December 19th, 2014
It’s a battle we never expected — and a surprisingly exciting story. There’s an author facing accidental censorship at the hands of robot runs amok, and a giant corporation confronting an internet-empowered artist. And what’s at stake is the quality of the words we read every day — or at least, the words that we’re reading on our Kindles.
But it all starts with a humble horror novel by author Graeme Reynolds…
Sunday Reynolds told another story on his web site — that Amazon had removed his ebook from their site. It was a full year and a half after he’d published it, but apparently Amazon had just now noticed something that they really didn’t like. (They probably didn’t fully review his book — and in fact, probably aren’t reviewing any ebooks that authors are submitting.) But this time, one of their customers had complained.
The complaint? There were too many hyphens in his ebook.
“[W]hen they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript,” Reynolds explains on his blog, “they found that over 100 words in the 90,000 word novel contained that dreaded little line. This, apparently ‘significantly impacts the readability of your book’ and, as a result ‘We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.'” The author shares some colorful thoughts about the originator of the complaint, but followed up with an e-mail to Amazon pointing out that the use of a hyphen was 100% proper English.
It must’ve been particular galling, because (according to his post) he’d spent nearly $2,000 to have his ebook edited by a professional editor. But it was even more galling when he received a follow-up response from “Melania G” at Amazon which refused to resolve the situation! Melania’s e-mail said “quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience,” and reiterated Amazon’s position, that “we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected.”
It was fun to read the reactions at a technology site like Hacker News. (“Amazon is probably trying to correct publishers who copy-and-paste their hardcopy texts…taking with them artifacts from the print designer, like forced hyphenation.”) And another commenter pointed out this wasn’t really war on the hyphen, then. “So really the title of the post should be ‘Collateral damage when Amazon went to war against bad punctuation,’ which casts Amazon’s motives in a different light.”
The novel’s author was still upset, judging by his blog post, where he explored the ramifications of Amazon’s decision. (“Is J.K Rowling going to have to take down Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince until she sorts out the blatant hyphenation in the title?”) But it looks like an honest mistake, since his post now ends with a happy update from the author. “The book is now back on sale.
“Common sense seems to have prevailed….”
August 1st, 2014
Over 30 high-quality Android apps are now free at Amazon! It’s to welcome customers to Amazon’s new Fire Phone — but the apps work on any Android device. That means they’re available for Kindle Fire tablets, but also for Android smartphone and tablets (when purchased through the Amazon Appstore).
“Over $100 in Essential Apps,” reads the banner on the front page of Amazon today — but with an important disclaimer. “Free Thursday and Friday Only.” Fortunately, they’re all on display at Amazon’s web page. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting apps.
Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing
Yes, Sega of America is giving away a free Sonic the Hedgehog game promising “the ultimate party racing showdown.” There’s 16 different race courses to choose from — and 13 different Sega characters — plus lots of other fun ways to play. (“Rev up your skills with 25 missions then outrun the competition in four Grand Prix Cups or take on other racers in dueling Battle Mode!”)
It’s one of the most popular new board games of the last ten years — and in 2012 they finally created a version for Android devices. The app version was actually named “Mobile Game of the Year” by one gaming site, and it’s actually been one of my favorite board games since 2005. (“Create a landscape by placing tiles with roads, cities, fields, and cloisters…” explains the game’s web page — and now you can even compete against the game’s built-in opponent!)
Send any web page to your Android phone, where it’s waiting for you on this handy app. It works a lot like Amazon’s “Send to Kindle” feature — except now you don’t even have to have a Kindle! It’s already racked up millions of users, according to the app’s web page at Wikipedia. Best of all, it strips away most of the ads and other extraneous “layout” elements from the web pages, so you end up getting the parts that you want — without having to download all the other parts that you don’t!
I have a friend who swears by this app. It offers more than 40 sounds (on a perpetual loop) designed to block out noise to help you sleep — or at least, to relax. You can even mix the sounds together to create a new “ambience”, according to the app’s web page, and there’s also a special feature that lets you add an “alarm” effect, where the volume gradually increases to wake-me-up levels at whatever time you choose. The app could even help mask tinnitus, according to its page, along with soothing migraine headaches, and even helping to pacify crying babies — which ends with one more tantalizing promise. “Find out why the world is sleeping better with White Noise!”
Remember, for a shortcut to the 30 free apps, point your browser to
February 28th, 2014
We live in an interesting time. In less than 20 years, Amazon’s grown from a no-profit bookstore into a giant that sells everything. And yet, is the company really earning a profit? I always enjoyed the analysis at The Motley Fool, which make questions like these sound like a fun bar-stool conversation. And this month they published a brand new article about Amazon’s Kindle tablets — revealing that when it comes to selling ebooks, movies, and TVs, Amazon has finally found a sweet spot.
“A year or two ago, it was hard to find much evidence that Amazon’s Kindle strategy was working as expected,” writes Adam Levine-Weinberg (a senior analyst for the Fool web site). Back when Amazon first launched their Kindle Fire tablets, it didn’t result in a massive increase in their sales of movies and ebooks. “Amazon’s North American media sales rose just 15% in 2012,” writes the analyst, “slightly below the 2011 rate and well below the growth rate of most of Amazon’s other segments.” And in fact, through June of last year, the growth in Amazon’s media sales actually seemed to be decreasing from what it had been in the previous year.
But by December, the year-to-year comparisons were telling a happier story. Over the previous 12 months, Amazon’s sales of e-books, movies, and TV shows grew by a whopping 21%. There’s an interesting caveat. Apparently Amazon actually earns three times as much money on “electronics and general merchandise” as it does on ebooks and media sales. But as things start to cool off on the gadget-selling business, investors will be delighted to see that Amazon’s actually selling more media to view on those gadgets…
Of course, the Fool hasn’t always been bullish about everything Amazon does — and it’s really fun to look back at what they’ve written about the company over the years. Back in 2010, they complained about the metaphors Amazon used to avoid giving specific numbers about how many Kindles they’d actually sold. One article complained it’s “like having a discussion with a kindergartner or a politician. They all tell you what they think you want to hear…but lack the details you really need to know before drawing your own conclusion!”
So it was a big deal in December of that year when Amazon finally did reveal a number — sort of. “Amazon still isn’t coming clean with how many Kindle e-book readers it’s selling,” the site reported, “but at least now we know that it will be in the ‘millions’ this holiday quarter alone.” They headlined their article “It’s Raining Kindles!” and soon there was even more big Amazon news. Last year a business analyst at The Motley Fool pointed 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!” (The average Prime member spends $1,200 a year on Amazon’s web site….) And with their latest increase in the sales of digital media, The Motley Fool reached the only conclusion possible.
“Amazon’s quest for long-term dominance in the market for books, music, and movies is back on track!”
April 25th, 2013
Amazon’s exploring a new technology, according to a new article by Business Week. It will send content to your TV screen, streaming the same movies and TV shows that you watch on your Kindle Fire. But what’s really interesting is it’s being developed in a California research facility known as Lab126. It’s the same lab that developed Amazon’s Kindle — and it’s got me wondering if someday, we’ll be seeing ebooks on our television screen!
In the article, one venture capitalist also raised another interesting possibility: maybe Amazon’s set-top box could also display the video from the Kindle Fire apps Amazon’s selling in their Android app store. Imagine playing Temple Run or Angry Birds on a wide-screen TV. “They have a ton of content,” the venture capitalist tells Business Week, plus “an existing billing relationship with millions of users, an existing Android app marketplace that could be leveraged on the box, a reputation for solid hardware products and a terrific channel through which to promote the product…” And if Amazon is displaying all digital content on the box, it’d also be easy to stretch out the text from your Kindle ebooks so they fit on the screen.
Business Week suggested that “Kindle TV” was the obvious name for Amazon’s product, and they interviewed three different people who were “familiar with the project”. Amazon themselves refused to comment, and did not approve any of the interviews — but the article notes that Amazon has been building up its library of video content. Besides securing the exclusive online rights to popular TV shows “Downton Abbey”, Amazon’s obviously been working hard to create their own original TV shows, which they’re currently broadcasting online. (See tinyurl.com/WatchAmazonTV ) Monday Amazon even bragged that the most-watched TV shows in their Instant Video store this weekend were these “Amazon Originals” — which claimed 8 of the top 10 spots!
There’s a funny story about Lab126, the facility where Amazon is reportedly developing their new set-top box. “[T]here was never a Lab125 or a Lab124…” remembers Jason Merkoski. In his recently-released memoir about the launch of the Kindle, he calls the name of the facility a “geeky in-joke” by the founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. “The ‘126’ part stems from the fact that ‘A’ is the first letter of the alphabet and ‘Z’ is the 26th, a techno-geeky homage to the ‘A to Z’ development center!”
But Amazon’s newest project will have some highly-experienced people on their team, according to Business Week, including a former top engineer from TiVo and a former hardware architect from ReplayTV (one of the first companies in Silicon Valley to release a DVR). Ultimately Amazon’s new set-top box will compete with Apple TV, the Roku, and even the video capabilities that are built into the Playstation 3 and Xbox, so it’s a competition with some very high stakes. Business Week suggested that “Kindle TV” was the obvious name for the product, but I still remember the slogan that MTV used when they were trying to earn a place on cable TV services. So maybe Amazon should just replace the M with an A, and hope that their customers think it’s just as catchy in the 21st century.
“I want my A-TV.”
March 18th, 2013
I love my Kindle — but there’s now of fascinating rumors about new ebook-reading devices that will be coming from Amazon. We’ve already heard how Apple might be building a watch with an iPhone-like interface. But now there’s reports that seem to confirm that Amazon’s building its very own smartphone!
In December Amazon had already placed orders for 5 million Kindle-branded smartphones, according to one technology blog. It could be as cheap as $100, and no more than $200, according to the report — so you could get a Kindle-branded phone for about the cost of one of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets. And it’s being developed by the same people who have been producing Amazon’s Kindle e-readers (and their Kindle Fire tablets). That’s the good news — but unfortunately, Amazon “may not be able to release its first smartphone in the second quarter of 2013 as originally scheduled” (according to sources within the supply chain for Amazon’s electronic parts).
Right now they’re conducting “engineering verification testing” to work out some issues — which at least one hardware blog concludes must be related to porting the Kindle operating system to a phone. The theory is that Amazon is adapting the same version of the Android operating system that they’ve been using with their Kindle Fire tablets. Amazon’s smartphone is one of those in-demand products which has never actually been released. “The device was expected to be among the latest batch of Kindle Fire tablet refreshes last fall,” notes the hardware blog, “but that never happened.” In fact, Amazon may be less worried about Apple, and more about Microsoft. The blogger reports the general presumption at the time was that Amazon “was waiting to tackle Microsoft’s own Surface-branded offering until the first report of delays began to surface.”
Here’s my favorite part of his story. He notes that Amazon has never, ever actually said that they’re building a smartphone — “but it hasn’t denied its existence either.” In fact, on a recent interview on the Charlie Rose talk show, Amazon’s CEO was asked point-blank whether the rumors were true, and a he gave a less than convincing denial. “I agree that there are a bunch of rumors that we might do a phone,” Jeff Bezos replied.
“You’ll just have to wait and see.”
June 27th, 2012
It’s not often I get excited about an ebook that was this bad. But it was so bad, it was good. In fact, this particular Kindle ebook was so surreally awful, that it became a work of art. It was the one ebook so horrible that Amazon had to hunt it down and kill it.
The book’s title was “Alot Was Been Hard”. Its author’s name was Janetlw Bauie. But there was no author — just an unseen presence lurking silently on the web. It was inhuman and utterly unpredictable — but in another sense, the book’s author was us.
“Where does authorship start and end?” wondered two artists in Berlin. So as a digital project, they created a software program which automatically performed every step in the publishing process for an ebook in Amazon’s Kindle Store. And then two weeks ago, in a special press release, they revealed their project’s dark twist. “Our bots are compiling and uploading hundreds of ebooks on Amazon.com with text stolen from the comments on YouTube videos.”
The books had titles like Wierd song you cute by Timsest Pitigam. The fake names were also generated by the computer, so you’d end up with ebooks like Sparta my have by Loafrz Ipalizi. A writer at MIT’s “Technology Review” blog identified those as two of his favorite titles, calling the whole project “a masterpiece of machine-generated unintentional comedy.” But behind it all, the artists insisted, they were trying to make a point.
No one ever gets paid for writing comments on YouTube videos, they observed in their press release. “The creators of user-generated content work for free,” they pointed out, while YouTube distributes their comments — and then earns a profit on it. Apparently their project does the same thing on a much grander scale — but they also saw another message in their project. Professional artists are paid for the works they created, but the 21st century has seen the rise of something different, where paid labor is displaced by “what the artists call the ‘nonsense economy.'” Ultimately they see the comments area on YouTube as a kind of “communication-junk factory.”
But they asked a more fundamental question: how is an ebook different than a traditional book? I’ve often thought that someday, there’ll be someone who invents an entirely new artform which could only happen in a digital book. One of the artists already experimented with this idea, creating a pop-up book whose pages magically incorporate real-time footage of whatever the author happens to be doing right now. The book actually receives live updates over the web, if I understand their description, and “The reader is invited to navigate freely in the between of material and virtual worlds.” (The book appears to be written entirely in German…)
Of course, they also raised some other unintended questions with their book of YouTube comments. “My first thought was about how long it would be until they were sued for copyright infringement,” wrote a blogger at TechDirt. But eventually, someone else got to the artists first. Amazon has apparently deleted all their ebooks — presumably because every book in the Kindle Store should, at the very least, have an actual human author.
It’s a sad end to a wild burst of what can only be called pure craziness. But is it really the end? In a secret fortress on the web, the artists are apparently still brewing up new schemes. Tuesday on their Twitter feed, they pointed to a web page announcing that “Our bots are up and running. Be ready for new releases …” And by this morning they were cranking out new ebooks for Amazon’s Kindle Store, still based entirely on comments stolen from YouTube. Their titles?
May 27th, 2012
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!