have just spawned a new strategy for Amazon, of focusing on that “small, voracious reader group” who still prefer a dedicated black-and-white reading device.

The analyst points out, “It also happens that they’re the ones that buy the most books!”

And Amazon insists they’re still committed to their dedicated digital readers, according to USA Today‘s interview with Amazon’s Vice President of Kindle Content, who announces confidently that “based on everything we know today there’ll be many more generations of our e-reading devices from here!”

Amazon’s Still Making TV Shows

There’s still moments of giddy euphoria where it feels like the entire world of media is being re-invented by the biggest technology companies. (It still feels exciting and new for me to watch blockbuster Hollywood movies on my hand-held Kindle Fire tablet — and even episodes of TV shows!) But even then, it still felt weird when Amazon announced last year that they were now producing their own digital TV shows — including one that starred John Goodman. That show was called Alpha House — its first episode had a funny cameo by Bill Murray — and it was one of the most popular shows among online voters when Amazon debuted it last year. And now Amazon’s announced that when they release new episodes — later this year and early next — they’ll be adding even more familiar big-name TV stars to the program. (Specifically, Cynthia Nixon from Sex and the City, Wanda Sykes from Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Amy Sedaris from Strangers with Candy. The show is a political satire written by Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist who created the newspaper comic strip Doonesbury — and I’m impressed by the way it tells a story and gets its laughs without specifically attacking any political targets…other than hypocrisy.

Amazon’s Warehouses Are Still Amazing

This last item isn’t really a news story, but it’s still fascinating. Towards the bottom of their article about the Kindle Paperwhite, The Huffington Post came up with some fascinating photos of the inside of an Amazon warehouse. It made me realize that, while I’ve imagined the stacks and stacks of books, I’ve never actually seen them! And there’s even more there than I’d ever dared to dream.

The future is a wonderful and unpredictable thing. I guess it pays to stop once in a while, and at least appreciate how wonderful the present can be, too!

The new Kindle Paperwhite

Big news! There’s a new version of the Kindle Paperwhite! Amazon’s just revealed all the improvements — and posted an inspiring message about them on the front page of Amazon.com.

We believe in the power and importance of reading. We are passionate about books. Books convey knowledge, spread ideas, and can transport you into alternate lives and worlds. It’s why we’re working so hard to help people readm ore and get more out of reading…

Today we’re excited to announce another milestone in our journey — the all-new Kindle Paperwhite.

For a shortcut to Amazon’s page about their newest Kindle, just point your web browser to:


So what’s new in Amazon’s latest and greatest Kindle Paperwhite? First off, they’ve added some new technology to the display, so the contrast is even higher. And they’re also promising that the built-in glow effect is now coming from a “next generation” light. Inside the Kindle, its computer chips are supposed to be 25% faster, so the pages will turn faster when you’re reading an ebook, and you’ll wait a little bit less when you first open it for the text to appear on your screen. And apparently Amazon has made the touchscreen even more responsive for the new Kindle Paperwhite. According to their press release, its touch grid is now “19% tighter” — making it respond even more accurately, even to very light touches.

“The new Paperwhite is our best ever, with a new higher contrast display…” Amazon promises. And they’ve also added some brand new features…

  • “Page Flip” — a new feature which lets you skip ahead to another chapter (or even to skim through books, page by page…)

  • “Vocabulary Builder” — the new Kindle Paperwhite now keeps track of which words you’ve looked up, and then automatically creates flashcards which you can review later

  • Goodreads Integration — They’re integrating content from Goodreads.com so it’s available from your ebooks, so you’ll be able to share your recommendations while you’re thinking about them and interact with other “like-minded readers…and decide what to read next!”

  • “Smart Lookup” – Instead of just giving you a dictionary definition of individual words, Smart Lookup can recognize important topics and phrases, according to Amazon’s press release, and can provide more detailed information information.

    Smart Lookup on Kindle Paperwhite

Amazon ended their note with a reminder that for the last six years, the Kindle has been the best-selling e-reader in the world — and that when it comes to innovation, “No one is investing on behalf of readers or pushing the boundaries of hardware, software, and content for readers like the Kindle team.”

“We hope you enjoy the new Kindle Paperwhite. Happy reading.”

The new Kindle Paperwhites will start shipping this month — on Monday, September 30th — but you can already pre-order them now. For a shortcut, just point your web browser to:


Reading the Kindle Paperwhite at night

The Kindle Touch is Back!

March 30th, 2013

Finger on Kindle Touch

Amazon stopped selling the Kindle Touch version of their e-readers back in October. (If you tried to go to its web page, Amazon would simply send your browser over to their web page for the Kindle Paperwhite.) But in a kind of pre-Easter miracle, the Kindle Touch has come back to life. It’s suddenly re-appeared for sale again at Amazon.com.

For a shortcut, just point your browser to

I’m one of the few people who owns of of each kind of Kindle that Amazon has ever released — and the Kindle Touch has always been my favorite. In 2011 I began building a word game for the Kindle with my friend Jeff, and we’d both bought a variety of used Kindles so we could see how our game performed on the different devices! I also discovered that I really liked the jumbo-sized screens on the Kindle DX, but in the end
my favorite feature was the light weight and easy handling of some of Amazon’s later Kindles. And yet strangely, I never warmed up to the Kindle Paperwhite, so for me the best touchscreen Kindle ever made was its 2011 predecessor, the Kindle Touch.

To be fair, the Kindle Paperwhite got some glowing reviews — pun intended — but there were also a few complaints. Back in October, I noted that after 676 reviews, the Paperwhite had earned an average rating of less than 3 and a half stars on Amazon (out of a possible five), a lower rating than any previous model of Amazon’s black-and-white Kindles. Amazon seemed to be positioning it as “version two” of their touchscreen Kindles, but this just made the Kindle Touch seem more like a “lost Kindle” — the fondly remembered device that you just couldn’t buy any more. For example, one technology site remembers that the Kindle Touch was “the last fully functional device the company released that had speakers and support for audiobooks.” (And the Kindle Touch came with much more storage space — 4 gigabytes — which is double the amount of storage that Amazon built into the Paperwhite….)

I could never get past the glowing screens on the Paperwhite, but that’s probably just because I’m such a fan of Amazon’s e-ink screens. The glow from the Paperwhite just became an annoying reminder that I was still reading on an electronic device, instead of enjoying a book-like page on a naturally-lit, e-ink screen. Again, I know people who love the extra contrast and crispness of the Kindle Paperwhite. (And I still think our Kindle word game still looks absolutely gorgeous on the glowing screens of the Kindle Paperwhite…) But my favorite Kindle — out of all the ones Amazon ever made — was always the Kindle Touch.

And yet, one dark day in October, people began to notice that the Kindle Touch was now listed as “unavailable” at Amazon.com. (Along with a warning that “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.”) That seemed like the end of the Kindle Touch — forever.

Which is why I’m so excited that the Kindle Touch is back on sale again at Amazon.com.

My Favorite Kindle Stories

March 25th, 2013


There’s so many interesting things happening in the Kindle world, and I want to share as many of them as I can. So here’s another collection of my favorite recent Kindle news stories — awarding “Cheers” to the most exciting and interesting stories for Kindle owners, along with some occasional “Jeers” for at least one funny misstep!

Cheers to Amazon for Discounting Magazines

Looking for something new to read on your Kindle? I was thrilled to see that for the rest of March, Amazon’s offering discounts of up to 87% on more than 20 different magazines. (Just point your web browser to tinyurl.com/KindleMagazineDeals ) For just $7.49, they’re offering a one-year digital subscription to Maxim, Family Circle, or the Ladies’ Home Journal, and Every Day with Rachel Ray is just $4.99. And they’ve also discounted Popular Science, Field & Stream, ESPN Magazine, and 17 other magazines!

Jeers to Amazon’s Auto-Rip

Actually, I was delighted when Amazon announced a new service back in January which brought more music to my Kindle Fire tablet — for free. Whenever you buy a qualifying music CD from Amazon, they now automatically add free digital versions of every song into Amazon’s “Cloud Player”, so you can listen to it on your Kindle Fire tablet (as well as on the web, and in their Amazon MP3 apps.) And to inaugurate this new feature, I discovered, Amazon actually went back in time, and delivered digital versions of all the songs I’d purchased for more than 10 years — which I’m still listening to right now on my Kindle Fire tablet.

So I was really excited about the new feature — but at the technology site Slashdot, one of the commenters wasn’t as enthusiastic, and came up with a good reason to give Amazon some good-natured jeers. “The biggest flaw,” he posted, “is that I now have mp3s for CDs I gave as gifts. Unfortunately, my friends and relatives seem to have different music taste than I do, so now I have the Chicago soundtrack and Hannah Montana mp3s!”

Cheers to Free Comedies coming from Amazon

Amazon’s already letting users watch thousands of videos for free on their Kindle Fire tablets (or through the web) if they’re subscribers to Amazon’s Prime shipping service, including classic TV shows like the original Star Trek and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. But soon even if you’re not a Prime subscriber, Amazon’s going to have some free videos for you to watch — and in fact, Amazon’s producing it themselves! Amazon recently announced that they’re creating six original comedy series for their members to watch free on Amazon’s Instant Video site — selected from more than 12,000 proposals that were submitted to “Amazon Studios.” . The comedies will include one by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau — titled Alpha House — which follows four Senators in Washington D.C. who end up living together in the same rented house. And Browsers will be a comedy by Daily Show writer David Javerbaum (directed by Don Scardino from 30 Rock ). Amazon will even be present a new comedy from one of the internet’s oldest comedy sites, The Onion, titled — what else? — The Onion Presents: The News!

Cheers to Photos for Book Lovers

This last link was too beautiful not to share, because let’s face it — we love our Kindles because we love reading. So it was a real delight to see photos of some of the world’s most gorgeous bookshelves. In 2009, someone even created a web site called Bookshelf Porn “showcasing the best bookshelf photos from around the world” — and some of them are absolutely gorgeous. (See the photo at the top of this blog post!) The site has now been featured in articles by book-lovers everywhere (including The New Yorker), and Time magazine even named it one of the best blogs of 2012. I always get a kick out of browsing their gorgeous photos — some submitted by readers — of the most breathtaking bookshelves from around the world.

And for even more fun, they’ve included a link which delivers a randomly-choosen photo from their archive over the last four years at BookShelfPorn.com/Random.

Screenshot of update your Kindle menu choice for new software

People have been asking me what exactly is changing in Amazon’s newest Kindles. It turns out that’s it’s already possible to experience some of the changes today — and the rest are definitely worth waiting for.

In their yet-to-be-released Kindle Paperwhites, “We’ve added 62% more pixels and increased contrast by 25%,” Amazon brags on their web page, “so whites are whiter, and blacks are blacker.” But the Paperwhite also includes a built-in light that can shine down on your Kindle, which Amazon is calling “revolutionary”. It’s supposed to offer the same relaxing effect as reading on a regular Kindle, but without a computer’s back-lighting shining directly in your face. They’re just $119, though there’s also a 3G version for $60 more ($179), which Amazon promotes by saying “Never pay for or hunt for a Wi-Fi hotspot.”

You can order one of Amazon’s new Paperwhite Kindles at tinyurl.com/KindlePaperWhite. But even last year’s model of the Kindle is getting an upgrade! Amazon’s $79 Kindle now costs just $69, and according to Amazon, it now ships “with improved fonts and 15% faster page turns.” The high-contrast fonts are “crisper,” Amazon promises, and there’s also some additional new features in the software, including the ability to read comic books and graphic novels by zooming in on each panel. The new version of Amazon cheapest Kindle will now also include better ways to view images and tables, and there’s even some expanded parental controls, if you want to stop your children from accessing “Archived Items” or Amazon’s Kindle Store.

But if you bought one of those Kindles last year, you can also experience all these new features, just by downloading a software upgrade. Just point your web browser to tinyurl.com/KindleSoftwareUpdate. And there’s some other new features that I wasn’t expecting. Now Amazon will pull up the keyboard automatically in situations where you need to enter text (rather than waiting for readers to first press the keyboard button). And now when you turn off your wireless connectivity, a little airplane icon appears at the top of your Kindle, reminding you that you’ve switched into “Airplane Mode.”

Amazon promises fresh ebooks will start appearing in the Kindle Store over the next few weeks to take advantage of all of these new capabilities. I’ve already tested out its comic book-reading capabilities — and it did a nice job of rending a Catwoman graphic novel in a noir-ish black-and-white.

Black and white Catwoman Kindle screenshot image

And ebook authors are also excited about a new feature that’s coming to both the Kindle Paperwhite and the new Kindle Fire tablets. “About the Author gives readers easy access to your photo, biography, and bibliography,” Amazon explained in an e-mail to their self-publishing authors, saying readers “can learn more about you and your other books, which are only 60 seconds away. Readers can tap on any of your books to go to the Kindle Store. Also, any time you update your bio or claim a new book through Author Central, we will update About the Author on Kindle so your readers have access to the most recent information about you.”

I’ve already ordered a Kindle Paperwhite, so now I’m just anxiously waiting until Amazon finally delivers its. Because then I can finally test out all the new features for myself!

Buy a new Kindle Paperwhite at

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Here’s a special announcement. There’s more exciting new ebooks to read on your Kindle! Once a year, Amazon hosts a contest to discover a “breakthrough novelist”. Thousands of new novels were entered this year, but after several rounds of judging, they’ve finally narrowed it down to just six awesome finalists!

“The quality of the entries continues to climb…” one Amazon official announced this week, citing reports from their panels of expert judges. The novels get better every year, making this the most competitive contest yet, and he warns that when it comes time for Amazon’s customers to choose a winner, “they’ll have have a challenge picking a favorite.”

That’s right — you get to pick the winner. Amazon’s collecting votes through a web page at http://www.amazon.com/abna , and they’re keeping things honest with a one-vote-per-account rule. You can also read what the judges have already said about each entry, and there’s even a “Meet the Finalists” page, where you can read each novel’s reviews. And – of course — you can also download a free excerpt for your Kindle.

There’s three finalists each in two different categories — “General Fiction” and “Young Adult.” Here’s the three “breakthrough novels” that made it into the finals in the “general fiction” category.

   The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill
   Grace Humiston and the Vanishing by Charles Kelly
   A Chant of Love and Lamentation by Brian Reeves

And here’s the three “breakthrough novels” that reached the final round in the “Young Adult Fiction” category.

   Dreamcatchers by Casey (Cassandra) Griffin
   Out of Nowhere by Rebecca Phillips
   On Little Wings by Regina Sirois

Two grand prize winners will be selected — one in each category — and each winner will receive not only a publishing contract with Penguin Group, but also a hefty $15,000 advance! Amazon and Penguin teamed up with CreateSpace to deliver this event, and Publisher’s Weekly also played a role, providing reviewers for each novel that reached the semi-finals. And Amazon’s even promoting the creation of “local chapters” supporting new authors and offering events “to cheer each other on as the contest progresses.”

Amazon will announce the winners on June 16th at an awards ceremony in Seattle. (So remember, Amazon has to receive your votes by Wednesday, May 30th.) This is the fifth year that Amazon’s held the event, but it seems like a fun way to discover fresh new talent at the start of their career. I’ve always wondered if self-publishing will change the kind of fiction that authors write.

And if it does, it’s possible that they’ll find their first audiences through Amazon’s breakthrough novel contest!

Go the #### to Sleep cover illustration

It’s that once-a-year day when Amazon chooses the very best book of 2011. In fact, they’re released their list of the one hundred best books of the year, plus top 10 lists “in more than two dozen categories, from Literature & Fiction to Children’s Picture Books to the new category Kindle Singles.” On that special web page, Amazon’s also also created separate links for “Print editions” and “Kindle books” — which means you’re also be able to see Amazon’s picks for the 100 best ebooks of 2011. (Though the lists seem nearly identical.)

And some books even earned the highest honor, of not just being in the top 100, but but in the top 10.

“There are three first-time novelists among our top 10 picks,” announced Amazon’s senior books editor, noting their #1 pick was a debut novel — about baseball. “The Art of Fielding,” just released in September, is a story of friendship and coming of age, and in the nine weeks since its release its received over 135 reviews on Amazon. Its average rating is three and a half stars on Amazon — but at least one reviewer blamed their one-star review on what they see as a trend among Kindle ebooks.

“Why is it that all Kindle samples start off well? I was lured into buying the book by the sample. Downhill from there…”

But fortunately there’s something for everybody in Amazon’s “best of 2011″ list — including a new book by Kurt Vonnegut. (It’s “While Mortals Sleep,” a collection of unpublished short fiction.) Amazon’s top 100 also features some interesting nonfiction titles, including the new biography about Steve Jobs and Tina Fey’s Bossypants, plus biographies about actress Diane Keaton and chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. I’m intrigued by Steven Levy’s new book about Google (titled “In the Plex”). And there’s even a parody of children’s bedtime picture books called, simply, “Go The *** To Sleep”. (It’s available for just $3.99 on the Kindle, and there’s also an audiobook version – read by Samuel L. Jackson that was named one of Amazon’s 10 best audiobooks of the year.)

It looks like Amazon’s fiction choices are equally impressive. Just yesterday Stephen King released a new novel about the Kennedy assassination — titled 11/22/63 — in which Lee Harvey Oswald may ultimately be confronted shortly before his infamous day in American history. Ironically, it’s already racked up three one-star reviews — though two of them are just complaining about the ebook’s price of $18.99. And its third one-star review complained the price included “audio/video for other devices.” There is a cheaper ebook version without them — for just $16.99 — though I’m actually impressed that for just $2.00 more, you get an ebook with supplementary video and audio material!

“With choices from literary masterworks to genre fiction to nonfiction, there’s something for everyone,” gushed Amazon’s senior books editor. And I’l admit I was also intrigued by a new book from Tom Perrotta — The Leftovers, a comedic novel about the Rapture released just 10 weeks ago. It’s fun browsing through Amazon’s lists, just to see what they selected as their “bests” in each category. For example, in the graphics novel category, there’s the yet-to-be-released Batman: The Black Mirror and a collection of new “Love and Rockets” stories by Jaime Hernandez.

Unfortunately, these graphic novels aren’t available yet for the Kindle. But I’m hoping that will change very soon, since Amazon struck a deal with D.C. Comics to make digital versions of 100 graphic novels available exclusively on the Kindle Fire. They’ll include popular superhero titles like Watchmen, Batman: Arkham City, and Green Lantern: Secret Origin — as well a MAD magazine collection and, 13 volumes of Sandman by Neil Gaiman. It touched off a minor controversy, with Barnes and Noble protesting the exclusivity by pulling the print editions off their shelves.

Amazon’s list ultimately doubles as a reminder that this year not every book will be available for the Kindle. For example, Amazon’s “Best of 2011″ page also includes their selection of the top 10 best book covers of the year — print editions only. I was surprised that the cover of the new Steve Jobs’ biography made in onto their list — which is available as a Kindle ebook. But the list also includes a breath-taking coffee table book, a print-only edition whose cover is a black-and-white photo showing sunshine on a snowfield, titled “The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott: Unseen Images from the Legendary Antarctic Expedition”.

To see all of Amazon’s “Best of 2011″ lists, point your web browser to amazon.com/bestbooks2011.

Most Popular Version of Amazon's Kindle

I’ve been studying Amazon’s best-seller lists, trying to figure out which Amazon products are the most popular. Each hour, Amazon updates the lists for each category — including the “Electronics” department, where all their Kindles are listed. I realized today that it’s a great source of information about the new Kindles. And it seems to offer a definitive answer to the question: which of Amazon’s new Kindles is the most popular?

It’s their full-color touchscreen Kindle Fire tablet. In fact, it’s the #1 best-seller in Amazon’s entire electronics section — even though it’s also one of Amazon’s most expensive Kindles ever. But the #2 best-selling Kindle — both last week and this week — is Amazon’s least expensive Kindle ever. It’s the $79 Kindle, which ships with sponsored screensavers and “Special Offers”, and it seems to settle the question as to whether customers would accept ads on their Kindles in order to get a cheaper price.

In fact, the next four Kindles on the best-seller list also all include the special offers and sponsored screensavers. The third best-selling Kindle is Amazon’s other new model, the Kindle Touch, and again, consumers are opting for the cheapest one — the WiFi-only version that ships with advertising for $99. And surprisingly, the next best-selling Kindle is the old Kindle 3 — now called the “Kindle Keyboard”. (But again, it’s the cheaper $99 WiFi-only version which ships with “Special Offers.”)

This isn’t just a temporary phenomenon. I checked this list one week ago, and its rankings were exactly the same for the top four best-selling Kindles. In fact, since they were released 17 days ago, all Amazon’s new Kindles have stayed on their list of the top 100 best-selling electronics products. But it gets more interesting when you realize how many other versions there are of the new Kindles — and watch how they’ve fluctuated up and down on the list.

#5 is now the 3G version of the Kindle Touch (with Special Offers). Apparently even consumers who were willing to pay a little more for 3G connectivity still wanted to save money by buying the Special Offers version. Even a week ago, it was still in the #7 spot, and you’ll see the same trend in the #6 best-selling Kindle. It’s the 3G version of the Kindle Keyboard with advertising, proving that even consumers who were willing to pay a little more for 3G connectivity still wanted to save money by buying the Special Offers version.

But the #7 spot went to the international version of the WiFi-only basic Kindle without advertisements. And last week, it was in the #5 spot — so there’s still a few bargain hunters who just won’t buy a Kindle if it’s got advertising. Confirming that trend, the #8 spot — both this week and last week — is the cheaper WiFi-only version of the Kindle Keyboard without advertisements. Some shoppers were willing to forgo 3G connectivity — but not the ability to own a Kindle without advertising. In fact, the #11 best-selling Kindle this week is also the ad-free version of the WiFi-only basic Kindle (for $109) — the non-international version. But the ad-hating consumers seem to represent a smaller piece of the Kindle market. Proving this, I see that one Kindle has dropped out of the top ten altogether. The #9 best-selling Kindle used to be the ad-free, 3G version of the Kindle Keyboard at $189. This week, it’s fallen all the way to the #12 spot.

And I had to laugh when I saw which product claimed the last two slots in top 10. Apple’s iPod touch has now claimed both those spots — #9 for the 8-gigabyte version, and #10 for the 32-gigabyte version. I’ve been writing about Apple’s fight for dominance in the tablet market , and it looks like on Amazon’s best-seller list, you can watch it happening in real time. Last week, there was only only non-Kindle product in the top 10 — and it wasn’t from Apple. Instead, the #10 spot went to Garmin’s 5-Inch Portable GPS Navigator (whic this week is #13).

Of course, the lists can’t tell you how many Kindles have been sold — but it’s still a fun source of other trivia. For example, I think it’s amazing that the Kindle Keyboard has now racked up reviews from over 32,990 people!

I wonder how many reviews the Kindle Fire tablets will have one year from today?

Where Can You Buy New Kindles?

August 22nd, 2011

AT&T Store (inside)

A funny thing happened when I called my local AT&T store. “AT&T doesn’t carry the Kindle,” their sales clerk told me. (Adding “Sorry about that…”) But he was contradicted by a new press release on AT&T’s web site. Five months ago, in March, Amazon started distributing their 3G Kindle through the thousands of AT&T Stores across America. And yesterday represented another step forward, as AT&T Stores also began carrying the Kindle with Special Offers!

I’m assuming the sales clerk just made a mistake at my local AT&T store. (Even though when I went down to the store, another sales clerk told me the same thing.) She even checked with her manager, and then came back with the same response. “We haven’t heard anything,” she told me. Then she suggested I try Barnes and Noble!

Now I was sure she was confused. But AT&T representative explained that it was just as much my mistake. “That’s an affiliate store,” explained AT&T spokesperson Seth Bloom. While they’re an “authorized retailer,” they’re not necessarily selling every product that you’d find in an official AT&T Store. So while they’re Kindle is available at over 2,200 AT&T Stores around the country – it may not be available if your local store is just an AT&T affiliate.

In fact, there’s so many places where you can go to buy a Kindle now, that I’m starting to lose track! In the U.S., they’re available in the chains of big “box stores” like Target, Staples, Best Buy, and Radio Shack. In Australia, the same thing is happening, with the Kindle available for purchase in three more big chains — Dick Smith, Big W, and Woolworths. And it was just last August that Amazon finally opened an online store for the U.K.. “Previously, UK Kindle owners had to get their device shipped from the US,” remembers a British newspaper, “with subsequent book purchases retailed in dollars!”

Of course, AT&T has a special stake in the Kindles, since they’re also providing the network coverage for the 3G Kindle. Amazon pays AT&T between $3 and $4 a month for every Kindle that connects to their network, according to an estimate by one New York technology analyst. (And in addition, throughout America, AT&T is also the exclusive network provider for both the Nook and the Sony Reader.) This means that behind the scenes, most of the ebooks that are delivered to digital readers are travelling across AT&T’s network. And they’ve already created a page on the AT&T web site with their own pitch for the Kindle 3G

Read longer, less eye strain
True mobility – Only 8.7 ounces so you can take it anywhere
Long battery life
Kindle eBook store – More than 900,000 books…plus periodicals, blogs, and over 1.8 million free out-of-copyright books
Read to me – New experimental Text-to-Speech feature in selected eBooks reads English language content out loud
Kindle Book lending…

I don’t know why I felt so happy when I heard there’d be more Kindle appearing in my local AT&T store. Maybe it’s because it just makes it easier for more people to join in on the fun of owning a Kindle.

That is, if AT&T can actually get the Kindles into their store!

AT&T Store (sign)

Dog licking a Kindle from Amazon TV ad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazon logo for shareholder's meeting

It happened this morning — the once-a-year day when Seattle sees a big gathering of the people who hold Amazon’s stock. Amazon also broadcasts it on the web, and this year, I decided to listen in to see if I’d uncover any hidden truths. The event lasted for exactly one hour, and I was rewarded for my efforts by hearing a long presentation from the CEO of Amazon himself, Jeff Bezos.

And of course, he talked about the Kindle.

“Our vision remains the same: every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”

Bezos said it’d be “incredibly cool” to achieve his vision of a “universal library,” adding “The team is a team of missionaries, and they’re working very hard on this.” He pointed out that the Kindle store now has almost a million books, showing that the number of e-books available in the store has nearly doubled each year.

            2008: 125,000
            2009: 275,000
            2010: 540,000
            2011: 950,00

I enjoyed the backstory he provided about why those numbers are important. “When we launched Kindle less than four years ago, we launched with only 90,000 titles. And by the way, that was incredibly hard work to get those 90,000 titles into e-book form — huge heavy lifting, working together with publishers to get that done. Three and half years later, we’re now at 950,000 titles.” And then the CEO of Amazon shared his own personal perspective. “For me, I rarely now come across a book that I want to read that isn’t available in Kindle format.”

“And by the way, that 950,000 figure doesn’t even include the millions of free pre-1923 out of copyright books that you can also read on your Kindle.”

He also bragged that e-books are now outselling printed books at Amazon — but there was an even bigger milestone. “One of the things that has happened as a result of that is that our book growth rates are now the greatest that we’ve seen in 10 years.” But the most startling thing about that was that even printed book sales were growing at Amazon. “Our physical book business still continues to grow every year. So we have a fast-growing Kindle business, layered on top of a growing physical book business, which is accelerating the growth rate of that combined business.

In fact, my favorite moment was probably when Jeff Bezos first stepped up to his microphone. “Good morning, everybody. Thank you very much for attending the annual shareholder meeting… It’s very much apperciated, the shareholders who take the time to come. We had 34… (He puts up the wrong slide.) Let’s see… No… Ah ha!”

Amazon annual sales data for 2010

“I think that that slide was worth waiting for.” (Laughter) “We had $34 billion in sales last year, and the unusual thing about that is the growth rate. 40% growth on that base of sales is very unusual.” That number had already been announced earlier in the year, but Bezos was very gracious about using the shareholder’s meeting to acknowledge all the efforts of Amazon’s 33,700 employees.

This is not something that CEOs accomplish. This is something that a broad team of people working very hard for a long number of years accomplishes. It’s not something that that team can even do in the current year. It’s something that that team works on year after year, laying a foundation that allows for that kind of growth at that kind of scale.

It’s difficult operationally. It’s difficult in terms of attracting customers to be able to support that level of scale, and the expansion plans that support it. So anyways, it’s something that I’m very proud of, and I’m very proud on behalf of this big team that made that happen.

With just five minutes left to go, one shareholder stepped forward with a question about Amazon’s vision for the Kindle. Not the long-term vision, but the now vision — their short-term and intermediate plans for improving the Kindle. “Well, you know,” replied Bezos, “our approach to electronic books, Kindle — it’s very straightforward, and we’ve been clear about our strategy. We want to have the best purpose-built e-reader. We want to have the best e-book store. And we want to have the best ecosystem, so that you can read where you want to.” He talked about how Amazon developed the WhisperSync capability so customers could continue reading their e-books (from right where they’d left off) on any device with a Kindle app. “And that ecosystem approach, we think, is the right one. Because again — we’re very simple-minded about this — it seems like what our customers would want.”

And then it was time for his big finish.

“With that I would like to thank all of you for being supportive shareholders. Thanks for being a part of what we’re doing. We’re excited about continuing our mission to be earth’s most customer-centric company — setting a new standard there — and being a role model for other companies who would like to start with customers and work backwards.”

Kindle 3 vs new touch-screen Nook on battery life

A bright reporter at C|Net made the discovery. Amazon says the Kindle now has a battery life of two months. Wednesday morning Amazon released a new version of the “Kindle with Special Offers” — a 3G version that’s discounted to $164. But instead of promising the usual one month of use without a battery charge, Amazon now says this Kindle’s battery will last two months!

And Amazon’s also doubled the battery life that they’re reporting for the Kindle 3 and Kindle WiFi…

So what’s going on? C|Net’s reporter has it all figured out. On Tuesday Barnes and Noble launched a brand new touch-screen Nook — and then claimed that its two-month battery life was double that of the Kindle (calling it “the longest battery life of any eReader”). “Amazon countered by magically upping the battery life of the Kindle to two months,” reports David Carnoy. But it turns out that Amazon may have had a good reason…

The Nook’s battery life was calculated by assuming just one half hour of reading time each day. “Let the math shell games begin!” joked one user in a Barnes and Noble discussion forum. “Anyone want to lay odds on who will go to 4-month battery life assuming a 15 minutes a day reading habit?”

The CEO of Kobo also took issue with the Nook’s ‘half-hour-a-day” figures, complaining “that’s not a typical usage scenario,” and arguing that the same lofty claim could be made about the battery life of the Kobo.
“It appears that [Amazon] just took issue with how its competitor was calculating and presenting its battery life numbers,” C|Net reports, noting that Amazon also updated their Kindle product descriptions with a full explanation.

“A single charge lasts up to two months with wireless off based upon a half-hour of daily reading time. If you read for one hour a day, you will get battery life of up to one month. Keep wireless always on and it lasts for up to 10 days. Battery life will vary based on wireless usage, such as shopping the Kindle Store, Web browsing, and downloading content. In low-coverage areas or in EDGE/GPRS-only coverage, wireless usage will consume battery power more quickly.”

So the Kindle’s battery hasn’t suddenly become twice as powerful as it was before. And I thought C|Net’s reporter gave this episode the perfect epitaph. “Amazon didn’t have any comment about its number changes, but it clearly shows that the competition is intensifying in the dedicated e-reader space…”