A Kindle Holiday Wish

December 24, 2010

A happy Christmas tree
Click here to subscribe to this blog on your Kindle! It’s free for the next two weeks — and Amazon has finally slashed its subscription price to just 99 cents a month!

Even if you don’t stay past the first two weeks, I’d still appreciate the show of support. I love my Kindle, and I’m really trying to keep this blog going – but I need to encourage people to become paying subscribers. Without some money coming in, I’m going to have to move on to better-paying projects.

Happy holidays, everyone. If you’ve got a moment, I’d love to see a comment from you below!

And remember: Click here to subscribe to this blog on your Kindle!

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Picture of the new smaller, black $139 Amazon Wi-Fi Kindle

I’d been expecting there’d be a lot of new Kindle owners after Christmas, but now a business news service is backing me up. By the end of the year, Amazon will have sold more than 8 million Kindles, according to new statistics from Bloomberg. And it’s not just a prediction. They’re reporting that number came from “two people who are aware of the company’s sales projections.”

I have to wonder if this is a deliberate leak by Amazon. Amazon’s never shared their sales figures before, until Monday, when they finally revealed they’d sold “millions” of Kindles — just in the previous 73 days! It must’ve been hard keeping that secret, while Apple continued bragging about how fast their were selling their iPads. But in fact, Apple only sold 4.19 million iPads between July and September, and for the rest of the year, Bloomberg’s analyst has predicted that Apple will sell only 5 million more…

I’d like to give a big welcome to all the new Kindle owners. (In a few days, I’ll be publishing a few of my best new tricks for the Kindle!) And if you’re wondering if you should’ve bought an iPad instead — don’t. The selection of books is much smaller in Apple’s store, according to Publisher’s Weekly. “Want an e-book version of the nation’s bestselling nonfiction hardcovers? Don’t bother looking on the iBookstore. Apple still hasn’t struck a deal with Random House, publisher of current hits like George W. Bush’s Decision Points and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. For now, iPad users who want to get any of Random House’s bestsellers — which also include John Grisham’s The Confession and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — need to visit Apple’s App Store and download the free application for the Kindle or the Nook.”

Publisher’s Weekly notes that Apple offers just 130,000 books in its iBookstore, vs. the 300,000 applications in its app store — and you can’t even access Apple’s iBookstore from your computer, but only from a mobile device!

Maybe there’s a “stealth revolution” underway, and the Kindle’s popularity is Amazon’s own delicious secret. But if that’s true, then it’s got me curious. What kind of Kindles are people actually buying? I decided to ask a friend who publishes a popular technology site, and they agreed to anonymously share the break-down of their own sales for the last 30 days. They’d sold 90 Kindles — more than $13,000 worth — but eighteen of them were 2nd-generation Kindles. (Which is exactly 20%…) Almost two-thirds of their sales were for the new, cheaper WiFi Kindle — but that’s probably because Wi-Fi Kindles were specifically mentioned in Amazon’s ads. (“The All-New Kindle. Built-in Wi-Fi. Only $139…”) Since they’re only available in the new black color, this suggests we may start seeing fewer people in 2011 who are still carrying around the old-fashioned white Kindles.

Although maybe not. My friend’s web site also sold 15 of the new Kindle model that ships with both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity — and only three buyers requested the graphite-colored Kindle. With this model there’s a choice of colors, and given a choice, 80% of the shoppers apparently went with a traditional white Kindle. And if you’re a new Kindle owner, remember. If you wrap your Kindle in a rubber “skin” you can change it to other colors, like blue or pink!

Pink Kindle skin gift cover

If I could send one message to all the new Kindle owners, it would be this: that owning a Kindle is a lot of fun. And remember that the Kindle is surprisingly flexible. Besides ebooks there’s also a great selection of games for the Kindle, and you can even use it to read your favorite newspapers and magazines. (Not to mention some great Kindle blogs!) So to all the new Kindle owners: happy holidays

And happy Kindle-ing!

Army helmet
In February, the U.S. Army began outfitting a brigade in Texas with the latest consumer technology — including smartphones and even Kindles — to see whether it improved soldier performance in the field. Their director at the Mission Command complex told Army Times that “We’re looking at everything from iPads to Kindles to Nook readers to mini-projectors.” Some devices were for communication or data storage, but the smart phones even came with apps that can identify the location of friendly troops!

It got me thinking about the soldiers overseas at Christmas-time — and that always reminds me of Operation eBook Drop. (If you know someone in the military, let them know that there’s hundreds of authors back at home who are offering their books for free as a thank-you to the men in uniform.) And recently, my girlfriend interviewed a veteran with his own amazing story to tell. He’d ultimately realized his dream of writing his own first novel — a thriller that combines his love of the great outdoors with a very exciting story — and he’s published it as an ebook.

My girlfriend gives Sleeping Giant — by Matt Kuntz — a very enthusiastic review…


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Do you know someone who is or was in the military? Who loves reading a great thriller? Loves the great outdoors, and using logic and strategy to get out of sticky situations? Likes when into lone moralists work against evil corporations for the common good? Have I got a book for you!

Sleeping Giant mixes all of this and more. Author Matt Kuntz is a veteran, a lawyer, and now Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montana — and he sells riverboards on the side! In “Sleeping Giant,” Matt has written a book that’s both thrilling and thought-provoking. Drawing us into the Montana wilderness, this well-written novel explores sweeping themes that impact one specific guy in a very personal way. Racing against time, wounds bleeding while ducking hired mercenaries, he finally completes his mission. But does he survive?

Years ago, Matt read that the invention of the stirrup changed the course of civilization. One simple item had changed warfare by allowing knight with armor to ride horses and also gave rise to the middle class, allowing millions to rise out of peasantry. What would be invented today, Matt thought, that could have the same profound effect on the way the world works today? His answer: a new source of energy that’s safe, inexpensive, portable, and re-chargeable. Something that could store enough energy to power a whole town. Now what would corporations who rely on energy and re-selling energy do to prevent such a device from coming to market?

Thus, a novel is born.

Stone McCafferty is a decorated ex-military guy taking Montana tourists on fly-fishing trips, living the simple life. Frank Galeno, a local fly-fisherman, is found dead in the river of an apparent heart attack. It turns out Frank is a physicist, and he’s left Stone a binder that contains his life’s work. As Stone reads, he begins to realize the implications of this new energy storage device. But when he visits Frank’s home, he finds his workshop has been stripped bare.

Then people around him start getting murdered, one by one, and Stone barely escapes. On the run with just the clothes on his back, he heads to a mountain hideaway to assess the situation. He realizes he’s been followed, grabs as much gear as he can, and evades his trackers using his military training to escape into the Montana wilderness. It’s well-written, with a great story line and just enough science to let you understand the enormity of the invention without making you feel stupid. (I quit science after 10th grade!)

An added bonus? Knowing that you’re supporting an amazing guy. Matt began advocating for the effective treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome in returning vets after his own step-brother committed suicide after returning from Iraq. Matt’s work culminated in a Senate Bill which requires multiple face-to-face mental health screenings throughout America’s fighting force. Senator Ted Kennedy attached the bill to the Defense Authorization Act of 2010 and it was ultimately signed into law on October 8, 2009. The support system put in place under Matt’s guidance is now considered a model, and it’s being adopted by other states.
It’s not often you get a chance to enjoy a great read while supporting a true hero. Of course, you can also buy one of Matt’s riverboards but it wouldn’t fit in your Kindle!

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Click here to buy a copy of Matt’s ebook, Sleeping Giant

EA Monopoly for the Kindle

It’s a Christmas miracle! Some of the best games for the Kindle have been slashed in price, down 50%, for the next two weeks. And Amazon’s even released a new free game this month for the Kindle — plus a new text adventure — so if you’ve been waiting to try Kindle games, this is the perfect opportunity.

These aren’t just any games — they’re some of the best-known games in the world. For example, Hasbro has licensed both Scrabble and Monopoly to a Kindle game designer, but originally they were both priced at $5.00. (Scrabble was just released in September, and Monopoly is a brand-new Kindle game — just in time for the holidays.) Now both games are just $2.49 — and in addition, there’s also a 50% reduction in the price of Sudoku, Texas Hold ‘Em, and Solitaire, down to just $1.99.

These aren’t just knock-off games. They were created by one of the best known game designers in the industry. Electronic Arts was founded back in 1982, according to Wikipedia, and now earns more than $4 billion a year in revenue. (They’re the home of the famous Sims games, as well as the Command and Conquer series, and even some Harry Potter games.) They’d done a good job with their game designs, and this afternoon, I personally “field tested” both Scrabble and Monopoly. They both feel exactly like the classic board games — except, of course, they’re much smaller, and in black-and-white, and most of the game commands are entered using a five-way controller…

The nicest thing about EA’s “Solitaire” game is it’s really 12 different games in one. There’s the classic “Klondike” version of solitaire (which is the one that ships with Windows) — but there’s also games like FreeCell, Canfield, Yukon, and Baker’s Dozen. And while there’s been other versions of Sudoku for the Kindle, EA did a really nice job with theirs. It includes a feature that lets you write notes on possible numbers for each square — which can sometimes provide valuable clues on where the other numbers go.

You can buy all five games for just $11.00 — and then have them forever on your Kindle. The fifth game is Texas Hold ‘Em (where players create a poker hand by matching their two concealed cards to five face-up cards on the table.) That sounds simple, but EA added lots of extra features, like the “Play Career” version where you have to earn your way up into high-stakes games. And there’s even an in-game advisor — an avatar named Amy — so if you’re not sure what to do, you press a for Amy.

And earlier this month Amazon Digital Services released a brand new, free version of Blackjack. I thought the classic card game would be simple and boring, but they’d included all the extra casino features like buying “insurance” against a dealer 21 or doubling your bet for the next “hit.” I know some people resist games on the Kindle, because they want it to be a dedicated reading device. But for me it’s become an all-around companion that can entertain me if I end up trapped in the lobby of an auto repair shop. If I don’t want to read, I can surf the web, or burn a few minutes playing a game.

I’d been wondering when someone would write an old school “text adventure” for the Kindle — and then discovered that Amazon just released one last Tuesday. It’s a dark superhero/detective game called “Dusk World”. And don’t forget, in October Amazon also released a new, free version of Minesweeper that you can download to your Kindle.

As I tested out all the new Kindle games, I felt like a kid opening up his Christmas presents early. Like any new toy, all the novelty may wear off eventually. But for a least a few minutes, they’ll be my favorite toy in the world…

Celebrate millions with the number 2,000,000
I’ve been waiting for digital readers to reach “a tipping point”. Is this the week that it finally happens? Last week Amazon announced they’d sold millions of Kindles in just the last 73 days. And now Sony just announced they’ve also sold millions of their digital reading devices, too. In fact, they predict it’ll be sold out within just a few days (“before the holidays”), and their more-expensive model is actually outselling the cheaper one.

But I think ebooks reached another important milestone on Sunday. The second-biggest newspaper in America is the Los Angeles Times, and yesterday in its Sunday edition — which is read by over one million people — their book critic had an announcement for the world. “The great debate of the last several years — whether readers would read book-length material onscreen — appears to have been settled with a resounding ‘yes’.” Elsewhere in the newspaper, he published his list of his favorite books this year. But he’d prefaced it by noting the popularity of the Kindle and iPad (plus the launch of Google’s own ebook store), saying each development “points to significant shifts in how we read.”

In his last column of 2010, David L. Ulin wrote that ebooks were “the story in publishing this year,” and admits that even he now owns a Kindle. (Although he seems a little ambivalent about it, writing “I have a Kindle but I rarely use it, and I don’t have an iPad, although I covet one…”) But surprisingly, he’s not worried about a threat to the printed book, and he argues instead that “none of these media are in competition. They are complementary.” The book, after all, is just a medium for something more important. “The issue is not what we read on, just as the issue is not what we read. The issue is that we read, that we continue to interact with long-form writing…”

And maybe there’s another secret hint about the future that’s hidden in his list of favorite books. I know at least one of the authors also owns a Kindle: Elif Batuman. “The Kindle is wonderful for drunk people…” she wrote in a British newspaper in October. “Before I first acquired a Kindle, exactly one year ago, I didn’t usually buy books while under the influence of alcohol… Because I am a writer, people sometimes ask me how ebooks have changed the literary landscape. The short answer, for me, is that I have developed a compulsion to drunk-dial Agatha Christie several times a week.”

She’s a book-lover with a sense of humor, and she called her 2010 memoir The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Yes, it’s available on the Kindle, offering a semi-serious personal inquiry into the act of reading itself. It just seems to me like everyone’s using Kindles — even the people who write books, about reading books, and the book critics who then criticize those books.

In fact, even that critic’s newspaper — The Los Angeles Times — is available on the Kindle. And the circle doesn’t end there, since tonight my girlfriend will be reading this blog post about that Kindle-using book critic…on her own Kindle!

Kindles are everywhere…

The Birth of the Kindle

December 16, 2010

The original Amazon Kindle
There’s a fascinating article today about how Amazon created the Kindle using an international team of developers. “Amazon’s Kindle was largely developed in the heart of Israel’s high-tech center in the Herzliya Industrial Zone on the central coast,” notes a nonprofit news organization, which tracked down the programmers who helped build it!

Sun Microsystems had a special team in Israel devoted to writing the computer code for handheld devices besides cellphones, and developer Lilach Zipory remembers that four years ago, “Amazon contacted Sun in California and said they wanted a small device that could be used to read e-books.” The first thing the team noticed was the Kindle’s greyscale screen (which was a big switch from the color screens used by most other devices.) They ultimately spent several years working with Amazon until eventually they’d developed the perfect device.

Amazon ordered 100,000 of them, remembers Eran Vanounou, the group’s development director, “and we were frankly skeptical they would sell all of them. But when they sold out a couple of months later, we realized what we were involved with.” Lilach admits that she was equally surprised. “I would never have expected an e-book reader to take off like the Kindle did.”

Though they’ve built many devices, “the Kindle is different, because it’s such a phenomenon,” Vanounou says. Now when he flies on an airplane, he sees other passengers reading a Kindle, and knows it’s a device that they helped to create. Once Vanounou ended up talking to a passenger, who apparently raved about how much she enjoyed using her Kindle. “I didn’t let on how much we in Oracle Herzliya were a part of her experience,” he told the reporters. But finally she told him point blank, “I love my Kindle,” he remembers.

“I could have sworn I felt a tear in my eye.”

Barnes and Noble Nook
Amazon made a stunning announcement Tuesday morning. “In just the first 73 days of this holiday quarter, we’ve already sold millions of our all-new Kindles..”

Kindle owners were the first to get the news, since Amazon quietly posted it online in a forum for Kindle owners. “Thank you, Kindle customers…” the announcement began, adding that “in the last 73 days, readers have purchased more Kindles than we sold during all of 2009.” Their post was just six sentences long, but it seemed bigger in scope — and big on gratitude. Amazon’s Kindle Team said they were “energized” (and grateful) for “the overwhelming customer response,” and the message ended with the words “Thank you for being a Kindle customer.”

It’s fun watching the reactions from skeptical technology sites. “It’s raining Kindles,” wrote The Motley Fool. They’ve complained in the past Amazon never revealed the actual number of Kindles sold, saying 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.”

Even then, Amazon’s announcement Tuesday didn’t completely satisfy the site. “Amazon.com still isn’t coming clean with how many Kindle e-book readers it’s selling, but at least now we know that it will be in the ‘millions’ this holiday quarter alone.” The Motley Fool called Amazon’s sales figure “impressive,” and attributed it to the better deals available. “[I]t really wasn’t until this year’s price war — driving the price of the Kindle to as low as $139 — that it all began coming together. Book lovers that figured it would take several dozens of e-book purchases to cover the cost of the $399 model can now justify the lower break-even point on a $139 reader.”

Information Week supplied some crucial context for Amazon’s announcement. Just last week, Barnes and Noble revealed it was selling its color Nooks at a rate of 18,000 a day. Publisher’s Weekly had declared the company’s CEO as their person of the year, and in a profile, he’d revealed that every four or five days, Barnes and Noble loaded up another 747 aircraft just to fly in more Nooks from China. That would come out to 1,314,000 Nooks if it lasted for 73 days — two Nooks for every three Kindles sold — but the Nook Color has only been available for less than 7 weeks.

It’s been 47 days since its release on October 28, which works out to just 846,000 color Nooks sold so far (assuming their sales rate remained constant). “All this vague one-upmanship, doesn’t answer the question on most analysts’ minds,” complains Information Week, “which is how well the Kindle is selling compared to the Apple iPad.” But at least now we have a number to work with for the number of Kindle owners in the world. We now know that there are at least two million new Kindles firing up out there in the wild.

The devil is in the details, and C|Net found something even more important that I’d missed. Amazon’s CEO is predicting that ebooks won’t start outselling all printed books for a while — saying ebooks won’t even surpass the sales of paperback books until the summer of 2011. And as far as ebooks outselling all printed books, he’s predicting it will finally happen “by 2012.”

A Spy at the Bookstore?

December 14, 2010

Spy vs Spy comic - top secret

I felt guilty. At the back of my local bookstore, the owner’s wife holds a monthly book group. But tonight, as she introduced our next book, I was already planning to purchase it as an ebook. And then the woman next to me revealed the same guilty secret. “Can we read this as an ebook?” she asked the bookstore owner’s wife.

I’d learn many interesting thing in the minutes that followed, as a fierce conversation broke out instantly around the table. In fact, everyone in the room had more to say about ebooks than we’d had about that month’s book selection! There was excitement about Kindles and Nooks – even from the people who didn’t own one. So the first thing I learned is that it’s a very hot topic. But the second thing I learned is you’re much less enthusiastic if you own a bookstore..

I tried to be sympathetic, pointing out that bookstores were cut out when people bought their books as ebooks. But unfortunately, I made the mistake of mentioning that bookstores obviously get a piece of the book’s sales price — prompting another comment about how ebooks are much cheaper than printed books. This made the bookstore owner’s wife look very, very uncomfortable. She pointed out that ebook prices get heavily subsidized — that she believed Amazon was even taking a loss on some ebooks.

“Maybe it’s all a conspiracy, to drive the local bookstores out of business,” someone said. “Amazon has invented a device which only lets you read books you buy from Amazon, and never from your local bookstore, so they can drive all of their competition out of business. Then in the future, if you want a book, you’ll have to buy them all from a single store in Seattle!”

“Or two stores,” the Nook owner said proudly. “You could also buy books from the Barnes and Noble chain.”

But then we got some surprising news from the bookstore owner’s wife. She’s already planning to sell ebooks from the new Google Bookstore. Apparently there’s a way to integrate Google’s ebooks into the web sites of local bookstores. There’s some configuration issues, she’d said, which still have to be worked out, but it gives her customers a way to give some money to their local bookseller.
Unless you own a Kindle, someone pointed out quickly. Because the Google bookstore hasn’t been able to work out a deal with Amazon. Yet…

I felt like I was watching an enormous change as it was happening around the world. Those were the main points of the discussion, but it was fascinating to hear each person’s individual perspective. One 80-year-old woman said most of her reading now was just cheap, used paperback books — and that she could buy hundreds of them for the cost of an Amazon Kindle. And another woman said she liked the tactile feel of a book — and the chance to start a conversation if someone recognizes the cover of your book.

But then someone argued that could also be a disadvantage. After all, one of most popular ebook categories is romance novels — because finally, nobody has to know that you’re reading them! I added that maybe some people buy a book because they secretly want people to see them reading it. In fact, Stephen King buys print copies of books that he’s already read as an ebook — just so he can have it as a conversation piece on his shelf!

Of course, he can afford to do that, because he has more income than most folks, I was thinking. But I was already getting a dirty look from the bookstore owner’s wife. The book group was probably started solely as a way to get people to purchase the store’s books. And to be fair, that’s one of the most unappreciated functions of a local bookstore. It becomes a kind of local support group for actually purchasing and then reading new releases.

The fact that we were having this discussion shows what a bookstore can do for a community. So I’m glad to know that some bookstores may be evolving into re-sellers of digital ebooks. Maybe someday our book group will meet, and no one will have a printed copy of the book.

Because every single one of us will be reading the book on a Kindle.

I had a lot of fun writing about gift ideas for Kindle owners. (There were covers that looked like an old-fashioned book — and some that made your Kindle look like you’re reading The New Yorker.) But this opened my eyes to a new world of Kindle accessories, and with some more research, I discovered some even more spectacular ways to customize and accessorize a Kindle.


Matte Finish “Her Abstraction” DecalGirl Protective Kindle Skin

You can give your Kindle a special “arts and crafts” feel using vinyl skins (backed with adhesive) that you apply to completely cover the outside of your Kindle. This design is called “Her Abstraction”, and its page in the Kindle store promises it can reduce the glare from your Kindle’s hard plastic edges, and also prevent fingerpints (since the vinyl is coated with a special protective layer of matte).

DecalGirl pink Kindle vinyl protective cover skin

It’s created by a manufacturer named “DecalGirl,” who offers several other attractive designs in the Kindle store.. Below is a picture of my second favorite. Just released in August, it’s a design they call “Empty Nest.” (“It’s very pretty…” wrote one reviewer in Amazon’s Kindle store. “But just so people know; it’s just a sticker. It doesn’t protect the kindle in case you drop it, etc…”)

DecalGirl Kindle protective vinyl skin Empty Nest

They also also a retro “leopard skin” pattern – and a stylish black-and-white drawing with a spectacular red heart right in the center…


Stars & Stripes GelaSkins Protective Kindle Skin

On the 4th of July, I read the Declaration of Independence on my Kindle. But imagine how patriotic I’d feel if my Kindle actually looked like an American flag.

Kindle soldier custom American flag case mod vinyl protective skin design

For $19.99, a manufactuer named “GelaSkins” offers a long line of arty “protective skins” for your Kindle, but the main difference is these vinyl skins actually cover your Kindle’s screen. The idea is to protect it from scratches when the Kindle is in transit. (Its description on Amazon.com promises it can be removed and re-applied “with no residue”.) You can change the look of your Kindle again and again by switching from one skin design to another.

One reviewer noted that the pictures are a little misleading, since unless you turn your Kindle all the way off, its screen will revert to a screensaver picture. But I was still impressed by the many arty patterns they have available for the Kindle — including a colorful design with an ocean drawing that they’re calling “The Great Wave.”


Genuine Brown Leather Hide Tuff-Luv Western Saddle Case Cover

Leather Kindle saddle cover

This one comes with a handy stand, so you can prop up your Kindle and enjoy hands-free reading. (One Kindle owner announced in Amazon’s Kindle Discussion Forum that it was perfect for reading cookbooks.) It’s actually hand-made, according to the description in Amazon’s Kindle store. (And yes, that’s actual cow hide that it’s made from, which they describe as both “genuine” and “rugged”.) I like the western design of the case, which seems like it would give a unique, old-fashioned feeling to your Kindle of solid and sturdy craftmanship. (The case’s workmanship comes with a lifetime guarantee.)

And for $29.99, you can also give your Kindle a woven hemp cover. (It even comes with a little flap on the side which you can use for holding a pen!)


Scatter Dot BUILT Neoprene Kindle Sleeve

It’s like a comfy sock for your Kindle. (“Machine wash cold; air dry,” it says in the cover’s description on Amazon.)
Built Kindle protective cushion padded safety holder
The manufacturer is also proud of the slightly curved “hourglass” shape of the sleve, which they argue gives extra protection to the Kindle by creating a kind of cushioning “bumper.” It’s created by a company called “Built,” and they offer several other designs if you’re not interested in “Scatter Dot.” They all offer interesting patterns with arty names — like the black-and-white “Vine,” or the warm oranges and reds of “Nolita Stripe.”

And there’s even one with a series of blue, green, and black bands that’s called “Bowery Stripe and Scuba Blue.”


Ikat Choco Canvas Clutch cover by designer Diane von Furstenberg

She married (and then divorced) a German prince, and re-married a commoner in 2001. But along the way, Diane von Furstenberg built an international reputation as a fashion designer — and in April, she released a line of purse-shaped “clutches” for the Amazon Kindle.

Diane von Furstenberg Kindle purse cover with latch

There’s three patterns — the one above is “Ikat Choco,” though there’s a less-busy pattern that’s called
“Signature,” plus a soft blue one with patches of white that’s called “Spotted Cat.” There’s actually a purse-style clatch that can hold the case shut, and when it folds open, you can hold your Kindle like a book — and there’s even a pouch to hold business cards.


MLB Baseball protective Kindle skins by SkinIt

Major League Baseball sports team logo custom Kindle protective skin

Do you know a fan of major league baseball? Nearly every team has a protective Kindle skin for sale in Amazon’s Kindle store, courtesy of a company called Skinit. There’s the Minnesota Twins (pictured above), the New York Yankees, and of course, this year’s World Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants. Each one adds the familiar red stitches of a major league baseball to the front edges of your Kindle — and adds a team logo to the back, using an easily-removable vinyl skin.

The offerings aren’t just limited to baseball. SkinIt offers vinyl Kindle skins with lots of NFL Football teams, NBA basketball teams, and even NCAAF college football teams. And last month, they even began offering a Kindle skin with pictures of the vampires from Twilight — and another one with Mickey Mouse!
Twilight and Mickey Mouse Kindle picture cover

They’re sold separately, of course…!

Girl in Ghana Africa with WorldReader Amazon Kindle
in 2008, a man took his family on a tour of the world. While visiting an orphanage in South America, he asked what was behind the padlocked doors of a tin building. The answer was disturbing: it was books. In fact, it was the local library. The materials had become outdated, and the library fell into disuse.

And then he had an idea. Throughout the trip his own daughters had been reading ebooks on their digital reader. He got the idea of starting a charity with one simple goal: to use ebook technology to “put a library of books within reach of every family on the planet”. He named it World Reader.org — and today on Facebook, Amazon posted pictures of their successful mission in Africa.

Two boys in Ghana Africa with WorldReader Amazon Kindle

Someday the group hopes to reach out to the entire world, but they’re starting in Africa where they feel they can have the most impact.


If someone asks you to go hand out 440 e-readers, you might think that after, say 100, it could start to feel mundane. On the contrary, every single time we handed a student an e-reader, it was as if we were handing someone raw power…


The 440 Kindles were filled with books of local interest and literary classics, and the workers seem to be filled with new hope. They’d seen how cellphones overcame the need for land lines in the developing world, according to their web page, and now firmly believe that digital readers “will become the easiest, least expensive, and most reliable way to deliver books to under-served areas and under-privileged peoples.” They chose Amazon’s Kindle as the best device for their project (partly because it has global connectivity to a wireless network). And now even children in a remote village in Africa can join in that big global conversation which passes from generation to generation.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Amazon posted an announcement about it on their Facebook page, and in Georgia, one of the first people to see it posted a response. “Maybe a silly question, but I’m going to ask it anyway — do they have electricity so they can charge them?” But on the internet, the charity workers are already offering up answers on their web page about Africa. “Mobile phones have helped pave the way for electricity even in remote locations, and, happily, e-readers consume relatively little power…”

And where there wasn’t electricity — for example, in a pilot program in Ghana — they’d partner with other organizations to install a solar cell, plus a satellite for internet access. Back on Facebook, another woman in Rhode Island added, “Hope they don’t make it to the black market.” But theft hasn’t been a problem, the web page explains. And the optimism continues.

I love the way that distance starts becoming irrelevant thanks to some simple, everyday technology. The group is thrilled that they can eliminate the cost of shipping these books — and that ebooks are often cheaper than printed books. And back in America, nearly a thousand people clicked Facebook’s “like” icon for the news of their mission, while another 140 left supportive comments.

A Christmas Carol original book cover illustration
Some of the greatest authors in history have written Christmas stories — and they’re all available for free in Amazon’s Kindle store!


The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen

A Charlie Brown Christmas was partly inspired by this fairy tale. Lee Mendelson, who was asked to help write a script for the TV show, remembered the previous Christmas when he’d read this story to his children. It’s the story of Christmas from the tree’s perspective — a little fir tree that “was not happy, it wished so much to be tall like its companions…

“Sometimes the children would bring a large basket of raspberries or strawberries, wreathed on a straw, and seat themselves near the fir-tree, and say, ‘Is it not a pretty little tree?’…”

It’s fun to peek in on a Christmas in 1844 — even as the tree anticipates a long journey from the woods into a celebrating home. Like many fairy tales, there’s a bittersweet ending — but it’s a story you’ll never forget.


Old Christmas by Washington Irving

He was America’s first internationally popular author, and he wrote two timeless stories — Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But he also fathered many of our Christmas traditions. At the age of 29, when he was starting his career in 1812, Irving added five nostalgic Christmas stories to a collection of writing, and for one dream sequence, imagined what would happen if St. Nicholas flew over the forests in a flying sleigh. That’s believed to have inspired many of the subsequent stories about Santa Claus and his flying reindeer!

And the stories had an even greater impact. Irving also researched holiday traditions as far back as 1652, and according to Wikipedia, and his popular stories “contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.” Even Charles Dickens himself said that Irving’s stories influenced his own famous novella, A Christmas Carol.


A Christmas Carol by Charlies Dickens

It’s not just a story about Christmas. It’s partly responsible for the way that way celebrate it. The story by 31-year-old Charles Dickens “was one of the single greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England,” according to Wikipedia, which notes it was published just as new customs were established like tree-decorating and Christmas cards. The book helped to popularize these traditions, though ironically, the story was immediately pirated after Dickens published it, and he realized almost no profits from the story himself!

I’ve enjoyed the way Charles Dickens writes, with simple yet very moving stories — and I’m not the only one. On Amazon’s list of the best-selling free ebooks, A Christmas Carol is currently #11. And interestingly, it turns out that Charles Dickens followed this up with even more Christmas stories — including The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

All there stories are available for free in Amazon’s Kindle store.


A Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore

Here’s something fun to download: the original text of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (One historian called it “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” according to Wikipedia.) But you can only find the free ebook if you search on its original title — “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. If you search for its first line — “Twas the Night Before Christmas” — Amazon’s Kindle Store will only show paid versions

There’s some interesting trivia about this story. In its first printing in 1823, Santa’s reindeer were named “Dunder” and “Blixem,” which are the Dutch words for “thunder” and “lightning.” But over the years their names changed into the more familiar-sounding “Donner” and “Blitzen”!


Christmas Eve by Robert Browning

He’s one of the most famous poets of the 19th century — and he in 1850 wrote a stark but thoughtful poem about visiting St. Peter’s church in Rome. It ultimately turns into a discussion about the nature of faith, but it was the first poem he published after his marriage, according to Wikipedia, and gives rare hints about the famous poet’s own religious views. One reviewer on Amazon described it as “A strange flighty trek in and out of trances and chapels to see rainbows and versions of God.” But another reader complained that they’d found it difficult to even read the poem, because the ebook wasn’t formatted properly.

“Who in their right mind eliminates line breaks and thinks they can get away with it?”

Amazon office building in Seattle

Last week I asked what happens when Amazon acquires the same massive negotiating power as the major chain bookstores? But it turns out we may already know the answer.

I just took a closer look at Boston Review‘s 4,500-word article about “Books after Amazon.” It’s got insider interviews, honest statistics, and the real details of a war that’s been going on for decades. It begins with estimates that 75% of America’s online book purchases now happen through Amazon.com — but then reports that for some publishers, Amazon is actually responsible for more than half of all their sales. “Amazon is indisputably the king of books,” the article notes, before citing an independent book publisher asking a very important question: “what kind of king they’re going to be…”

Kindle owners may be the ones most affected by Amazon’s success — and this article apparently reveals two of Amazon’s dirtiest secrets. “Most customers aren’t aware that the personalized book recommendations they receive are a result of paid promotions, not just purchase-derived data.” And behind-the-scenes, while you’re watching Amazon.com — Amazon’s price tags are also watching you! “Individual customers may get different discounts on the same book depending on their purchase history…”

But there’s also a fascinating discussion about how the prices of books are set. As Amazon grew, it pushed up the chain bookstores’ standard discount to 52–55 percent, “with some as high as 60 percent.” This sounds like a good thing, but there may also be a dark side. The article cites a 2004 article in Publisher’s Weekly that accused Amazon of demanding high discounts from book publishers with the threat of, among other things, making their books less likely to appear in customer searches.

Two publishers even reported that their books did, in fact, disappear altogether from Amazon.com, simply because they’d refused to offer extra discounts when Amazon sold the books! One publisher actually remembers that when he’d told Amazon he couldn’t afford to participate, Amazon’s employees told him he “couldn’t afford not to.” The second publisher’s books eventually returned without agreeing to the discounts — after he threatened to contact The New York Times. “Nonetheless, cases of disappearance continue,” Boston Review reports.

In some cases, a book’s “Buy” button apparently disappears from its web pages at Amazon.com! “In 2008 two huge British publishers — Bloomsbury and Hachette — had their buttons pulled,” the article notes. “That same year, Amazon also removed buy buttons from any print-on-demand publisher that didn’t use Amazon’s on demand printer…a move that led to an antitrust lawsuit in which Amazon agreed to pay a settlement to a competitor, though it admitted no wrongdoing.” And the article also cites an incident last year where Amazon’s ranking system stopped including “hundreds of gay- and lesbian-themed books”.

But the article finally works its way around to the million-dollar question: how is Amazon setting the prices of ebooks? Amazon initially demanded that all publishers price their books at $9.99 — without
consulting them first, choosing simply to “absorb the loss, paying publishers for the price of the equivalent printed book in order to make the deal more appealing. ” But to this day, “Amazon remains in control, using its algorithms to set the price of e-books.” The article also notes the tense negotiation over control of the pricing of Macmillan books, with Amazon temporarily de-listing every Macmillan book from its store. “It and a handful of other large publishers have taken over pricing of their own e-books,” Boston Review points out, “But smaller houses have not been so lucky.”

There’s also a prophetic description of a 2009 price war between Amazon, Walmart, and Target, in which hardcover best-sellers — generally sold for between $25 and $35 — were sold for less than $9.00 Eventually the U.S. Department of Justice received an angry letter from the American Bookseller’s Association over “illegal predatory pricing,” and it included a dire warning from author John Grisham’s agent. “If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over.” But the Justice Department never issued a formal reply.

Coincidentally, $10 is now Amazon’s standard price for a new ebook. But one San Francisco book publisher tells Boston Review that Amazon can’t continue to sell these ebooks at a loss, warning “Eventually, they’re going to change their minds on this…” And at that point, it may not be Kindle owners who take a hit — but the publishers who are trying to sell their books at Amazon.com

“They’re going to keep that e-book price where it is. They’re going to turn around and say to the publishers, ‘Tough’.”

I’ve given this a lot of thought. Someone in your life loves their Kindle — and now it’s that special time of year when you want to give them a gift. Unfortunately, this year’s popular gift item is the Kindle — and they have one already! What can you give them besides a Kindle that will make their eyes light with excitement?

For starters, how about a big stack of Kindle ebooks?

Gift Cards and Gift Certificates
Amazon sells pre-paid gift cards for Kindle purchases — and you can even get one with a holiday picture!

More Amazon Christmas gift certificate pictures for the Kindle or Facebook

There’s also card designs that say Happy New Years or Happy Holidays — plus over 100 other designs for special occasions throughout the year.

Amazon Christmas gift certificate pictures for Facebook or the Kindle

For last-minute gifts, you can even e-mail an official Amazon gift certificate instead. (Or, if you’ve got a Facebook account, send it as a Facebook e-mail instead…)

Decorative Covers
Some of these are really gorgeous. There’s a whole line by fashion design Kate Spade — including some stitched canvas covers that make your Kindle look like an actual book! (You even hold it in your hands like a book, folding open its top cover to reveal the Kindle’s screen…)

Kate Spade Great Gatsby Kindle book cover

And M-Edge has created a line of three different covers designed to look like The New Yorker magazine.

Kindle New Yorker magazine case cover

Or for a more practical gift, M-Edge also sell a Kindle “Guardian Case” which is waterproof. According to the product’s description, it will even float on the surface of the water, finally making it possible to read your Kindle in the bathtub, and one reviewer posted about reading their Kindle while relaxing in a swimming pool. (“I daresay I even used it as paddle on one occasion when my raft drifted too far from the boat!”)

Rubber Protectors
Of course, there’s lots of other decorative skins. Just five weeks ago, a new Marware product line appeared in Amazon’s Kindle Accessories Store: colorful rubber “skins” that wrap around a Kindle. The sturdy padding is technically referred to as a “fitted silicone case,” and it protects your Kindle from chipping if it falls to a hard surface. And, according to at least one reviewer on Amazon, it can also make your Kindle easier to grip.

Pink Kindle skin gift cover

There’s seven different colors to choose from, including black, white, and graphite — matching the colors of Kindles — but also pink, red, blue, and “frosted”. And best of all, they’re all available for under $20.

Of course, if you want to offer someone the ultimate protection for their Kindle — buy their Kindle a two-year extended warranty!

Reading Light
They own a Kindle — but do they own a Kandle? These cute, battery-powered reading lamps fit over the top of a Kindle. It’s currently Amazon’s best-selling reading light for the Kindle — but perhaps the best testimonial comes from an Amazon reviewer who’d been keeping his bedroom lamp on to read his Kindle — only to discover this was infuriating his wife!


“I’m going to smash your new toy!” she growled one morning with the force of crossed gods and dying suns. A chill swept over the planet. Birds stopped singing. Children paused in playgrounds.

“Enter the Kandle. Now I can read in bed (my favorite place in the house) with barely any light spilling over onto my wife’s eyelids… No more threats against the Kindle or me.”




Kandle reading lamp light for Amazon Kindle

Ebooks
In November, Amazon introduced a brand new feature for the Kindle: the ability to “gift” someone with the book of your choice. Unfortunately, the ebook doesn’t actually appear on their Kindle — Amazon just sends along an e-mail announcing that the ebook’s now available and that it’s already been pre-purchased — so this only works as a Christmas gift if your intended recipient is checking their e-mail on Christmas Day. But I still think it’s an exciting gift, because it’s a completely new way that you can surprise the Kindle lover in your life.

Joke Gifts
I’ve always thought this was a great idea. Why not gift a Kindle owner with an ebook that they don’t want. When the Kindle lover in your life declines the ebook, Amazon automatically credits their account with that ebook’s original purchase price — meaning that it’s really just an ebook gift certificate, in the form of a very unappreciated book! My suggestion for the gag gift? A Kindle ebook that’s all about the Nook — like “Nook Survival Guide – Step-by-Step User Guide for the Nook eReader.”

And of course, don’t overlook the most spectacular gift idea of all for your Kindle-loving friends. If you’ve got the money, you could always buy them another Kindle! If they’ve got the Kindle 3G, get them a $139 Kindle WiFi, so they can enjoy their reading on a Kindle that’s even lighter. Or, buy them an international Kindle Dx, so that they can enjoy its even bigger 9.7-inch screen.

After all, if they’ve already got a Kindle — then you know it’s a gift that they’ll really enjoy…

Digital Publishing vs. the Gutenberg press

I remember a fascinating article. Three years ago, a legendary magazine editor tracked down 10 professional authors, and asked them a simple question: “Is the net good for writers?”

“Over a billion people can deliver their text to a very broad public,” he wrote at the time — but how does it affect those people who actually sell their writing for a living? “Writing as a special talent became obsolete in the 19th century,” one writer had told him in 2002. “The bottleneck was publishing…”

With the popularity of the Kindle, it’s an even better question, since writers are not just competing with the internet, but with the self-published ebooks of amateurs. Author Erik Davis (also a writer for Wired, Bookforum, and The Village Voice) had remembered that in the mid-90s, “I got paid pretty good for a youngster — generally much better than I get paid now, when my career sometimes looks more and more like a hobby…” But he also noted that his career is “less driven by external measures of what a ‘successful’ writing career looks like,” and he’d enjoyed spending his time writing about off-beat topics like mystical and counter-cultural threads in both technology and the media.

But he also thinks technology is changing the kinds of things we end up reading, creating a bigger demand for smaller articles — and a much bigger market for “opinion”. And author Mark Dery, author of Cyberculture at the End of the Century, also seemed to agree about the shorter article sizes, complaining that today, “information overload and time famine encourage a sort of flat, depthless style, indebted to online blurblets, that’s spreading like kudzu across the landscape of American prose.” Yes, things are more democratic now, Dery believes, but that’s brought good changes as well as bad.

“Skimming reader comments on Amazon, I never cease to be amazed by the arcane expertise lurking in the crowd; somebody, somewhere, knows everything about something, no matter how mind-twistingly obscure. But this sea change — and it’s an extraordinary one — is counterbalanced by the unhappy fact that off-the-shelf blogware and the comment thread make everyone a critic or, more accurately, make everyone think they’re a critic, to a minus effect.

We’re drowning in yak, and it’s getting harder and harder to hear the insightful voices through all the media cacophony. Oscar Wilde would be just another forlorn blogger out on the media asteroid belt in our day, constantly checking his SiteMeter’s Average Hits Per Day and Average Visit Length.”

Dery’s ultimate conclusion? In these complicated and chaotic times, “the future of writing and reading is deeply uncertain.” And some of his thoughts were echoed by Adam Parfrey, the publisher at Feral House books (and the author of Apocalypse Culture). “I like the internet and computers for their ability to make writers of nearly everyone,” Parfrey writes. “I don’t like the internet and computers for their ability to make sloppy and thoughtless writers of nearly everyone.”

But at the end of the day, Parfrey seems to reach a more positive view. “Overall, it’s an exciting world,” he writes. “I’m glad to be alive at this time.”

If I could, I’d print out the article and send it in a time capsule to the year 2110 — since each author had an interesting but subtly different perspective. Douglas Rushkoff wrote that “The book industry isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t blame that on the internet. It’s really the fault of media conglomeration. Authors are no longer respected in the same way, books are treated more like magazines with firm expiration dates, and writers who simply write really well don’t get deals as quickly as disgraced celebrities or get-rich-quick gurus…”

And John Shirley, author of The Eclipse Trilogy, noted that in today’s book publishing industry, “Editors are no longer permitted to make decisions on their own. They must consult marketing departments before buying a book. Book production has become ever more like television production: subordinate to trendiness, and the anxiety of executives.”

But Shirley also added that “in my opinion this is partly because a generation intellectually concussed by the impact of the internet and other hyperactive, attention-deficit media, is assumed, probably rightly, to want superficial reading.” And he wasn’t the only author who had unkind thoughts for technology itself. Michael Simmons, a former editor for The National Lampoon, wrote “We’re a planet of marks getting our bank accounts skimmed by Bill Gates and Steven Jobs… Furthermore, I get nauseous thinking of the days, weeks, months I’ve spent on the phone with tech support.”

It’s one of the meatiest articles I’ve ever read about writing, publishing, and the state of the modern author. But having said that, I still thought that Edward Champion had perhaps the ultimate comeback.

“If the internet was committing some kind of cultural genocide for any piece of writing that was over twenty pages, why then has the number of books published increased over the past fifteen years?”

Kindles in the Comics

December 1, 2010

Newspaper comic strip characters Frank and Ernest react to the Amazon Kindle

In October, the Kindle actually appeared in a newspaper comic strip — the one-panel classic “Ziggy”. (A bewildered Ziggy complains that his Kindle is now receiving spam advertisements — from the public library.) It was a milestone — of sorts. But it turns out that the Kindle has also appeared in several other newspaper comic strips.

In fact, just four weeks ago, the Kindle turned up in “Frank and Ernest”. The pair is watching Hawaii Five-O, but since it’s the new version, detective McGarrett’s trademark line has been changed from “Book ’em, Danno,” to… “Kindle ’em, Danno.”

And the Kindle actually appeared for a whole week in the comic strip “Crankshaft.” (At first the curmudgeonly bus driver misunderstands the name Kindle, and says “You shouldn’t have wasted your money… I still haven’t burned all the pine cones yet.”) But in touching a moment, his girlfriend explains that he can finally read all the Tarzan books that he never got to read as a kid. And apparently his Kindle has a magical feature that’s apparently available only in the comic book universe. His girlfriend explains that “If you press here while you’re reading your Tarzan books, it emits a musty book smell.”

There is one mistake in the comic strip. The series end with Crankshaft announcing later that he’s downloading 60 years worth of Reader’s Digest. Then he says “Don’t wait up” — and heads into the bathroom.
In real life, it’s not possible to download back issues of Reader’s Digest, as far as I can tell (though it is possible to subscribe to the magazine). But one part of the comic strip is gloriously true. Not only can you read the original Tarzan books on your Kindle — every single one of them is absolutely free.

Tarzan of the Apes
Return of Tarzan
`Beasts of Tarzan
Tarzan the Terrible
Son of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
Jungle Tales of Tarzan

Bloggers were impressed that even the cranky bus driver was enjoying his Kindle. “It’s mainstream now for sure,” wrote a blogger at BookChase — though he immediately received a follow-up comment that wondered whether the bus driver had really overcome his technophobia.

“And then he discovers that the battery occasionally needs to be recharged, and that’ll be the end of that.”

Target store logo

Want to know the dirty secrets of the book publishing industry? Boston Review just published a shocking but very well-researched article that seems to finally lay it all out.

The article starts with some disturbing bookstore history. During the 1970s and the 1980s, new independent bookstores continued appearing, but “this trend came to a halt when chain superstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders began taking over in the late ’80s.” Over the next 20 years, the number of independent bookstores dropped from 6,000 to 2,200, which the author blames on their ability to negotiate bigger discounts from book publishers. In a fight for the future of the bookstore, the American Bookseller’s Association even filed two lawsuits — one in 1994 and a second one in 1997.

“In 2001 this lawsuit, too, was settled, on the condition that a large amount of the evidence the ABA had collected against the chain stores be destroyed,” the article reports. It seems a little ironic that the chain stores beat the local stores by drastically discounting their books — only to face the threat of even cheaper competition today from the ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle store. But this episode reveals another big way that chain bookstores changed the book industry. Now publishers earmark about 4% of their net revenue to pay for special promotions within chain bookstores, including special price discounts and prime placement at the front of the bookstore (which apparently retails for $20,000 for a two-week display).

Smaller publishers are hurt, since they can’t compete with large promotional budgets — and that’s only the beginning, according to the article. Now large retailers “weigh in on everything from book covers to sample chapters of manuscripts,” and “In some cases, retailers even demand changes.” Am I reading that right? Is Target calling the shots in what’s appearing in our books? The article cites information from an editor at “a major publishing house, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of employer sanctions.” And he reveals that yes, frequently there’s representatives from Target, Borders, and Barnes and Noble when potential books are discussed.

“Without their buy-in, the publisher is unlikely to go forward with a book,” the article reports. “Ideas that excite [independent book stores] might be scrapped if they don’t get a chain’s stamp of approval.” What’s disturbing about this is that’s ultimately also affecting shoppers at Amazon.com. Amazon can only sell printed books after print publishers make them available. But if Target gets a veto on which books are printed, then Amazon will never get a chance to sell them.

At first it seems like we should be cheering for Amazon’s Kindle Store. Anyone can self-publish an ebook — so isn’t that a positive development? Yes, in the sense that unlike a bookstore, Amazon stocks every book that a publisher sells. The only question now is: what happens when Amazon acquires the same massive negotiating power as the major chain bookstores?

Will they ultimately use their newfound power for good, or for evil?

John Lennon record mp3 album cover - Power to the People
Who says nothing’s free in this world? I just found out that Amazon’s giving away $3.00 worth of free mp3 downloads from their online music store. And they’re also making the offer even sweeter – by selling entire mp3 albums for just $1.99! It’s a great chance to stock up on music if you’re looking for background music for reading on your Kindle.

For example, they’re selling Pink Floyd’s famous album, Dark Side of the Moon for just $1.99. (According to Wikipedia, it stayed on the best-seller charts longer than any album in history, for more than 14 years – from 1973 to 1988!) Amazon’s also discounted a few new releases, like the band Weezer’s new album, Hurley. And Amazon’s also selling $1.99 albums by John Lennon, Lady Gaga, Spoon, John Mayer, and Robert Plant — and several other artists.

“At least some of these (including John Mayer and Pink Floyd) are on sale today only,” warns C|Net, “but they’ll be replaced tomorrow with at least five more $1.99 albums.” So how do you claim Amazon’s $3.00 gift certified for mp3 downloads? Just click on this link, and enter the code GET3MP3S.

Although I have a confession to make. The first mp3 I downloaded was the theme from Amazon’s Kindle commercial! (“Silver moons and paper chains, faded maps and shiny things…”) I’ve always loved the bouncy song by “Little & Ashley” — and it turns out the mp3 offers a much longer version of the song. By the third verse, there’s a trombone part, and there’s also an unexpected bridge with even more enthusiastic lyrics. Although like the rest of the song, it’s hard to tell if the singer is singing them to her boyfriend, or to her beloved Kindle.

“Can hardly think what life was like
before I had you by my side.

Can’t say what I’d do without you
knowing what it’s like to have you…”

The Best Thanksgiving eBooks

November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving Curious George book and Kindle ebook cover

Thanksgiving’s almost here!

If you’re traveling for the holiday – or just have some extra time to relax — I’ve picked out a few Thanksgiving-related ebooks. With all the excitement around Amazon’s big Black Friday deal — $89 for the Kindle 2 — I’m already feeling grateful… that I own a Kindle already!

Here’s some of the best ebooks — in different categories — that I found for Thanksgiving in Amazon’s Kindle Store.


The Best Romance
“Thanksgiving” by Janet Evanovich

Best-selling author Janet Evanovich wrote several funny mystery novels — but she actually began her career writing romance novels at the age of 45. One of her first books was “Thanksgiving,” written in 1988, describing how overworked Megan Murphy meets a good-looking doctor at historic Williamsburg, Virginia. (Megan’s enjoying a cup of hot cider and two sugar cookies from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop when she discovers the doctor’s giant pet rabbit is eating a hole through her skirt!)

According to the book’s description on Amazon, “she meant to give its careless owner a piece of her mind, but Dr. Patrick Hunter was too attractive to stay mad at for long,” and soon “the two are making Thanksgiving dinner for their families.” And 12 different Amazon’s reviewers gave it five-star reviews, including one who wrote that “If you’ve enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, you’re going to get a kick out of her stories for the Loveswept Romance imprint…”


The Best Cookbook
Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers

Perdue Farms sells over $4.6 billion worth of poultry every year, and for eight years, Rick Rodgers was their media spokesman. He traveled the country giving classes, according to Amazon’s description of the book, and delivers “everything, absolutely everything, you would want to know about buying, thawing, prepping, and roasting a turkey.

“You needn’t look any further. There’s a long question-and-answer-style section that anticipates any questions you might have. Then it’s right on to everything from Perfect Roast Turkey with Best-Ever Gravy to Holiday Meatball Lasagna.” And in addition, there’s lots of recipes for stuffings, side dishes, appetizers, and even leftovers. 29 of the book’s 34 reviewers on Amazon gave it five stars, while the other five
awarded it four. It’s a classic — Amazon’s first review of the book was written in 1998 — but even today, it’s become one of Amazon’s best-selling holiday cooking books.


The Best History Book
On Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford

Who better to tell the story of Thanksgiving than the pilgrims who lived through it? (My favorite chapter was the one about the very non-Puritan antics of Thomas Morton…) William Bradford began writing his history of America’s most famous pilgrims back in 1630 (according to my anthology of American literature), and he continued chronicling their life up to 1647. But the invaluable manuscript was never published in his lifetime, and after Bradford’s death, his family passed it down through the generations.

The precious unpublished memoir traveled its own complicated journey, down through Boston’s Old South Church, and eventually even back to England. Finally it was published in 1856 — a full 200 years after it was written. And now today, thanks to the Kindle, we can take peek into the lives of the very pilgrims who first started celebrating Thanksgiving.


The Best Children’s Book
Happy Thanksgiving, Curious George

Just 12 weeks ago, a new Curious George book appeared, and this one has a special surprise. Yes, you may have read other children’s books about the playful and accident-prone monkey… But this one rhymes!


George wakes up in the morning.
Something smells quite nice.
He knows for sure he wants some —
A piece, a smidge, a slice.

He rushes to the kitchen
and there he sees the man —
with yellow hat an apron,
A turkey in the pan.

The turkey’s in the oven.
It takes some time to cook.
But every now and then
George can’t help but take a look….

Uh-oh, I bet there’s going to be trouble.

Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!

It’s true! Amazon just announced they’ll sell Kindle 2’s for $89 on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving!)

A few minutes ago, they snuck the announcement onto their Facebook page for the Kindle, and confirmed it on their Twitter feed. I’d thought it was just a rumor, but here’s the complete text from Facebook of what Amazon announced!

Black Friday Deal: This Friday, 11/26, you can get our previous generation Kindle for $89!

Our previous generation Kindle uses the old E Ink technology (the same E Ink as in the current Nook). Our all-new Kindle uses the latest generation E Ink (Pearl) for 50% better contrast, and is available at the everyday low price of …$139.

Black Friday Deal: This Friday, 11/26, you can get our previous generation Kindle for $89! Our previous generation Kindle uses the old E Ink technology (the same E Ink as in the current Nook). Our all-new Kindle uses the latest generation E Ink (Pearl) for 50% better contrast, and is available at the everyday low price of ...$139.

Amazon included a link to Amazon’s Kindle page, though it points to the newest $139 Kindle rather than the earlier edition that they’re selling for $89. But within an hour, over 100 people had clicked the Facebook button to indicate that they “Liked” the news — and 47 of them left enthusiastic comments.

And then Amazon added a comment themselves with a crucial “buying window” for their special offer.

“Hi Everyone. This deal will be featured in the Lightning Deals section of our Black Friday page, beginning at 9am PT on 11/26. Here’s a link to the page: http://amzn.to/heVUFX

There’s no Kindle on that page yet, but presumably it will be updated right at 9 a.m. on Friday. Later in the day they actually deleted that comment, but they did add another one to encourage their prospective buyers.

“Please note that all second generation Kindles offered through the Lightning Deal on Black Friday will be new devices – not refurbished.”

And in case you missed it, I’ve also just discovered today that an Amazon blogger has “leaked” a calendar showing exactly when Amazon’s short-term special deals will appear online! I see movies for just $1.99 on Wednesday, including Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Identity. In a post (titled “We’re leaking”), Amazon’s “Armchair Commentary” blog revealed the link, adding that “In addition to the doorbusters below, you’ll find over 2,700 titles at up to 70% off during our Black Friday Week deals…”

Turkey reading a book
I’m trying to get into holiday spirit – and I was really touched Monday by a story about a stroke victim who was re-learning how to read using a Kindle…

61-year-old Tom Calteux was a former photo editor at a Milwaukee newspaper, but at the age of 49 — 12 years ago — the stroke took his ability to read. He’s spent over a decade in therapy, and “When he had trouble, you could see tears develop,” remember one of the pathologists. She reports that now using the Kindle has been “uplifting” — both emotionally and psychologically — and an Amazon representative confirms that there are “a number of stories about stroke patients across the country using Kindles to help with their reading.

I guess I felt like I should take a moment this year to be thankful — and to think about all those people, somewhere around us, who are very thankful for their Kindles.

* Thanksgiving always holds a special meaning for the families of soldiers who are stationed overseas. And some of those soldiers are now reading on their Kindles, according to stories being shared on the Kindle online discussion forums. Author Edward C. Patterson organized “Operation eBook Drop” in 2009, in which authors agreed to provide free ebook coupons to “any deployed Coalition Armed Forces member with a Kindle.”

In a little more than a year, they’ve now distributed over 440,000 coupons to the soldiers for at least 2,000 different ebooks which were contributed by over 522 authors. And earlier this month, they received a thank-you e-mail from a medical sergeant named Dakotah Hayes. “This means so very much to myself and my entire team… This is our job and we do it because we enjoy helping others at home and over seas, so to receive even a word of thanks is more than we could ever want. Thank you for your support and your generous gifts.”

* Two optometrists in Texas write a web blog about optometry, and report that Amazon’s Kindle “holds a lot of promise” for people with serious eye conditions, including glaucoma, macular degeneration, and retinitis pigmentosa. Last year one of the eye doctors told Publisher’s Weekly that “Numerous people contact me about it — some are legally blind, some have a hard time seeing…” The Kindle can obviously convert any text into an instant large-print book, but its screen may be even better, because “contrast and brightness are very important for someone with low vision.” In addition, some arthritis or MS patients have trouble even holding a book — and the Kindle’s lighter size is making it easier for them to read.

* Finally, I’ll never forget the story of a concerned mother in North Carolina who wandered into Amazon’s Kindle forum and posted “I could cry…I am so happy.” Her 14-year-old daughter had struggled in school, and never read any books for enjoyment. But one day she picked up the family’s Kindle 2 — and surprised them all by suddenly starting to read. “After hours of reading I asked what the difference was between the regular book and the Kindle. She said she would get very overwhelmed by all the words and the size of the book which would make it difficult for her to stay focused. For whatever reason putting the font size up one notch has done the trick!”

Now somewhere in America, there’s a mother who’s happy because her child finally found a way to enjoy reading, and “She hasn’t put the Kindle down since!”

Amazon's Black Friday deals

BIG UPDATE: Amazon is selling Kindles for just $89 on Black Friday! The surprise announcement came Tuesday afternoon. It’s been a very big day for Kindle news.

The same day, I discovered that an Amazon blogger has “leaked” a calendar showing exactly when Amazon’s short-term special deals will appear online! I see movies for just $1.99, including Lord of the Rings and The Bourne Identity. In a post (titled “We’re leaking”), Amazon’s “Armchair Commentary” blog revealed the link, adding that “In addition to the doorbusters below, you’ll find over 2,700 titles at up to 70% off during our Black Friday Week deals…”

And here’s more details from my original blog post. Just after midnight on Sunday, Amazon had revealed their special “Black Friday” week web page, trying to lure online shoppers with new tempting holiday deals.”You shouldn’t have to stand in a long line to get a great deal,” the web page suggests. “We’re searching for the best Black Friday deals everywhere — including deals other stores are planning — so we can meet or beat their prices and bring them to you even earlier.”

Amazon warns that there’s a limited supply for many deals, but “we’ll add new ones throughout the day, every day this week, so you can skip the long lines and still save a bundle.” There’s deals in every category — from electronics to books, and from clothes to video games. But surprisingly — at least so far — there aren’t any deals for the Kindle. Not only is the actual device being sold at full price — Amazon isn’t even advertising any special deals on ebooks. (Less than two days later, Amazon announced
their special Black Friday deal: for just $89!

On the web, there’d been hopeful rumors that Amazon might lower the price of the Kindle. Barnes and Noble will sell the Nook on Black Friday for just $99 at Best Buy, so it seemed like Amazon might want to lower the Kindle’s price to compete. (Though the Kindle was apparently selling just fine at its current price of just $139.) And if for some reason you miss their special deal on the Kindle, Amazon will also sell you a 32-inch TV screen for just $249.

There is at least one other special offer on a Kindle. Amazon is giving away a free Kindle every day to one person selected from their fans on Facebook. (Just click the “Like” button on Amazon’s Facebook page, and then supply your phone number to be entered in their giveaway.) You can also start receiving Amazon’s deal announcements on your Facebook page. And there’s also a special Twitter feed called Amazon Tech Deals.

I’m disappointed that there’s not more Kindle offerings, but I have to admit I was fascinated by an unusual new feature on Amazon’s “Black Friday week” page — their special “Black Friday Week lightning deals.” Amazon’s been doing these for a while, but this is the first big week of the holiday shopping season, so I feel they’re going to be a lot more interesting. “Lightning Deals” are only available to a limited number of purchasers, and even then for just a very short period of time. Amazon’s Black Friday page is counting down the seconds until the exact moment when each item is available for purchase. You can choose to see only items that are available now — or only new deals that are coming up — and you can even narrow the display to the specific kinds of products that are being sold.

Some of the items appear to be mystery treasure chests — instead of a picture and a product name, there’s just the words “upcoming deal” and a giant orange question mark. But it looks like Amazon wants you to guess what’s for sale, since it’s usually pretty clear from the descriptions. For example, “The Griswold family goes on vacation over and over again” suggests it just might a DVD pack of Chevy Chase’s “Vacation” movies.

Ironically, if I remember correctly, the Griswold family actually had some pretty miserable holidays. But I’m planning to avoid the holiday shopping stress altogether this Friday — and just curling up with my Kindle!


Just a few hours ago, Amazon activated their new “gifting” feature for ebooks, saying they were “thrilled” to make it even easier to share Amazon’s ebooks. “We’re making this functionality available in time for the holidays to offer an easy, stress free holiday shopping option,” Amazon explained in a press release, adding that the feature was “for anyone – not just Kindle owners.”

If you’re browsing through the Kindle store on the web, you’ll notice there’s now a new button on each book’s page — “Give as a Gift” — which appears to the right of the screen. But strangely, this button doesn’t seem to be appearing now on the book pages when you browse the Kindle Store with your Kindle! On the web, the button appears just below Amazon’s purchasing buttons (like “Buy now with 1-Click”), and clicking the “Gift” button pulls up a screen where you can add a 300-character message. Still, it would be even more useful if it included an option to delay the delivery date — say, until December 25th? — but instead, they’re delivered almost instantly. Amazon explains at the top of the page that gift notifications “are delivered to the recipient via e-mail…typically within 5 minutes.”

There also seems to be an error in the “legalese” which appears at the bottom of the page. “If this title isn’t available for your gift recipient,” it warns in tiny grey letters, “we will exchange your gift for an equivalent value Amazon.com gift card.” Er, but how could a digital ebook suddenly not be available? It’s not like they’re going to run out of copies, and have to wait for a second printing of fresh-off-the-press ebooks!

It seems like Amazon rushed this out in a hurry, to make sure it was available before the start of the holiday shopping season. And all the extra news stories will also keep people thinking about the Kindle —
right as they’re considering their big “Black Friday” purchases. On that massive shopping day after Thanksgiving, Barnes and Noble will be discounting the Nook to just $99 at Best Buy. Maybe Amazon wanted
to try to stir up some extra news coverage for the Kindle!

But mostly it’s just another way to shop in Amazon’s store, especially since you don’t have to own a Kindle in order to give an ebook as a gift — or even, to receive it! (“Kindle ebooks can be given and received by anyone with an e-mail address,” Amazon explains, noting they offer ebook-reading apps for nearly every operating system and smartphone.) In Amazon’s Kindle forum, one user worried about receiving gift ebooks that you’re actually not interested in reading. But if that happens, Amazon has a new procedure in place where you can exchange that unwanted ebook for an Amazon gift card.

From a business perspective, this is a very smart move for Amazon, because they’ve created a whole new way to buy ebooks. And to take advantage of the new enthusiasm, Amazon has already created a special page on the web with the words “Give Kindle Books” in enormous grey and orange letters. (“Choose from over 725,000 books,” it says below the headline. “Give to anyone with an e-mail address!”) They designed the page to make the ebooks as tempting as possible, listing the best Kindle ebooks of 2010 and links to the best-sellers in several other intriguing categories. There’s Mysteries, Biographies, Science Fiction, and Romance — along with “Editor’s Picks,” New York Times bestsellers, religion, and young adult.

I’ve been reading the reactions in Amazon’s Kindle forums, and users were either excited or skeptical. One user appreciated the new features, saying some family members felt that giving a blank gift card was “too generic.” But another user complained that they wanted to disable the intrusive “gift notifications,” saying they’d already contacted Amazon’s customer support requesting the feature. And the biggest complaint is that currently, free ebooks apparently can’t be given as a gift at all. For example, though many classic works of literature are available in both free and paid editions, the “Give as a Gift” button only appears on the paid editions.

Apparently Amazon only wants you to gift those books from which Amazon will be earning a commission!

Stephen King autograph on a Kindle

“Writers will begin signing e-books,” a headline promises at the web site TechEye. Er, wait a minute — then where are the writers going to put the pen?

But it turns out there’s a new technology — and also some other possibilities that I hadn’t thought of. For example, one PR professional suggested that instead of a signature, authors at a book-signing could pose for a digital photograph with all their fans who waited in line. (And yes, you could e-mail that photograph to your Kindle, where you could then access it from your home page.) And the photos could also be uploaded to Facebook or posted on weblogs — or even uploaded to your cell phone, so it’s next to the apps where you’re reading the author’s ebook!

Of course, it’s also possible to use a pen-shaped mouse to draw a digital signature onto the photograph, so the fans could still get their autograph after all. But according to TechEye, there’s an even more interesting possibility. A developer named Tom Waters teamed up with an IT contractor for NASA to create an application called “autography,” which captures a writer’s autograph on a digital blank page so that it can be inserted directly into ebooks! This could spread a new tradition throughout the world of ebooks, according to an insider for the publishing industry who was interviewed by the web site. “Autography has initially been developed as a iPad app which works with the iBookstore, although Waters says the final service will be device and format agnostic…”

This might be a better way to handle ebooks when authors are promoting their new releases at a bookstore. (I’ve already collected several stories about fans who asked the authors to simply sign the outside of their Kindles.) Last year at a Manhattan bookstore, this happened when humorist David Sedaris was promoting a new collection of essays called “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” — and he came up with the perfect inscription. “Mr. Sedaris, in mock horror, wrote, ‘This bespells doom’,” the New York Times reported, adding that the event “may have offered a glimpse of the future.” When the Times contacted Sedaris later, the author revealed that actually, he’d already signed “at least five” different Kindles — as well as “a fair number of iPods…for audio book listeners!”

William Gibson, the famous science fiction author, also experienced the same phenomenon — during a special book-signing at the Microsoft campus. (Gibson acknowledged to the fan that this was a first, and then autographed their Kindle with big, black letters using a permanent marker.) Later, the fan discovered that William Gibson was also talking about the incident on Twitter. “Signed very first Kindle at Microsoft,” Gibson announced to his fans. “Actually, *touched* very first Kindle.

“Appealing unit, IMO,” added the science fiction writer.

Gibson’s new book ultimately became Amazon’s best-selling science fiction book in September, and it’s possible that the extra publicity helped. It’s fun to think about this as two worlds colliding — that it’s the virtual world of ebooks confronting the real-world physicality of printed books (and their authors). But while this ritual may be undergoing simple changes, it could offer hints about something larger.

One fan even confessed to the New York Times that she actually felt embarrassed as she’d approached the author, because “if you’re asking for your Kindle to be signed, you’re taking the bookstore out of the process!”

Kindles for Christmas?

November 16, 2010

Kindle giftwrapped as a Christmas gift
Is the Kindle about to explode in popularity? Yesterday the New York Times reported “great holiday expections” for e-readers. (This year Kindles are available at lower prices than they were last year — and with more places to buy them!) Last month the Kindle began appearing at Staples, and in June they’d already started turning up at Target (where a senior VP said the response was “overwhelmingly positive.”) Plus, now they’re also available at Best Buy, where the senior VP says “there’s no question that e-readers have found their rightful place in today’s digital lifestyle.”

One researcher told the Times that currently one out of every five Kindles were purchased as a gift, and because prices have come down, the Kindle should be even more popular this shopping season. (A new study by Consumer Reports finds that this year, 10% of adults plan to give a digital reader as a gift.) In fact, the Times cites a prediction that over the next six and a half weeks, the number of people who own a Kindle or other digital reading device will increase by 14%! Only nine million people have a digital reader now, according to Forrester Research statistics, but by the end of the year it’s expected to jump to 10.3 million…

Is this the moment when digital readers finally start to achieve “critical mass”? A British web site called PC Advisor has discovered that 32.8% of their audience already own a digital reader — while another 26.5% of them were interested in owning one. With 300,804 registered users, they represent one of Europe’s largest online communities, according to Wikipedia. Yet in February of 2009 (the last time they’d conducted a similar poll) just 5.2% of their audience had said they owned a digital reader, while only 11.6 percent more even said that they’d wanted one. “The combined group of interested voters, then, has rocketed from 16.8 to 59.3 percent…”

But if the the Kindle ultimately becomes the big winner, there’s also going to be a few losers. The Times cites a book researcher who predicts that we’ve finally reached the tipping-point for ebooks — which is bad news for bookstores. And the U.S. Census Bureau confirms the bad news, reporting that this year bookstores sold 7.7% fewer books in September than they’d sold just 12 months earlier — registering their lowest sales for any month in 2010. For August, sales were also lower, but the difference was just 6.5%, suggesting bookstores are continuing to lose even more customers every month. Yet in the larger economy, retail stores actually reported a 7.6% increase in sales for September — suggesting that it’s specifically just bookstores which are having trouble attracting customers!

I’ve been asking myself if the ebook revolution is real — so I tracked down new statistics from an actual book publisher. Between July and October, “Comparable store sales of new books declined 9.3%,” reports Hastings Entertainment, adding that it’s “certainly the case that electronic book readers are impacting new book sales.” I love books, but I love reading even more, so I’m glad to be here to witness this great transition. This next six weeks may prove to be that once-in-a-century change, when a new technology radically transforms our world.

We may have reached that fork in the road when the majority of book-buyers finally switches over to ebooks…

The Presidents and the Kindle

November 15, 2010

President Abraham Lincoln reading a book
I remember the day when I almost met President Clinton. He was helping a school in my town install the cables for internet access in 1996 — along with Al Gore — and I was covering the event for a local alternative newsweekly. Some of the volunteers that day wore t-shirts that said “I connected our kids to the future.” And in the teacher’s lounge, I’d found the left-behind remains of sandwich from a local deli, with the word “president” written on a plastic cover. (It was left behind under a sign which read “Your mother doesn’t work here, so clean up after yourself!”)

It was a weird moment, when I realized that when there’s a new technology, we’re all “pioneering” our way towards it together. And 14 years later, when that future finally arrived, I feel like we’d ended up doing it again, moving together as an invisible group, this time towards a new reading technology. Shortly after the inauguration of President Obama, CNN reported that former President Bush had returned to Texas, where he was “meeting the neighbors, making trips to the hardware store, and catching up on some reading via a Kindle.” That same month, former vice president Dick Cheney revealed he also had a Kindle, and a few weeks ago, even Laura Bush told an interviewer that she has one too.

But it’s not just that the Kindle is being used by a handful of White House occupants. After receiving a $7 million advance, former president Bush released his new autobiography on Tuesday. By the end of its first day — counting pre-orders — he’d sold 220,000 copies and delivered nearly $4 million in book sales. But the former president also discovered that nearly 23% of his readers were buying it as an ebook!

A new world may be emerging — an accidental community of early adopters — since the publisher’s spokesman said the figures demonstrate the “rapid growth” of the ebook market. (I calculate that that’s over half a million dollars worth of ebooks sold in a single day!) The publisher also revealed that it was their highest one-day sales in six years — since they’d published the autobiography of former president Bill Clinton. But there’s also something significant about the fact that even Clinton’s biography is now available as a Kindle ebook, along with several by Ronald Reagan, and seven books by Jimmy Carter…

And tomorrow even president Obama is releasing a new book — and has also decided to make it available on the Kindle. It’s a children’s book called Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters, and it’s got its own perspective on the way America has changed. It looks back to past presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but also ordinary citizens who made a difference, likeMartin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackie Robinson. It’s fun to think that this will be the first generation of children who may be reading these classic stories of American history on a Kindle!

The world keeps on changing, both in big ways and in small. (One political blog reported that President Bush now seems more interested in his iPad than his Kindle, and according to his wife Laura, he’s “constantly” playing the Scrabble app.) But 10 years ago, The Washington Post once reported, there was an even bigger challenge confronting ebook author Barack Obama: obscurity! “In the summer of 2000 when he flew from Chicago to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention and no one knew him, his credit card bounced, and he left after a forlorn day hanging out as an unimportant face lost in the power-lusting crowd.”

It all goes to show that a lot can change in 10 years — both for politicians, as well as the rest of us!

Ping book cover and funny Amazon review of UNIX ping
This week hundreds of users submitted fake one-star reviews throughout Amazon’s Kindle store (as a protest of high ebook prices). But there’s also a tradition of random pranksters spontaneously slipping fake reviews onto the site — simply to amuse their friends.

And some of their most famous fake reviews can still make me laugh…

1. I was as surprised as anybody that Amazon was selling a plastic bottle of “Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 Gallon, 128 fl oz.” And I was even more surprised it had received 759 five-star reviews (and a total of 1,215 reviews).

“So Tasty the Monkeys of Tuscany Weep as it’s Exported”
“Has anyone else tried pouring this stuff over dry cereal?”
“Can fight zombies.”
“Warm.”

There’s something strange going on here — the gallon of milk was priced at $160. And don’t forget to click on the “related images,” which apparently show a satisfied Tuscan customer, bicycling with a refrigerator on his back. Instead of investigating the milk itself, the reviews become miniature satires, calling attention to the absurdity of selling milk through a Seattle-based web site.

“My milk came by UPS via Amazon Super Saver shipping (great value!). Unfortunately, it arrived warm and mildly chunky. As such, I’ve had to downgrade my rating to only four stars. It’s still the best milk $700 can buy

Eventually, even The New York Times ended up writing an article about the fake reviews, noting wryly in their headline that “all of a sudden everyone’s a milk critic.”


2. It was an even stranger day when Amazon’s educational science supplies finder turned up Uranium Ore. “So glad I don’t have to buy this from Libyans in parking lots at the mall anymore,” wrote one reviewer (who awarded the product 5 stars.) “The quality of this Uranium is on par with the stuff I was bying from the Libyans over at the mall parking lot, but at half the price!”

And amazingly, 1,377 of 1,437 people found the following review helpful.

“Ok for cleaning teeth, not so great for killing ants…”

In the mix are some finely-tuned jokes about the half-life of radioactive materials. (“I purchased this product 4.47 Billion Years ago and when I opened it today, it was half empty.”) And there’s also some advice for suggested implementations. (Like “Don’t use in a teleportation device!” and “DO NOT USE AS LUBRICANT!!!”) But one user issued a warning not about the product, but about the shipping.

“I was very disappointed to have my uranium confiscated at the airport. It was a gift for my son for his birthday. Also, I’m in prison now, so that’s not good either.”


3. Over 200 different reviews have turned up for the Bic crystal ballpoint pen. (“Worked fine with my right hand, but when I came to use my left hand my writing came out looking like the work of a complete imbecile…would caution left-handers to ‘try before you buy’.”) Within 24 hours, a link to one review actually drew over 1,000 positive votes on Reddit. (“Since taking delivery of my pen I have been very happy with the quality of ink deposition on the various types of paper that I have used…”) One reviewer was delighted to discover the product, because “I have been meaning to upgrade from my HB2 pencil for some time, but I have been wary of making the jump.” But someone calling themselves “Flabbergasted” instead wrote an outraged review complaining of “Blatant false advertising…

“I ordered 300 of these individually gift wrapped for a client’s wedding and was horrified to learn 14 minutes before the reception that this is NOT REAL CRYSTAL!!!”


4. I have a personal fondness for some of the first fake reviews ever submitted. Once upon a time, back in 1995, there was a web site where random wise guys submitted alternate captions for the newspaper comic strip “The Family Circus.” It continued for over four years, until Bil Keane’s lawyers finally showed up and purged them from the internet — but the site’s contributors had also apparently slipped in some fake Amazon reviews of the cartoonist’s books. (“Since Bill Keane’s extradition from Guatemala, his work has not been the same…”) One amazed author at the literary site Feed honestly suggested the reviews were “revolutionary”, protesting the “insipid commentary” that usually clogs Amazon’s review section.

He noted Amazon had just faced a controversy about whether they were accepting bribes for listings in the staff-driven “What we’re reading” section, then suggested the fake reviews were “poetic justice.” An embarrassed Amazon quickly deleted the funny Family Circus reviews, but eventually some quotes also turned up in a Village Voice article asking the ultimate question: who’s reviewing these reviewers?

“While I agree that Daddy’s Cap Is on Backwards has its moments of drug-inspired poetry, frankly I was disappointed that Keane appears to have abandoned the thematic thread that ran through earlier classics including . . . the quintessential Don’t Bother Mommy When She’s Drinking.”


5. It’s also been more than 10 years since John E. Fracisco submitted his review of a famous children’s picture book — but it has to be considered one of the most famous, since 9,846 of 10,193 people marked his review “helpful”. The picture book tells the story of a fish-catching duck who works on Chinese fisherman’s boat — though Fracisco’s review apparently mistakes “The Story About Ping” for a manual on the UNIX operating system command for testing connection latency. But he still enthusiastically plows through his review, describing the book as “an insightful and intuitive explanation of one of Unix’s most venerable networking utilities…[though] I would have expected a more detailed overview of the ICMP packet structure.”

“Even more stunning is that they were clearly working with a very early beta of the program, as their book first appeared in 1933, years (decades!) before the operating system and network infrastructure were finalized…”

Amazon vs. The Motley Fool

November 11, 2010

The Motley Fool logo

Last week, The Motley Fool site had a harsh message for stock investors. “Is Amazon Lying To You?”

“Reading Amazon’s press releases on Kindle’s greatness is like having a discussion with a kindergartner or a politician. They all tell you what they think you want to hear in glowing superlatives, but lack the details you really need to know before drawing your own conclusion.”

But fortunately, a new study may answer their question…

To this day Amazon has never announced how many ebooks they’ve actually sold, or even how many Kindle devices! So while the Kindle is a wonderful reading device, the investment site was challenging Amazon’s vague substitute claim that their ebook sales “continue to overtake” the sale of printed books. Amazon announced that in October their ebooks outsold print books for all titles in the top 1,000. But the investment site argued Amazon’s statistic is comparing ebooks only to the most expensive of the hardcover-only, new print books. (For example, the new autobiography of President Bush is selling for $18.90 as a hardcover book — but just $9.99 as a Kindle ebook.)

The Motley Fool concludes that Amazon “appears to be trying to mislead you,” though they leave open the possibility that Amazon is even more successful that it’s letting on. “[I]f you’re the best then rest on your laurels…” they advise Amazon. “Come on, Amazon. Show us the numbers!” But in July, one analyst calculated that actually Amazon still sells twice as many printed paperbacks as they do ebooks. (And in September, citing the same analyst, MIT’s technology blog reported that e-book sales “represent ‘only six percent of the total market for new books.'”)

Fortunately, there’s some encouraging new statistics on ebook sales from the Association of American Publishers. Wednesday they announced that compared to the previous year, book publishers sold 12.1% fewer printed books this September. The sales of adult hardcover books were down 40.4% in September, while there was a 23.6% drop in the sales of adult “mass market” books. And yet, the sales of ebooks continues to increase, racking up a year-to-date sales figure that’s nearly double what it was one year ago! They’re a trade association representing over 300 publishers, and collectively they’d reported $39.9 million in ebook sales just for the month of September…

At that rate, ebook sales for the next year would come out to a whopping $478.8 million! And there’s a few other conclusions you can draw from these statistics. The Motley Fool may be right in guessing people are more likely to buy ebooks instead of expensive hardcover and mass market books. And Amazon (and Barnes and Noble) have both sold more digital readers, so it’s not surprising that their owners are now buying more ebooks, creating an increase in this year’s ebook sales.

And yet, watch what happens when you calculate the current percentage of ebook sales to all book sales. Here’s the table of all the figures they’d reported in their press release

$180.3 million for hard
$111.5 million adult paperback
$76.6 million for hardcover children’s/young adult books
$67.8 mass market sales
$53.3 million children’s/young adult (paperback)

$39.9 ebook sales

It looks like ebook sales still represent just 7.53% of all book sales. So while ebook sales could reach half a billion dollars over the next 12 years — that’s still a small fraction of the $6.3 billion dollars in total book sales!

Consumer Reports buying guide cover
There’s been some excitement in Amazon’s Kindle forum. Consumer Reports magazine just chose the Kindle as the best e-reader in an early December issue. But I discovered that there’s even more good news for Amazon. At my local bookstore, I scoured the magazine rack, and found an even more positive comparison in the Consumer Reports Electronics Buying Guide!

And the Kindle had already won high marks in their special “Best Products of the Year” issue in November. It was the Kindle — and not the Nook or the iPad — which was listed in a special section called “Great Gifts for $250 and Under.” Consumer Reports wrote enthusiastically that the Kindle “offers crisp text, fine performance, simple controls, and a pleasurable reading experience.” It was just a short blurb — but the Electronics Buying Guide offered a very detailed comparison.

It costs a whopping $10.99 for that special Winter issue — but watch out. There’s a funny typo in its section on digital readers. They warn readers that prices typically range from $1150 to $500. Er, I’ve never seen an e-reader that costs $1150!

The guide starts with a section for people who have never seen a digital reader before, but are considering whether to buy one. (The magazine gave low marks to the experience of browsing the web on all the digital readers, calling them “very limited” and “virtually unusable”.) And they also warn shoppers to “be wary” of a reader which can’t connect to a wireless 3G network. But their biggest negative comment about the Kindle is just about file formats. (“With Kindles…Word documents and photos in JPEG format must be sent to Amazon for conversion before than can be loaded.”)

You have to flip towards the back of the magazine to find their detailed comparison table, where the Kindle was ultimately declared the winner. Consumer Reports named the Kindle DX “Best for Reading Lots of Textbooks with Diagrams,” while the newer Kindle 3G won the other honor — “Best for Most People”. Ultimately the Kindle came up with an overall score of 63 (or 65, for the larger Kindle DX). In fact, the Nook came in #3, racking up a score of just 52. In the number two position was the Sony Reader, which scored a 60, or a 56 for the smaller version. (Also tested were the BeBook, the iRex, and the Alluratek Libre.)

Of all the readers that they compared, only the Kindle received their special endorsements. The Kindle DX was listed as “Recommended,” while the Kindle 3G was awarded a “Best Buy” check mark. The Kindle scored the best for “readability” — receiving the second-highest possible score of “very good” (while the Nook’s readability was a rank lower, rated as “good” — along with every other reader.) The testers defined “readability” as which device is the easiest on your eyes.

In fact, the only two categories where the Nook scored higher than the Kindle were in “file support” and “versatility” (defined as the number of features available).The Kindle also bested the Nook in ease of navigation, page turning, and responsiveness. responsiveness, The Nook’s lowest score was for responsiveness — how quickly the screen becomes functional after powering up or returning from sleep mode. The Nook received the second-lowest possible ranking there, while both versions of the Kindle scored a rank higher — a middle rating of “good.” The reviewers also noted that for some users, the Kindle’s text-to-speech features could also come in handy. (They specifically mention the sight-impaired, but if you’re taking a long car trip, the Kindle could even read to you from the passenger seat!)

It’s a big deal, because Consumer Reports has been around since 1936, and I’ve always thought of it as one of the most well-respect consumer organizations. Their annual budget for testing is $21 million, according to Wikipedia.

But ironically, you still can’t read Consumer Reports on your Kindle!

The Onion mocks the Kindle

November 8, 2010

Last week The Onion made a funny, fake announcement about the president of Amazon. “‘The Kindle Is Easier To Read In Bright Sunlight,’ Amazon CEO Shouts At Customers In Apple Store.” It’s a nod to Amazon’s war with the iPad, but the fake headline got a real rise from Twitter’s assortment of geeks, Apple fans, and Kindle lovers. The headline appeared on The Onion’s Twitter feed, which has over 2.4 million followers — and by Monday, over 100 people had “re-tweeted” the message to their own followers on Twitter.

But I discovered it wasn’t the first time the humor site had joked about the Kindle. When Amazon released the Kindle 2, The Onion was there with a quick list of its new features.

– A lot fewer dangling wires
– …is not just a hollow box with a clear plastic window that you insert books into…”

And in January, at the Consumer Electronics Show, they’d also joked that for nostalgic users, the Kindle now “signals a logging crew to cut down 10 trees for every book purchased with the device.”

Bit it’s hard to tell whether they’re making fun of Amazon’s digital reader, or if they’re secretly fans of the Kindle. For example, in July their “American Voices” segment showed the heads of three people, responding to the news that ebook sales were [almost] surpassing sales of printed books. One of them announced that he wasn’t surprised by the popularity of ebooks, because “…if you’re reading a hardcover book, strangers try to start conversations with you. If you’re reading off a Kindle, people just stare at your awesome Kindle.” And the same fake people were also there in March, ready to react to the news that Amazon had temporarily pulled all the books from Macmillan publishing house.

“Publishing house? I thought Stephen Coonts just typed all the books right into Amazon!”

In May, they even offered opinions about Amazon’s foray into the market for college textbooks. “It does make sense for students to keep all the books they’re not going to read in one device, rather than lugging a big heavy bag around.”

But interestingly, you can now buy entire ebooks with humor from The Onion. For $9.99, you can buy Homeland Insecurity: The Onion Complete News Archives, Volume 17. (“This collection features the entire archive from November 2004 to December 2005…”) In print it came out to a whopping 320 pages, but the ebook edition was just released in May — and judging by one review, now its fake news headlines are even more timely. (“Cost of Living Now Outweighs Benefits… Bankrupt U.S. Sold to China.”)

And just last month The Onion released an ebook by their columnist, Jean Teasdale. It’s called A Book of Jean’s Own!: All New Wit, Wisdom, and Wackiness from The Onion’s Beloved Humor Columnist, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek newspaper column that’s apparently written by a cheerful yet secretly unhappy housewife.

I’ve been enjoying The Onion’s skewed take on the news for over 15 years, but I have to admit that they finally got me. Reading through their fake news stories, I discovered their announcement of a new “U2 Edition” of the Kindle, which ships pre-loaded with all of the favorite books by the rock band U2. For half a second, I wondered if Amazon really had released a special Kindle edition, and I actually spent a few minutes frantically searching for it in Amazon’s Kindle store.

Zing!


And remember, you can also subscribe to The Onion on the Kindle for just $1.99.

Amazon smile logo
It’s on everybody’s Kindle — an e-mail address for contacting Amazon’s Kindle team. (It appears as one of the screensavers: “We love to hear your thoughts on the Kindle experience… send us your input at: kindle-feedback@amazon.com) But last week, something very special happened. Amazon’s Kindle team announced on their Facebook page that they’d decided to share “a few of the messages that made us smile.”

I’ve met people who are skeptical of the Kindle’s popularity — but there’s a lot of real excitement and enthusiasm. (“If my house was on fire,” wrote a user named Alberta, “I would grab my purse, my cat, and my Kindle.”) And another user named Jan reported cheerfully that “now I can read and scratch my cat’s head at the same time. I do not have to stop for page turning.” (She adds that Sam — presumably, her cat — “is happy and thinks this is the greatest invention…”)

The positive comments kept coming, although a few cited specific and practical advantages. Someone named A. Y. e-mailed Amazon to tell them that “the Kindle makes me want to read more.” And Brenda B. thanked Amazon for letting her replace printed books with ebooks. “My husband says I’ve saved his retirement fund because of all the money I’ve saved buying my books on Kindle instead of the bookstore.” (She added that without her Kindle, “I am like Linus without his blanket…)

It’s always fun to hear how other people feel about their Kindles. I tried the same experiment once — and discovered just as much enthusiasm. Last month author Elif Batuman wrote a funny article about how the Kindle lets her indulge in the books she considers guilty pleasures. (“The Kindle is wonderful for drunk people…”) All the positive stories made want to say that there’s obviously “a lot of love out there” for the Kindle.

But then I read something that was actually about love itself. Amazon shared a remarkable e-mail from a young man named Scott, telling the story of a very special night when “the Kindle was going to help me pop the question.”


I began writing down ideas and memories of our relationship and all at once, it hit me. I wrote a short story about how we met and highlighted some of the things we’ve done over the last two years. After a few weeks of writing and editing, I had a pretty solid story saved the file as a PDF, loaded in on the Kindle, and waited until our anniversary.

On the night of our two year anniversary, she opened the Kindle’s box, her face lit up and I could immediately tell that I had bought a winning gift. She was so excited to receive the Kindle, and I was so nervous knowing that I was about to propose using said Kindle. I walked her through how to use the device and then opened up the story I had written. She read the story aloud and I waited for the end of the story. As she finished reading the story, I pulled out the engagement ring’s box, opened it, an proposed.

Obviously, since I am writing this story, she said yes! We’re now planning our wedding for 2011 and I could not be happier.”

Amazon Kindle solitaire game

I was jealous. My friend bragged that in April, Barnes and Noble upgraded the Nook with the ability to play two games — chess and Sudoku. But Amazon was determined not to get left behind, and now games are appearing in Amazon’s Kindle store. In fact, four of the top 15 items on Amazon’s best-selling list are now games — and all four of them are free!

I count a total of eight games on the Kindle store’s top 100 list — there’s three more on the paid list, and a fifth free game ranked #42. And if you search through the Kindle store, it turns out there’s a lot more! Here’s a run-down of some of the best games available for the Kindle – along with some quick reviews, and a little trivia.

Tower of Hanoi
This is a classic math puzzle that was invented in 1883. It’s a very simple game, but the graphics are effective, and it’s a challenging brain teaser. Can you move all eight disks from tower one to one of the other two towers, without ever placing a disk onto one that’s smaller? Once you’ve solved it, you won’t necessarily want to play it again — especially if you know the legend behind it. The story goes that there’s a far-away temple where priests spend their lifetimes trying to find a solution — and on the day that they do, the world will end!

Minesweeper
There’s always been a free version of Minesweeper that’s built into the Kindle. (Just press the Alt and Shift keys, along with the letter M. It even words on a Kindle 1!) But fortunately, three weeks ago Amazon released an improved version of Minesweeper which has already become the second-most popular item in Amazon’s Kindle store (behind only a free novel called Deceit). One review on Amazon perfectly crystallized the dilemma now facing Kindle owners about whether to download Kindle games to appear on their home page. “I really didn’t need this – while not as addictive to me as the Kindle version of Scrabble… after playing it several times I see it as yet another thing that is going to take me away from reading…”

Sudoku
It used to be painful to play Sudoko on the original Kindle, but the five-way controller makes it much easier to enter your guesses. (The word Sudoku roughly translates to “the numbers must occur only once,” since you’re trying to determine the right location for each of the digits between one and nine — in every nine-square row, column and box.) Dell Puzzle magazines (in New York City) claims they actually published the first Sudoku puzzle — under the name “Number Place” — in 1979. According to a British newspaper, it was 1984 when the puzzle “was spotted, imitated and embraced in puzzle-obsessed Japan…where the alphabet is ill-suited to crosswords.” Eventually, an Australian who moved to Hong Kong spotted the puzzle, and then began selling his own version to newspapers in England.

Mathdoku
This variation features a smaller grid, but turns it into a tricky logic puzzle. There’s no numbers filled in, but there’s smaller rectangles which contain a mathematical clue. (For example: all the numbers add up to six.) It’s challenging, but it’s much more rewarding when you finally deduce a number. The game is also called KenKen, and was developed just six years ago by a Japanese math teacher, according to Wikipedia. “The numbers in Sudoku could be replaced with melons and you would still be able to play,” the teacher told one newspaper. “In KenKen the value of the numbers is absolutely central to the solution.”

Shuffled Row
It was released on August 2, and it’s still probably the best game available for the Kindle. (Nine letters gradually appear at the top of the screen, and you score points by selecting letters to form words — the longer the better.) It’s a word game with beat-the-clock excitement — and it’s challenging to try to beat your own high scores, both for individual words or for games. (My best word was jawlines — worth 108 points!) The game goes by fast, though I guess you could always hit the home key if you wanted more time to think. And it goes by even faster if you follow Amazon’s strategy tip: press the space key to make the next letter appear instantly!

Every Word
Released in August, “Every Word” is still #7 on Amazon’s list of “free best-sellers” list. The biggest problem with this game is it includes a lot of obscure words which you’d never be able to guess. (For example, when did “Rick” become an actual word?) This actually got the developers into some trouble, since their dictionary also apparently contained some “inappropriate” slang words. Amazon released a sanitized version on September 15, and it’s been popular ever since.

Word Morph
I was a little disappointed by a game called “Word Morph” — and another reviewer on Amazon’s web site agreed. “Although you can sort of play it on the Kindle using the Notes feature, this is NOT A KINDLE GAME!!!! This is just a puzzle book. It is not interactive in the sense of the other Kindle Games like Scrabble and Shuffled Row.” The game presents two words, and challenges you to make the first word into a new word by changing one letter. Then you continue making new words until you’ve “morphed” the first word into the second word. It turns out there’s many “possible solutions” — so I didn’t always get the satisfaction of coming up with the “right answer.” But it’s currently ranked #42 on Amazon’s list of best-selling free items.

Triple Town
It looks a little like Sim City, but with much simpler graphics. “This is a game that can be played for minutes or hours at a time,” according to the game’s page on Amazon, where it’s received 37 five-star reviews. Released just three weeks ago, it’s already ranked #21 on Amazon’s best-seller list, even though it sells for $2.99. “Overall, the game is a bit basic, which is why I only gave it 4 stars,” noted one reviewer on Amazon. “However, the graphics are quite nice, the tutorial is very clear and detailed. The game is fun and relaxing and works great on Kindle!”

Solitaire and Scrabble
Electronic Arts has been distributing computer games for nearly 30 years, and they’d finally brought their expertise to the Kindle. Solitaire was released just three weeks ago (and is currently #4 in the Kindle store), while Scrabble was released September 23 (and ranks #37). “EA Solitaire” contains 12 different versions of the popular one-player card game, and Scrabble also comes with a one-player option. Using the Kindle is such a new experience, some users may be glad to see some games that they actually recognize!

Note: Among Amazon’s free best-sellers is a book called “Games for Everybody.” It’s currently ranked #62, but it’s just instructions for playing games — and not the games themselves. “This book contains short, simple, and to the point instructions for games that can be played by children, adults and to mark special occasions…” wrote one reviewer, adding “There are also 106 games that adults can play and enjoy an evening rather than sitting around and gossiping or drinking or watching TV.” I’m a little curious about what games are in there — but honestly, I’d rather be reading!

Is Amazon misleading us about ebooks outselling printed books
Last week Amazon made another announcement with disturbing implications. Amazon revealed that their Kindle ebook sales “continue to overtake” the sale of print books on Amazon.com. But in the next few sentences, Amazon added some big disclaimers. So the truth is apparently that they’re not selling more ebooks than printed books.

Amazon issued a press release announcing that over the previous 30 days, they’d sold more Kindle ebooks than printed books “for the top 10, 25, 100, and 1,000 bestselling books on Amazon.com.” But it seems like an odd distinction, almost like they’re playing a game with the numbers. In the universe of all books sold, just how small is the piece that’s occupied by this month’s best-sellers? When you walk into a bookstore, how many of the books around you aren’t in the top 1,000? I’d guess it’s an awful lot — at least more than half.

And that points to the biggest quirk in Amazon’s calculation. Wikipedia notes that Amazon’s own list of best-sellers “tends to favor hardcover, more expensive books, where the shipping charge is a smaller percentage of the overall purchase price or is sometimes free, and which tend to be more deeply discounted than paperbacks.” In fact, best-selling books are often new books — which are first available only in hardcover editions. So Amazon isn’t talking about a typical sample of all books that are sold; instead they’re sampling an unusual subset where hardcover books are still very much over-represented.

In the real world, hardcover books represented just 23% of all books sold last year, according to Nielsen’s Bookscan service. But Amazon used this anomaly to announce that ebooks in their Kindle store were outselling all those expensive hardcover books. In July one analyst did some quick calculations based on Amazon’s other public statements, and concluded that over 70% of the books Amazon sells were still printed books. And since Amazon sells more ebooks than just about anybody, he reports that sales still remain very strong for the printed book, with Amazon’s ebook sales only representing “the equivalent of 6% of the total print book market.”

I’d publicized the analyst’s conclusions, and it ended up getting some attention from an MIT technology blog and the popular web site TechDirt. I half-wondered if Amazon’s latest press release was an attempt to address their skepticism by creating a new announcement where ebooks now seem to be finally outselling books — when they actually aren’t. After all, if Amazon really were selling more ebooks than printed books — across the board — obviously they would’ve announced that instead. (And how else could ebook sales “continue to overtake” print book sales? They’ve either passed them, or they haven’t!)

Amazon’s press release quotes Steve Kessel, the Senior Vice President for the Kindle, saying that Amazon’s ebooks “are also outselling print books for the top 25, 100, and 1,000 bestsellers — it’s across the board,” though apparently “across the board” actually means “the small portion of the board which contains expensive and pre-dominantly hardcover best-sellers.” But I also noticed their calculation specified sales to “Amazon customers” rather than “Kindle owners.” This seems to confirm reports earlier this month that 1 in 5 people buying ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle store don’t actually own a Kindle (according to a new technology survey). So Amazon may be selling more ebook versions of (expensive and pre-dominantly hardcover) best-selling books — but a lot of those are only being read on iPads and iPhones.

And Amazon also specified that their statistic was for “the last 30 days” — which could represent a one-time spike in the month after Amazon released the cheapest Kindle ever. I know I’m being cynical, but at least I’m not the only one. A reporter at Barron’s financial blog complained that Amazon’s announcement was “completely lacking in informative quantitative detail.” And a columnist at PC World notes it’s not the first time their statistics have made a strange comparison.


“Amazon has a tradition of playing these stupid mind games with the press… Amazon really took the cake for its silly numbers game last December when the company announced it had sold enough 8 gigabyte iPods during the holiday season to play 422 years of continuous music. The company also claimed it had sold enough Blu-ray disc players during the 2009 holiday sales blitz that if you lined up all the players side-by-side they would stretch for more than 27 miles. Huh?

He suggests that Amazon is guilty of foisting on the public “some random statistic that would be more at home in the Guinness Book of World Records than a quarterly sales announcement. ‘Hey look, we sold more Kindles in Q2 FY2010 than the weight of three pregnant Kenyan elephants.’ Good for you. Oh, did I mention that Amazon said it sold more Kindle books than print books for the top 10, 25, 100, and 1,000 bestselling books on Amazon.com during the past 30 days? Wonder what that actually means?

“Me, too.”

College student cap and gown

Here’s another interesting statistic: 74% of college students still prefer printed books over ebooks.

The National Association of College Stores performed a new study through their “OnCampus Research” division, contacting 627 students during the month of October. 87% of them hadn’t purchased a single ebook within the last three months. And of the ones who did, more than half of them — a whopping 56% — said their main reason was to read material that was required for a course. Plus, the study also found some bad news for the Kindle: 77% of those students who bought an ebook said they read ebooks on their laptop or Netbook. (Followed by another 30% who said they read their ebooks on a desktop computer.)

In fact, only 8% of college students even own a digital reader, according to the study. And when asked, nearly 60% of the remainder said they had no plans to buy one. (Though I guess you could read that as “more than 40% of the students” expected to buy one soon…) “We wanted to cut through all the speculation and put hard numbers to it,” said research manager Elizabeth Riddle. She announced that the college-age students are “definitely a growth opportunity for companies providing digital education products,” adding that the death of the printed book, “at least on campus, has been greatly exaggerated, and that dedicated e-readers have a way to go before they catch on…”

Publisher’s Weekly apparently contacted the authors of the study, since they reported a breakdown of the study’s results in even more detail. It shows that for those students using a dedicated reading device, the second most-popular handheld device is the iPhone, which comes in at 23.9%. But according to their report, the most popular device is still the Kindle, with a 31.4% share, split evenly between the Kindle 3 and the Kindle DX combined. The Nook comes in at 21.6%

In fact, if I’m reading those statistics correctly, there’s been an amazing spike in the popularity of the Kindle. The Kindle 3 has only been on the market for two months, and it’s already claimed as much of the market share as the earlier Kindle DX (which was released more than a year earlier!) Maybe for college students, a lower price brings a huge boost in sales. Or maybe the Kindle has more “buzz” after an extra year on the market.

But this was my favorite line of the study. “A tablet computer, such as an iPad, was the least common reading device used by students, selected by only 4% of respondents.” Out of all the ways to read an ebook, an iPad is one of the most expensive. Maybe college students are passing it over for a stack of used paperback books!

The Dark Tower book cover by Stephen King
Today the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating interview with Stephen King, asking him how he feels about the Kindle. “I think it changes the reading experience,” the best-selling author told the Journal, saying that reading on the Kindle is “a little more ephemeral.” But of course, there’s also advantages to a technologically-enhanced reader, as King discovered when he’d downloaded a 700-page book onto his Kindle for research. “It didn’t have an index, but I was able to search by key words. And that’s something no physical book can do…”

He also sees other advantages in reading ebooks. 63-year-old King recently purchased a printed edition of Faceless Killers — a 1997 mystery by Henning Mankell — only to discover that its type was too small for him to read! But he’s still one of those people who loves a physical book, and even after buying an ebook of a new historical fiction novel, he also bought a hard copy just to display it on his shelf. “I want books as objects,” he admits. “It’s crazy, but there are people who collect stamps, too.”

His love of books is understandable, since he’s sold more than 500 million books himself, according to Wikipedia, writing more than 49 different novels. And a week from Tuesday, King will publish a new collection of four stories called “Full Dark, No Stars” (where at least one story is based on a real-life murder case — the story of a woman who discovers she’s married to a serial killer!) It will be available on the Kindle for just $14.99, but King also holds the distinction of having released the first mass-market ebook, over 10 years ago. And recently, he wrote a short story with its own strange twist which was actually about a Kindle-like reading device. “It took three days, and I’ve made about $80,000.”

Click here to download that short story — UR — to your Kindle.

Stephen King is the same age as James Patterson — who just sold his one millionth ebook in Amazon’s Kindle store on Tuesday — but apparently, King’s not a fan. In December of 2008 he’d called Patterson a “terrible writer,” and once described Patterson’s work as “dopey thrillers,” according to Wikipedia — though his remarks had a larger context. King heard J. K. Rowling read his books when she was young, and asked whether that had an influence. He names two authors he’d read himself as a young man — one whose writing had a much bigger impact on his style. But then he gets detoured into discussing which successful authors he would consider to be good authors — comparing J.K. Rowling to Stephenie Meyer, and eventually weighing in on Jodi Picoult, Dean Koontz, and even Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner.

So when King finally got to James Patterson, he was basically talking in bullet points, saying Patterson “is a terrible writer but he’s very very successful. People are attracted by the stories, by the pace…” And this July, Time magazine got to ask Patterson for his response to “critics like author Stephen King, who say you’re not a great prose stylist.” His answer? “I am not a great prose stylist. I’m a storyteller. There are thousands of people who don’t like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do…”

But the literary world continues to evolve and in Friday’s interview, King reveals that now almost half of his reading time is spent on ebooks. But he still adds that it’s hard to predict the future. “People like myself who grew up with books have a prejudice towards them,” he says, suggesting that maybe there’s room for both formats. “I think a lot of critics would argue that the Kindle is the right place for a lot of books that are disposable, books that are read on the plane.

“That might include my own books, if not all, then some.”

Author James Patterson
Wednesday Amazon announced that a second author had finally sold more than one million ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle store. (By Tuesday, 63-year-old James Patterson had racked up exactly 1,005,803 in ebook sales.) “[W]e look forward to celebrating the 2 million mark in the future,” Amazon announced in a statement, noting that Amazon’s customers “have been James Patterson fans far longer than ‘Kindle’ was a word in our vernacular.” But it’s not surprising that Patterson became the second author to reach this ebook milestone…

According to Wikipedia, Patterson has already written 56 different books which were best-sellers — which got him listed in the Guinness Book of World Records — so he could conceivably reach the million-book milestone simply by selling 20,000 copies of 50 different books. Sure enough, none of his books are on Amazon’s list of the top 20 best-selling ebooks right now, and in fact, there’s only one in the top 30 — “Don’t Blink” — even though it was released less than a month ago. Looking further, only one other Patterson book made the top 100 — “The Postcard Killers,” which he co-authored with Liza Marklund — even though it was released in mid-August. It’s safe to say that there’s still no single ebook that’s ever sold more than 1,000,000 copies.

But this only confirms the fact that Patterson is one of the most successful writers alive today. Last year Forbes magazine reported he’d sold the rights to his next 17 novels for an estimated $150 million. In less than three years, he’d then write (“or co-write”) eleven books for adults and six for young adults. Although there’s a minor controversy around that statistic — and a very funny story.

The author’s lawyer once told an audience that as soon as that figure was reported, he’d received a phone call from James Patterson, demanding “Where’s my $150 million?” USA Today reported the anecdote, then contacted Patterson themselves to get the real truth. The author replied that the $150 million number “isn’t close” to his actual deal. So was that figure too high, or was it too low? “I’m not saying,” Patterson replied!

It’s important to remember that Patterson’s obviously sold more than one million ebooks, since Amazon is only counting the sales in their own Kindle store. Presumably Barnes and Noble also sold a few Patterson ebooks to their Nook customers. (And in addition, Amazon probably sold some ebooks which were read on the iPad or the Blackberry — instead of on a Kindle.) The one million figure also doesn’t count any additional free editions that may have been given away as a promotion. Amazon specified in their press release that the sales figure “refers to paid Kindle book sales.”

What’s his secret? Exciting stories. The best way to celebrate an author is probably to take a look at their work. So here’s Amazon’s product description for his newest thriller, “Don’t Blink”.

“New York’s Lombardo’s Steak House is famous for three reasons — the menu, the clientele, and now, the gruesome murder of an infamous mob lawyer. Effortlessly, the assassin slips through the police’s fingers, and his absence sparks a blaze of accusations about who ordered the hit… Seated at a nearby table, reporter Nick Daniels is conducting a once-in-a-lifetime interview with a legendary baseball bad-boy. In the chaos, he accidentally captures a key piece of evidence that lands him in the middle of an all-out war between Italian and Russian mafia forces. NYPD captains, district attorneys, mayoral candidates, media kingpins, and one shockingly beautiful magazine editor are all pushing their own agendas — on both sides of the law…”

More Sequels to Tom Sawyer?

October 27, 2010

Mark Twain, author

Recently I wrote about Mark Twain’s unfinished sequel to his great novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But I forgot to mention that he also wrote and published two more novels about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — and they’re both available in Amazon’s Kindle store as free ebooks!

When Mark Twain was 61 years old, he picked up his pen again to write Tom Sawyer, Detective. The year was 1896, and detective novels had become immensely popular in America, but Twain offered a new twist. Not only was his detective the mischievous Tom Sawyer, but the book’s narrator was the humble and uneducated Huckleberry Finn.

“The frost was working out of the ground, and out of the air, too, and it was getting closer and closer onto barefoot time every day; and next it would be marble time, and next mumbletypeg, and next tops and hoops, and next kites, and then right away it would be summer and going in a-swimming. It just makes a boy homesick to look ahead like that and see how far off summer is…”

It’s fun to see Mark Twain revisiting his famous characters. (He’d originally dreamed up Tom Sawyer using his own childhood memories, combining three boys he’d remembered, and basing Huckleberry Finn on a fourth.) “Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred,” Twain wrote in the original preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And he’d show the same sentimental attachment to his characters in his detective story.

But this time its plot came from a real-world crime. “Strange as the incidents of this story are,” Twain writes in the introduction, “they are not inventions, but facts — even to the public confession of the accused. I take them from an old-time Swedish criminal trial, change the actors, and transfer the scenes to America. I have added some details, but only a couple of them are important ones…”

Surprisingly, Twain himself was also fond of detective stories. Twenty years earlier, he and Bret Harte co-authored a play together with a story which included “a supposed murder, a false accusation and a general clearing-up of mystery,” according to this excerpt from Twain’s official biography (which is also available as a free ebook). But he was also fond of parodies. At the age of 59 Twain wrote another story about the daring young boys called Tom Sawyer, Abroad — which, according to Wikipedia, is a parody of Jules Verne’s stories.

Tom and Huck (this time, accompanied by Jim the former slave) take a wild expedition around the world in a balloon, with Huckleberry Finn doing the narrating. (“Do you reckon Tom Sawyer was satisfied after all them adventures… No, he wasn’t.”) It’s an interesting hodgepodge of Twain’s favorite themes, since his first famous book was a humorous report on his travels through Europe, The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.

But I recommend a different book if you’re looking for a deeper peek into the heart of Mark Twain. In 2002 the University of California published his unfinished sequel to Huckleberry Finn. But since it was only nine chapters long, they’d expanded the book to include his very poignant nonfiction memories of the people he’d grown up with. For example, he’d written, but never published, a remembrance of his mother, Jane Lampton Clemens. And the book also includes Twain’s personal recollections of all the people he remembered from the village where he spent his childhood between 1840 and 1843.

“Captain Robards. Flour mill. Called rich… Disappointed, wandered out into the world, and not heard of again for certain. Floating rumors at long intervals that he had been seen in South America (Lima) and other far places. Family apparently not disturbed by his absence…”

And amazingly, this book also includes fragments from two more unfinished sequels to Tom Sawyer — Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy (which at least has a finished plot), and a remarkable story called Schoolhouse Hill in which Tom, Huck and Jim actually meet the devil! Mark Twain is probably one of America’s best-loved authors. But because of that, book lovers have carefully preserved some of his most interesting lost works!



Click here to buy “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories” by Mark Twain.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin wrote Dead Love
I’m still excited about the fact that I got meet a real book author, just before her big book-signing at my neighborhood bookstore! And along the way, I got a really fascinating perspective on how the publishing world could be changed by the Kindle…

Linda Wantanabe McFerrin had just published an Anne Rice-style novel called Dead Love, about a half-zombie woman and the lovestruck ghoul who’s pursuing her. In fact, after the book-signing, she was driving down to California’s Central Valley, where the next afternoon she was planning to participate in a “zombie walk”. (Where a bunch of zombie enthusiasts, wearing costumes, collectively celebrate their enthusiasm…) But she had a strange arrangement with the bookstore, because they hadn’t yet actually stocked her book. So they let her come in and sell her own copies – just for the prestige of having an author in town!

Before the book-signing, Linda and her husband were waiting for me and my girlfriend at a local modern “Italian fusion” restaurant. We all talked for over an hour, and then walked the two blocks over to the bookstore. The crowd was moderate but enthusiastic, and they really revved up when she read from her book. Linda started her presentation with a very unusual teaser for the crowd — “Would you like me to read to you about zombie sex?” But afterwards, I got to talk to her publisher — who was also in the crowd — who also had a fascinating idea about the future of ebooks.

He suggested bookstores should install “ebook kiosks,” where their customers could browse and purchase the latest ebooks for the Kindles and other reading devices. Then the bookstores could still claim a commission for every ebook that they’d sold! I’ve given the idea a lot of thought, and I’m not sure exactly what the business model would be. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a great idea.

The truth is, I know people who are already using the bookstore as a way to browse for ebooks — which they’ll eventually go off and buy somewhere else. Sometimes they’re even making their ebook purchases from Amazon while they’re still in the bookstore! Using an iPhone app, they run a price-check in Amazon’s Kindle bookstore — and if the price is lower, the bookstore loses. The ebook kiosks could resemble those Redbox vending machines that let you rent DVDs, except with the ebooks, there’d be nothing to return!

Anyways, it’s the kind of “insider perspective” that you get when you talk to an actual book publisher during a reading by one of his authors. He’d dedicated his life to the distribution of printed stories — and he’d given a lot of thought to the health and future of bookstores. And best of all — he actually has a Kindle too! I enjoyed talking to him — and he didn’t seem curmudgeonly at all about the popularity of digital readers. Plus, I finally got to have the conversation I always wanted to have.

“I saw figures in the New York Times,” I said, “which suggested that publishers actually make more money off ebooks than they do off of printed books, because they don’t have to pay for the shipping and printing costs.”

“I saw that article too,” the publisher replied. “They seemed to be using figures for New York publishers rather than independent publishers.” But he seemed to confirm my general suspicion — that if you’re worried about the future, it’s the bookstores who are more likely to be hurt by the popularity of ebooks.

Looking back on the night, it was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. (I’d thought I would’ve asked the author for writing tricks or professional advice — but instead, we just all had a wonderfully spontaneous conversation.) Okay, I’d also had a huge mango sangria at the Italian restaurant, so I was probably a little more talkative than usual. But I figured it was a special occasion — because it’s not every day you have drinks with a passing-through author and her publisher!

Click here to buy the zombie novel “Dead Love” as an ebook!

Or click here to read our review.

Big news icon - The New York Times newspaper front page

There’s been a lot of big Kindle news over the weekend. The weirdest thing is, Amazon didn’t announce it in a press release. Instead, the posters in Amazon’s Kindle forum suddenly received a surprise visit from “the Amazon Kindle team.” It created a flurry of excitement, drawing nearly 300 responses within its first 24 hours.

“We wanted to let you know about two new features coming soon,” the post began…and yes, it turns out that it’s very big news.



First, we’re making Kindle newspapers and magazines readable on our free Kindle apps… In the coming weeks, many newspapers and magazines will be available on our Kindle apps for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch, and then we’ll be adding this functionality to Kindle for Android and our other apps down the road…

Second, later this year, we’ll be introducing lending for Kindle, a new feature that lets you loan your Kindle books to other Kindle device or Kindle app users. Each book can be lent once for a loan period of 14-days and the lender cannot read the book during the loan period.


Amazon’s Kindle team cautioned that “not all e-books will be lendable – this is solely up to the publisher or rights holder, who determines which titles are enabled for lending.” And at least one user adopted a wait-and-see approach, arguing that “the success of the Lending feature depends on the percentage of ebooks that can be lent out.” But I was more excited about how Amazon was making a big commitment to other forms of reading materials. “Our vision is Buy Once, Read Everywhere,” they added in their announcement, “and we’re excited to make this possible for Kindle periodicals in the same way that it works now for Kindle books.”

This should help Amazon attract more subscribers to the newspapers, and magazines in the Kindle store, and it might even help them start recruiting more Kindle users. (Their announcement suggested that you could read the periodicals “even if you don’t have your Kindle with you or don’t yet own a Kindle.”) Amazon promised “more details when we launch this in the coming weeks,” but I’m already really excited. I’ve been comparing all the different features on my new Kindle, and it’s got me thinking about the way the devices have evolved.

The original “Kindle 1” was a wonderful reading experience, but it was almost impossible to use it to play games. But now the Kindle is becoming a real full-featured app for other portable devices — while even the Kindle itself is getting its own games and apps! I was thinking about this when reading a review at the unofficial Kindle site, “Blog Kindle”. Electronic Arts is one of the biggest manufacturers of cool video games, and they’ve just released a slick new version of Solitaire for the Kindle.

“The quality of the game is definitely worth the money,” the blog notes, since there’s actually 12 different card games in one. According to the game’s description on Amazon, it includes “the Klondike game you know and love, as well as 11 other variants: Pyramid, Yukon, Golf, Freecell, Wasp, Peaks, Canfield, Spiderette, Eliminator, Easthaven, and Baker’s Dozen.” It’s already the best-selling game on Amazon, and in fact, it’s outselling everything in Amazon’s Kindle store. (Except a new Lee Child thriller called “Worth Dying For.”)

Along with Amazon’s announcements, it all just made me feel like the Kindle is getting even better. Amazon is adding new features, while game-makers are scurrying to develop Kindle games, and lots of unexpectedly good things have suddenly started to happen.

We’re living in interesting times…

Amazon 3Q stock chart - third quarter of 2010

It’s a special time of year — when major corporations finally reveal the secret numbers about how their companies performed over the previous 13 weeks. Yesterday Amazon released their own quarterly earnings reports, right in the middle of a week of rumors and predictions about tablet-sized reading devices. Amazon reminded investors that the newest generation of Kindles are “the fastest-selling Kindles of all time.” And they’re also the #1 best-selling product on Amazon — both in America and Britain.

“A sour economy failed to slow down Amazon.com,” reported the New York TImes, “as the company’s net sales climbed 39 percent in the third quarter.” But what’s more interesting is what they didn’t say. A financial analyst in San Francisco believes that this year, Amazon will earn a whopping $2.8 billion from their Kindles and ebook purchases, according to Bloomberg news. And within two years, that number could nearly double, to $5.3 billion in 2012!

That’d break down to the equivalent of 15 million Kindles sold in 2010, and 30 million in 2012 — though some of the profits obviously are coming from ebook sales. But what’s even more interesting is the analyst’s second comment. Kindle users “will not only continue buying more e-books, but also subscriptions, accessories, [and] hardware warranties,” he predicted, saying eventually the devices would be used to deliver music and even full-motion video. Will Amazon eventually open up new stores for Kindle music and Kindle video?

And that’s where the first rumor gets a lot more interesting. While Amazon was announcing their quarterly results, C|Net also reported that this Tuesday, Barnes and Noble will reveal a digital reader with a full-color touch-screen — the “Nook Color,” priced at $249. “It’s a big step ahead, instead of chasing Amazon,” their source explained, adding that it’d be based on Google’s popular Android operating system, and would sell for half the price of Apple’s tablet-sized iPad. It’d ship with a 7-inch color screen — which is a magic dimension size that has already been generating some controversy.

“One naturally thinks that a seven-inch screen would offer 70 percent of the benefits of a 10-inch screen,” Apple’s Steve Jobs told analysts Tuesday when announcing their own quarterly earnings. “Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. The screen measurements are diagonal, so that a seven-inch screen is only 45 percent as large as iPad’s 10-inch screen. You heard me right: just 45 percent as large…
The seven-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone, and too small to compete with an iPad.”

Jobs insisted that his comments were based on Apple’s “extensive user testing on touch interfaces over many years…we really understand this stuff.” But the truth probably lurks somewhere between the lines. Reading devices have proven to be so popular, that none of these companies want to get left behind. It’s not just that Amazon’s Kindle-related profits are probably already in the billions of dollars. It’s that selling us millions of Kindles means we’ll keep using Amazon’s store for our future purchases — of e-books today, but maybe also for music-and-video purchases in the future. So while I’m casually reading my e-books, major corporations are already fighting the war of tablet-sized reading devices.

And honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about all this speculation. I just worry that someday we’ll look back with a fond nostalgia to the Kindle 1. “It didn’t offer full-motion color video on high-definition screen,” we’ll say.

“But it was really great for reading books.”

Cover of the free ebook Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon
I’ve found a great source for free ebooks. For the last year, one publisher has been quietly handing out a new free ebook each month. Last month, it was “The Best of Roger Ebert,” a fascinating collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. Called Awake in the Dark, it included his reviews of the best films for 38 different years, plus essays on film-related topics (like the way Star Wars changed Hollywood). This month that book is retailing for $9.99, but for at least part of last month — they were giving it away for free!

So what’s this month’s novel? It won the prestigious literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (when it was first published in 1987). It’s called Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon, and its description on Amazon sounds pretty amazing. “Imagine E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime rewritten by a mellower, comically more benevolent Thomas Pynchon,” writes the Library Journal, “and you might have a novel something like this one. Real people — Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst — are involved in imagined events, and historical facts counterpoint fictional themes…” It sounds a bit like steampunk hackers — the book’s cover describes it as “hilarious” and “wonderful” — but the author himself actually moonlighted as a Professor of Applied Mechanics and Biology at Harvard University. You may have heard of Thomas McMahon, since he was also the author of McKay’s Bees, which appeared in a long segment this summer on public radio’s “All Things Considered”. (“Moving from Massachusetts to Kansas in 1855 with his new wife and a group of German carpenters, Gordon McKay is dead set on making his fortune raising bees – undaunted by Missouri border ruffians, newly-minted Darwinism, or the unsettled politics of a country on the brink of civil war.”)

And remember, that’s the free ebook for the month of October — which means there’s another free ebook coming up soon in November. You can get updates by following their Twitter feed (which, surprisingly, has less than 3,300 followers) — or through their page on Facebook. (Or, for that matter, by just re-visiting the web page where they’re listing this month’s free ebook!) That’s the funniest part about these special offers. Amazon is still listing this month’s free ebook as selling for $9.99, even though it’s free if you visit the publisher’s web site!

They’ve been doing this for over a year — their first free ebook was claimed by 800 people, according to Publisher’s Weekly. (It was an obscure book by a 3rd-century Greek writer named Censorinus…)
And in February the free ebook was actually about free ebooks — sort of. It was a Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by a Chicago professor named Adrian Johns, and they handed out 2,400 free copies before the print edition even hit the shelves! (“We enjoyed the ‘steal this book’ irony of giving away a book about piracy,” they explained to Publisher’s Weekly.)

Ironically, that ebook now sells for $19.95…

They’re transmitting more copies of their books — by several magnitudes — than the first book they ever published in 1891, which, according to Wikipedia, sold just five copies! (Apparently there was very little demand for Assyrian and Babylonian Letters Belonging to the Kouyunjik Collections of the British Museum.) I’m talking about the University of Chicago Press, which Wikipedia identifies as the largest university press in America, and also one of the oldest. They’re famous as the publishers of “The Chicago Manual of Style”, a writing guide which helps set the standards for the entire publishing industry.

It’s just celebrated its 104th anniversary, and in September, they handed out a free ebook version to 7,408 readers — of the first edition published in 1906! It’s nice to think that as the Generations come and go, its publisher has survived into the dawn of the ebook. They’re still out there, delivering high-quality reading material, supported by the resources of a major university.

And sometimes, they’re even sharing those books for free!

Judd Apatow and other celebrities who love their Kindles

I had to ask. The Kindle had finally turned up in a major Hollywood film — the Steve Carell/Tina Fey comedy Date Night. According to the movie’s summary on Wikipedia, the couple discovers a crucial clue on the drive of an abandoned Kindle. But are real-life celebrities also adopting Amazon’s reading device? I searched the web, and found some surprises…

Whoopi Goldberg
I’d transcribed a discussion on The View a few months ago when Whoopi Goldberg chatted with a celebrity who didn’t want to read her children storybooks from a Kindle. Whoopi loves her Kindle, and responded, “Very few people read the Kindle to their children. Most people still read…here’s the thing. Giant books — think about it… I used to carry 30 books when I travelled… 30 books, yeah, ’cause I read. I go on these long trips… you can carry your library with you if you go somewhere. And so I think people want to be able to do that.”

Matthew Broderick
In the 1980s he was the star of movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and successfully launched a second career as a Broadway star. But even though he’s married to Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick confessed to Allure magazine that he actually uses his Kindle to flirt! They’d asked him what his secret was, and Broderick replied that first, “I use self-deprecating humor.

“Then I bring out my Amazon Kindle and show them how it works…”

Demi Moore
It was just six years after her triumphant comeback in Charlie’s Angels II: Full Throttle when Demi Moore turned up on Twitter. And she posting about how much she enjoyed reading on her new Kindle! Back in March of 2009, Demi Moore — using the Twitter handle “Mrs. Kutcher” — posted “I love my kindle..it rocks. I actually read faster on it than in a regular book.”

The Kindle-positive updates kept coming. She later posted “Seriously I have read more in two and a half weeks on my kindle then I have in the past 3 years.” And her love affair was still going strong that August, when around 2 a.m. she posted, “going to go curl up with my kindle for a little bedtime story!”

Brent Spiner
In March of 2009, another Kindle owner also revealed himself: the actor who’d played the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Brent Spiner turned up on Twitter, where he posted enthusiastically that “I just got a Kindle. Now I can read 180 books at once. A lifelong dream.”

Cameron Diaz
She’s lounging on a beach chair in Hawaii, wearing big dark glasses and a yellow bikini. She’s draped one hand over the arm of her chair, but the other one’s clearly holding up an Amazon Kindle.

That was in May of 2009, and it confirmed something about Cameron Diaz that geek community had secretly suspected. There was a ripple of excitement when an earlier picture turned up in February of 2009 in which a Kindle was clearly visible. (Along with a MacBook Air laptop.)

Jennifer Anniston
“Who knew Jennifer had such an advanced gadget sense?” wrote the blogger at Crunch Gear, excitedly posting a scan from page 46 of a 2008 edition of Us Weekly. “Or, and I think this the more likely situation, she’s secretly dating a blogger…”

Martha Stewart
When London’s Financial Times interviewed the queen of home-making in February, she revealed that “I have 40 or so books on my Amazon Kindle.”

Stewart even graciously agreed to share her reading list with the interviewer.

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It
Eating Animals
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
The Pixar Touch

Judd Apatow
He’s not your typical trendy Los Angeles personality, since he’s more famous as a director and a producer. But the man behind comedies like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin has actually bought three different Kindles, according to a March profile in the New York Times. “He offered his third, unopened and in its original shipping materials, to his producer Barry Mendel, who declined it.

“He then offered it to his editor Craig Alpert, who accepted.”

He’s the enthusiastic celebrity who appears in the at the top of this post, and it confirms an observation by the Kindle Culture blog. “It reflects what is going on among Kindle owners everywhere: a need to share the wonders of this device with those around them, even going a step further to assuage the fears of Kindlephobes who often haven’t even seen one!”

Apple's Steve Jobs and the iPad vs Amazon's Kindle

I’m fascinated by the Kindle’s competition with the iPad — and Apple’s rival approach to the marketing of ebooks. For example, yesterday Apple released a quarterly report showing they’d set new records. Over 92 days, they sold 14.1 million iPhones, 9.05 million iPods, 3.89 million Mac computers, and 4.19 million iPads. Their stock hit an all-time high, giving them a market capitalization of nearly $300 billion. And yet even some of Apple biggest fans still seem disappointed by Apple’s effort to sell ebooks.

One site had even stronger words, calling Apple’s iBookstore “one big failure”. David Winograd has both a PhD and an MBA, and he writes for “The Unofficial Apple Weblog,” where he analyzed the surprisingly small selection of ebooks in Apple’s store. “At launch, it was reported that the iBookstore contained somewhere between 46,000 and 60,000 titles, 30,000 of which came from the Project Gutenberg library of free out-of-copyright books.” Eliminating those “brings the number of titles at launch…to a generous 30,000.” Amazon, meanwhile, boasts that its Kindle bookstore has “over 700,000 ebooks, newspapers, magazines and blogs” — so it seems safe to assume that counting ebooks alone would still give Amazon close to half a million choices.

I’m always curious how Amazon’s Kindle Store would compare to other online bookstores, but David Winograd actually performed some real-world research. “I did a search of the New York Times Best Seller List from last Sunday and found that three of the hardcover fiction titles and three non-fiction titles were missing from the iBookstore. Amazon had all of them except for [Jon Stewart’s] Earth (The Book), which has no electronic version…” And there was another big problem with the iBookstore. “Sometimes Apple came out more expensive while Amazon never did.”

This disparity leads the unofficial Apple blogger to his biggest complaint: “The iBookstore is full of holes.” He’d initially been excited about buying ebooks from Apple’s iBookstore, “but I became disappointed at the lack of availability and prices of what I wanted to read… unless Apple takes some giant steps to fix the things that are broken with the iBookstore, it will continue to be a dismal failure.” In August, one author even reported that he’d been selling 6,000 ebooks a month in Amazon’s Kindle store, versus just 100 per month in Apple’s iBookstore.

But to be fair, the iPad is changing reading in other ways — and it won at least one match-up against the Kindle in a small town of 60,000 people. In Northern California, their city council will vote today on whether to replace their bulky agenda packets with digital versions on an iPad! Yuba City “prints 20 full agenda packets for each meeting, creating an average of 68,000 pages per year,” according to a local newspaper. “Five electronic devices for council members, two for the city manager’s office and one for the city clerk would cost $5,240 with an expected annual savings of $2,200 in printing costs!”

They’d also considered delivering the council minutes to a Kindle, but felt it didn’t score as highly in usability, readability, and “available applications.” But it probably would still score higher in its selection of ebooks.

Digital Publishing vs. the Gutenberg press
It’s very simple. As of Friday, Borders joined Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and even Apple in the new self-publishing revolution. They’re all now offering cheap-and-easy ways to self-publish an ebook. In literally seconds, you can now convert the feed for a blog into an ebook with Borders’ new service — and even give it an ISBN number. (“Edit content and drag it into chapters,” explains their web site, “then congratulations … you’re an eBook author!”)

Its slogan is “Blog to ebook in minutes,” and Borders CEO said they were “excited to give new writers and bloggers an opportunity to reach an expanded audience.” They’re launching the service — called “BookBrewer” — next Monday (October 25), and it’s part of an unmistakable trend. Just last week, Amazon announced the launch of “Kindle Singles,” a separate ebook format which is also geared for shorter-than-a-novel texts. And if you want to self-publish your book in Apple’s new iBookStore, there’s a package available at Lulu.com.

But what does this all mean? “In some ways, it’s like the early days of the Gutenberg revolution,” Business Week argued Sunday, “when authors published short manuscripts and ‘chapbooks,’ and everything in between.” The first, obvious change is that more things will get published. (The article seemed to acknowledge that boundaries were shifting, asking in its headline: “When is a Book Not a Book?”)
But inevitably, this will also create more authors.

I mean, there’s a couple of obvious technical changes here. With no need to find an agent or publisher, “The advent of tablets and e-bookstores dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for these kinds of writers….” notes Business Week. And instead of paying a commission to that agent or publisher, they can break into the world of published authors for just a small upfront payment and an ongoing commission. But it’s more exciting to focus on the end result. When I fire up my Kindle, I’ll be seeing a new kind of ebook — and one that was much less likely to exist even a few years before.

It’s ultimately not about what it means for books, or authors, or publishers, but for readers. Yes, I’m pre-supposing that there’s a micro-market for these new authors, but I think the web proves that we’re endlessly fascinated by personal stories. If you take a close look, Facebook and Twitter are really just an endless stream of very short and personal moments. C.S. Lewis once quipped that ultimately the purpose of reading is “to know that we are not alone.”

eCommerce Times found a senior analyst at Simba Information who says major publishers may actually see this as a blessing, since they can scan the best-seller lists for ebooks to determine which authors are worth publishing. (“It’s just another part of the filtering process for them.”) I want to believe that someone will devise something entirely original in these new short-form ebooks, and then find a brand new market for it. I like the way it was explained by the CEO of Borders’ new BookBrewer service. “Everyone has a story to tell, pictures to share or advice to give.

“It turns out that those are exactly the kinds of things people want to buy and read as eBooks.”

Mark Twain, author
“I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” said Huckleberry Finn, “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.”

It’s one of the most memorable lines from the last chapter of Mark Twain’s classic 1885 novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (The young boy and a runaway slave named Jim had drifted down the Mississippi river, catching random glimpses of the people on shore — and Huck decides he didn’t like what he saw.) But as soon as Mark Twain published the book, he’d also started writing a sequel about dangerous new adventures in the great American wilderness. It was never published during Twain’s lifetime, but its first nine chapters were finally released just 10 years ago in a scholarly print edition from the University of California.

So what happened to Huckleberry after he finally left sivilization behind? The book opens with Huck and Jim having “Plenty to eat and nothing to do,” and feeling contented just staying at home. (“[A]s for me, betwixt lazying around and pie, I hadn’t no choice, and wouldn’t know which to take…”) But inevitably, Huck receives a visit from his know-it-all pal, Tom Sawyer, with another of one his wild schemes: they should head out west. The boys tag along with a party of covered wagons, meeting friendly “Injuns” – and then a more hostile tribe, in a violent encounter which strands the boys in the middle of the unexplored wilderness in 1848.

They meet up with a lone frontier scout named Brace — and that’s where Twain’s story ends. But recently author Lee Nelson heard about the unfinished book, and finally wrote an ending for it in 2002! “By this time I had published a dozen historical novels with settings on the American frontier, and realized I was probably as qualified as any other living author to finish the work begun by Twain. A little research on the web led me to those who controlled the copyright – The Mark Twain Foundation and the University of California Press. Contact was made, approval was granted, a contract was drawn up, and the following story is the result.”

“I have no idea how Twain intended to finish the story, and I reason that he didn’t know either, or he would have done it. I just hope that wherever he is, he enjoys my conclusion as much as I enjoyed his beginning.”

Unfortunately, you can’t read his sequel to Huckleberry Finn on the Kindle — yet — but you can always read Mark Twain’s original Huckleberry Finn novel.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “All modern American literature comes from” Twain’s original novel, and Hemingway hailed it as “the best book we’ve had.”

Blank Stieg Larsson book cover
I think my girlfriend must be psychic. Two weeks ago she wrote a blog post with suggestions for Amazon’s Kindle store. And then Tuesday, Amazon actually implemented them! The funny thing was, I’d never even published her post. It’s been sitting on my hard drive. But apparently you can change Amazon’s Kindle store if you just think hard enough about it!

Tuesday Amazon created “Kindle Singles” — a new ebook format for books “that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book…priced much less than a typical book.” Amazon called their upcoming “Kindle Singles” section “a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.”

And here’s the magical blog post my girlfriend wrote which apparently triggered Amazon’s announcement.

                        *                        *                        *

Please, please, please, list the length of the book! Or better yet, change the definition of what constitutes a book. For example, in order to be an e-book, there must be at least 250 pages (or an equivalent number of Locations). Anything less than that should be identified as an e-pamphlet. It’s irritating to spend time in the store looking for interesting titles only to discover that they’re only three dots long. Three dots!!! That’s not a book! It’s barely 10 minutes worth of reading.

These pamphleteers wisely don’t list the equivalent pages, because who would download an e-pamphlet of what would be five or seven printed pages…

I know that many of these ebooks are really samples of longer books. Maybe Amazon could create a separate section for Samples, so they’re not cluttering up the Top 100 list. (Although I’m happy they’re clearly listed as Samples, they shouldn’t be taking up space in the Top 100 Free list!) Actually, I would love to see a huge list of free sample chapters to browse through. And another new section could be “Books under a Buck,” maybe shorter ebooks or ebooks that are on sale for a limited time. What fun!

What I’ve determined is a few publishers of romance and soft porn figured out they can pull the first chapter out of a book, publish it as an “e-book”, put it on Amazon for free and then lure unsuspecting readers. According to reviewers, one publisher pulled out the short epilogue to a series of books and put it up on the Kindle Free section as an “e-book.” Excuse me?!? And yet in these nefarious cases, the reviews in Amazon’s Kindle store are usually reviews of the entire book, not just the actual excerpt that’s being offered for downloading. (How convenient…)

So using the reviews as a guide, I download the “e-book” which turns out to be the first chapter, or perhaps two chapters — which are indeed written as the first two chapters of a novel, setting up characters and a plot line which then shuts down prematurely. To add insult to injury, there are really only two dots worth of actual content; the third dot is marketing material in the form of an author bio and excerpts from other books by the same publisher. Of course, the rest of the novel costs money to download. This is not an e-book, it’s a marketing tool — and as such, should be banned from the Amazon Top 100 Free section. It’s the literary equivalent of premature ejaculation!

If Amazon’s Kindle Store lists the Location Size, this irritating practice will be exposed. At the very least, give us the information we need to make decisions about what to download! I know, with e-books it no longer makes sense to talk about how many ‘pages’ a book is, as there are no actual pages in evidence, and more and more books don’t have printed counterparts. Sometimes, when a book has a printed counterpart, Amazon will list its page count on its Kindle Store page. Sometimes not. But nowhere on the page is “Location Size” listed.

Once a download is complete, you can get a good idea of the length by looking at the line of dots just below the title. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has 15 dots, which translates to 4274 Locations. (estimated printed length-284 pages). Flowers for Elvis by Julia Schuster is listed with a print length of 248 pages. It has 11 dots, and 3186 locations. The Malacca Conspiracy (reviewed here) has 6554 Locations, and shows up on the Home page with 24 dots. So, a decent-sized novel is over 11 dots.

Here’s how Amazon’s Kindle Team defines locations: “the digital answer to page numbers. Since you can change the text size on Kindle, the page numbers would change too, but with locations, you can be confident that you return to the same place every time regardless of the text size you prefer.” This makes sense, but it’s also why they should add the total “Location Size” to each e-book’s description in the Kindle Store.

Amazon really needs to redesign their Store Pages. I don’t know if this is their official title, but I’m talking about the pages that open when you select a title to see more information and access reviews. I have some major gripes about this page because often it takes me sorting through review after review, or even downloading the entire ebook, before figuring out that it’s definitely not what I want. All this could be eliminated with a few more changes in the store page.

1. List the book’s genre. In a bookstore, I know the book’s genre by where I’m physically standing. If I’m in the Romance aisle, I know that The Big 5-Oh! is a romance novel. It is not always possible to tell by an e-book’s title or description what genre it belongs in. (Hmm, perhaps that is intentional, to trick people who don’t read romance novels?) I got sucked in by that e-book, and was disappointed about one-third of the way through when I realized there would be no plot development, only a story about how these two perfect soul mates would finally get together. Sigh. This is why I don’t read romance novels. And I never would have downloaded it if the genre was listed up front.

2. List the book’s publisher. This goes hand in hand with the genre. I do recognize some publishers and can make choices knowing what kind of books they publish (or don’t publish). Yet, a lot of times the publisher is not listed on the Kindle Store’s page. That would help me avoid e-books from publishers I’m no longer interested in.

                        *                        *                        *

Who knows changes we’ll see next in Amazon’s Kindle store?

And in honor of Amazon’s new magazine article-length format, I’d like to remind you that you can now subscribe to The New Yorker on your Kindle!

The Best Kindle Comments

October 13, 2010

Cartoon megaphone (small)

I love the internet. And one of the best things is it’s constantly delivering new perspectives. Even for today’s very latest Kindle news, someone’s already come up with a fresh insight…

For example, Tuesday Amazon announced they were adding a new section to the Kindle store for shorter (and cheaper) ebooks. Amazon will call the new format “Kindle singles,” saying it will be the equivalent of roughly 30 to 90 printed pages (or 10,000 to 30,000 words). On the web site for Publisher’s Weekly, one author instantly came forward and suggested this opens a new world of untapped potential.


“Some of us have always written works that are a little too short to be economically feasible for traditional print publishing. It’s good that someone in the epublishing world has realized they can publish us too.”


I first became excited about the Kindle when wondering if the book itself might disappear within my lifetime. But as the book-reading world starts its changing, we’ll still be able to hear what ordinary people think about those changes while they’re happening. The internet’s given a megaphone to anyone with a story to share, so even as technology alters our world, it’s also empowering us to have a dialogue about those changes.

Yesterday I wrote a post asking “Is the iPad actually helping the Kindle?” And within a few hours, one of my readers contacted me with their own insights on whether Apple’s recent moves were actually helping Amazon sell more ebooks and even more digital readers.



“Am I a good example? I was never persuaded by e-books until I acquired an iPad. I bought a couple of titles [using both Apple’s iBookstore and using Amazon’s Kindle-store app], and suddenly the penny dropped. I understood the appeal, especially from a convenience perspective. But the iBooks store is like a supermarket with empty shelves, so Amazon got all my subsequent business.

In a final twist, I bought a Kindle 3. The iPad had convinced me that e-books are the future of reading, but it equally convinced me that the iPad is not the device on which to do it. As a Trojan Horse for Amazon, the iPad has therefore been an amazing success if my example is any indication.”



There’s always more to the story — or at least, another way to understand it. Earlier this month, a debate erupted on the geek news site Slashdot. They were discussing the same figures reported here — that currently e-books represent just 6% of the total number of books sold. One user thought the news was receiving the wrong emphasis. “The title should be, ‘Holy crap, an entire 6% of books sold are eBooks.'”



“The vast majority of the reading public doesn’t own an ebook reader. The vast majority of people say things like, ‘I like the feel of a paper book, I wouldn’t want to read a novel on my computer.’ The fact that, despite the relative novelty of the medium, and endemic resistance to ebooks, they’ve already captured a sizeable percentage of the venerable book market says quite a bit about the future. And frankly I’m surprised.”



And his perspective was followed by someone from “a medium-sized book publisher” scrambling to publish ebooks. “Six percent [of total book sales] sounds about right, last year it was 4 and the year before that it was zero. From a publisher’s perspective, we’re still waiting to see how it all pans out.


“The suspicion is that this growth rate won’t maintain itself and that there’s a plateau somewhere. Where that is, no one knows, but no one that I know of in the industry is predicting any sort of e-book takeover in the next decade or two. So yes there’s huge growth but no one’s getting rid of their printers just yet.

“Publishers love e-books: no shipping, no warehousing, and most importantly no returns. Most books are sold to retail outlets on the basis that they can return them for a full refund if they don’t sell. Since getting shelf space can boost sales you often see titles with an over 50% return rate. Also, for very little money you can take titles that are out of print or didn’t sell well and put them out there. Titles once thought dead can now eek out a few extra sales.”



But my favorite comment of all came in response to a political news story. President Barack Obama was appearing in Pennsylvania at a political event when an “over exuberant” author hurtled a copy of his book towards the podium. A secret service spokesperson later explained the incident to CNN: the overzealous author “wrote a book that he wanted the president to read.”

“Yep… I know I would read a book that somebody threw at me…” joked a comment at the political news site Political Wire.



By the way, don’t forget that you can subscribe to Slashdot as a Kindle blog!

Apple iBookstore for the iPad

There’s been some interesting news about the Kindle today. One in five people who buy ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle store don’t actually own a Kindle!

That’s the surprising result from a new report by Cowen and Co., an investment banking company which just released the results of their survey Monday. This spring there were predictions that Apple’s iPad would effectively eliminate Amazon’s Kindle — or at least hurt Amazon’s sales of ebooks with new competition from Apple’s iBookstore. But instead, the analysts concluded that the iPad “is not having a negative impact on Kindle device or e-book sales.” In fact, 31% of iPad owners said they’re still most likely to purchase their ebooks from Amazon’s Kindle store. And the number who prefer Amazon’s Kindle store rises to 44% among “heavy readers” who buy more than 25 books each year.

This leads the report to an unavoidable conclusion: the more iPads that get sold, the more ebooks Amazon will sell. It predicts Amazon will sell over $700 million worth of ebooks in 2010 — triple what Amazon earned from ebooks just last year. And the analysts even dared to venture a prediction for the year 2015. For this year they’re estimating Amazon will grab 76% of the ebook market (versus 5% for Apple). But even five years from now, in 2015, they’re predicting that Apple’s iBookstore will represent just 16% of the ebook market, while Amazon still sells 51% of all ebooks.

Of course, there was another famous prediction about ebooks in the year 2015. Nicholas Negroponte is the futurist who founded both MIT’s Media Lab and the “One Laptop Per Child” association, and he’s projected that the printed book will be dead within five years. It’s important to put his prediction in context, since his association hopes to distribute cheap computers to students in the developing world — and he’s obviously focused on cheap ebooks as part of that effort. Plus, his statement was made in response to sales figures showing that ebooks were outselling printed books — leaving open the possibility that he really meant that ebook sales would just massively outweigh the sales of print books.

I wrote last month about how MIT’s technology blog contradicted him, arguing that “it’s just as likely that as the ranks of the early adopters get saturated, adoption of ebooks will slow.” But I thought it was interesting that the iPad also came up in that discussion. Technology reporter Christopher Mims had noted the praise for the iPad’s crisp, high-resolution screen, with one developer at Microsoft gushing on his blog that it had “moved us out of the Dark Ages.” Mims’ alternate conclusion upon hearing that quote? “Many tech pundit wants books to die.”

“Really….”

It’s fun to look into the future, but I’ve got a statistic of my own. One year ago, you could buy a refurbished version of Amazon’s original Kindle for just $149. Obviously, today you can buy a new Kindle for $139. But how much would it cost you to buy a refurbished original Kindle now? Just $110, according to the latest results in Amazon’s Kindle store.

Maybe we should all just live for today, and grab one while they last!

Portrait of Christopher Columbus

Today is a holiday in the United States — Columbus Day. But fortunately, there’s lots of ways to celebrate with your Kindle!

I was fascinated to learn exactly what happened when Columbus approached Queen Isabella’s court. I’ve been taught for years that the scholars insisted the world was flat, while brave Columbus argued that no, the planet was round. It turns out that’s a horrific myth, and “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars…” according to Stephen Jay Gould (in a book cited by Wikipedia). And I’d discovered another startling truth while browsing Wikipedia with my Kindle. That Columbus story has a surprising connection to a
very famous American author from the 1800s.

He wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as well as Rip Van Winkle, and Washington Irving was one of the first American authors to gain literary recognition in Europe. He also perpetrated one of the great literary hoaxes, placing fake newspaper ads seeking Irving’s fictitious Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, and threatening to publish his left-behind manuscript to cover unpaid bills! Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was even interested in him romantically, according to Wikipedia. But after an early spark of youthful success, the critics began panning Irving’s books, and by the age of 41, Irving was facing financial difficulties.

Yet his past literary success earned him an appointment in 1826 as an American diplomatic attache in Spain — and it was there that he gained access to historical manuscripts about Columbus that had only recently been made available to the public. Irving used them to write The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, a work of historical fiction which became wildly popular in both the United States and Europe. By the end of the century, the book would be published in over 175 editions.

Yes, it’s available as a free ebook for the Kindle, though for some reason only Volume 2 is available. (“…a new scene of trouble and anxiety opened upon him, destined to impede the prosecution of his enterprises, and to affect all his future fortunes.”) But the important thing to remember is it was written as an imaginative work of historical fiction. “Irving based them on extensive research in the Spanish archives,” notes Wikipedia, but Columbus “also added imaginative elements, aimed at sharpening the story.”

Another 19th-century American also assembled his own exhaustive biography about the life of Columbus. Edward Everett Hale is most famous for the patriotic short story, The Man Without a Country. But he also created a scholarly work called The Life of Columbus From His Own Letters and Journals and Other Documents of His Time. You can download it for free from Amazon’s Kindle store, and savor the historic moment when Columbus first makes contact with the New World. “It was on Friday, the twelfth of October, that they saw this island… When they were ashore they saw very green trees and much water, and fruits of different kinds.”

There’s also a historical book called Christopher Columbus and the New World of His Discovery that was published in 1906. It’s scattered as free ebooks throughout Amazon’s Kindle store, though it’s Volume 2 where Columbus first makes landfall. (“…it was a different matter on Friday morning, October 12, 1492, when, all having been made snug on board the Santa Maria, the Admiral of the Ocean Seas put on his armour and his scarlet cloak over it and prepared to go ashore.”)

This text was prepared by Project Gutenberg, and this particular paragraph comes with a disillusioning footnote. Columbus may have recorded the date of his landfall as October 12, but “This date is reckoned in the old style. The true astronomical date would be October 21st, which is the modern anniversary of the discovery.” Columbus may be one of those historical figures who’s become so familiar, that we actually don’t know him at all!

                        *                        *                        *

Free ebooks about Columbus:

Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,

The Life of Columbus From His Own Letters and Journals and Other Documents of His Time.

Christopher Columbus and the New World of His Discovery

eBooks, Sex, and Zombies

October 8, 2010

 Dead Love (zombie book cover) by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

Last week, before the crowds gathered at a bookstore to hear Linda Wanatabe McFerrin talking about her new book Dead Love, we were gabbing privately for an hour at a local bar.

She told us the next day she’d be off to Visalia in central California for an actual zombie walk. (Imagine you’re at a remote shopping mall, and a throng of zombies suddenly materializes…) Eventually you’d realize it’s a bunch of zombie enthusiasts collectively celebrating their passion in costume. But for the wild participants, it’s a cathartic mass ritual!

I’d worried she’d be one of those book authors who holds a secret grudge against the Kindle. But she seemed more committed to her love of fiction, and said agreeably that “Some people read books, some people like ebooks.” And she’d already tantalized us with the premise of her horrific new novel. I asked my girlfriend to review Linda’s new book — “a novel about Japan…and zombies.”

                        *                        *                        *

My friend first told me I’d love Dead Love by Linda Watanabe McFerrin. The press release says: “Dead Love is a diabolical joyride with a cast of supernatural characters…”

“Read it,” said my friend. “It’s a delightful romp.” Really? A delightful romp about zombies? There’s two things I never thought I’d see in the same sentence…

But it turns out that talking about Dead Love results in an overflow of oxymorons. It’s about a glib ghoul and a zippy zombie, plus a glacial gangster. I’ve never thought of Zombies as zippy before, but this is a zombie that retains her own will and ends up performing in a trapeze act. You’ve gotta agree — that’s pretty zippy!

Wait, a zombie in a trapeze act? Doesn’t that fall under “completely ridiculous plot twists”? You’d think so, but one of the wonderful things about this book is it has an internal logic. The story goes crazy places and it does crazy things, but everything still makes sense. Each step follows logically from the step before, drawing readers into the world of a love-sick ghoul chasing a newly-made half-zombie around the globe.

The book follows Erin Orison, the motherless, cast-off daughter of a powerful Japanese man. He summons her to Tokyo, where she’s met by a bodyguard and her father’s lawyer. She’s been drawn to Japan as a pawn in a huge game of political intrigue. It turns out that the ghoul Clement is part of the Political Intrigue, but only to the extent that he uses it to ensnare Erin, who he’s been in love with since he saw her as a child.

He decides to use this opportunity to make her a zombie, therefore binding her to him forever. But he screws up the zombie formula, leaving Erin with her own will. Big oops. (This is a very threadbare plot rendition, so as not to give away too much…)

The ghoul Clement reminds me of the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. He’s cheerful, optimistic, and smelly, all love and boundless energy, glibly bouncing towards Erin (his love) who loathes him, shrinks from him when he shows up, and runs every chance she gets! Clement is aware this doesn’t exactly follow the ghoul guidelines, but he still bumbles on, happily pursuing his zombie love. He follows Erin across continents, shielding her from her father’s plan to kill her, and waiting for her to change her mind and love him back.

But this is much more than a fun story. McFerrin is an award-winning author who’s written everything from erotica and poetry to a teen novel and now this thriller about zombies. She’s a writer. Not a story teller, but someone who crafts words and bends language to their own use. She breathes life into the characters, the story, and the absurdity, making it all realistic and believable.

And you follow her because it’s wonderful and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Her descriptions are pure delight. “…I made it a point to pause, with a model’s instinct for angles and light, in a brief but expressive pose. I’ve always been bold. The cruel crowd of my school days had little tolerance for the shy or withdrawn.” That last sentence is like a punch, emotionally explaining a lot of her abandoned teenage years, and setting up her personality.

I love most when she talks about Ryu, the Japanese Yakusa gangster. Ryu almost never speaks out loud, but we hear his internal dialogue and how others react to him. And he is an especially strong character. Ryu “had in fact two favorite modes of facial expressions — this, his comic face or the down-turned tragic version where his mouth formed the shape of a horseshoe, upside down, with all the luck running out.” This sent real chills up my spine and captures his quiet menace in one sentence.

I used the Kindle’s bookmark feature to store many favorite examples of fine writing (the description of Amsterdam is a masterpiece), but I’ll move on to the surprising laughs that pop up throughout the book. I never expected to laugh out loud while reading a zombie thriller, but McFerrin creates scenes that are absurd theater. Erin wakes up after being dead for three days in a new partial-zombie status, and the scene, though horrific, is also touching and then laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve not been so appalled at laughing since the scene in Fargo where the kidnapped wife cuts a crazy path out of the bedroom and down the stairs wrapped in clear plastic. McFerrin’s vivid visuals create these unexpectedly funny images.

I loved Dead Love. The beautiful writing, the unexpected laughs, the unexpected plot, and the unusual characters. Fast-paced and surprisingly touching, the novel never disappointed me…

                        *                        *                        *

And yes, there is a zombie sex scene (which Linda read to us at the book-signing).

Click here to buy Dead Love from Amazon’s Kindle store!

William Saroyan
Publishers Weekly reports that in July, declines were reported in the print sales for all trade paperbacks, with total sales of around $60 million for nine mass market publishers. But what’s really interesting is that e-book sales for the same period were $40.8 million — representing a big increase from their earlier figures — for the 14 publishers who report ebook sales. For the year, their ebook sales are averaging $31.3 million a month.

In fact, “Sales of printed romance books have fallen for the first time since records began,” according to one technology analyst. Citing data from Nielsen BookScan, they note that certain genres seem more popular in the realm of ebooks. In one 10-week period this summer, science fiction and fantasy books represented 10% of e-book sales, more than triple its market share in the world of printed books. And romance and “saga” books performed even better, accounting for 14% of all ebooks sold in the same period — seven times their market share in the world of printed books. But so far in 2010, sales of printed romance books are down 7.5%, and there’s also been a decline in the sales of printed science fiction and fantasy books.

The New York Daily News described a bookstore that’s “combating the Kindle – with candy.” Sort of. The Union Square bookstore replaced a 40-foot counter below their check-out registers, which had been stocked with used paperback books. But now they’re selling “nostalgic” candies like Charleston Chews and bubblegum cigars, and the store’s 82-year-old co-owner says “We’re selling five times as much candy as we did ‘register books.'” The article also notes that Barnes and Noble now stocks chocolate bars at its cash registers, and even the Borders bookstore at Penn Station “has racks of ‘movie candy’ for shoppers headed to a nearby multiplex.”

One science writer suggests the 2010 Nobel prize for physics could ultimately have an impact on the Kindle. It’s a carbon film — exactly one atom thick — which can be transparent, and could one day replace platinum, iridium, and even the screen of your Kindle! “Atom for atom, graphene turned out to be 100 times stronger than steel…” noted MSNBC, adding that this year, researchers reported that they created a working touch-screen display using graphene.”

Meanwhile, results of a new survey suggest that 44% Kindle owners earn over $80,000 per year, compared to just 39 percent of iPad owners, and 37 percent of iPhone owners. In addition, 27% of Kindle owners have a graduate school degree — either a masters or doctorate degree.

And Starting Sunday, the Kindle will be available at the Staples chain of office supply stores. C|Net reports Best Buy and Target are also featuring the Kindle in their stores – and that the Kindle still remains the #1 best-selling item at Amazon.com

Jules Verne

Sunday was a strange day. My local library is closing for 10 weeks — they’re moving to a new location, and until December they’ll be busy moving the physical books from one location to another. Obviously they wouldn’t be having this problem if all of their texts were ebooks. But what’s even stranger is that dozens of library patrons lined up to exploit a loophole!

I’d asked the obvious question: What happens if we check out a book, and it’s due after October 4th? And they’d replied that we could keep the book — they’d have no place to put it — so we wouldn’t have to return it until more than two months later! Sunday I rushed to the library for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have any book for 10 weeks. And suddenly I noticed that the parking lot was jam-packed — not a single space left — as though all the readers in town had the exact same idea.

It was ominous. The library would be open for just one half hour more. And within minutes the check-out line was huge — backed up halfway across the width of the building, and then turning 90 degrees, where it continued through an entire low shelf in the children’s section. The librarians looked harried, and I estimated there were 50 eager readers, clutching massive armfuls of precious library books. And I got another shock when I finally made my way to the library’s DVD section.

The DVD racks were empty! There were just bare wire shelves where most of the DVDs used to be. I saw a handful of very-unwanted remainders left behind. Later I joked to my girlfriend that it was “library apocalypse” day.

But I was still very I excited, because I could finally have any book I wanted, and I could keep it for 10 weeks! I began looking at the books differently, asking myself which titles I’d score now? My first thought was to check out hard copies of books that I’m reading slowly on the Kindle. Partly it’s an experiment — I want to see what it’s like to switch back to reading a book. But it’s also because my girlfriend and I keep wanting to use the Kindle at the same time!

Unfortunately, in the library, I couldn’t find a printed version of every book that I wanted to read — unlike the Kindle store. But since I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of the American frontier, I checked out “supplementary material.” (What happened to Buffalo Bill after he finished writing his autobiography — and which of his western exploits did historians think he was exaggerating?) I also checked out The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin — which is currently one of the top-selling free ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle store. And it was nice to know I’d also have 10 weeks to enjoy the coffee-table sized book about the life of Ben Franklin, which had some great glossy pictures which, honestly, would look much better in a full-color printed book.

I had to use the card catalog to find a book about Billy the Kid — the other historical figure I’m reading about. And then I swerved over to the Video section to see if I could still find anything left. There were “slim pickings,” but I eventually found a work-out tape. (Maybe with 10 weeks, I’ll finally get out to actually exercising with it at least once). Usually library videos are due in one week, so this felt like a rare treat. And there were a few DVDs left behind that I was actually interested in.

I was like a kid in a candy store, grabbing videos because — hey, why not? And then the library announced over the loudspeakers that they were closing until December 7, and no books would be checked out after 5 p.m. (“Thank you and goodnight.”) In reality, they had to keep the check-out desk open far beyond 5:00 to handle the throng of eager readers trying desperately to stock up on books. For the interim, they assured us, we could also check out books from the library at the local elementary school.

I came home with an enormous stack of books — and a smile on my face. I told myself I was like a Viking pillaging the library, and I was very excited about my treasures. I spent a few minutes showing my girlfriend my new stack of books — which, with all this extra time, I may finally finish reading!

And that night, I began reading them…while my girlfriend continued reading on the Kindle!

Charles Darwin says shhWhat are publishers saying behind our backs? I discovered some startling information from a little-noticed trade association meeting in New York City. The once-a-year meeting of the Book Industry Study Group took place on September 24 — and reading about their event felt like peeking into insider secrets.

What percentage of book sold are ebooks? 5.8%, one presenter announced (matching my own recent back-of-the-envelope calculation). And just 32% of Kindle owners are men, according to their statistics (from April to June of this year). Between January and March of 2009, they’d calculated that 42% of Kindle owners were men — suggesting that this year saw a huge surge in new Kindle purchases by women!

The statistics came from Kelly Gallagher, who’s the Vice President of publishing services at a publishing-industry reference publisher called Bowker. And he’d uncovered another strange anomaly: only 46% of the people who own Kindles and other digital readers actually purchased the device for themselves — while another 47% had received them as gifts. But the industry is definitely growing. He also reported that 44% of the people who are now buying ebooks only acquired their digital reader within the last six months…

In fact, the President of Kaplan Publishing announced results from a startling experiment. Last month they took 95 of their e-books — one-third of their total e-book catalog — and offered them for free for one week in Apple’s iBookstore. The results? Their downloads for that week were 25% of their total print sales for one year. Her conclusion: there’s a big untapped demand for ebooks. (My conclusion? People love free ebooks.)

Kelly Gallagher reached the same conclusion. “[R]eceiving e-books for free is one of the largest motivators for people to pick up and buy e-books,” he told the group, “whether it’s a sample chapter or another promotional approach.” But there’s more to learn besides that it’s easier to sell ebooks when they’re cheaper. The Kaplan publisher argued that there’s “a large population of readers who are almost our customers.” And Kelly’s actual slideshow of statistics turned up elsewhere on the web, showing that free promotional chapters are still what’s most likely to influence someone to buy an ebook — between 34% and 36% of respondents.

But I also learned something else: what the best-selling books were for each generation. For example, among readers born within the last 30 years, the top five best-selling books are all from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. And even if you’re between the ages of 31 and 42 (the so-called “generation X”), four of the top five best-selling books are still by Stephenie Meyers. (The non-Meyers book is Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.) For the “Baby Boom” generation — 43 to 61 — there’s just two Stephenie Meyer titles in the top five, plus The Lost Symbol, along with The Shack and Stephen King’s Under the Dome. And for people over the age of 61, the most popular books were The Lost Symbol and The Shack plus John Grisham’s The Associate, and then two political books — Glenn Beck’s Common Sense and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue.

But the most exciting part of the report was the closing keynote speech from the president of Ingram Content Group. He announced to the assembled audience that “the market for books is not fixed. I believe the whole publishing pie can grow.”

Here’s how his speech was covered by a publishing-industry news site called “Shelf Awareness”.


The print book will coexist with the digital book “for years” and will survive because of its “portability, flexibility and durability,” he maintained… ” Among other qualities, the book has “a limitless power source, can be read in the sun, can be read on a plane on the tarmac, looks good on the shelf,” and more. Many people “are like me and want it both ways,” Prichard said. “I love my iPad, but I still look forward to reading that relic of the past, the good, old-fashioned book.”

He concluded: “Let’s stop looking admiringly to the past, let’s stop handwringing about the present and let’s start creating the future.”

Click here to read their full report.

Elif Batuman

“The Kindle is wonderful for drunk people…” argues author Elif Batuman. “Before I first acquired a Kindle, exactly one year ago, I didn’t usually buy books while under the influence of alcohol…”

I laughed out loud at her funny stories about the life of a Kindle owner, which was published Saturday in a British newspaper. (Though according to Wikipedia, she teaches in America at Stanford University in California, where she spent seven years studying linguistics and comparative literature.) A little wine lowers her inhibitions, and soon she’s slumming with the Agatha Christie novels she’d loved as a child. “…although the detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, were twinkly, grandparental types, nevertheless, everywhere these gentle souls went, someone was killed in hatred.”

“Because I am a writer, people sometimes ask me how ebooks have changed the literary landscape. The short answer, for me, is that I have developed a compulsion to drunk-dial Agatha Christie several times a week.”

This article inspired me to investigate Amazon’s Kindle store, where I discovered they’re currently offering a complete Agatha Christie mystery novel as a free ebook. Thanks to Kindle blogger Mike Cane, who discovered this article (adding “This is absolutely hilarious! Don’t drink and eBook, kids!”) Her funny observations were the perfect way to start Monday morning, and I think I’ll always remember Elif’s advice — that the Hercule Poirot mysteries are “perfect for a drunk reader with a decreased attention span.” And she hints at how easy it is to splurge on the purchases of ebooks — especially since, unlike a real-life book-buying binge, there’s “no physical book to reproach me the morning after!”

But for all the jokes, I think she really appreciates the joy of being able to curl up and read with a good ebook. “…at the end of the day, when I uncorked a $7 bottle of Viognier and turned on the Kindle, a wave of well-being washed over me.”

It’s funny, because in April this Kindle-loving author had also published a long book about studying the great Russian novelists. (She’d named her book after a Dostoyevsky novel — The Possessed — giving it the subtitle “Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.”) I’d thought that was going to be a more scholarly work, but it turns out it’s a book filled with more terrific personal anecdotes, which also gradually explain how she came to love Russian novels. One reviewer called her “A Comedian in the Academy,” asking “Who knew studying Russian literature could be so funny?”

It’s a wonderful book — and yes, it’s also available on the Kindle. Though Elif Batuman is 23, she uses her smarts to weaves together her life experiences with all the things that she’s learned in her studies. She remembers the unpredictable Russian violin teacher she’d had as a teenager, and riffs on the “multitude of sad adventures” that’s cryptically promised to a character in “Eugene Onegin” (in a strange manual of dream intrepretation). She remembers being a freshman loving a senior (who’d once lived behind the Iron Curtain) — which somehow leads her to a summer job teaching English in Hungary. And then there’s a surreal experience at a children’s summer camp, when all the gym teachers suddenly approach her.


“The American girl will judge the leg contest!” they announced. I was still hoping that I had misunderstood them, even as German techno music was turned on and all the boys in the camp, ages eight to fourteen, were paraded out behind a screen that hid their bodies from the waist up; identifying numbers had been pinned to their shorts. I was given a clipboard with a form on which to rate their legs on a scale from one to ten. Gripped by panic, I stared at the clipboard. Nothing in either my life experience or my studies had prepared me to judge an adolescent boys’ leg contest…”


NPR published a small excerpt from this section, though it’s also available in the book’s free sample on the Kindle.

But click here if you’d rather try reading a free Agatha Christie mystery novel ebook while drunk!

Banned Books Covers (from ALA)

Saturday is the last day of “Banned Books Week.” Every year the American Library Association publicizes the fight against book censorship, and releases a list of which books were most frequently challenged during the year. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series made the top 10, with objections about the book’s view on religion and complaints that it was inappropriate for young readers or too sexually explicit. Other “frequently challenged books” include classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and The Catcher in the Rye.

But a funny thing happened when I tried to download these books from the Kindle store. 7 of the 10 most-frequently challenged books simply aren’t available on the Kindle. The three you can download are:

1. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
3. Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books.

But here’s the seven you can’t download.

ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler

As an avid Kindle reader, it’s left me feeling a little left out. This week the American Library Association is urging a celebration of the freedom to read, suggesting a variety of activities, many designed for schools and public libraries. (For example, “Draw a picture of the one book you would save if books were being burned…”) They suggest essay contests and discussions, and even making a poster that celebrates students who dare to read books banned elsewhere in America. But they also urge “Exercise Your First Amendment Rights,” at the bottom of one web page. “Read a Banned Book!”

Fortunately, there’s a lot more banned books to choose from. The American Library Association has cataloged more than 11,000 attempts to ban books over the last 20 years — and over 1,000 different books that have been challenged since 1982. They also believe that there’s many times more, estimating that over 70 to 80 percent of the challenges aren’t even reported. In fact, there have even been attempts to ban 46 of the top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.

But there’s at least one banned book on that list that’s available only in Amazon’s Kindle store: the special 50th Anniversary edition of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s a controversial book about an aging literary scholar who’s sexually obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, though I’m not sure if that’s why it isn’t available elsewhere. When Amazon announced their new $139 Kindles, they touted it as one of “many digital books exclusive to Kindle” (along with UR by Stephen King). And another Kindle store exclusive is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie — which also appears on Radcliffe Publishing’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

Apparently right now there’s two reasons why you can’t read a book: because it’s censored – or because it’s not compatible with your chosen brand of e-reader! But digital readers can also help circumvent the censorship. I was excited when a traveler told me how their Kindle let them bypass government censorship of the internet in China! And if a library is pressured into removing a book, it may be available for downloading onto your Kindle.

Now every Kindle is a private, personal library – free from any pressure from your local book-burners…

Maybe this is the right time to think a moment about how we can preserve our “literary heritage”. In 1424, the Cambridge University library only had a total of 122 books in their entire collection, according to one history class I took in college. And in fact, during the first 1,000 years of European history, there were less than 8 million books in existence. At some point in our own lifetime, we may eventually be asked to make a choice about which books we’ll preserve in the new 21st-century formats.

I guess I’m hoping that the answer…is all of them.

What’s New in the Kindle 3?

September 30, 2010

New Amazon Kindle 3 Wifi Wireless

Everyone’s excited about Amazon’s new Kindle 3. It’s smaller, lighter, and cheaper, and its battery seems to last forever. (According to Amazon, it runs without a recharge for up to a month if you turn off the wireless receiver.)

But what’s new about it? What can you actually do with a Kindle 3 that you couldn’t do before? Here’s a handy list.

1. The new Kindle feels different. Not only is it lighter and thinner. It’s now got a textured back which Amazon describes as “soft touch”.

2. There’s a new screen, which Amazon boasts offers a “50% better contrast.”

3. There’s been several changes to the font menu. There’s now eight font sizes to choose from — more than the six that were available on the original Kindle — but now there’s even a choice of font styles, according to Amazon’s Kindle page. (There’s “our standard Caecilia font, a condensed version of Caecilia, and a sans serif option.”) The new Kindle even supports different kinds of letters. It can now display Cyrillic (Russian) characters, as well as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese characters (both traditional and simplified) — along with Latin and Greek script.

4. Amazon claims the new pages display 20% faster.

5. The newest font menu also lets you change the line spacing — small, medium, or large. (Though last month the “KindleLove” blog reported this was also available as a special hidden feature on the Kindle 2. Just type a number between 1 and 9 while holding down both the Shift and Alt keys!)

5. The web browser has been improved on the Kindle 3, and now includes a special capability called “Article Mode,” according to Wired News. Complicated web pages with lots of graphics can be simplified, so that “Instantly the web page will be laid out in an easy-to-read text column…”

6. Amazon beefed up the PDF reader, and its native support even lets you zoom in (up to 300%) and then pan across the page. It’s also possible to adjust the contrast on PDF files, with five settings from “lightest” to “darkest”. And of course, there’s an easy way to convert your PDF files into the native Kindle format (which then allows you to change font sizes using the Kindle’s menus, or use other Kindle features like text-to-speech or annotation). Just e-mail the PDF to your Kindle e-mail address with the word “convert” as the subject line.

7. Text-to-speech capability has been added to the menus. It’s always been fun using Amazon’s text-to-speech features, but they only worked for the actual ebooks, and not when when trying to navigate around the Kindle. This got Amazon in trouble with the Department of Justice, which worried that the Kindle wasn’t fully accessible to blind students who might want to use the Kindle at a university. Fortunately, the Kindle 3 now extends its text-to-speech features to the navigation menus. (This “Voice Guide” feature is located on page two of the “Settings” page.)

8. There’s now password protection. If James Bond lost his Kindle in the desert, would his enemies be able to read all his ebooks? Not if he was using a Kindle 3, since it’s now possible to “lock” a Kindle with your own personal password. This is more important than it seems, since many people also carry personal files on their Kindle – so it’s possible that a Kindle could be storing documents that are highly confidential.

Finally, a blog called “Kindle Minds” offers another tip that changes the sorting on the home page. He’d wanted his collections to appear at the top of the home page, before all of the individual books. To accomplish this, he re-named every collection so they started with a high-priority character — like ~ or the number 0 or a hyphen.

“Now my collections sort to the top again,” he wrote, “and life is good… now I’m using the hyphen plus a space, which gives them a sort of bullet-list look.”

Click here for Amazon’s page about the new Kindle 3

Or click here to buy Kindle Shortcuts, Hidden Features, Kindle-Friendly Websites, Free eBooks & Email From Kindle: Concise User Guide

Kindle beach ebook ad - I reached across the table but he shrugged

My girlfriend was intrigued when we found out it was Amy Bloom’s short story that appears on that Kindle at the beach in Amazon’s TV ad. But that was only the beginning…

We eventually purchased an ebook version of one of Amy’s full-length novels. (I asked my girlfriend if it felt strange to finally read an ebook that wasn’t free. But she said it was nice to read a contemporary author instead of one of the classics as a free ebook — especially an author with so much grace and style!)

“I’ve been downloading modern ebooks with interesting-sounding titles only to find they’re in the romance genre. You know, ‘I’m swearing off men, oh my he’s fine, oh he could never be interested in me the way I’m interested in him…’ Even hot sex doesn’t seem to change this opinion, until the obligatory sweeping away of all obstacles, leaving our heroine in the strong arms of the ripped body of her soul mate with the smouldering eyes. Honestly, I’m beginning to think it’s illegal to print a romance book unless it spends at least two-thirds of the book with the heroine conflicted about this perfect man who will obviously fulfill all her fantasies. These stilted plots have leaked over into the soft porn as well. But I digress…”

So with all the discussion about Amy Bloom’s story in the Kindle ad, we wanted to finally find out what her writing was like, and downloaded her novel Away, which nominated for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Book critics like this book!

But for my girlfriend, the real question remained: Did Amazon pick well for their Kindle ad? Is her work really vacation-beach worthy?

                        *                        *                        *

The answer is: I think so. There is nothing formulaic or predictable in Amy Bloom’s Away. I had absolutely no idea how the book was going to end, even up to its last 3 pages. Bloom draws you in, keeping your hopes alive through struggles that few today have experienced or understand. The main character, Lillian, flees Russia after her family is brutally murdered before her eyes by the village constables for the unforgivable crime of being Jewish.

She hands her daughter, Sophie, out the window to run to the safety of the chicken coop – but finds her gone when the constables are done and she steps over the bloody bodies of her family. This lives in her nightmares throughout the book. With everyone gone, she goes to a cousin in New York, living a drab existence, using her good looks to get a better job, all the while feeling dead inside. A relative pops up out of nowhere, telling her that Sophie is alive, rescued by their neighbors who then decamped for Siberia.

The trip to Siberia is less bizzare than it sounds at first. The Russians set up a “Zionist Paradise” there in hopes of sequestering Russian Jews in one spot. On this scant information, and armed with hope and her wits, Lillian sets off across US to go across the Bering Strait and then to Siberia to find Sophie. It is this trip that takes over two years and the rest of the book.

Amy Bloom writes beautiful descriptions. Lillian, newly arrived in New York, crowds into lines of other immigrant girls looking for seamstress work at a Jewish theater. “The street is like her village on market day, times a million. A boy playing a harp; a man with an accordion and a terrible, patchy little animal; a woman selling straw brooms from a basket strapped to her back, making a giant fan behind her head; a colored man singing in a pink suit and black shoes with pink spats… Lillian makes herself smile… as she walks past the women; they reek of bad luck.”

A couple of things really stand out for me when I consider this book.

There is a wealth of misery. Not only Lillian, but everyone she comes in contact with has their own tragic story, full of heartache and nightmares. Every. Single. One. I read on Wikipedia that Bloom is “trained as a social worker and practiced psychotherapy.” I wondered if these experiences influenced the way she drew the characters in Away. Not that she’s using specific stories, but that every single person she meets has a tragic past. Or perhaps I’m an optimist and think that at least some of the people I meet aren’t living with some horrific tragedy in their past. The unending onslaught of misery did wear me down by the end, even though some of the individual characters re-invented themselves and triumphed over their adversity.

The way Bloom treated Lillian’s nightmares, recurring throughout the book, seemed to me to come from her understanding therapy. It’s the same nightmare, over and over, always waking up screaming, until Lillian herself is no longer frightened by them, but thinks in her dreaming state, “yes, yes, the blood, the broken tea cup…” Familiarity breeds contempt, even with horror.

There are a few things I could quibble with, or pretend that if I were the editor I would change. For example, a full 10 pages of a 225-page novel is devoted to her train trip across the U.S. locked in a broom closet completely devoid of light. I kept expecting something to happen during this time, but no. Dark broom closet, stumble out into another train station and another train, another broom closet, Seattle. A lot of pages for not much. But these are minor.

For me the magical and wonderful moments in the book for me came from a thesaurus. I’ve never seen a thesaurus used as a character in a book before, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. A Jewish tailor in New York takes Lillian under his wing and tells her that in order to learn English, her best friend will be the thesaurus. Her adventures in New York are accompanied by asides of her learning the language through this tool. For example, Bloom writes, “You cannot admire Reuben for his integrity (forthrightness, honesty, purity, honorableness), and a good man would not enjoy knowing his gift was hidden in the apartment his son pays for, but Lillian thinks that Reuben is better than honest and better than good; he is strong.”

It’s a great read and highly recommended.

                        *                        *                        *

Click here to purchase Away by Amy Bloom.

Or read my interview with Amy Bloom about the day she discovered one of her short stories appeared in Amazon’s Kindle ad.

William Gibson vs. the Kindle

September 28, 2010

Author William Gibson
Science fiction fans have a special affection for William Gibson. The 62-year-old author coined the term “cyberspace” nearly 30 years ago, and, according to Wikipedia, later popularized the idea in his 1984 breakthrough cyberpunk novel, “Neuromancer.” In 2007 he finally reached the mainstream best-seller lists with a science fiction novel called “Spook Country.” That novel was continuing a contemporary, post-9/11 storyline which finally culminated in the book “Zero History” — a brand new novel that Gibson released just a few weeks ago.

It’s currently the Kindle’s #1 best-selling science fiction ebook — though there’s no evidence that Gibson himself has ever used an e-reader. But something very strange happened last week at a book signing in Washington…

At the headquarters of Microsoft’s campus at Redmond, Gibson was asked how he felt about signing printed books in what may be a new age of virtual books and tablet-sized digital reading devices. Gibson told the audience he could always etch his signature into the back of a device, by using an industrial-strength carbide tip. (The man who asked the question, Dave Ohara, described the historic event on his blog.) Gibson later discovered that his questioner was also the second person in line for a book-signing. And instead of bringing a book, they’d downloaded an ebook of the latest Gibson novel — and now wanted the author to sign the back of their Kindle!

Gibson acknowledged it was the first time he’d ever signed a Kindle, and then, using a black magic marker, autographed it in big, curvy letters. Later, Gibson’s fans discovered he’d commemorated the moment on Twitter. He’d “tweeted” a status update which announced, “Signed very first Kindle at Microsoft. Actually, *touched* very first Kindle. Appealing unit, IMO.”

“Is this a trend yet…?” joked another blog. “It certainly offers an interesting work around to the inability to get author signatures in the front covers of eBooks.” In fact, last year in Manhattan someone requested an autograph on their Kindle from humor writer David Sedaris. “In mock horror,” The New York Times reported, Sedaris signed their Kindle with the perfect epitaph.

“This bespells doom.”

But I think it’s even more interesting when the device is presented to the visionary science fiction author who first popularized the “cyberspace” concept. Gibson’s original story defined cyberspace as “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation… Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

Now we’re living in a world where there’s a second invisible ether that’s also always around us, and always being accessed for its virtual repository of 700,000 ebooks.

Sharp Galapagos Reader to compete with the iPad and Kindle
Today Japan’s electronics giant Sharp announced they’ll be releasing two fancy Android-based e-readers in December, to compete with the Kindle and iPad. They’re targetting 1 million in sales for the tablet-sized reading devices in their first year, according to IDG News Service, and they’re calling them Galapagos (after the exotic islands where Charles Darwin studied numerous species). Sharp sees the name as “a symbol of the ‘evolution’ of services” (and devices) “that constantly bring fresh, new experiences to the user.”

It’s an allusion to the fact that (besides updates to its software), the device can periodically refresh its content. Sharp’s press release emphasized its “Automatic Scheduled Delivery Service” for newspapers and magazines, though “The first models have Wi-Fi but don’t come equipped with 3G wireless,” notes IDG. And they also report that while there’s some Android apps pre-installed, “users might not be able to download additional apps.” In fact, a careful study of the press release reveals many shortcomings.

1. Sharp promises a total of just 30,000 newpapers, magazines, and ebooks. (Whereas Amazon’s Kindle Store offers 700,000).

2. Sharp didn’t announce its price.

3. It’s got a standard LCD display, rather than the more comfortable e-ink.

But most importantly, Sharp’s press release promises “a network service and device specifically designed for the Japanese market.” This means that it fully supports Japanese characters, but the device is based on the XMDF document format, according to IDG, “a format developed by Sharp and largely confined to Japan”. I think it’s significant that the device comes pre-installed with a “social network service” for sharing comments and lists of ebooks. Text messaging is extremely popular in Japan, but it’s not necessarily a must-have feature for a digital reader.

There’s two models – one the size of a Kindle, and one the size of an iPad — and the cases come in two colors, red and silver. (Though the larger models are only available in black).


Sharp Galapagos Reader to compete with iPad


But ultimately, I have the same reaction that I did when Apple released the iPad. It just shows that all around the world, people are still very excited about the reader market!

Department of Justice eagle logo


I was surprised by this headline: “Kindle spurs DOJ to action.” It’s from a student newspaper in Tennessee, highlighting a new drama for the Kindle. There’s been official communications between college campuses and the United States Department of Justice – and the Kindle-using colleges have now started to react.

The federal government’s Civil Rights Division had issued an advisory specifically about “universities using electronic book readers that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.” (The student newspaper cites civil rights investigations which were launched against four colleges, including Arizona State University and Case Western Reserve University.) “We acted swiftly to respond to complaints we received about the use of the Amazon Kindle,” announced an Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Though the Kindle DX has a text-to-speech function, the Civil Rights Division noted it didn’t work for the menus or navigation controls.

The four targeted universities agreed “not to purchase, recommend, or promote use of this or other electronic book readers unless the devices are fully accessible…or the universities provide a reasonable modification…” And then the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights co-authored a letter to college presidents across America, also asking them to “voluntarily ensure that their schools refrain from requiring the use of any devices that are not accessible to students who are blind or have low vision.” But what’s ironic about this is some universities may not even want the Kindle. MIT’s technology blog argued Tuesday that “formal trials of the Kindle as a textbook replacement led universities like Princeton and Arizona State University to reject it as inadequate.”

I knew that Arizona halted their Kindle experiment over concerns about its accessbility to the blind. But what happened in the Kindle experiments at Princeton? Fortunately, MIT’s blog had linked to an article which led to a February report from Princeton’s student newspaper which answered my question. “Students and faculty participating in the program said it was difficult to highlight and annotate PDF files and to use the folder structure intended to organize documents… The inability to quickly navigate between documents and view two or more documents at the same time also frustrated users.”

There’s lots of talk about the Kindle in education, but it was fun to hear feedback from actual students. One sophomore had initially been enthusiastic about the program, but reported that “it’s not very helpful in page-turning or note taking, and the annotation software is very poor.” A senior agreed that it was difficult to annotate text, and also had another complaint about the absence of physical pages. “Because there are no page numbers, I also had no conception of how much reading I had to do.” And of course, it was hard to synchronize class discussions when some students were using page numbers, and others were using locations.

I pored over the article carefully, because it seemed like it held clues to the future of the Kindle, but even some of the professors seemed unhappy. An international affairs professor complained that he’d wanted his students to study their texts carefully, ideally by highlighting lots of passages, and he felt that with the Kindle “the annotation function is difficult to use, and the keyboard is very small.” Another professor argued his class included “very traditional reading,” and he felt it was a good match for the Kindle – though he did worry it would make it harder to refer to the readings during class. But on the positive side, one classics professor suggested it was “a great advantage to always have all the texts available without carrying too much around.”

And at least one student felt the Kindle was helpful when writing papers, because highlighted text could be downloaded onto his computer, and then cut-and-pasted directly into his term papers! But almost two-thirds of the study’s participants said they wouldn’t even buy a new reader if they broke the one they’d been given during the study. “But nearly all reported that they would follow the technology’s progress,” the newspaper concluded, and this is my favorite part of the study. “The 53 students who participated in the pilot program were allowed to keep their Kindles after the courses ended.”

Meanwhile, Amazon’s newest Kindles are now finally fully accessible to the blind, according to a history of the controversy in The Washington Examiner. (“While the Justice Department was making demands, and Perez was making speeches, the market was working.”) And back at the Middle Tennessee State University, the director of Disabled Student Services gave their campus a thumbs up for their Kindle policy — mainly because none of the professors were using them yet. “As far as he knows…there aren’t any courses that require students to use electronic readers at MTSU, which has the largest population of students with disabilities in the Southeast.”

“I’ve seen students using them,” noted the adaptive technology coordinator, “but I don’t think they’re part of their curriculum…”

Globe of the Earth
There’s three Kindle stories today, and together they paint a picture of how the Kindle is changing our world. First, 8% of Americans now own a Kindle or some other digital reading device, according to a newly-released poll. It discovered that 92% of Americans don’t own a digital reader, so “any real changes may take a while to detect, but some small ones are noticeable now.” Harris Interactive had surveyed 2,775 adults last month, and concluded that people who own digital readers end up reading more books.

I had to laugh, because yesterday I’d reported on a 2008 comment by Steve Jobs. The Apple CEO told an audience that “40% of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year… people don’t read any more.” But according to the new Harris poll, now it’s only 25% of Americans who read one book or less each year. (Plus, there’s apparently another 40% of Americans who every year read at least 11 books.) And the percentages are even higher for people who own a digital reader: each year a full 62% of them read at least 11 books, while 26% of them are reading more than 20 books!

“People seem to be reading more if they have an eReader,” the researchers concluded, “which is something the publishing industry, which has been in decline over recent years, is sure to celebrate.” But the same day, there was an interesting counterpoint coming from one of America’s top technology colleges. Last week I reported figures challenging whether the ebook was really outselling the printed book. Today those figures drew a response from the Technology Review blog at MIT.

“The death of the book has been greatly exaggerated…” wrote Christopher Mims. “I’m calling the peak of inflated expectations now.” He’d heard predictions that the printed book would be dead within five years, but “it’s just as likely that as the ranks of the early adopters get saturated, adoption of ebooks will slow… Get ready for the next phase of the hype cycle – the trough of disillusionment. The signs of a hype bubble are all around us.”

Fortunately, the pollsters also asked whether people planned on buying a digital reader over the next six months. 80% of them said they were “not likely” to, and 59% even described themselves emphatically as “not at all likely.” Another eight percent said they weren’t sure, leaving 12% who said they were likely. But even among that 12%, for every one person who said they were “very likely,” there were three who were only “somewhat likely.”

But there’s a wild third perspective coming from a bus driver in Oregon. The 40-year-old bus driver was caught reading his Kindle while driving the bus. It was 7:15 in the morning on a fateful drive towards downtown Portland, and his reckless driving was captured by another handheld piece of technology — a cellphone movie. In one amazing frame, he’s actually steering the bus with just one elbow on its steering wheel, holding his chin in his hand while he points his head down towards the Kindle resting on the driver-sider dashboard. “At one point he also appears to ‘turn’ a page,” noted one Oregon TV report.

I know it’s only one anecdote, but I think it says more than any statistics ever could about how much the Kindle is creeping into our world…

Apple's Steve Jobs and the iPad vs Amazon's Kindle
It’s one of the most controversial comments ever made. Nearly three years ago, Steve Jobs was asked about the Kindle at the annual Mac World conference, and he made a startling declaration.

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read any more. Forty percent of the people in the United States read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

But not everyone agreed with his cynicism about the business of ebooks, including the technology blog at The New York Times.

“That may well be true, but it doesn’t take into account that a large percentage of the books are bought by a small number of readers…a relatively small number of people…represent a disproportionately large share of profits.”

And of course, Apple’s statistic also proves that 60 percent of Americans do read more than one book each year.

I think Jobs’ comment was motivated by a feeling of fierce competition. But nearly three years later, it still remembered in Amazon’s Kindle discussion forum. When Apple finally unveiled the iPad in January, Steve Jobs reportedly demonstrated its reading capability, and then conceded that Amazon “has done a great job of pioneering this… we’re going to stand on their shoulders for this.” I think that today, it’s become a different question: not whether there’s a market for ebooks, but whether that’s a selling point in the war between tablet-sized devices.

“No matter how cheap or technologically cool the iPad or Kindle are, ebooks will never come close to actual books…” complained one of my readers last week. But almost as soon as the iPad was released, reporters began comparing its screen to the Kindle’s. The rivalry between the devices heated up last week with Amazon’s newest TV ad. It uses two people talking at a swimming pool to demonstrate that sunlight glares off your iPad’s screen if you read it outdoors.

It’s one very specific difference between the devices, but business analysts are already analyzing the message. Yesterday The Motley Fool tracked down Len Edgerly, who is both a former business reporter and very popular Kindle podcaster, and specifically asked him about Amazon’s new ad. It was fun to hear that Edgerly actually does read his Kindle at the beach, and he describes the experience as delightful. “You also have the feeling that you are not taking a computer to the beach…”

Apparently it’s not just that there’s no glare from the sun; it’s that the Kindle is as light as a pair of sandals. At one and a half pounds, the iPad is nearly three times as heavy as the Kindle, with new versions weighing in at just 8.5 ounces. Judging by Edgerly’s experience, this could be a deciding factor for some users in the war between the iPad and the Kindle.

“[A]fter about a half an hour of reading a book, the iPad just seemed to get heavier and heavier and less and less pleasing to hold…”

My Favorite Free eBooks

September 21, 2010

Monopoly Community Chest card Amazon Kindle Free ebook parody


I asked my girlfriend which free ebooks were her favorite. She gave me a list of over 20, and revealed a special truth about Amazon’s 100 best-selling free eBooks.

It’s not just a list, it’s an experience…

                        *                        *                        *

It’s a great amalgam of the entire book world, a shifting, shimmering set of 100 choices for blissful escape. Unlike the Kindle Top 100, which is a list of the current best sellers, Amazon’s list of Top 100 Free ebooks ranges all over time.

Right now, the science fiction choices seem to have mostly dropped off. Several of the free Star Wars books had been on the list for several months, but now they’ve been replaced, mostly by classics. I LOVE this! These books are being read again because of the Kindle! I would never have purchased a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, but when I found it on the list of free books, boom! I’m transported to France in 1825.

There are excellent reasons why these books are classics, and why we’re required to read them when we’re in high school. Yet I’m also really enjoying reading them as an adult. My grown-up perspective brings intricacies of the books up to the surface, though they were lost when I was 15. (And not just the intriguing lesbian lover subplot in “The Count of Monte Cristo.” I’m finding may other nuances which increase my reading pleasure.)

So much is on the list. There’s classics that turn out to be anything but boring, like Dracula, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and several Jane Austen titles. They’re mixed in with some historic books, like The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and sometimes even tempoarily-free self help titles like “So What? How to Communicate What Really Matters to Your Audience” and How to Speak and Write Correctly. (Bless you, Joseph Devlin for putting this up for free!).

Tucked in are some surprisingly current free books, like Cybill Shephard’s autobiography (“Cybill Disobedience”) and recently, the Deepak Chopra book Buddah: With Bonus Materials. (And there’s also the ever-present porn with suggestive titles like Compromising Positions, Slow Hands, and Irresistible Forces.) I’m encouraged to see Through The Looking Glass, Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know, and Aesop’s Fables, which gives me hope that even in the age of the Kindle, parents are still reading to their children. And, most inexplicably, Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Poetical Works. I’m a poetry lover, but it surprises me that this book has been on the Kindle Top 100 Free consistently all year.

Maybe the goth, vampire and zombie contingents are into E.A. Poe’s poetry?

Stephen King Kindle horror story ebook - UR
Stephen King lived his own amazing story. He travelled back in time to the year 2000 in order to write the first massively successful ebook. Or something like that. I just discovered Stephen King actually released the first mass-market ebook over 10 years ago, and within 24 hours he’d achieved an amazing 400,000 downloads!

In the story, a young man has a strange adventure while hitchhiking to the hospital bed of his sick mother. (Fans may remember the novella, which was called Riding the Bullet, and is still available as a Kindle ebook.) Stephen King’s profits may not have set a record, since according to Business Week more than 90% of those readers downloaded that book for free. But Stephen King still remained a pioneer in ebooks, and nearly three years ago, he finally read his first book using the Kindle.


“The advance publicity says it looks like a paperback book, but it really doesn’t. It’s a panel of white plastic with a screen in the middle and one of those annoying teeny-tiny keyboards most suited to the fingers of Keebler elves. Full disclosure: I have not yet used the teeny-tiny keyboard, and really see no need for it. Keyboards are for writing. The Kindle is for reading…”


I really like the way Stephen King described WhisperNet as “the electronic ether, where even now a million books are flying overhead, like paper angels without the paper, if you know what I mean.” And soon King had decided to write his own spooky story that was about the Kindle itself! After writing the article Amazon had asked his agent if King wanted to write an original story for the release of the Kindle 2. “I decided I would like to write a story for the Kindle, but only if I could do one about the Kindle. Gadgets fascinate me, particularly if I can think of a way they might get weird.”

That story is called Ur (and you can still download it to your Kindle for just $3.19.) “At the time the Amazon request came in, I’d been playing with an idea about a guy who starts getting e-mails from the dead,” King wrote in Entertainment Weekly. “The story I wrote, Ur, was about an e-reader that can access books and newspapers from alternate worlds.

“I realized I might get trashed in some of the literary blogs, where I would be accused of shilling for Jeff Bezos & Co., but that didn’t bother me much; in my career, I have been trashed by experts, and I’m still standing.”



Click here to download UR

And if you want to travel back in time to 2000, Riding the Bullet also appeared in a King collection called “Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales.”

Kindle beach ebook ad - I reached across the table but he shrugged
I had to know. What exactly is the story that the woman’s reading in Amazon’s Kindle ad? It appears briefly on the screen before the camera pulls back to reveal the beach. But now I’m almost sorry that I asked…

Last week I interviewed the author who wrote the book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. And in preparation, I’d read the story itself. It’s “Sleepwalking,” the first in a four-story cycle by Amy Bloom, and the story is actually about a 19-year-old boy who has a sexual encounter with his stepmother. It’s the day after his father’s funeral, and it’s told from the perspective of the grief-stricken widow, Julia. She cries while singing to her younger son, and then staggers through the hours in a daze.


After the funeral was over and the cold turkey and the glazed ham were demolished and some very good jazz was played and some very good musicians went home drunk on bourbon poured in my husband’s honor, it was just me, my mother-in-law, Ruth, and our two boys, Lionel junior from Lionel’s second marriage, and our little boy, Buster.


It’s an incredibly sad story, but it’s also extremely well-written. (Bloom has written stories for The New Yorker, and was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.) According to Wikipedia, Bloom also worked as a psychotherapist and created a series on The Lifetime Network about psychiatrists called “State of Mind”. Like a clinical psychologist, Bloom writes a story which provides an honest answer to the question of how this could happen, and her story doesn’t flinch from its painful aftermath. “I was already sorrier than I’d ever been in my whole life, sorry enough for this life and the next…”

It’s the stepmother’s story, as she struggles to find a way to make things right — but first she must confront the fact that her son wants to continue the relationship.



“No, honey.”

I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door…


And that’s the sentence which appears at the top of the Kindle’s screen in Amazon’s ad. That’s what she’s reading at the beach…


I sat for a long time, sipping, watching the sunlight move around the kitchen. When it was almost five, I took the keys from [her husband] Lionel’s side of the dresser and drove his van to soccer camp. [Her other, younger son] Buster felt like being quiet, so we just held hands and listened to the radio. I offered to take him to Burger King, hoping the automated monkeys and video games would be a good substitute for a fully present and competent mother. He was happy and we killed an hour and a half there. Three hours to bedtime.

We watched some TV, sitting on the couch, his feet in my lap. Every few minutes, I’d look at the clock on the mantel and then promise myself I wouldn’t look until the next commercial. Every time I started to move, I’d get tears in my eyes, so I concentrated on sitting very still, waiting for time to pass. Finally, I got Buster through his…


Amy Bloom actually wrote that short story in 1993, when she was 40 years old. Over the years she wrote two more stories about the family — with the son returning for the family Thanksgiving dinner with a girlfriend 10 years later. It’s told first from the son’s perspective, and then from the mother’s — but last year, Bloom produced a final story which reveals how things finally ended up. She’d published the two Thanksgiving stories in a 2000 collection, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. But it’s in her newest collection, published in January, where readers get the final word about Lionel and Julia.

I asked Amy Bloom if she would ever write another story about the characters — if there would ever be more stories about the family. “There might be,” she replied. “I’m not sure. Not at this point. I’m done with these characters now. I’m on to this novel, and I’m sure that it’s — if the next generation makes themselves known to me, I’ll probably go back and write a few more stories.” I also asked what she thought of Amazon’s choice of the story for their Kindle ad. “I wasn’t embarrassed,” she replied circumspectly (repeating “I didn’t think this was embarrassing,” when it came up again later).

And then I remembered the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer, who was once asked if he’d had a favorite of his stories. He’d said it was like being asked if he had a favorite among his children. I decided maybe it wasn’t the right question to ask the story’s author. But 17 years after the original story was written, a page from it still flickers across millions of TV screens. And each day dozens of people then feel compelled to go into Google and type in this mysterious sentence.

“I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door…”


                        *                       *                       *

Click here to buy Where the God of Love Hangs Out.

Amazon sales print book vs ebook
It’s been bothering me for a while. My friend Patrick said he didn’t believe ebooks were outselling printed books. In July, Amazon announced they’d sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, but my friend insisted Amazon must’ve been including all the free ebooks they give away every day.

He was wrong about that. I tracked down Amazon’s original press release, where they specifically said they hadn’t used free Kindle books in their figures, and if they had, obviously, their reported number for downloaded ebooks would be much, much higher. But then I discovered a business analyst who’d found an even bigger problem with Amazon’s statistic. According to the Nielsen Bookscan service, hardcover books accounted for just 23% of all books sold in the previous year.

So what happens if you ask how many “printed books” Amazon sold, instead of using the smaller number of “hardcover books”? Following the same ratio, Amazon would be selling approximately 334 paperbacks for every 100 hardcover books — or a total of 434 printed books for every 180 ebooks. That would mean over 70% of the books Amazon sells are still printed books — 180 out of 614 — with ebooks accounting for just 29.3% of all the books that Amazon sells.

And there’s another important statistic to consider. Amazon sells a whopping 90% of all the ebooks that are sold, according to one analysis in February. There’s thousands of other bookstores in America which sell only printed books — and no ebooks, and even major chains like Barnes and Noble are still new to the ebook-selling business. Amazon’s ebook sales are much higher than other retailers in the country. And yet even Amazon seems to be selling far more printed books — hardcovers and paperbacks — than ebooks.

So what happens if you compare Amazon’s ebook sales to that of the entire printed book industry? “Amazon is estimated to have 19% of the book market,” notes Jay Yarrow, an editor at The Business Insider, “which implies the company sold 15.6 million hardcover books so far this year… If we use the ratio from the last quarter, it implies Amazon has sold around 22 million Kindle books so far this year. That’s just the equivalent of 6% of the total print book market, which remains tiny.”

I’m disturbed at this new statistic. Morning talk shows seem to be informing their audiences that the book is already dying — Regis Philbin is talking about it, and even Whoopi Goldberg on The View. Obviously, the general public doesn’t know that hardcover sales represent a tiny portion of the overall number of books sold — though it’s a crucial piece of context — but Amazon must know this already. So it seems almost irresponsible to announce that ebooks are outselling hardcover books, without explaining that that’s an almost meaningless statistic.

This is what motivated my post last week comparing the print sales vs. ebook sales for popular authors. PC World came up with statistics for the ebook sales of five authors, which were tiny when compared to the print sales reported on Wikipedia. For example:

Nora Roberts
Print sales: 280,000,000
eBook sales:       500,000 ( 0.17%)

According to Amazon’s own figures, no ebook has ever sold more than one million copies. (Though Stieg Larsson’s three ebooks, added together, total one million in sales — an average of just 333,333 per book.) PC World reports Stephenie Meyer is close to selling one million ebooks — though she’s sold over 100 million printed books.

To be fair to Amazon, it’s possible that they’re still delivering many more free ebooks — which they aren’t reporting in their figures. So their total ebook downloads could, in fact, outnumber their total printed book sales. But so far, Amazon hasn’t actually made that claim.

And until they do, there’s no evidence that the ebook is actually outselling the printed book.

United States President Barack Obama and George Washington
There’s a new children’s book author in town, and his name is Barack Obama.

Today the President of the United States announced he’ll be publishing “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters.” The book won’t be released until November 16, but Amazon is already selling pre-orders of the book at a 45% discount. The book won’t be available on the Kindle, so Amazon urges shoppers to “Tell the Publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle…” But poking around Amazon, I discovered another Barack Obama text that’s already available, for free, and another one written by his predecessor, George Bush.

For Barack Obama, it’s the presidential inaugural address, and whether you love or hate the President, it’s interesting to look back on the day that his presidency started, and remember just how different the world was in January of 2009. You can also download a free version of George Bush’s 2006 State of the Union address, or Ronald Reagan’s from 1982, so your Kindle is giving equal time to both political parties. But by exploring Amazon a little further, I discovered an even more fascinating historical document. It’s actually possible to download every inaugural address given by every previous U.S. President, all collected together into a single ebook!

There’s President Nixon, President Ford, President Clinton, and President Reagan, of course. But you can also point your time machine back towards the 1700s, reading the inaugural addresses of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in 1789 and 1801, respectively. President Harrison, the 9th President of the United States, insisted on reading his entire two-hour inauguration speech — the longest in U.S. history — during a cold and rainy day in Washington D.C. He refused to wear a hat or coat, possibly trying to remind the audience that he was still the tough military general that had served in the War of 1812, but ironically, he died three weeks later after catching pneumonia.

Wikipedia insists that long speech was unrelated to Harrison’s death, but it’s still fun to sneak a peek at the hopes he held for the four years he never got to see. Every famous president from American history has their own inauguration speech — President Kennedy, President Truman, and one especially poetic address by Abraham Lincoln. And it was during his inaugural speech that Franklin Roosevelt made one of his most famous statements.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

It was just 28 years later that President Kennedy was inaugurated, and that speech is also in the collection, featuring an optimistic call to duty. (“My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”) I’m looking forward to reading all the speeches, and it’ll be fun to flit around from century to century.

I just wonder if we’ll ever have a President who actually enjoys reading on the Kindle…

New Kindle vs iPad sun glasses ad

Amazon’s just released a new TV ad that makes fun of Apple’s iPad. At a glamorous pool (surrounded by palm trees), a befuddled young man is shown trying to read his iPad, as the sun’s glare is reflected off his screen. “Excuse me,” he says to the woman next to him, in a bikini. “How are you reading that, in this light?”

“It’s a Kindle,” she replies casually, adding almost as an afterthought: “$139.” She smiles an enormous smile, and then says: “I actually paid more for these sunglasses.”

There’s a secret history to the ad. In July, the New York Times interviewed Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, and he’d demonstrated the Kindle’s low price by telling an almost identical story. (“At $139, if you’re going to read by the pool, some people might spend more than that on a swimsuit and sunglasses.”) I wonder if he phoned the ad agency the same day, demanding that they start working on this commercial!

The ad’s already provoking some interesting reactions on the web. “This is a good ad,” posted one reader at Electronista. “If you just want to read, the Kindle is a far better device. If you want a multipurpose device, the iPad beats it, just not in bright sunlight.” And another viewer spotted another advantage, which they’d posted in the comments at a site called The Next Web.

“Also note that she is using the Kindle one-handed, while the iPad guy has to rest it on his beer gut…”

When the ad ends, Amazon proudly displays its final message on the screen. “The all new Kindle. Only $139.” And the ad drew an enthusiastic response in the Kindle discussion forum at Amazon.com. “I have not seen an iPad yet,” posted one user, “and when it showed it I thought, OMG what is that ugly thing? I actually rewound the DVR to see if I could see what it was… Might as well carry around a hippopotamus!”

Over at Electronista, one user didn’t question the attack on the iPad, but did pan the quality of the ad itself. “The acting is forced and the tail music is jarring. Did Amazon really pay for this?”

But in Amazon’s Kindle forum, one viewer applauded the ad for both its valuable message — and for its messenger. “You can not read Apple products outside in the sunlight. I have an iPhone and it is useless in the sunlight.

“Plus the chick is hot!”

Amy Bloom book in the Kindle beach ad

I just got off the phone with Amy Bloom. She’s the author whose book actually appears on the Kindle’s screen during the beginning of that ad at the beach. Amy has published short stories in The New Yorker, and was nominated for the National Book Award — and even that woman in the Kindle ad is now reading her most recent book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. I was very excited, because I was finally going to get to ask her: how does it feel to find your book featured in an ad for the Kindle?

I tracked down her contact information, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions. We spoke for 15 minutes on Wednesday — after I’d spent the previous week reading all of her books!

Q: When was the first time you realized it was a page from your book that was featured in the Kindle ad?

AMY BLOOM: A day or two ago. The day that you emailed me. I had a nice note from an agent…

Q: And have you watched the ad?

AMY: Somebody sent me a link.

Q: So what was your reaction?

AMY: I thought, “Oh. How nice.”

I have to say, I can’t imagine that most people looking at the ad — the thing that stays with them is just that fleeting moment of print. But you never know. I suppose somebody… I’m afraid this is my nature. What I felt was, “Oh, that’s so nice. Thank you, Kindle people.”

Q: And then you went on about your day?

AMY: I did. I had a deadline. I was working on something, and I went back to work.

Q: Did you get any other reactions from people you know?

AMY: Another friend of mine said, “Hey, guess what…”

You know? “I fleetingly saw your page in a Kindle ad!” And that was nice. You know, I’m the dullest person in the world. I say, “Oh, that’s so nice.” And they go, “Yep.”

Q: I guess I was expecting you’d have a bigger reaction to the ads.

AMY: I am notorious for this in my family. I’m pleased by them. I’m flattered by them, but I don’t — they’re not — they’re great. I’m really appreciative and I think its very kind of the Kindle people. I feel very grateful for whoever it was who said, “Hey, how about a page from an Amy Bloom story.” I feel very grateful for whoever that person is.

Q: Will this increase sales of your book?

AMY: You never know. It probably won’t do me any harm.

On the other hand, the other way to look at it is, who cares? I’ve done my job as a writer. I’ve written the best work I know how. And I’m appreciative of the people who read it and care about the work — and that’s pretty much the end of that. Anything else that happens is sometimes nice, and sometimes not so nice, but not really directly relevant.

Q: Still, for more than two months they’ve been broadcasting a page from your book into millions of homes, and over and over again.

AMY: It’s very nice. But on the other hand, I’m sure there are far more people who are like Snooki and The Situation, than have gone, “Ooh, look. An Amy Bloom short story.” Again, I think it’s — I am really appreciative, and it’s also sort of in the category of ephemera.

Q: But is there a larger significance?

AMY: If there is a larger significance, it’s going to be someone else who figures out what it is, not me.

Q: Are you one of those authors of print books who has a secret distrust of ebooks and digital readers?

AMY: I don’t have anything against them sort of, qua objects. I think, from people who find them more comfortable or more useful — you know, it doesn’t matter to me whether people read wax tablets or printed books or handmade books or ebooks. I’m happy that they read.

And I have to say, I don’t really have a sense as to how the presence of Kindles and ebooks is going to change two of the things I like most in the world — which are bookstores and libraries. It’s already clear that the tiny independent bookstores are not going to be proliferating. On the other hand, somebody told me that three had opened in New York City. So there you go. And so I think it’ll be like my dad used to say. “May you live in interesting times.” We’ll see what happens next.

Q: Do you use a Kindle, or another digital reader?

AMY: I don’t. But I’m sure when I’m a little old lady, I’m going to be very grateful to have a — some lightweight thing that contains a lot of books and has big fonts.

Q: Do you have any friends who are using a Kindle or one of the other digital readers?

AMY: I do know a couple of people who use them. They seem to like them quite a bit…

Q: I guess I’m comparing you to the woman in the Kindle ad. Do you at least read books at the beach?

AMY: I do read at the beach, although not — you know, usually not the “technologically advanced” versions.

Q: And you’re not reading Where the God of Love Hangs Out.

AMY: Well no, because I was familiar with the book.

Q: A few people who’ve watched the ad have said, “Man, that couple must hate each other.”

AMY: Well, or it’s comfortable silences. Other people’s marriages are hard to judge.

Q: And for that matter, the other comment is that the two of them are at that gorgeous beach — with their noses stuck in a book.

AMY: Well, there is that…

Q: I’ve been trying to figure out how your book was chosen for the ad. Maybe the ad was filmed when the hardcover version was first released?

AMY: I think it had nothing to do with updates. It had to do with whoever designed this particular ad — and God bless them.

Q: Do you anticipate pages from your book starring in other ads?

AMY: I don’t see my work — or my person — starring in any commercials any time soon.

Q: So where will we see you next?

AMY: I’m working on a novel. I’m working on a couple of TV projects, and mostly that’s what I do.

Mostly I keep my head down!


Click here to buy your own Kindle ebook version of
Where the God of Love Hangs Out
.

This was too good not to share. “I had an interesting/amusing experience today at the mall,” writes my friend Mike in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

“Went into a Borders Express to see if I could find some titles that aren’t available for Kindle yet. I noticed that there was only one Leisure Horror title available. The cashier and I got to talking and she started complaining about e-books and how they were killing off the bookstores. I was the only one in the store. As I walked out, I noticed she went back to reading whatever book she was reading — on her Kobo.

“I was chuckling as I walked out of the store…”

Mike posted his comment in a Kindle discussion forum, where it drew an even funnier reaction from Andrew E. Kaufman, author of the ebook While the Savage Sleeps. What did he think of the employee at Borders?

“A clear case of e-denial.”

In his personal blog, Andrew also makes an interesting comment about the sales of print books. “Regardless of all the gloom and doom we hear about the publishing industry, there are still some authors who are ten feet tall and bulletproof.” (James Patterson, for example, was paid $100 million for the rights to his next 17 novels, and Stephenie Meyer will earn $40 million this year…) And according to Amazon’s own figures, no Kindle ebook has ever sold more than one million copies. (Stieg Larsson has sold a total of one million ebooks, but that’s for all of his titles combined, according to Amazon’s recent press release.)

PC World reported that Nora Roberts is just now closing in on 500,000 total ebook sales, though she’s already sold over 280 million print editions of her books (according to Wikipedia). And in the same article, PC World suggests Stephenie Meyer must be close to selling one million ebooks, though she’s sold over 100 million printed books. J.K. Rowlings has sold over 400 million print editions of her Harry Potter novels, and Robert Ludlum has sold more than 290 million books. Even the Goosebumps series has sold more than 300 million print editions — and they aren’t even the best-selling authors of all time.

Wikipedia offers an amazing rough list of the best-selling fiction authors of all time. Agatha Christie is tied with William Shakespeare for the #1 spot, with at least 2 billion books sold. Harold Robbins has sold 750 million novels, and romance novelist Barbara Cartland is somewhere between half a billion and an even billion. It’s a staggering amount of printed books, especially when you consider that for ebook sales, there’s only one author who has ever squeaked out of the six-figure range.

I’ve started to become skeptical of Amazon’s claim that the ebook is outselling the printed book. I’ll share more data in a few days, but it’s always exciting to hear stories from the actual bookstores. Maybe it’s the “front line” in the war between printed books and ebooks.

And if so, this next year will be very interesting!


I didn’t know this was possible, but Google offers an interactive map of the world which shows the location of other Kindle users. Sort of…

A computer consultant in Croatia created the “Kindler’s Pincushion,” a collaborative version of Google Maps where other Kindle users can add a blue pin to show where they’re located. Nearly 600 proud Kindle owners have come forward so far, some adding funny extra comments.

      “A five-Kindle family!”
      “love mysteries and chocolate cake.”
      “Me and my Kindle and my cat live here!”
      “Tengo un Kindle DX”

The fun began in January of 2010, when a young man named Dragi Raos entered Amazon’s Kindle forum and announced his project’s humble beginning. (“We have four pins on three continents…”) But soon other Kindle owners had caught his enthusiasm, and were leaving comments of support.

      “First Dane on the map!”
      “Kansas on the map now.”
      “It will be fun to watch the pins overtake the world…!”

There’s now pushpins marking Kindle owners in Europe and Australia, as well Africa, Asia, and both North and South America. There’s pushpins in Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, and Canada, as well as Alaska, Hawaii, and most of the states in America. I even recognized the names of two of the Kindle users — Bufo Calvin and Mrs. Wizard — who are both authors of blogs about the Kindle. “It’s a fun visual,” Calvin wrote when the project was announced, “and you can add your own pin!”

Ironically, I can’t view the map on my Kindle! (I’m still using my original Kindle 1, and it’s always had trouble with Google Maps.) To test it, I converted its complicated web URL into an “alias” that was easier to type — http://tinyurl.com/kindlemap. Fortunately, that URL is also easier to remember, if you want to test the “Kindler’s Pincushion” in a PC-based web browser. If you’ve set up a “Google Account,” you can even log into the map as an editor.

And then you can even add in a pincushion for your own location — along with your own funny comments!

It's a Book by Lane Smith
I think this is a milestone. Friday, 79-year-old Regis Philbin discussed the end of the printed book on his morning daytime television talk show.

It began when co-host Kelly Ripa brought out a new children’s picture book titled “It’s a Book.” She read its dialogue between a technology-loving jackass, and a monkey who still loves books. The confused jackass watches him reading for a minute, and then asks “How do you scroll down?”

“I don’t. I turn the page. It’s a book.”

“Do you blog with it?”
“No. It’s a book…”
“Can you make the characters fight?”
“Nope. Book.”
“Can it text.”
“No.”
“Tweet?”
“No.”
“Wi-Fi?
“No.”
“Can it do this? ‘Doot’…”
“No. It’s a book.”

But here’s where it gets interesting. It’s a brand-new book — released just two weeks ago — and the author had delivered a special version to Regis and Kelly. On the book’s inside cover, he’d suggested the book’s characters could be people on their talk show. The book-loving monkey was Regis, while the cute little mouse was Kelly, and the technology-loving donkey was Regis’s producer, a man named Gelman.

It was a special edition of the show — later, Gelman would try to teach 79-year-old Regis how to use a computer. (Regis is a notorious technophobe, possibly because he was born in 1931, back when Herbert Hoover was still President.) And yet in their conversation, Regis seemed to sense that his world had finally reached a turning point.

                        *                        *                        *
REGIS: It’s too bad about books, because just recently Barnes and Noble…

KELLY: Oh, I — they’re going to sell Barnes and Noble.

REGIS: — you know, just can’t do it any more. Isn’t that a shame, those bookstores slowly going out of business?

KELLY: I mean it’s like, to me there’s nothing better, also, than going in a library and smelling all the books and hearing the — the crinkling of the plastic covering on the b- —

REGIS: Yeah, exactly.

KELLY: I mean it’s just, I hope that we haven’t taken it too far.

REGIS: Our kids missed the big internet age when they were small, you know, and it was still books. And boy, I’ll never forget when we brought the girls here to New York, how Joanna loved these bookstores. And it was a thrill for her. I was taking — “Wanna go see a movie or something?”

“No, I wanna go to this book store.” Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue, and all those stores.

KELLY: Now she’s an author. Now she writes.

REGIS: And now she’s an author. Yeah.

KELLY: It’s funny. My son just got his, well, not just, but over the summer, his seventh grade reading list. And it’s still books! So I’m happy to say that they’re still using books.

REGIS: Yeah. I guess there’s room for both internet and books, you know. But unfortunately…

                        *                        *                        *

Ironically, Regis Philbin has written two autobiographies — neither of which is available on the Kindle!

But click here to buy “It’s a Book!”

Number five on a billiards ball
I went looking for more Kindle tips and tricks — and discovered the mother lode. When the Kindle was first released, a hacker named Igor Skochinsky poked around through the Kindle’s hardware, and discovered some undocumented features. For example, he posted instructions on how to create a book on your home page which is actually a set of your favorite pictures. (When you e-mail pictures to your Kindle, each picture appears as a separate ebook, but Skochinsky appears to have found an unsupported way to pull up a special “Picture Viewer,” which can also re-size pictures to fit the Kindle screen, adjust their dithering, and even select one of them as the Kindle’s screen saver.)

Confession: I didn’t actually try that tip, because I was afraid it might void my Kindle’s warranty. But I can pass along five of the other tricks which worked great on my Kindle 1.


1. Automatic Page-Turning with “Slideshow” Mode

You can teach your Kindle to turn the pages for you! When you’re reading an ebook, just press Alt-0 to “enable” the special slideshow mode. Then pressing Alt-1 will start the automatic page-turning — and Alt-2 will stop it. It seems to have only one speed, but it’s easy to keep up with if you increase your text’s font size, which reduces the number of words on each page. And pressing Alt-0 again will “toggle off” this special functionality.

“Slideshow mode” can also be used like one of those educational tools that they use to teach speed readers to read faster…

2. Display the Current Time

If you’re reading an ebook, pressing Alt-T will actually spell out the current time, in letters, in the lower-left corner of the screen (where the Kindle usually displays your current location in the ebook).

If you’re on your Kindle’s home page, pressing Alt-T will display the current time, in numbers, in the same lower-left corner.

And entering @time as a search will also display the complete time, including the month and day!

3. Switch to a Different Song

If you’re playing an mp3, pressing Alt-P will stop (and re-start) the Kindle’s music player. But if you want to continue playing music, and just switch over to a different song, then press Alt-F to go Forward to the next song in your Kindle directory.

4. Find Out How Many Hours You’ve Used Your Kindle

On a phone you’d dial 411 to call information. On the “Settings,” screen, you type 411 to get information about your Kindle. It’s a diagnostics page, with mostly cryptic technical information like “Kindle Version: Linux version 2.6.10-lab126.”

But it’s kind of fun to see your Kindle’s “awake time” and “sleep time” statistics.

5. Find Nearby Restaurants on Google Maps

If you’re using the web browser, try typing Alt-3. This automatically brings up Google Maps with a page listing restaurants near your current location. (And Alt-2 brings up nearby gas stations, while Alt-1 shows your current location.)

Note: I’ve had some erratic results using this feature. It seems like now, Google simply displays “Not Avail, Not Avail” for my city and state — and then performs the search using the last city that I’d accessed through Google Maps. But that’s still a pretty handy feature….

Click here for an earlier article, My 10 Best Kindle Tips and Tricks.

Or click here to buy Kindle Shortcuts, Hidden Features, Kindle-Friendly Websites, Free eBooks & Email From Kindle: Concise User Guide

Playing the Dulcimer
It all started when I’d asked, “Do You Listen to Music on Your Kindle?” A surprising number of people said no. Some were just storing their music on a different device instead. But some people didn’t like to listen to background music at all, preferring instead to read in quiet.

Is there a perfect song that you can play in the background? I was determined to find out what other people were listening to. I asked some more Kindle users, and got some surprising answers. The consensus seemed to be “something mellow,” but people had different ways to avoid disturbing their reading experience…

A woman named Emily discovered that “I’m better off listening to music I’m not familiar with. Any music I know ends up being a distraction for me.” She’s very fussy about what plays in the background, and prefers a specific selection for a quiet night of reading. “The best music I’ve found for my reading is the New Age type music that I don’t listen to any other time… It’s mostly low-key music so it doesn’t get in the way of my reading concentration.”

58-year-old Chris Moyer uses similar music, but for a very different reason. “When I want to read and it is noisy, for example at a hair salon, I put on my headphones and listen to the nature sounds while reading.” She describes herself as a “very happy Kindle owner,” and likes the tracks from a special CD that she’d received after a facial. But she uses some of the same words to describe the music that she listens to: “very new age with nature sounds.”

My favorite response came from a Kindle owner named Don Freeman. “I’ve got some very mellow hammer dulcimer music on my Kindle 2 that works great for background music.” But besides being an exotic form of music, the dulcimer music has another advantage. “It also helps block out those twits on the commuter train that have their iPods up so loud that they don’t even need to wear the earplugs.”

So how would I answer the question? When I first bought my Kindle, I began reading lots of 19th-century novels and American history, so I started out with three inspiring orchestral pieces by Aaron Copland. But then I’d wanted something more contemporary, and added some soft songs by Aimee Mann. Eventually I asked myself what you’d hear in a coffee house, and decided on the hip, retro vocals from the Frank Sinatra era. (There’s a 1965 CD of Sammy Davis Jr. that was recorded with a jazz combo at 2 a.m. in Las Vegas, and it’s got the perfect tinkly late-night piano.) And finally I added in the softest female jazz vocalist I know — Blossom Dearie. (If you remember “Schoolhouse Rock,” she’d sung the “Figure Eight” song, and the one about how she “Unpacked My Adjectives.”)

But sometimes, even I prefer reading in silence.

The Count of Monte Cristo original illustration
It’s been an exciting week. A division of Readers Digest linked to a blog post by my girlfriend about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (She’d reported it was Amazon’s most popular free mystery ebook).

And then another blogger noted that she’d also shown up the head of Barnes and Noble. Len Riggio, who actually founded Barnes and Noble, waved around a print edition of The Count of Monte Cristo while seeming to imply that customers wanted to own the book itself. It become a controversial symbol — especially since my girlfriend had just finished reading the same 1,300-page book on my Kindle!

In fact, she’d decided that the book is “the quintessential expression of what a novel is about. Interesting characters, exotic locals, beautiful language, intriguing plots that twist and turn, and ultimately, redemption and love.” The Kindle had brought the ebook to a new generation of 21st-century readers. So what did she feel after reading it on my Kindle?

                        *                        *                        *

The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1884, is a justly famous novel. The novel as an art form was still pretty new at that time and Dumas is a master at the craft. The book moved along briskly, keeping me intrigued at every step. A young man with a bright future is taken down by jealousy and political maneuvering, then returns incognito as a count, wealthy beyond all imagining (how convenient) to plot revenge against the three men who caused his torturous imprisonment.

The Count of Monte Cristo was published in serialized form, like serveral other old novels I’ve recently read on the Kindle (including The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). I like the idea of reading these stories in installments over weeks or months, getting to know the characters, savoring the language and masterful descriptions of time and place. This story is very compelling and hard to put down. I found myself reading faster just to find out what could possibly happen next.

This is a novel very much of its day. Its plot draws on France’s chaotic political landscape during the early 1800’s, with the Royalists and Bonaparte-ists being in favor and then out of favor over a couple of decades. Out of favor meant easily imprisoned, and that is indeed how Dante gets to prison: by being wrongly accused of connections to Bonaparte, and because a power-hungry magistrate ignored facts in order to further his career.

Dumas had experienced this personally. His father, himself the son of a nobleman, had been a general in Napoleon’s army who fell out of favor and left his family impoverished at the time of his death in 1806 (when Dumas was an infant). I learned about the fluid nature of French politics in the early 1800s in history class, but I’d never thought about what it meant for the average citizen. This poverty followed Alexander Dumas and his family, even after the return of Napoleon, and fed his imagination.

Dumas faced other challenges as a result of his mixed-race heritage, even as he became a famous writer. His grandfather had married a native Haitian woman, a fact that surprised me because no one mentioned it when I was growing up. Wikipedia says that this heritage affected Alexander Dumas all his life, despite being famous. Once after being insulted he retorted, “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.” (Note to self: never insult a writer.) This prejudice certainly contributed to his knowledge of what it means to live as an outsider, which is a theme of this novel.

He also traveled widely, and indeed wrote The Count of Monte Cristo while living in Italy. In fact, he visited the island of Monte Criso, a real place, while he was living in Florence in 1841. The novel itself travels widely, taking the reader from Marseilles to the dungeon at Chateau d’If, to the high seas with pirates, and then to Rome — including the catacombs and illegal gangs robbing Roman citizens — plus a short stopover in Turkey, then to Paris, and the French country-side. It’s quite a ride, and all the more remarkable because traveling in the mid-1800s was rare and restricted to the noble classes.

Also rare was the use of the telegraph system in France. The telegraph was a new technology and still a bit mysterious when Dumas made it a small but crucial plot point in the story. At that time, telegraph towers were built on hills 30 miles from each other so that messages could be quickly relayed all around the country. Edmund Dantes (the Count himself!) visits a telegraph tower, interviews its employee, and then pays him a sum to allow him to retire comfortably in order to delay a message. This delay will result in the firing of the operator, and will destroy one of Dante’s enemies.

What about the lesbian plot line? It turns out that Eugenie (the daughter of one of the Count’s enemies) is engaged to the son of another one of the Count’s enemies.The son is lukewarm about the engagement, acknowledging that she is good-looking, but not enticing. As the novel progresses, the only time Eugenie is happy is when she is playing at the piano with her piano teacher and vocal coach, a winsome young lass named Louise. Hmmmm.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, I thought. I’m too sensitive to insinuation because of my years as a young single woman in San Francisco. But no! The hints become more obvious until at last, when her father is ruined and exposed, Eugenie packs her dowry, her jewels, her winsome piano teacher, and a passport with a masculine name. Then she changes into men’s clothes and runs away from Paris with her love.

Meanwhile, her betrothed, also disgraced, has run away from Paris as well. In a delightful plot twist, he ends up arriving at the same hotel as Eugenie and Lousie several hours later and much worse for the wear. The telegraph comes into play again, having sent the message all around France to be on the lookout for this young man. The gendarmes are watching, but he escapes to the roof. He drops down a chimney hoping to hide — but falls directly into the room of Eugenie and Lousie, who, despite having being booked into a room as brother and sister with two twin beds, are naked and sharing the same bed. (Gasp!) Louise wakes up and finds a man in the room, and starts screaming, which brings the gendarmes along with capture for the young man and shame for the two women. The book is made up of story after story with these delightful plot twists and exciting scenes.

Dumas is above all an excellent story teller, and sets each scene beautifully and with care. His descriptions of Carnival in Rome, where Dantes first meets the young men who will introduce him to Paris society, are masterpieces of writing. “The air seems darkened with the falling of confetti and the flying flowers. In the streets the lively crowd is dressed in the most fantastic costumes — gigantic cabbages walk gravely about, buffaloes’ heads bellow from men’s shoulders, dogs walk on their hind legs; in the midst of all this a mask is lifted, and … a lovely face is exhibited, which we would fain follow, but from which we are separated by troops of fiends. This will give a fair idea of the Carnival at Rome.”

This is a wonderful novel, the quintessential expression of what a novel is about. Interesting characters, exotic locals, beautiful language, intriguing plots that twist and turn, and ultimately, redemption and love. The last line in the book is beautiful and poignant, and an exquisite and uplifting ending to a marathon reading experience. Oh — no quote. You’ll have to read it for yourself.

                        *                        *                        *

Click here to get The Count of Monte Cristo as a free Kindle ebook!

Barnes and Noble store with Nook department

As the Kindle soars in popularity, at least one bookstore is already in trouble. Barnes and Noble put itself up for sale, and New York Magazine just ran a touching profile of the company’s founder,
69-year-old Leonard Riggio.


“I still like books,” he said, though it didn’t really need saying. All around him, in a conference room that evoked an elegant old library, were shelves lined with hardbound classics. Books had made Riggio a fortune… Books had been very good to him, and now they were dissolving into the ether…

Riggio wanted to say something, but he couldn’t quite find the words, so he burst out of his chair and charged over to one wall. “I don’t know how you can intellectualize this,” he said, “but a book is …” To continue his thought, he pulled down a copy of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, shook it, felt its substance. “This bound volume of Dumas is content. We have to understand people want to own this content. They want this. It’s very important.”


The magazine’s reporter visited the million-square-foot warehouse in New Jersey where Barnes and Nobles has its East coast distribution hub. (It’s “long enough to fit the Empire State Building sideways,” and stocks at least two copies of every single title that’s in print.) The article makes an interesting point: that bookstores earn more money on book sales than the publishers do. (Though Riggio once argued that “People in the world of literature tend to look down on people who make a profit.”)

Yet today, the hardware-based Kindle is Amazon’s best-selling product, and the Nook is also Barnes and Nobles’ best-selling product. “As [their new CEO] sees it, the superstores can serve as platforms for marketing their own replacement technology,” the magazine notes. “Walk into any Barnes & Noble, and the first thing you’ll see is what Lynch calls the ‘shrine’ — a counter where salespeople introduce the Nook. ”

But at the middle of this historic change is a 69-year-old man who founded a chain of bookstores. Now he’s left with a tablet-sized piece of electronics in his hand, and New York Magazine seems to
catch him showing some ambivalence.


“You know, I’m going through a thing — the record shows how old I am,” he said. “I’m going through, you know, like, ‘Oh my God, do I need this? At this period in time, to be as busy as I am…?'”

“If this was a Nook,” Riggio said as he flipped through the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo, “I just look at is as, well, here are the pages, and we magically erase the pages and another book appears.” As a business strategy, he was wagering that this convenience would inspire readers to spend more. But personally, Riggio remains unswayed. He doesn’t use his own Nook. “I like to hold the book instead of the device,” he said. “I would rather own multiple books than a single book that carries everything.”

And there you have it: The head of the company that sells the Nook doesn’t actually want to use a Nook. As New York Magazine puts it, “for all his newfound enthusiasm, he still can’t imagine a world in which the bookstore — or what he likes to call the ‘cultural piazza’ — is replicated by a piece of plastic…”

Thanks to Mike Cane for the link.

And click here to get The Count of Monte Cristo as a free Kindle ebook!

Amazon Kindle beach ad - screenshot screengrab of the ebook
She’s reading an ebook on her Kindle, and then the camera pans back to reveal she’s reading it at the beach. (“Silver moons and paper chains,” the background music sings. “Faded maps and shiny things…)” The camera pulls back before you can read the whole page, as though Amazon’s trying to tease you. But one day, I decided I finally had to find out: exactly what ebook is that?

Google provided me with the answer — and a link to a web page with the complete text of the page she’s reading! (“I reached across the table but he shrugged me off, grabbing my keys and heading out the door….”) I should’ve noticed that the woman’s Kindle was displaying its title at the top of the page — “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” It’s a collection of short stories by Amy Bloom, and Amazon will even send you one complete story as a free sample if you go to the book’s Amazon web page. (It’s a funny, sexy story called “Your Borders, Your Rivers, Your Tiny Villages” — about committing adultery while watching CNN!)

UPDATE: I’ve just discovered that I’m now Google’s #1 match for the phrase, “I reached across the table but he shrugged me off.” But who exactly is Amy Bloom? She once worked as a psychotherapist, according to Wikipedia, but now lectures on creative writing at Yale University’s English department. She wrote the TV show “State of Mind” for the Lifetime Network, but was also nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. And it turns out that a sample of her short story isn’t the only thing that Amazon’s giving away for free…

I’d begun investigating the next logical question: Okay, who’s singing that song that’s playing in the background? The singer’s name is Annie Little, and Amazon is giving away one of her songs for free in their “mp3 downloads” store. It’s the song that appeared in Amazon’s second Kindle ad — a duet that Annie recorded with her fiance, Marcus Ashley, called “Stole My Heart.”

“Once upon a time, I saw you
walk along a moonbeam. What a
lovely girl. I followed you around the world.
Uh-uh oh, I love you. Don’t you see?
You stole my heart in one, two, three.
I love you. Yes it’s true.
You stole my heart, and I’m gonna steal yours too.”

I remembered Annie’s story. Amazon held a contest for the best home-made ad for the Kindle, and Annie’s song appeared in the winning entry — a cool stop-motion animation video suggesting all the stories you could read on your Kindle. (While in the background, Annie sang “Fly Me Away.”) You can also download “Fly Me Away” — the song which plays in the background of Amazon’s Kindle commercials — but they’re now charging 99 cents for it. And in addition, the couple has recorded two more songs, and they’re selling all four together as an EP for just $2.97.

1. Stole My Heart
2. Telegrams to Mars
3. Fly Me Away
4. Still Missing You

With a little more research, I discovered a few more secrets. The complete versions of the songs are longer than what’s aired in the commercial, so click here if you want to read all of the lyrics for “Stole My Heart” or “Fly Me Away”. (They’ve been transcribed on the couple’s web site.) I guess the last thing I discovered is that it’s hard to resist the couple’s charm — and their endearing message that true love…is a little bit like reading your Kindle.

“You’re my favorite one-man show,
a million different ways to go.

Will you fly me away?
Take me away with you, my love.”

Pinocchio is lying - when he lies his nose grows
Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a controversial opinion piece about ebooks. A former book editor and a business professor argued that publishers needed to sell advertisements in ebooks in order to offset their shrinking profit margins. “[A] digital book is far less profitable than its hardcover cousin priced at $25,” their article argued. But according to responses on the web, there’s a problem with that argument. It isn’t true.

“Baen, a publishing house that specializes in fantasy and sci-fi, mostly with a militaristic bent, says that they’ve found that e-books significantly increase profits,” responded one commenter at a technology web site, even though that publisher sells DRM-free versions of their ebooks “for substantially less than they sell dead-tree versions.” And then another commenter backed up their skepticism with actual data provided by the New York Times.

Publisher’s Profits Before Overhead
On a $26 hardcover: $4.05
On a $12.99 ebook: $4.56 – $5.54
On a $ 9.99 ebook: $3.51 – $4.26

This isn’t speculation. The Times based their statistics “on interviews with several publishers and consultants who work with the publishing industry.” eBooks eliminate many of the costs associated with stacks of hardcover books, including printing costs, storage fees, and the cost of shipping books (and then shipping back the unsold copies).

“That, obviously, is exactly what logic would tell you,” one commenter concluded. And the Times article suggested the publishers’ real motive might be simple self-preservation — they’re trying to keep up the demand for printed books. In a future with even more digital readers, lower ebook prices would mean “print booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders and independents across the country would be unable to compete… if the e-books are priced much lower than the print editions, no one but the aficionados and collectors will want to buy paper books.”

One publisher’s consultant even tells the newspaper point-blank that “If you want bookstores to stay alive, then you want to slow down this movement to e-books. The simplest way to slow down e-books is not to make them too cheap.”

So are publishers being honest about the costs of publishing a book? It’s a hotly-debated mystery, even to those people who are most affected by it: the authors who are actually writing the books! At the end of their article, the New York Times tracked down best-selling author Anne Rice, who admits that “None of us know what books cost. None of us know what kind of profits hardcover or paperback publishers make.”

Most of Rice’s books are available on the Kindle — though not her most famous book, Interview with the Vampire But as the publishing industry faces historic changes, it was nice to see that Anne Rice still remains firmly committed to the future of the ebook. “The only thing I think is a mistake is people trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off this revolution by building a dam.

“It’s not going to work.”

My Favorite Trashy eBook

August 24, 2010

Jessica Cutler, the Washingtonienne sex blogger whose novel became an ebook

It’s one of my all-time favorite trashy novels — and it’s based on a true story.

In 2004, 26-year-old Jessica Cutler worked for Republican Senator Mike Dewine. But at night she’d drink and get romantic with the men of Washington D.C. — and, unfortunately, kept an online blog about it (which she’d meant to share only with her friends). Inevitably, a political gossip site discovered the blog and Cutler was immediately fired — though she was also offered a lot of money to pose for Playboy, and to write a sexy “fictionalized” memoir. It’s an exciting read, and an exciting life — with a real-world epilogue that makes it even more interesting.

The photograph above was reportedly taken on the same day Jessica was fired — and I actually played a tiny role in the subsequent press coverage. The Washington Post hadn’t checked their facts — Cutler was claiming to be just 24 years old, and that she’d already earned a degree in International Relations. On my blog I’d set the record straight — and ended up linked by the same trashy gossip site that had linked to Jessica. And then the internet buzzed with the most tantalizing question of all. Was Jessica’s whole blog also an elaborate work of fiction?

The question was settled by a lawsuit in 2006 — by the one of the men Jessica had written about. A real case was filed in federal court, arguing that he’d suffered “humiliation and anguish beyond that which any reasonable person should be expected to bear in a decent and civilized society.” He’d been counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, but found Jessica was blogging about their sexy dates. (“I told my coworkers about the spanking over lunch… Not sure I should have told them.”) When asked about those wild nights a year later, Jessica told USA Today breezily that “I don’t even remember doing that stuff. I don’t even remember what those guys looked like.”

Some of the men had given her money, according to Jessica’s own blog, and she turned up in news headlines again in 2008. Prosecutors busted a Manhattan call-girl ring whose clients included New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. But Jessica Cutler had been spotted on one of the sex worker’s web pages (a site advertising sexy models), according to the New York Post. When the paper asked if she was now working as an escort, the author replied: “I can’t talk about that.”

Cutler had already filed for bankruptcy, at the age of 29 — but her story actually has a happy ending. Twenty months ago, Cutler got married — to a 29-year-old bankruptcy lawyer named Charles Rubio (of the New York firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy). According to the New York Observer, “They met last March at an East Midtown bar called, appropriately, Redemption.” And one year ago, Jessica Cutler gave birth to their first child — Jessica-Louise.

If anything, the erratic backstory makes her 2005 book even more interesting. She writes about wanting to form a serious love relationship with a man named Marcus — in real life, the man who eventually sued her. The romance provides the book’s underlying dramatic question of whether Jessica could walk away from her life of late-night good times, but the book is also just a startlingly honest account of the ups and downs when you’re very young and very out of control. It’s “one of the most realistic depictions of casual sex,” according to a female friend of mine who read it. “It was amazingly honest.” And if you’re enjoying the “guilty pleasure” of reading Jessica’s story, you’ll know that some of the chaos continued after the end of the book.

I thought Cutler’s writing style was lively and fun, and the book may also offer a glimpse at next year’s smash TV show. Cutler told the New York Observer that HBO had already filmed a pilot for a new series based on her novel for the 2011 season. You can also savor this irony: during Cutler’s short-lived Washington career, her job had been opening and answering the letters sent to a U.S. Senator. She always seems to accidentally find her way to the center of the public eye, and on the day she was married, Brooke Shields even emerged from the same hotel where Cutler’s wedding party had been celebrating. Shields accidentally wandered into Cutler’s wedding party, according to the New York Observer, so as the couple emerged, they confronted a full battalion of paparazzi.

It seems like everyone laughed as they watched Jessica’s notoriety finally passing by, and the newspaper playfully reported one more crucial detail about her new husband. (“Yes, he’s read her book.”) Now you can finally read Jessica’s fictionalized 2005 memoir on the Kindle — but even her ebook suffered one last funny accident.

A glitch in Amazon’s database changed the publication date for the ebook, so now Amazon reports that the book was published 110 years ago — on January 1, 1900!

Picture of Stieg Larsson - ebook author of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

He’s written Amazon’s #1 best-selling ebook — and its #2 and #3 best-selling ebooks! In fact, he became one of the best-selling authors in the world — two years after his death — and he wrote the first ebook ever to sell one million copies. Yet apparently there’s another strange twist to his story.

There’s now two biographies about author Stieg Larsson — one very good, and one very bad. At least that’s the fierce opinion of one Amazon reviewer who downloaded STIEG LARSSON BIOGRAPHY: The Man Behind Lisbeth Salander. “I am disappointed that Amazon would offer this as a ‘book’ selection,” the reviewer wrote…


“I loved the Millennium series and wanted to know more about the wonderful author who penned them, so I was happy to see a biography offered. However, it is nothing more than what could be gleaned from the Internet in a short Google search. It consists of Kindle locations 1 – 94 which takes about three minutes to read. Certainly not worth the $3.99 charged for less than 6 pages of very generalized text.”


He condensed his position in his review’s title — “Caution: NOT a book” — and advises readers to “Save your money since there is more information in Wikipedia…”

But there’s also more information in a new 294-page hardcover biography about the life of Stieg Larsson, which was just published a few weeks ago. As an expert on crime fiction, Barry Forshaw looks deeper into the author’s whole career, according to Amazon’s description, and he concludes that Larsson’s life “would be remembered as truly extraordinary even had his trilogy never been published. Larrson was a workaholic: a political activist, photographer, graphic designer, a respected journalist, and the editor of numerous science fiction magazines.

“At night, to relax, he wrote crime novels…”

Larsson died at the age of 50, prompting Forshaw to title his biography “The Man Who Left Too Soon.” (Larsson died a full six years before his book became the first ebook ever to sell more than one million copies.)
While it’s ironic that after his death, Larsson drew so much attention from the publishing world, at least he’ll always be remembered for achieving that historic milestone. But it’s even more ironic that the first biography of his life isn’t yet available in the ebook format!

In September a young man named Kurdo Baksi will also publish another biography of Larsson’s life — titled “Stieg Larsson, My Friend.” (Though apparently it’s also available only in the hardcover format.) Still, it’s nice to see that in the middle of the book-publishing feeding frenzy, the author himself is receiving some genuine appreciation from the people who knew and remembered him. And now his loyal fans are discovering that Stieg Larsson has also led them into some new unexpected experiences.

I checked out the sample chapter of the short ebook biography, and was startled by the low quality of the writing. (“Starting in the late 1970’s, he combined his work as a graphic designer with holding lectures on right-wing extremism for the Scotland Yard.”) The sample seems to end in mid-sentence, and it was written by somebody named “SpaceLoops.” (Though it’s currently ranked #7,707 on Amazon’s list of paid ebooks — and #12 on Amazon’s list of journalist biographies, behind the autobiography of Barbara Walters.) But ultimately, at least the skimpy book led one reader to a good experience with Amazon’s customer service.

“Right after I posted the review above, I emailed Amazon customer service about my displeasure that this is offered as a legitimate Kindle selection and requested a refund which they promptly processed. Great service, Amazon!”

A vintage print magazine ad for Campbells soup. Are ads coming to ebooks?
It’s a horrible thought, but the Wall Street Journal suggests that ads in ebooks “are coming soon to a book near you.”

It’s an opinion piece, rather than a piece of technology reporting, so the evidence is a bit skimpy. For example, the article notes Google already displays advertisements beside the results of searches on Google books. (“It’s a small step to imagine Google including advertisements within books.”) But they also note that last year Amazon filed a patent for advertisements on the Kindle. The article is written by a former book editor at Houghton Mifflin (William Vincent), who’s presumably given a lot of thought to the future profitability of the book-publishing industry. And his co-author, Ron Adner, is a professor at the School of Business at Dartmouth College.

They focus on the future, arguing that the ads-in-ebooks model just makes sense. One suggestion is to include ads in an ebook’s free sample chapters. (“Because not every consumer who reads a sample chapter will buy the book, it’s reasonable for the publisher to extract some additional value.”) Another suggestion: offer a book without advertisements — for a price. “Seeing ads in the sample may also convince a reader to pay for a premium, non-ad version of the full-length book.” I’m envisioning a massive boycott of the first book that attempts to include advertising — but there could be one silver lining. If the publishers earn enough money on the advertising in a book, they might consider reducing the book’s price, or even giving away new books for free!

In fact, Amazon used to sell ebooks at a loss, according to one analyst, earning its profits by selling the Kindle. But now Apple’s new iBookstore lets publishers sell their books at a higher mark-up. The competition pressured Amazon into offering offer their own publishers the same leeway, and ironically, Apple “has now forced Amazon to turn an estimated 30 percent profit on each book it sells.” It seems like Amazon prefers selling their ebooks at a much cheaper price, and the publishers are the ones who are resisting. But publishers might be willing to finally lower their ebook prices dramatically — if they could make up the difference on advertising.

Ironically, then publishers then have an interest in whether the reader finishes the book. “[W]ith advertising in the mix, a book downloaded 100,000 times but never read…may be worth less than one downloaded 50,000 times and read cover-to-cover.” Suddenly an author who writes an irresistible page-turner is more valuable than the author of a massive tome that takes forever to finish, the article argues, suggesting that in a future where there’s ads in ebooks, “Unread books suddenly become less profitable to a publisher.”

But it’s not clear to me who earns the profit in this scenario — the publisher of the ebook, or the digital bookstore who sells it. After all, advertisers would be thrilled for a chance to “target” their ads to readers of a specific kind of book — and would probably be willing to pay extra for this. But as a technology company, Amazon seems much more likely to deliver these customized ads than, for example, Houghton Mifflin. And hypothetically, Amazon could keep updating the advertisements displayed in your ebooks whenever you sync to their server. Advertisers would love the idea of delivering same-day announcements — so Amazon could charge a high premium for their in-book advertisements.

It’s may all come down to a single question. Would you accept advertising in your ebooks if it meant that the ebooks were free?

The Count of Monte Cristo original illustration
My girlfriend just finished reading a massive novel on the Kindle, and wanted to share what she’d learned from the experience.

                        *                        *                        *

So a couple of weeks ago I mentioned reading The Count of Monte Cristo at a tender young age, and then there, before my eyes, in the Kindle Top 100 Free section, is the book itself! I remembered the basic plot line. A young man with a bright future gets taken down by jealousy and political maneuvering. He plots his revenge against the three men who caused his torturous imprisonment, then returns incognito as a count, wealthy beyond all imagining (how convenient).

I wondered if I would have a richer reading experience now that I’m a adult. Boy! The things I missed the first time around.

And the things I learned reading this book on the Kindle…

This is a two-part post; this week I’ll talk about the things I learned using the Kindle. Later, I’ll talk about the book itself and the surprise lesbian storyline. (She’s the daughter of one of the bad guys…. But I digress).

The first thing I learned is that The Count of Monte Cristo is llllloooooonnnnnnggggg. Like a-real-novel-that-you-check-out-of-the-library long. The end came at location 24681. (The Malacca Conspiracy, the free action thriller I reviewed here previously, is 6554 locations and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is 4274 locations by comparison). Obviously back in 1844, when the book was written there was no TV, no radio, no electric lights, and no Wii — so there was lots of time to read a good book. The novel as an art form was still pretty new at that time and Dumas is a master of the craft. The book moved along briskly, and kept me intrigued at every step.

I found the “Locations” tracking at the bottom of our original Kindle’s screen, in the dark gray area, to the left of the Menu button and the battery life and signal strength indicators. (As you probably already know, the numbers change as you read, allowing you to track where you are in the book.) But the trick is playing with the line directly above that gray bar — the one with all the dots. If you move your cursor one click above the Menu button, it’s placed directly across from this line of dots. When you press the scroll button, the bar highlights and you see little boxes with numbers. These are almost like the chapters in a printed book, and allow you to move through the book without using the “Go To Location” function on the Menu screen.

The next thing I learned is that I’m completely addicted to the Lookup Function! I yearned for this capability while I was growing up, reading voraciously. (You can even use Lookup if you don’t know what “voraciously” means — sooooo easy!). I knew that when I ran across a word I didn’t know, I should get up, go get the dictionary to find its meaning, and fully understand the novelist’s intention. Did I do this? Hardly ever. Yet, now, at my fingertips, I have that ability — and I rejoice!

However, there are two important caveats. The first caveat is that the Kindle doesn’t always provide definitions for foreign phrases or words. For example, “rouleau” was defined, but several other words of French origin were not. Being as Dumas wrote in French, this was a slight drawback for me with this specific novel. Still, it was a fun gamble using the Look Up feature during reading The Count of Monte Cristo. My other caveat is the Lookup Function provides you with every single word in the sentence. Every. Single. Word. I want to Look Up “rouleau” and get the definitions for “eye,” “hundred,” “hand,” and “rose” as well.

The third thing is I became adept as using the Highlight feature (just below LookUp on the menu that pops up when you scroll to a specific row. And you can use the same technique to add a note to yourself just by picking “Add Note” instead of “Add Highlight.”) Magic, indeed, to a reader who spent years thumbing through books looking for favorite passages!

                        *                        *                        *

We love my Kindle, and she loved The Count of Monte Cristo. Click here to read it as a free ebook!

Vintage phonography gramophone record player

In Amazon’s discussion forum, I’d asked a simple question: Do you listen to music on your Kindle? But the answers surprised me — and shed new light on how people are using their Kindles.


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


It turns out that, while the Kindle can play music, people often think of other devices. One user made this clear when I’d asked what specific music they liked to listen to on the Kindle?


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


And another user quickly agreed.


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


I’d been curious about what songs people stored on their Kindles, but now I was having trouble finding people who’d even bothered. For the people who wanted background music, there were already several established music players — many by Apple — which offered better features and better storage.


“…the limited storage space on the Kindle 2 prevented me from loading a lot of music. I read a lot so I was listening to the same tracks over and over. In the end I stopped loading music on the K2. I just listen to music on my iPhone where I have my entire music library.

“When I read on my iPad, it’s really great — I can listen to any music I want and I have created several playlists to listen to music based on the type of book I am reading. I think Amazon should put more storage on the Kindle and enhance the music capabilities since they also sell music.”

Another user reported a similar experience. (“I have an iPod Classic with over 13,000 songs on it as well as an iPod Touch with music and the Kindle app.”) But it was nice to hear occasionally they still used the Kindle’s built-in mp3 player.


“Especially when I’m reading on the patio and about to doze off, I’m sometimes too lazy to go get another device and it’s nice to already have some music choices on the reader.

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


So finally, I could get back to my original question. What were they listening to on their Kindle? “My favorite reading music is classic, usually something not terribly climactic. Rachmaninov usually works.” And at the end of the discussion, I was glad to hear that at least one of these Kindle owner shared my enthusiasm for the Kindle’s mp3 player.


“I am not big on big on adding non-ebook features to the Kindle but listening to music while reading seems so natural.”

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte
Mark Twain once co-authored a play with another forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”


In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a Kindle ebook)
Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (Kindle ebook)

Harte’s career had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. (It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California.)

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”


“Dickens in Camp” as a free Kindle ebook
The Outcasts of Poker Flat as a Kindle ebook
The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)


So last year I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.

XKCD cartoonist talks about his comic strip on Amazon's Kindle

I’m a fan of the comic strip XKCD. So I was delighted when the cartoonist did a special edition that was all about the Kindle.

“Even if I spend months broke and drunk in a strange city, I’ll still be able to use Wikipedia and Wikitravel to learn about anything I need…”

Ironically, it’s very hard to read that comic on your Kindle (though its dialogue is almost legible if you surf straight to the image.) But, to give away the punchline, the female character decides there’s something suspiciously familiar about the idea of being able to learn anything anywhere. And when she examines the Kindle more closely, she makes a startling discovery: it’s actually The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, it describes a near-magical, all-knowing guidebook that would be crucial if, say, your home planet Earth was destroyed, and you had to navigate through all the other strange alien civilizations. It’s the perfect metaphor for the Kindle’s unlimited (and free) internet access, though I first read that cartoon before I’d even purchased my Kindle. But I still remember it every time I switch to Wikipedia to look up crucial context for the classic books I’m reading. (“Was this book popular in its time? How old was its author…?”)

I even added this capability to yesterday’s list of my favorite Kindle tips and tricks. (It’s possible to instantly search Wikipedia for any topic just by typing @wiki after hitting the Search button.) But the cartoonist’s joke has a special resonance for me, because I’d interviewed Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, just a few weeks before his death in 2001. He’d lived long enough to see a wonderful sight — his six-year-old daughter, pushing her doll’s baby stroller while mimicking the voice of the GPS system in her daddy’s car. And I sometimes wonder what he would’ve thought of the Kindle. “Anything that’s invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things,” Adams had joked, while introducing, of course, a contradicting corollary. “Anything that’s in the world when you’re born is considered ordinary and normal.”

I’ve always assumed that Adams would eventually come around to the idea of using a digital reader. But regardless of Adams’ opinion, the magic of the internet at least lets us peek into the thoughts of the cartoonist who draws XKCD. If you hold your mouse over his cartoons, you’ll discover that the cartoonist leaves behind an extra personal statement for every cartoon. (For example, “Now that the Apple Store is getting rid of DRM, Cory Doctorow will get rid of his Steve Jobs voodoo doll…”) So what was his message for his Kindle cartoon?

“I’m happy with my Kindle 2 so far, but if they cut off the free Wikipedia browsing, I plan to show up drunk on Jeff Bezos’s lawn and refuse to leave!”

Visit Amazon’s Page of Douglas Adams Kindle books.

Or check out the Kindle version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

10 Kindle Tips and Tricks
This week I’ve been writing more about my favorite authors — instead of about the Kindle itself. So here’s the 10 best tricks I’ve learned so far for enjoying the Kindle…


MY FAVORITE TIPS


1. Instantly Clear a Note or Search

I discovered this tip by accident. If you hold down the Alt key while hitting the backspace button, your Kindle automatically erases everything you’ve typed into a note or search field!

And it’s also possible to simply change the cursor’s position. (I discovered this while playing Minesweeper on the Kindle, which uses similar navigation keys.) Typing Alt-H will always move your cursor back one space, positioning you to backspace over characters that you’ve already typed earlier (or to insert new letters). Typing Alt-J then moves your cursor forward, if you want to return towards the end of the line.

2. Justify Your Kindle’s Text

This appears to be a hidden feature on the original Kindle 1 that was secretly added into the Kindle’s font menu. Press the font key, and the Kindle displays its usual six choices for your font size. But if you then type the letter J, the Kindle suddenly presents you with two more choices. There’s “Full Justification” and “Left Justification,” and it dramatically changes the way your ebooks will look!

3. Skim Faster

On the original Kindle, holding down the Alt Key while pressing the “Next Page” or “Previous Page” bar also lets you skip forward much more quickly, jumping past several pages each time you press the key.

 
4. View Your Own Photos on the Kindle

I only recently discovered you can send your own pictures to your Kindle. The file name appears as a separate entry among the ebook titles on your home page. (Just click on the file name, and that picture magically appears!) The pictures are displayed in black-and-white, of course, but it’s still fun to see a familiar image that’s all your own.

Amazon can support almost every format for image files, including .gif, .png., .bmp, .jpeg, and .jpg.The secret is e-mailing the image to your Kindle’s e-mail address, as an attachment. (If you’ve never done this before, just remember that your Kindle’s e-mail address appears on Amazon’s “Manage Your Kindle” page, which has a URL that’s very easy to remember.)

               Amazon.com/manageyourkindle

On my original Kindle, I also finally discovered that it was possible to zoom in on any image. Using the scrollbar, I could always scroll up and click to “select” an image — which would expand it to fill the entire screen!


FUN ON YOUR HOME PAGE


5. Skip Instantly To a Different Page of Titles

I’ve always been jealous of people who could jump to a title by typing its first letter. (This is only possible if you’ve sorted your titles alphabetically, which allows skipping instantly through the list to arrive at “the first item that begins with that letter”.)

But it turns out there’s also a skipping trick for people who haven’t sorted their titles alphabetically. Even if your titles are sorted by Author (or by which title is “Most Recently Read”), it’s still possible to skip quickly from one page of titles to the next. Type in the number of your desired page of titles, and the Home Page will automatically refresh to display the titles appearing on that page!

6. Only Show Periodicals and Blogs

This is handy if you’re one of those people who’s actually reading lots of magazines or blogs on your Kindle. The “Show and Sort” menu at the top of the home page will let you zoom in to a smaller listing that shows just your books (without blogs and magazines cluttering up the list) — or, to show only the periodicals and blogs, without clogging the listings with books!

7. View Your Own Documents On Your Kindle

Besides pictures, it’s also possible to send text documents to your Kindle. (It’s something I didn’t even think about for several months, because I was so excited to be reading digital ebooks!) But Amazon’s “approved file types” for e-mailing include all the basic file formats for documents, including Microsoft Word’s .doc format and .rtf , as well as .html and .htm, and recently, even .pdf

8. See Your Reading Progress on the Home Page

Here’s something I didn’t know until I read the Kindle User’s Guide. I actually thought Amazon was just displaying a decorative dotted line below the titles of my books — until I realized it was those heavy dots at the beginning of the line that were indicating how much of the book I’d read! (“Your place in the book is indicated by the progress indicator beneath the book title,” Amazon explains in the user’s guide…)


GETTING WHAT YOU WANT


9. Edit Your Highlights

I’d always get annoyed when I’d try to highlight a single sentence, and Amazon insisted on including a few words from the previous sentence, or the sentence that came after it. But after syncing the Kindle to my PC, I realized Amazon stored them all in a single text file called “My Clippings” in the “Documents” folder. All I had to do was pull them up in a text editor, and I could chop out the extraneous words!

When highlighting a clipping, you can also highlight more words on a single page — just by selecting a smaller font size!

10. Searching Has Shortcuts

By default Amazon searches through the documents on your Kindle, and also offers to run a search on the same words in its Kindle store. But if you prefix your search with special codewords, Amazon will conduct the search in a different location. @store searches the Kindle store, while @web runs the search words through Google. But the most useful code is probably @wiki, which will automatically take you to your search term’s page on Wikipedia!

UPDATE: It turns out I’m now Google’s #1 match for the phrase “Kindle tips and Tricks”. So be sure to click here for “Five MORE of My Best Kindle Tips and Tricks.”

Click here to subscribe to this blog on your Kindle!

Or click here to buy Kindle Shortcuts, Hidden Features, Kindle-Friendly Websites, Free eBooks & Email From Kindle: Concise User Guide

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Kindle cover

My friend Patrick is a professional writer, and over the last 10 years he’s lovingly crafted several special and unusual stories which were eventually included in print-book collections. He’s settled into a cozy life of reading and writing, and he now eyes the Kindle very suspiciously. When Amazon announced their ebooks were outselling print books, Patrick was skeptical.

“Yeah, but those ebooks are all free,” he’d said quickly — maybe just a little too quickly. “All that proves is that Amazon gives away millions of free ebooks every day. And then they claim that that somehow proves their popularity over hardcover-format books…which you still have to pay for!” Patrick was very emphatic, and kept coming up with more challenges to the sales figures for ebooks. “Amazon’s statistics are rigged!” he continued. “Amazon deliberately leaves out paperback books for their calculations!”

I re-visited Amazon’s press release, which specifies that “Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher… Over the past month, for every 100 hardcover books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 180 Kindle books.” But I still had to wonder. Did Amazon artificially lower the number of print-edition books that were sold, in order to claim ebooks were enjoying a greater popularity? I love my Kindle, so I’d had to ask myself: did I latch onto that statistic to justify my own excitement about this new way of reading? Or had Patrick rejected the statistic to justify his own personal biases? Your perspective is probably different if you’ve spent the last 10 years selling your own writing in printed books…

But the day we had that conversation, I discovered the Kindle had reached a milestone. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had sold one million copies — the first ebook ever to do so. That’s not a free ebook. It retails for $7.14, and was an international best-seller. They’re even making a movie adaptation starring Daniel Craig (the actor who plays James Bond) as protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, after considering George Clooney, Johnny Depp, and Brad Pitt. I’d like to ask the book’s author, Stieg Larsson, what he thought of his new success — but unfortunately he died nearly six years ago. Ironically, he never saw a Kindle, and probably never even read an ebook.

But it turns out that Stieg’s Millenium Trilogy isn’t the only ebook that’s enjoying huge (paid) sales. PC World notes that two more authors “are quickly closing in” on the Kindle’s “million club” — Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, and James Patterson. Two other authors have already passed the 500,000 mark for sales — Charlaine Harris and Nora Roberts. And PC World speculates that actually, the first ebook with one million downloads may have been the free edition of a Sherlock Holmes mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But best of all, there’s another author who’s joined them in selling their ebooks — Patrick. Even though he’s skeptical about Amazon’s sales figures, my friend discovered that digital publishing surprisingly easy, so he’s decided to give it a try.

It all reminds me of one of my all-time favorite stories about the Kindle. Author David Sedaris was appearing at a New York City bookstore to read from his new book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” The audience enjoyed the reading, and lined up afterwards for the traditional book-signing ritual. But one man, waiting patiently, had a surprise for Mr. Sedaris. The author looked up to see a smiling man named Marty, who wanted the author to autograph…his Kindle.

Sedaris thought for a moment, then smiled and took up his pen, and added a clever inscription.

“This bespells doom.”


Though I see now that even the book that Sedaris was promoting is available on the Kindle.

And click here if you’d like to read Stieg Larsson’s million-selling ebook, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Or buy The Complete Sherlock Holmes for 99 cents.

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver

Lately my most popular post is the one about William Saroyan — the 1940s novelist who actually turned down a Pulitzer Prize for literature. I’d called him “The Author You Can’t Read on your Kindle,” and while it’s still true, there’s something that’s almost as good. There’s a fascinating biography about Saroyan’s wild life — and the ebook’s two modern-day authors include one of my favorites.

Barry Gifford wrote Wild at Heart, a story about two passionate but unlucky drifters living together on the road. David Lynch adapted it into a movie starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, and when I saw Gifford speak in the early 90s, he was also working on a movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Gifford was hosting a film noir festival, arguing there was a unspeakable truth in the best of the B-movies. Gifford seemed comfortable with the grittier side of literature, and tonight I discovered he’d co-authored this detailed biography of William Saroyan.

“Along with Ernest Hemingway, William Saroyan…was the most well-known American writer of the 1930s and 1940s,” according to Amazon’s description of the book, and the two authors “heard Saroyan’s story first-hand from Carol Matthau, the wife he rejected; the son and daughter he alternately smothered and pushed away; and colleagues like Artie Shaw, Celeste Holm, and Lillian Gish.” (The Boston Herald called it a “beautifully balanced account” of the “triumphs and agonies” in the author’s life.) I think Barry Gifford understands the zest and exuberance that Saroyan brought to his work — and to his life.

And coincidentally, you also can’t read Gifford’s Wild at Heart on the Kindle either. (Though you can buy one of its sequels, The Imagination of the Heart, which Gifford published just last year at the age of 63…)

I’m excited about this book because Saroyan lived a fascinating life. As a young boy he’d lived in an Oakland orphanage, and later served in the army during World War II at the peak of his writing career. (It was just two years after he’d declined the Pulitzer Prize, and two years before his Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story.) According to Wikipedia he “worked rapidly, hardly editing his text, and drinking and gambling away much of his earnings.” And if that weren’t enough, he “narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel The Adventures of Wesley Jackson was seen as advocating pacifism!”

In February, I’d worried that “he’ll be one of those authors who won’t transition into the next generation of media. In our shiny future, we’ll have expensive ‘readers’ with fancy new features — but with a couple of last-century authors who somehow just didn’t make the cut.” So I always get a warm feeling when the digital world finds its way to a little bit of Saroyan. Maybe instead of talking about the man, or his biography, or his biographer, I should just share his advice to young writers of the future.

“Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.”

Picture of Nelson Algren in Chicago
Ernest Hemingway called him “one of the two best authors in America” — and yet his greatest novel isn’t available on the Kindle. Nelson Algren wrote The Man With the Golden Arm, an unforgettable look at Chicago and its lowlifes, in 1950, and it won a National Book Award. But apparently, there’s more to the story — according to The Chicago Reader.


“Her name was Margo. She was a 22-year-old addict hooking for her heroin, and when Nelson Algren met her, in the mid-40s in Chicago, while he was working on The Man With the Golden Arm, he violated the immortal principles he’d set down in A Walk on the Wild Side: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Algren took Margo in, putting her up in his Wicker Park digs, and eventually got her clean. Years later, when she wrote him a note letting him know she was engaged to a guy she wanted him to meet, he was devastated. His feelings for her had become so strong and complicated that when he tried to put her into the center of a novel he couldn’t finish it.

“About 300 pages wound up in the Algren archives at Ohio State University, and in edited form they make their first public appearance as “Entrapment,” from Entrapment and Other Writings, a new collection of previously unpublished work by Algren edited by Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon for Seven Stories Press.”

But there’s more than just an excerpt from the lost novel, according to the book’s introduction. “Some of Algren’s very best writing never appeared anywhere and was left finished but completely unpublished.”
Other stories appeared only once, in long-ago magazines, until they were finally gathered for this special collection on what would’ve been Algren’s 100th birthday. The hardcover edition was nearly 300 pages long, and “Every piece in Entrapment and Other Writings is irreplaceable.” If you order the sample from Amazon, you’ll get the editor’s introduction, but no actual text by Algren himself. But fortunately, The Chicago Reader has put a stunning excerpt online.

My personal favorite Algren book was always The Last Carousel, another dazzling collection of short works from throughout his career, which he’d published in 1973. At the age of 64, the author had hand-picked each story himself — and towards the end, near the paperback’s 500th page, he’d slyly included an excerpt from this unfinished novel, Entrapment. There was also a funny story about his affair with Simone de Beauvoir, a sympathetic examination of the baseball players in the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, and his perspective on watching his great novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, being turned into a Hollywood melodrama that starred Frank Sinatra.

Unfortunately The Last Carousel also isn’t available on the Kindle. But last December I discovered that you can still read one of its most touching stories online. On December 4, 1949, the Chicago Sunday Tribune published “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark,” a story Algren wrote at the height of career, at the same time as his award-winning novel. The 40-year-old novelist remembered being a young newsboy in the 1920s, braving the snows to sell The Saturday Evening Blade at an intersection by the cemetery — and how they’d tried to swindle their customers.

Nelson Algren always remembered the forgotten people — from jockeys and boxers to drifters and gamblers. And now this new book lets us remember Nelson Algren…

Last week three different Kindle users shared their favorite stories about life with the Kindle. But I’d also heard from Andrea McKinnon, a publicist in Burbank who was “an avid book lover, reader and saver” — until her husband dared to give her a Kindle in May as a Mother’s Day gift…

Within seven days, Andrea was assigned a 250-page manuscript, and she’d had to read the entire thing before passing it on to a publisher. “My choices? Read 250 pages on my laptop or print out 250 pages.” But wait! There was a third choice — uploading the document to the Kindle, and then reading it as an ebook! And — to cut to the end of the story — Andrea now describes herself as “a new Kindle convert.”

“I was also traveling at the time, so along it came with me, to read on the plane and in the hotel, along with the novel I was reading at the time. One small Kindle, two giant tomes en route for work and pleasure!”

And meanwhile, on the opposite coast, a woman named Elaine Bloom was also enjoying her Kindle for an entirely different reason. Elaine describes herself as a LinkedIn Strategist, but unfortunately, she also had a broken left leg. (“I fell on ice in a diner parking lot at the beginning of March…”) It was painful, and her foot was constantly kept elevated — which made it difficult to read in different positions, or even turn the pages of a conventional book. But fortunately, with the Kindle “I could easily read it while I was lying down in bed. I could hold it in one hand and use that same hand to hit the button to advance the page. It would have been difficult for me to hold a book and no way I could read and turn the pages with one hand.” Today the grateful New Jersey woman says the Kindle “saved my sanity….I was able to do a lot of reading when I couldn’t do anything else.

“The only other thing I could do was watch daytime television — which could drive you crazy!”

The Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown cover

My girlfriend just finished reading The Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown, a former U.S. Navy lawyer. And she’s also uncovered some important information about his true identity…

                        *                        *                        *

That’s DON Brown, not Dan Brown, as I originally thought. (I’d been excited about reading another book on the Kindle to follow DAN Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.) I even read the description before I downloaded the book from the top of the Kindle 100 Free section. (Perhaps you’ve noticed by now that I spend a lot of time in the Kindle Top 100 Free section. My boyfriend lets me download anything on his Kindle as long as it’s free. If you want me to start reviewing stuff not in the free section, take it up with him!)

First, the positive. It is a good-sized novel, meaning it took me longer than half an hour to read it. (This is a step up from several titles I’ve downloaded recently.) Next, I learned a lot about the area around Singapore and Indonesia, with bonus points for several maps included with the text. Also, Don paints a great portrait of the Navy SEALS. Er, that’s about it.

The plot involves a power-hungry Indonesian general who wants to turn Indonesia into an Islamic superpower — the new Evil Empire (Islam) against the Christian USA. And yes, I mean Christian — specifically Republican Christian. The president in this novel quotes bible verses to himself at every turn and glows with Republican fervor. He mentions Ronald Reagan ad nauseam. He talks about the man, plus the people who fly in and out of Ronald Reagan airport in Washington D.C., and even named one of the critical air craft carriers in the plot after Reagan.

Don glows about fine Republican presidents of the past (although, strangely, neither of the Bushes are mentioned). His Republican president is strong, refusing to quit Washington D.C. because that would be bowing to terrorists. (Was that a reference to the fact that President G.W. Bush was in the air one hour after 9/11, and didn’t come down for hours, then went to an undisclosed location?)

But his president is also a bit whiney, asking God why HE has to deal with this terrorist attack; none of his predecessors had to contend with a nuclear attack on American soil. Why did it have to fall to him? Of course, whining is not weakness, as it leads to quoting bible verses and prayer. Let me be clear that in general I don’t mind people turning to God in times of great need. Also, it takes a strong man to turn to his God for help. However, it seems contrived in this story line as a way of quoting the bible. Kind of like when Charlie’s Angels contrives situations to show the girls in bikinis. (Yes, it’s in the plot line that they all of a sudden have to get on a boat, but it’s a stretch!)

Personally, I’m a bit tired of the “Evil Empire vs. godfearing Americans” plot lines. The new model has both sides talking to God (o.k., one side talking to God, the other to Allah). This is a step up from the godless communists but the intent is still the same.

OMG! Will the terrorists strike fear in the hearts of all Americans? Will the Islamic Indonesian Superpower rule the world ?!? Will they succeed in blowing up San Francisco, and then Washington, D.C.!?! How will it end?!? No spoiler alert here. You can guess the ending yourself.

Don wrote four other novels, this one published in June of this year, making me wonder why it was offered for free. Then I found that the Wikipedia page for Don Brown is flagged for removal because he’s a non-notable author who has no press coverage. Ouch. That explains why this book is in the free section — to get some press coverage! And I’m happy to oblige.

I would recommend giving this novel a skip, even if it is free.

                        *                        *                        *

But if you’d like to give it a try, click here for a free copy of The Malacca Conspiracy by Don Brown!

Amazon has announced even more new-and-exciting features that are coming up for the Kindle.

* When can you give an ebook as a gift? That’s the question bothering a reporter at PC World — and he took it straight to Amazon. They’d organized a press event which included executives from Amazon, and “Since I had Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president of Kindle Content, in the room, I decided to get to the bottom of this…”

Amazons’ response? “Stay tuned. We know gifting is important. We have a long experience with trying to make people’s holidays really good…” And then he’d added that Amazon is, in fact, working on making this year’s holidays good.

“He wouldn’t get into detail on how this might work,” the reporter notes, “but I think it’s a good bet that gifting novels will become a reality this year.” And he predicts that when Amazon does it — Barnes and Noble will offer the same feature for the Nook almost immediately!

* Is Amazon building a Kindle App store? Back in January, Amazon announced plans for a kind of Kindle “app store” like the one that’s currently selling fun third-party software for Apple’s iPhones. Amazon had already lined up top-notch developers, and promised there’d even be some free applications (plus apps with a one-time fee, and some requiring a regular monthly subscription). But in the six months since, Amazon hadn’t said a word.

Fortunately, BusinessInsider magazine didn’t forget, and a few days ago they phoned Amazon demanding an update. Amazon’s response? “We’re working on it. We have some great developers in the beta…”

* Are the Kindle’s competitors doomed? There’s a dire prediction from another reporter at PC World — that Amazon’s new $139 Kindle “spells disaster for other e-reader makers, who have either relied on prices or features to hold some kind of edge on the Kindle.” The argument goes that it’s almost impossible to compete…now that there’s a cheaper and multi-featured new version of the Kindle. The article then goes on to list four digital readers “whose future is now in jeopardy” — Sony’s Reader, the Kobo from Borders, plus Plastic Logic Que and Spring Design Alex.

* And finally, there’s a professional football whose name is Sergio Kindle. This has nothing to do with Amazon’s book-reading device whatsoever, but some people apparently haven’t figured that out. I swear I’ve seen feeds on Twitter which seem to automatically share the URL for any news article that mentions Amazon’s device — but that are only searching on the word “Kindle.” So sometimes instead of learning about Amazon’s ebook reader — you end up reading news articles about an NFL linebacker!

Picture of the new smaller, black $139 Amazon Wi-Fi Kindle

If you want to buy Amazon’s new $139 Kindle, click here!

Amazon lowered the price for the Kindle Wednesday — for a newer model with only Wi-Fi access to the Kindle store (and with only Wi-Fi surfing when using the Kindle’s web browser). All the other Kindle models still have their built-in access to the online world, so they’re always ready to surf the web and shop for books — anywhere and any time. But this new Kindle has other advantages — like running for up to one month on a single battery charge. And it weighs just 8.5 ounces — “less than a paperback,” Amazon argues — making it 17% lighter than even the smallest of the original Kindles.

There’s also twice as much storage space — holding up to 3,500 books — and Amazon promises the new screens can display pages 20% faster, and offer “50% better contrast than any other e-reader.” But best of all, this settles any question about whether Amazon might give up on selling the Kindle, and focus solely on selling ebooks. “The hardware business for us has been so successful that we’re going to continue,” Amazon’s CEO told the New York Times.

Wednesday they’d contacted Jeff Bezos at Amazon headquarters, and heard his strong commitment to continuing Kindle sales. “I predict there will be a 10th-generation and a 20th-generation Kindle,” Bezos announced. “We’re well-situated to be experts in purpose-built reading devices.” And while touting the lower price, he also found a way to highlight the fact that — unlike the iPad — the Kindle is perfect for reading outdoors. “At $139, if you’re going to read by the pool, some people might spend more than that on a swimsuit and sunglasses…”

I think Amazon will also attract people who are curious about the Kindle, but don’t want to risk a lot of money. (In a few months, the prices should drop even lower if you’re purchasing a wi-fi Kindle that’s used or refurbished.) And of course, it will make a perfect birthday gift. (I wonder if you can purchase it pre-loaded with gift books!) In fact, Amazon is already describing the Kindle as “the most-wished-for, most-gifted” item in their vast online store, and they’ve revealed that the Kindle “has the most 5-star reviews of any product on Amazon.”

But hearing the news today, I’d remembered a blog post I read in June. “Don’t worry about touchscreens or color or even always available internet to download new books,” argued marketing guru Seth Godin. “Make a $49 Kindle. Not so hard if you use available wi-fi and simplify the device…” Amazon may not have lowered their prices to $49, but they definitely swapped in the cheaper Wi-fi connectivity, and the lower prices should attract even more readers to the Kindle.

In fact, there’s fierce competition now in the market for digital readers, and the Kindle’s survival might depend on how cheap they can get! “You either become the best and only platform for consuming books worth buying or you fail,” argues Godin’s blog post. “And the only way to create that footprint in the face of an iPad is to make it so cheap to buy and use it’s irresistible. I saw a two-year old kid (in diapers, in a stroller), using an iPod Touch today. Not just looking at it, but browsing menus and interacting. This is a revolution, guys.”

But as every age group starts to embrace the arrival of electronic readers, Amazon is still fighting hard to be perceived as the best deal in town.

Interested? If you want to buy Amazon’s new $139 Kindle, click here!

Newsweek just published what’s almost a rebuttal to my last article. My headline: “Will the iPad Kill the Kindle?” Newsweek’s headline: “Why the iPad Hasn’t Killed the Kindle…”

It’s a good article, but what I really liked is the way that it answered an even bigger question. A few analysts had raised a darker possibility:that Amazon will kill the Kindle. What if Amazon decides it just doesn’t want to compete with the iPad, and then shifts all of its resources into marketing Kindle ebooks (to all the non-Kindle devices, like the iPad, the Blackberry, and the Droid)? But apparently Newsweek’s reporter broached that topic with Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos when the Kindle first began confronting the possible threat from the iPad last fall.

“I suggested to Bezos that maybe Amazon didn’t care about selling Kindle machines, that maybe the device wasn’t important. He said that wasn’t the case, but that ‘our goal with the Kindle device is separate from the Kindle bookstore.’

“Bezos insisted there is a market for ‘a purpose-built reading device,’ as he calls it. ‘It’s not a Swiss Army knife. It’s not going to do a bunch of different things. We believe reading deserves a dedicated device.'”


Of course, you can read what you want into that quote. (After all, separating the Kindle from the ebook would be the first step towards eventually abandoning the Kindle altogether.) But here’s how I understand what Amazon’s CEO is saying.

1. Amazon doesn’t need to sell Kindles in order to sell ebooks.

2. Amazon would still like to sell both Kindles and ebooks…

I put out a call to a journalist’s network last week, asking Kindle users to answer one simple question: what’s your own favorite story about using the Kindle? The answers poured in from across America, but each person seemed to have a very positive experience that was also very unique.

Patrick Kerley, an account supervisor for a PR firm in Washington, D.C., remembered a great Kindle story about his mother. “She and my father were traveling between North Carolina and southern Florida when they blew a tire. The Kindle’s web browser helped them locate a replacement!”

And the free wireless internet access played an even bigger role for Sophia Chiang, a San Francisco entrepreneur on an extended trip through China. She reports the Kindle was a great way to buy “uncensored English magazines like Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Atlantic Monthly.” Amazon’s Whispernet network actually allowed her to circumvent the Chinese government’s ongoing news censorship.

Her Kindle also let Sophia beam down travel guidebooks that were written in English. “We went on a last minute trip to a more remote part of China and we got our Lonely Planet guide immediately on the Kindle.” Without the Kindle, she reports on her blog, the only alternative would’ve been scrambling around trying to find a Chinese bookstore, and then hoping that they’d have a travel guidebook, in stock, that was written in English!

Because it was a long trip, Sophia was also glad that her Kindle could last for over a week without a recharge. But her last reason was one of the most exciting. Even though I’ve written a lot about children’s books on the Kindle, Sophia is the first person I know who’s actually using the Kindle to buy ebooks for her children. (“Our kids loved the Kindle and loved being able to buy Magic Tree House, ABC Mysteries series even in the middle of the Middle Kingdom.”)

I’ll have more of the responses from other Kindle users over the next week, but I just want to say that my favorite response probably came from Marc Pittman, who runs a fundraising-education business in Maine. He describes himself as a “proud owner” of an original Kindle 1, and says “I think my happiest moment so far happened at the playground last week. I was using my iPad (*gasp*) when a 5 year old kid ran past, stopped, and shouted ‘Cool Kindle!’

“Kids know where the real innovation is!”

Amazon's Jeff Bezos on the Kindle
There was some controversy when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced a new book-reading Kindle application for the iPad. “Is Amazon Killing the Kindle?” asked The Motley Fool, noting that Amazon offered extra video and audio features in their Kindle applications for both the iPad and iPhone.

It’s possible to embed multimedia clips directly into the ebooks, so they can then be played back in the Kindle applications for these devices – though not, ironically, on a Kindle. The Motley Fool noted that Amazon was making an effort to support Kindle applications not only on Apple’s mobile devices, but also on Google’s Android platform and Droid phones. (And there’s also a Kindle app available for the Blackberry.) “But will that support come at the expense of the Kindle itself?” Noting that Amazon is now “putting out a better product for the non-Kindle owning crowd,” they wondered if Amazon was refocusing its energy on the sale of ebooks — rather than on their own ebook-reading device!

For an answer, let’s go to Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos. Interviewed by Fortune magazine, he was first asked point-blank about the iPad, and, basically, whether Amazon felt doomed by Apple’s entry into the marketplace for tablet-sized reading devices. Was the threat of competition what pushed Amazon into dramatically lowering the Kindle’s price last month?

“No. The iPad… It’s really a different product category. The Kindle is for readers.”


But the interview also offers an interesting statistic — last year, 80% of all ebook sales came through Amazon’s store. (Bezos jokes that “It’s hard even for us to remember internally that we only launched Kindle a little over 30 months ago.”) So it still stands to reason that Amazon is just as interested in protecting their book-selling business as they are in their secondary business of selling Kindles. That’s the secret subtext when Bezos answers a question about whether Amazon can hang onto its share of the ebook market.


“We want people to be able to read their books anywhere they want to read them. That’s the PC, that’s the Macintosh. It’s the iPad, it’s the iPhone. It’s the Kindle. So you have this whole multitude of devices and whatever’s most convenient for you at the moment.

“We think of it as a mission. I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”


It’s a fascinating interview, because you get the idea that Bezos really, really loves books. At the same time, he also admits that “I think the definition of a book is changing.” He defines that change specifically in areas where the Kindle is strong, saying that the book is now “getting more convenient. Now you can get a book in less than 60 seconds.” But in the end, he still never answers the big question of whether Amazon sees its future in the sale of Kindles — or in the sale of ebooks, to all devices.

Fortunately, there’s one more piece of data. You may have seen Amazon’s new television ad, where they emphasize that you can read your Kindle at the beach, in direct sunlight. (Which would obviously be nearly impossible with the back-lit screen of an iPad.) If Amazon were surrendering to the iPad, then they wouldn’t be wasting their money on an expensive TV ad campaign. To me, this strongly suggests that Amazon is still serious about staying the market for tablet-shaped devices.

But ironically, back in January — before the iPad had even been released — I’d already written an article asking Could Apple’s iPad Kill the Kindle? Maybe it’s ultimately just a perpetually trendy question — and an indicator that Kindle users feel overly protective of their beloved device!

Kindle Cookbook Recipes for Entertaining - Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker


What happens when you try to use the Kindle to read a cookbook?

I asked my girlfriend to test it out, and she shared her surprising results…

                        *                        *                        *

I remember when my boyfriend first started letting me use his Kindle (thus showing that a new level of trust had been reached in our relationship). I’d browsed through Amazon’s free ebook section, and discovered Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker: Recipes for Entertaining, by Beth Hensberger and Julie Kaufmann.

I was intrigued, since I’d recently purchased a slow cooker. Interestingly, I’d downloaded a free copy, which lists the author as Julie Kaufmann, but when I looked it up to make sure it’s still free, I found it’s now selling for $9.99 and lists Beth Hensberger along with Julie Kaufmann.

In reading the cookbook, I also discovered the exciting world of font sizes. My boyfriend likes large font sizes, but they make reading recipies difficult. So I was delighted when I figured out that I could shrink the font (duh!), and thus get a lot more text on each page!

I like reading cookbooks, and have been enjoying this book. It has a wide range of interesting recipies and entertaining menu selections, including some which are elegant enough for entertaining. Unlike other slow cooker books I read, this book includes appetizers, drinks and desserts as well as the more traditional soups, stews and fondues. Some of my favorites include Steamed Chocolate Pudding, Honey BBQ Pork Ribs, Chicken Mole Enchelada Casserole, and Curry Mixed Nuts.

Unfortunately, I came across several problems when I started cooking my first meal. For one thing, it’s extremely annoying to try to arrange the recipe so it starts at the top of the page. This means that every recipe I’ve worked with is split across two pages, with part of the ingredients and instructions on one page and part on the next. This is very inconvenient when cooking. It means having to stop every so often and page back and forth to keep on track.

Another issue I found was when the book references itself. For example, it called for a barbecue sauce whose recipe was “on page 101.” Well, the Kindle doesn’t have a page 101. I did figure out I could do a search on that phrase, but other recipies also called for the same barbecue sauce, so it took some scrolling around to get to where I wanted to go. Also, I found looking through the table of contents rather tedious. Chicken recipes were on the 9th page of the table of contents section; pork recipes on the 11th. The table of contents ran through 14 pages, and every time I picked up the Kindle I had to start over on its first page. Boring.

So, I made the Honey Pork BBQ Ribs, which were delicious (and boyfriend-approved!). I wouldn’t have tried this book without the Kindle, so I’m glad I downloaded it. But I was too frustrated by the Kindle’s limited screen space to use it again. I like the book enough to order the paperback copy on Amazon because I want to try other recipes out. OMG! The Kindle isn’t perfect. Bummer.

                        *                        *                        *

But in the Kindle’s defense…

The honey pork barbecue ribs were delicious!

Amazingly, yesterday there was a long discussion about the Kindle and the future of the book on the daytime television talk show, The View.

Whoopi Goldberg is a big fan of the Kindle, and it sounded like co-host Barbara Walters was trying to understand it. But the show’s other hosts — both mothers with young children — worried about whether a digital reader might impinge on the time they spend reading to their children. Here’s a complete transcript of the discussion between the four women.

(The other two hosts are sitcom star Sherri Shepherd and reality TV star Bethenny Frankel…)


                        *                        *                        *

WHOOPI: According to Amazon.com, sales of ebooks are outpacing the sales of actual hardcover books. So is the book on the way out?

BARBARA: I guess so.

BETHENNY: I don’t want to read The Runaway Bunny to Brin on a Kindle.

BARBARA: Why not?

BETHENNY: I just, you know, I…

SHERRI: It’s not the same.

BETHENNY: I like the turning of page and the colors and all that.

SHERRI: When Jeffrey and I — we do — it’s a bonding moment. At night, he knows, “turn off the TV, mommy.” He goes to get a book. We sit in the rocking chair. He likes to turn the pages. He likes to point. It’s the pictures. I think you lose that as a child. We’re so viral with the Twitter. We don’t pick up the phone any more. We’re texting. And you kind of lose that personal touch, when you don’t have the musty books and the yellow pages…

WHOOPI: Very few people —

SHERRI: Yeah.

WHOOPI: — read the Kindle to their children. Most people still read —

BETHENNY: But that’s where we’ll go.

WHOOPI: No we won’t.

SHERRI: It just seems like —

WHOOPI: And here’s the thing. Giant books — think about it. Well, maybe this isn’t your experience. I love to read, as you know.

SHERRI: Yeah.

WHOOPI: I used to carry 30 books when I travelled. And so I’d have — and I bought bags — leather bags. 30 books, yeah, ’cause I read. I go on these long trips…

BARBARA: Well, she was on a long trip on a bus.

WHOOPI: I go on these long trips, ’cause I — you know, I don’t generally fly.

BETHENNY: Well, it takes me a month to read a book, so —

WHOOPI: So I — I eat books. I love them.

SHERRI: And you know, I think another reason why it’s outselling — the Kindle — is because a book — if you go on Amazon now, a book is sixteen bucks. And if you get it on Kindle, it’s eight. So you know, I think the price, as well…

WHOOPI: And also, I think you can carry your library with you if you go somewhere. And so I think people want to be able to do that. Books will never go out of — out of —

BARBARA: No, because there is a place for them in your home.

WHOOPI: Absolutely.

BARBARA: Books look beautiful. They feel good. That’s the great thing.

WHOOPI: Unless you decide to do it — unless you decide to buy it for children.

SHERRI: We were talking about young babies and toddlers. What about for kids who are maybe preteens and teenagers — that experience of having a book. You remember going to the library? The Dewey decimal system? That whole —

WHOOPI: Let me explain to you about books. You see these kids, how many books they’re carrying?

SHERRI: Yeah. They got a big —

WHOOPI: Do you see what they’re carrying on their backs?

BETHENNY: It’s going to be expensive to buy the devices.

WHOOPI: Actually it’s not, if the schools can get behind it. Because, what you can do is you can download your textbooks. And you can have all the books that you need. It would be great for young people. And real books — I mean, as long as kids are reading Twilight, they’re not going to want to read it on the Kindle. They want —

BETHENNY: Is the bookmark over? Is that’s what’s going to happen now? The whole bookmark industry?

WHOOPI: No. You have a different bookmark for the Kindle or the iBook or whatever you’re reading. But the greatest thing is people are still reading! That’s the most wonderful…

[APPLAUSE]

SHERRI: I remember our — my dad, the salesman came, and we had an entire shelf of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And that was the thing. We loved it when we got a new Britannica.

BETHENNY: You can look smart, too. You can have all these books at your house, and people think you’re really literary when you’re not.

WHOOPI: That’s why this guy — I wonder if this — that’s why this guy got into trouble. What do you think, Bill? I mean — did you hear about this Amish teenager who, uh — who crashed his horse and buggy during a police chase?

BETHENNY: Is this The Flintstones? What are we talking about?

WHOOPI: No! He’s facing charges of alcohol possession, and second degree reckless endangerment, and overdriving an animal after leading the police on a chase that ended when the teen crashed his horse and buggy! Come on…

SHERRI: He was Amish?

WHOOPI: He was Amish. And we’re worried about where the book is going?! Pooh! “Come on, now. Come on! Come on! He’s gaining on us! Come on, Christa, come on!”

                        *                        *                        *

And of course, Barbara Walters put it all into perspective. Not only is she okay with the Kindle — she’s not even worried about the police pulling over the Amish horse and buggy for drunk driving.

“Unless the horse was drunk, I don’t see what’s the big deal…”

Dr. Larry Rosen wrote an interesting article for Psychology Today. His blog is called “Rewired: The Psychology of Technology,” and Monday he confronted the argument that nonlinear reading “is changing our brain and moving us away from deep thought into more shallow thinking.”

By non-linear technology, Rosen’s referring mostly to the hyperlinked discussions which happen online, where it’s almost too easy to flit away to a new web page or a new activity (like checking your e-mail or answering instant messages). But author Nicholas Carr predicts that even reading books will soon enter this universe of “interruption” technologies, in which we’re not just reading but also simultaneously participating in a distracted online dialogue related to that same book. Nicholas Carr is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. But fortunately, yesterday he received a rebuttal from Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University — who’s also an avid Kindle user!

“I bought a Kindle when they first came out in late 2007…” he remembers in his blog post, “and delighted in using it on airplane trips instead of bringing along two or three paperback books.” And Rosen ultimately sees the hyperlinking of online discussions as a good thing. (“As C.S. Lewis said, ‘We read to know we are not alone.'”) “What better way to read a book than to be able to share it as we are reading? Isn’t that what book clubs are all about?

“The difference here is that people will be able to read what other people think about the book as they read. They can even discuss the book live while they are reading it, not when they have read the final page…”

I have to agree. And even without joining an online discussion, I’ve been reading some free history ebooks on my Kindle, and sometimes I’ll get inspired to dig deeper into some especially intriguing details. (“Wait a minute — the re-supply ship to the Jamestown colony in 1609 actually crashed instead in Bermuda? And they only made it to America because they built two new ships while shipwrecked? And that may have inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest?“) I think one of the best things a book can do is pique your curiosity. And now it’s easier to act on that curiosity with a Kindle, since it lets you look up any word in a dictionary, and look up any topic in Wikipedia with its always-available wireless connection.

That’s ultimately going to make us smarter, not shallower. And I think this whole debate can be summed up by two brilliant sentences from author David Weinberger. “Perhaps the web isn’t shortening our attention span,” he wrote in 2002. “Perhaps the world is just getting more interesting…”

I don’t know if this is an ironic twist, but I actually read Weinberger’s defense of the web in an old-fashioned printed book. (Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web.) It was written five years before the Kindle even existed, but there’s now a neat Kindle version of his mind-boggling insights. And yesterday Dr. Rosen’s blog post seemed to make a similar argument.

Sure, teenagers may someday be participating in online discussions while they’re reading a book, but “This is way better than seeing students read the Cliff Notes or not even reading at all.” And ultimately he puts the whole debate into perspective. “As Dr. Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of iBrain said discussing online reading, ‘People tend to ask whether this is good or bad.

‘My response is that the tech train is out of the station and it’s impossible to stop.'”


Click here for the Kindle version of Dr. Rosen’s book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn.

Click here for the Kindle version of Dr. Small’s book, iBrain: Surving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind

Click here for the Kindle version of Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Click here for the Kindle version of David Weinberger’s book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory Of The Web

Ebooks and Rainy Days

July 19, 2010

I’ve been thinking about the way I viewed books not just 10 years ago, but 20 or 30. (Before what historians will eventually call “the digital revolution”.) I remembered being a teenager and watching an old black-and-white horror movie from the 1930s — I think it was The Invisible Man Returns — but what really impressed me was the elderly British inspector in the movie who had his own cozy den that was filled with shelves of books. I remember thinking that when I was a grown-up, I also wanted a luxuriously cozy study just like that — which would also be lined with my favorite books.

And I had the same thought when I saw Bilbo’s hobbit hole in the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring

But now, instead, I have my Kindle, which can probably hold just as many books. And I have an extremely cozy armchair — so if you want to push the metaphor, I can claim that I’ve already realized my dream. But is the luxurious library itself going to become a think of the past? Maybe comfy homes of the future will have a sumptuous “library,” but containing just one single, but very elegant Kindle. It could have a special custom case — marble, maybe, or solid gold. Or maybe books will be still be collected, but as exotic antiquities from a bygone age…

Roger Ebert touched on this in the essay he wrote about how much he treasured the books he’d loved — as reminders of his experiences reading them. For example, he once lived at a place called University House.



“It had been built for troops during the war, and now housed graduate students. The water poured down the roof and collected in an exposed gutter which hurried it along somewhere downhill. I have long had this peculiar love of sitting very close to the rain and yet remaining protected — in a cafe, on a porch, next to a window, or there in that room, which had two iron-paned windows and a Dutch door. After a warning from our house mother, I’d gone to the OK Bazaar and purchased a small electric heater.”


I love reading on a rainy day, too, curled up in my cozy chair with a very good…ebook. It’s still a wonderful experience.

So maybe we don’t need the bookshelf-lined private study after all.

An original Sherlock Holmes illustration
Amazon’s most popular free mystery ebook — currently #5 on their best-seller list — is also one that my girlfriend read as part of a very strange Christmas — and a secret crime all her own…

                        *                        *                        *

The year I was 12, my brother received The Complete Sherlock Holmes for Christmas — and I received a bunch of Camp Fire Girls stuff and a copy of the Bobbsey Twins mysteries. Ick! Luckily for me, my brother didn’t really like Sherlock Holmes, any more than I wanted to read the Bobbsy Twins. (O.k., I liked them when I was 7 or 8, but really. By then my reading level had advanced to the point where I was reading real novels like The Count of Monte Cristo…)

But my brother wouldn’t give up control of his book. He hid it in his room which was, of course, completely off limits to his little sister. I am now able to confess this crime — I went into the forbidden room,
found the concealed Sherlock Holmes collection — and pilfered it! Luckily for me, he didn’t want the book, just control over it, so I read through the entire collection without him knowing it was gone. What joy!

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a great writer and crafter of stories. Intricate, detailed situations with flawed characters, gripping plot lines and very surprising endings. And Doyle himself led a very intriguing life. He studied medicine at the University of Edinborough, then signed on as a ship’s doctor on a boat traveling to the West African coast.
Upon his return, he opened a doctor’s office in a small English town, but building a practice in a strange town takes time.
So while he waited for his patients, he wrote his first mysteries.

The first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887. Mr. Holmes was modeled after one of Doyle’s university professors. The likeness was so good that Wikipedia says Robert Louis Stevenson (another Scotsman, then living in Samoa) recognized the professor and mentioned it in his letter of congratulations to Sir Doyle.
I’ve since become a great fan of mystery novels, soaking them up like water after a surgery and long convelescense several years ago.

But Sherlock Holmes set the standard by which I’ve judged all others. I used to think I wasn’t smart enough to solve the mysteries and just read them for the pure entertainment value. Then I started reading other mystery novels and found I could solve them as I read along. Then I rediscovered Sherlock Holmes on my Kindle!

I was originally worried that maybe my joy of reading the Sherlock Holmes stories is thus overlayed with the guilty pleasure of forbidden reading — the same joy I’d get by reading by flashlight under my covers when I was supposed to be asleep. But there they all were — The Hound of the Baskervilles (MUCH better than the movie), The Red Headed League, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Five Orange Pips, and so many more. (There are over 50 Holmes stories). There was the wonderful writing, the fascinating plots, the twisting and turning, and such a wonderful read every time. And his friend Dr. Watson was always sharing my cluelessness.

I found that I remembered the stories, but often not the ending and as I read. I recognized things as clues but still couldn’t solve the crimes by the end. (How frustrating!) I had been excited to approach these stories with my new adult mystery-solving abilites. Then I realized there is no way to solve a Sherlock Holmes crime! I’d read carefully, finding clues, making guesses, working hard at figuring out the crime, then Bam! Mr. Holmes comes up with some puzzle piece so completely out of left field that could never have figured it out.

It was the specific type of cigar ash, Watson. Surely you’ve read my monograph on different types of tobacco from all over the world and the ash each one produces. Oh, oops, silly me for forgetting the monograph!
(Which, by the way, was never available to us non-fictitious mortals….) Note to Sir A. Conon Doyle: Write the damn monograph or quit using it as the only way to solve the mystery!

                        *                        *                        *

Don’t worry, my girlfriend says she still loves all of the Sherlock Holmes books. Click here if you’d like to read a free Sherlock Holmes mystery for yourself!

Kindlerama is one of Amazon’s 50 top technology blogs — and last month they delivered an important message.

“Dear Ellora’s Cave, publisher of low quality erotica: please stop.”

I’d been wondering myself what strange thing was happening with the list of Amazon’s top 100 free ebooks — and in the form of an open letter, Kindlerama revealed the answer.

“You essentially drove up to the Kindle store in a big dumptruck, and then you dumped about sixteen tons of tripe onto it, and then –oh ho, here’s where you got sneaky! – you asked your staff, and your authors, and your author’s friends to all download copies of the titles so they’d overtake the Top 100 Free list. “

It’s a very funny blog post, but it also makes a serious point. “[Y]ou also just broke the store for everyone else; until your little tantrum of ‘look at me’ publicity subsides, we all have to sit around wondering what other titles are out there. Although my ire this morning is focused on Ellora’s Cave, it’s not the only publisher to engage in shady marketing nonsense…”

And that’s really what I’m worried about. I’ve found a lot of great free stuff by browsing Amazon’s list of the top 100 free ebooks. And Amazon has a thriving community of Kindle users sharing information in their Kindle discussion forums. I guess I’ve been thinking of those as part of the whole Kindle experience — so it’s startling when someone deliberately tries to feeds bad information into the system.

I guess I’d just like to join the warning issued by Kindlerama to the spammers who’d hijacked Amazon’s list of best-selling ebooks.

“Dear Ellora’s Cave, publisher of low quality erotica: please stop.”

Roger Ebert
I once interviewed Roger Ebert back in 2001. (It happened via a brief e-mail exchange, I remember him as exceedingly gracious, and I’ve been a huge fan of his ever since.) But I also remember asking specifically — nine years ago — whether he had a “dream PDA” that he’d like to see someday? After all, he was a newsman (and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.) Wouldn’t he like to read newspapers on a special tablet-sized reading device?

And his answer surprised me.


“For my news I still prefer the voluptuous combination of newsprint and coffee in the morning.”

Spoken like a newsman. Although to be fair, Ebert has always spent a lot of time surfing the web, and acknowledged that those tiny 2001 screens (and tinier keyboards) were also driving him crazy. And he was even more sensitive to the keyboard problems because — guess what? — he’s a professional writer. “A writer lives through a keyboard,” Ebert e-mailed me. “Palm Pilots are useful for people who don’t write a lot and need phone numbers, a calendar, etc.”

So now it’s 2010, and I had to wonder: had Ebert changed his mind when he heard about the Kindle?

I did a Google search to see if I could find a recent comment, and found two Ebert links that didn’t answer my question and one that did. But first I’d found a touching essay from a blogger who’s an even bigger fan of Roger Ebert fan than I am. (When his oldest son got married, the blogger wanted to present his son with a very special gift, and finally settled on: a copy of Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies. Plus two other books…) “The more I read from his keyboard, the more I understand why he won a Pulitzer and is considered America’s best pundit,” the blogger wrote.

“His love for books is obvious. And, of course, his love for books helps explain the depth of his thinking and his writing.

This is a blog primarily about business books. But underlying it is a simple love of books. Roger Ebert has given us a great read to remind us about our own love for books.”

So naturally, I followed the link…

And there I read a gloriously rambling essay by Roger Ebert himself (written just eight months ago) called Books Do Furnish a Life. During the course of it, Ebert mentions one book after another that he’s cherished through his 67 years of life, and then admits that he still has a home library that’s filled with 3,000 different books. “Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions,” he writes, including more or less “every book I have owned since I was seven, starting with Huckleberry Finn.” He has trouble throwing away any of the treasured reminders of great reading experiences, and in a sweet conclusion, considers whether what he really needs is just a cozy private place where he can sit and read his favorites. Except that then he’d miss his wife.

And his other 3,000 books.

I was a little confused by the format of the blog post, but at the end Ebert seemed to approvingly quote a 22-year-old reader in Arizona who had a humorous observation of her own. “I love how the kindle is marketed as a ‘wireless reading device’ – isn’t that what a book is?” And soon I’d discovered the third link, where Roger Ebert finally shared his own personal feelings about the Kindle….

It was in a fairly technical essay where Ebert explained why he prefers seeing films in celluloid prints (vs. newer digital projection systems), titled Why I’m So Conservative.


“In the earliest days of home video, I published an article in The Atlantic calling for a ‘wood-burning cinema.” In recoil from the picture quality of early tapes, I called for the development of low-cost 16mm projectors for the home. No, this didn’t have the invisible quotation marks of satire around it. Seldom has a bright idea of mine been more excitingly insane…”


It’s hard to argue with his fondness, and the memories that go along with them. And it’s in the essay’s final sentence where he mentions the Kindle — and then brings all these themes together.


“I love silent films. I miss radio drama. In some matters, I feel almost like a reactionary. I love books, for example. Physical books with pages, bindings, tactile qualities and even smell. Once a year I take down my hardbound copy of the works of Ambrose Bierce, purchased for $1.99 by mail order when I was about 11, simply to inhale it. Still as curiously pungent as ever. I summarily reject any opportunity to read a book by digital means, no matter how fervently Andy Ihnatko praises his Kindle. Somehow a Kindle sounds like it would be useful for the wood-burning cinema.”


It’s an argument I’ve heard before, though I’ve never heard it expressed quite so eloquently. The wry resistance of my hero left me a little stunned, until I realized that the two of us also shared a tremendous common ground. After all, maybe Roger Ebert doesn’t love the Kindle.

But he definitely loves reading…

Is free porn a problem on the Kindle?
Today someone in the Kindle discussion forum complained that “the Kindle community homepage seems dominated by adult content.”

I think if anything that’s a glitch with Amazon’s automated layout. They’re generating a list for the web page of all the new products which were recently tagged with the word “Kindle”, and it’s the adult content that’s receiving that tag most often! Either the erotica fans are really conscientious about tagging these books as “Kindle,” or it’s a brilliant marketing campaign where the tag gets added repeatedly until the books leap onto Amazon’s “Kindle Community” front page!

Either way, the tags were all added recently by Amazon users, which ironically means these dirty book covers now appear under the headline “What’s Happening in the Community.”

Memorable MMF Threesome
The Cherry Cheerleaders
Confessions of a Deathmaiden
Adult Erotic Fantasies
The Disturbing Tale of Michelle and Bryce

(And the two titles below, which have since been removed from Amazon’s Kindle store…
Naughty Lesbians: Prescription for Pleasure
Nicole – Naked Twister

“I would think the community should be a ‘family friendly’ guide to Kindle,” complained one user in Amazon’s discussion forum, “but it seems that it’s more oriented toward pornographic and erotic content.” They’d contacted Amazon’s feedback address “with no response,” and encouraged more users to make their voices heard with the home page’s “send feedback” button “so that others are not inadvertently exposed to objectionable content.” But in another thread, one user reports that they received an official response from Amazon.



I’m sorry if you were offended by the contents of a tag on our website.

We understand your concern, but the tag doesn’t fall outside of our guidelines. Therefore, we cannot remove the items from the Kindle Community tag from our site. I apologize if this causes you any frustration.

We want our feature to be something that all our customers find useful…

One user even revealed that they’d found full frontal nudity in an unexpected place — on the cover of Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror classic, Frankenstein. But apparently earlier this week a bunch of erotic novels were released for free, which gave them a surge of popularity and helped them start appearing in the automatically generated lists. It’s not clear how troubling this is to most users. (“That’s the first time I’ve ever visited that page,” one user responded in Amazon’s forum, “and I don’t know that I’ll visit it in the future.”) And another poster reported the same experience: “I just don’t go to the homepage. That’s why I never saw it.” (Though they acknowledged that “Memorable MMF Threesome” was “not what I want to see either.”) One user suggested the auto-generated list didn’t need to be censored. “Well it’s not in my genre, but if Amazon sells it, there’s no reason it can’t be discussed…”

But the original poster responded that “Both the titles and covers of many of these works are overly explicit,” clarifying that their issue wasn’t with the books themselves. “I’m not suggesting Amazon shouldn’t sell this content but that it shouldn’t be included in the general Kindle Community where individuals (especially minors) can be inadvertently exposed to overt adult content.” And then one user in California hopelessly muddled the discussion by posting two words of apparent support.

“Hmmmm, smut!”

He followed up later, noting that Naughty Lesbians “is ranked 60,314 in the Kindle store. Which puts in the top ten percent. If you ask me, that’s a clear indication of what the Kindle community thinks about Naughty Lesbians: Prescription for Pleasure. Apparently, it’s better than 90% of the other Kindle books. Doesn’t sound to me like most people are offended by Kindle porn.” One novelist even suggested that the discussion was simply making more Kindle owners aware of the adult content that’s available for the Kindle. Another poster noted that “Romance readers were strong early adopters of the Kindle and buy huge amounts of content, just about all of which is probably ‘smut’ by SOMEONE’S definition.”

The discussion eventually gravitated towards a more nuanced position.

FWIW, Amazon is not “family friendly” – there’s all kinds of naughty stuff available here – and they don’t strictly moderate the forums/community areas of the site.
It’s just too daunting a task and not one they want to do… if the items in question are not breaking Amazon rules, then they may show up and Amazon is not going to stop them.

Another user even argued that protecting the impressionable was best left to the users themselves.

Like most other etailers, Amazon’s terms of service state that accounts are for those 18 and above. Children are only supposed to be accessing Amazon under parental guidance. If people follow the terms, children only see what adults allow them to see. If they don’t follow the terms, that’s not really Amazon’s fault, is it?

But for at least one Kindle owner, the incident made their day.

“I have to say, the thought of so many Kindles running around with ‘Naughty Nooners’ and other erotica on them makes me smile….”

LOLcats on the Kindle
Here’s something I never thought I’d see on the Kindle. The Lolcats!

Wait, wait, it gets better. You’ve probably already seen their crazy misspelled thoughts, spread across cat pictures capturing funny scenes and expressions. (The most famous one was a bright-eyed grey cat, smiling expectantly as he asks: “I can has cheezburger?”)* But in February of 2010, one webmaster took it to extremes, using the re-captioned cat pictures for a translation of a very unexpected book: the Bible.

“In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez an da Erfs n stuffs….”

The book’s description on Amazon explains that “from the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew to Latin and the King’s English, the Bible has been translated into over 2000 languages. ADD ONE MORE…” Yes, the whole bible has been re-written in cat-speak, so its first book isn’t called Genesis, it’s called “Ceiling Cat Maek Awl teh Stuffz.” And Amazon’s description of the book gives you a sample of the other inspirational wisdom that waits inside…


    GIV US DIS DAY OUR DALEE CHEEZBURGER.

    AND FURGIV US FOR MAKIN YU A COOKIE, BUT EATEDING IT.

    AND WE FURGIV WEN CATS STEEL OUR COOKIEZ.

In a comment on the ebook’s Amazon page, its author explains that thousands of people helped with the translation project as a collective effort. Martin Grodin saw himself as more of an editor for the project, and the painstaking editing for each misspelled cat-translation of the Bible stories “made me realize that it is, in fact, hilarious.” At times it’s like reading an insane version of Finnegan’s Wake, since you’re decoding the misspelled cat words using half-remembered biblical stories. And there’s more text than pictures — though sometimes its broken up by a long line of kitten paw prints.

There are pictures in the book, though I had to read all the way to Genesis 2:19 until I found the second one — a picture of two cats resting to indicate Eve’s arrival in the Garden of Eden. (“Oh hai! yu can has frend. She liek yu but missin sometings.”) The text is also available on a web site, but I thought they also did a nice job of formatting it for the Kindle. There’s 176 pages of craziness, and though the book costs $9.32, there’s still fun to be had even if you only order the book’s free sample.

Because even the book’s table of contents is still pretty funny.

Teh Plague ov Owchie-Blisturs
“Leev Egypt, Nao!”
Crossin’ teh Reed Sea
Jonah an teh Big Fishie
Wawter into Booze…
Happy Cat Walks on Wawter
Parable ov teh Niec Samaritan Dood
Teh Last Cheezburg Feest
Happy Cat rises from teh Deds
Awl Fings Brite an Purtyful

Yes, Jesus in the LOLcat bible becomes “Happy Cat”. And as an amusing bit of related trivia, Amazon’s Kindle store doesn’t seem to have any free editions of the real bible (without LOLcats). If you wanted to download a free bible to your Kindle, you could still get one from Project Gutenberg.

But then you wouldn’t get any funny pictures of cats!

UPDATE: It turns out there is now a free version of the (real) Bible available in Amazon’s Kindle store.

And Click here to order LOLcat Bible: In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez an da Erfs n stuffs

P.S. This book is not to be confused with “I CAN HAZ BYTECODE,” a “collection of funny and occasionally thought provoking tweets based on my work experience as a Super Senior Software Engineer at a Silicon Valley startup!”

The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer - original book cover

My girlfriend shares her report about a very exciting free ebook…

            *            *            *

After watching the movie Charlie Chan on Treasure Island, I’d decided to read the original mystery novels where the detective solves crimes in his calm yet brilliant way. And I’d found all of the original novels available on the Kindle! Score!

Behind That Curtain
Charlie Chan Carries On
Keeper of the Keys

But wait, there’s more… While doing research on the Chan books and their author, Earl Derr Biggers, I discovered that Charlie Chan was created as a deliberate alternative to Chinese supervillains like Dr. Fu-Manchu. I’ve heard about Fu Manchu all my life, but had no real understanding of the character. I knew what his mustache looks like, but that’s about it.

Figuring that my public library wouldn’t have any of the Fu-Manchu books — being as they are not, shall we say, politically correct — I took my search to the Kindle. Lots of Fu-Manchu! So I started with the first book in the series: “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu.”

Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (writing under the much more sexy name of Sax Rohmer) created the character of the evil Dr. Fu-Manchu. Sax belonged to the Golden Dawn, a real-life mystical society that combined Masonic rituals with ancient Egyptian Rosacrucion mysticism, along with other ancient mystical writings. Their first temple, which had opened in London in 1888, drew in the young writer and influenced his choice of a pen name — and the first Fu-Manchu stories, which almost drip with mysterious dangers from the Orient. Sax describes Fu-Manchu as “a person tall, lean and feline… a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green, invest him with all the cruel cunning of the entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect.”

This fast-paced action novel goes from one dangerous scene to another across London. In general, I enjoy reading novels from different eras, as they immerse you in another time and place, with barely time to rest or take repast — er, eat. But honestly, it was hard to get past the rampant racism of this guy. Sax Rohmer makes sure to mention the danger to the entire white race (italics not mine) with phrases like “the complete destruction of the White Race” and “Yellow Peril.” (You can almost hear the creepy music and dramatic pauses as you read.)

I wondered about the repetitive use of these shocking phrases over and over again, until I found out the story was published in installments from 1912-1913. From one month to the next, Sax wanted to make sure his audience didn’t forget the evil dangers posed by the great Fu Manchu. I was glad to read on Wikipedia that Sax was often attacked, even shortly after the first stories were published, for creating such a blatantly racist character, though he posed as “bemused” at the furor. Instead he defended his novels by saying that the portrait was “fundamentally truthful” because “criminality was often rampant among the Chinese,” especially in the Chinese ghetto of the time.

It’s easy to be bemused when the money is rolling in…

Sax was very prolific. Wikipedia lists over 50 books and short story compilations, and many of the stories were made into movies. As an interesting aside, Warner Oland, the Swedish actor who played Charlie Chan in the movies until his death in 1938, also played Fu-Manchu in the first three movies.

Ironically, after a lifetime of noxious stories about the mysterious dangers of the Orient, Sax Rohmer died…of the Asian flu.

UPDATE: I’ve just discovered that Sax Rohmer has another book that’s already in Amazon’s Top 50 classic ebooks: Brood of the Witch-Queen!

One Amazon reviewer called it the scariest and eeriest books they had ever read in their life….

Or click here to buy the original Charlie Chan novels as ebooks

Behind That Curtain
Charlie Chan Carries On
Keeper of the Keys

I can’t believe I wrote about free ebooks for the 4th of July — and forgot to mention the Declaration of Independence!

It’s a surprisingly detailed snapshot of life in America in 1776 — but what’s really interesting is that it’s impossible to buy a free copy directly from Amazon’s Kindle store! There’s over 117 different ebooks about the Declaration of Independence for sale in the store — but they’ll all cost you at least 99 cents.

So how can you read a free copy of the Declaration of Independence? Just click on this link. Nearly 40 years ago, a student at the University of Illinois launched a mission to make the great works of literature available for free to the general public. Remembering the man who’d revolutionized the world of reading by inventing the first mechanical printing press, he named his collection “Project Gutenberg”. By 2009, they’d created over 30,000 free e-texts, according to Wikipedia. And it’s a cause that’s near and dear to the hearts of a lot of geeks online.

But here’s my favorite part of the story. He’d launched this lifelong campaign back in 1971, anticipating all the great literature that he’d be sharing with the entire world, and even making available for new generations to come. So on that first day, 39 years ago, which great work of literature did he choose as the very first one?

The Declaration of Independence.

The only small complaint that I have is that before you get to the text that Thomas Jefferson worked on, there’s an explanatory text about the history of the 1971 e-file — but if you’re a geek, that’s kind of itneresting too. “The title was stored in an emailed instruction set which required a tape or diskpack be hand mounted for retrieval. The diskpack was the size of a large cake in a cake carrier, cost $1500, and contained 5 megabytes, of which this file took 1-2%…

“The 10,000 files we hope to have online by the end of 2001 should take about 1-2% of a comparably priced drive in 2001.”

But of course, seven years later the world of book storage was revolutionized again. By the Kindle!

Thomas Jefferson

I found a fun way to celebrate the 4th of July with my Kindle. I navigated my way to Wikipedia’s web page with a fascinating history of the Declaration of Independence. Just seven months before it was signed, author Thomas Jefferson had written “there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do.

“But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America…”

Wikipedia walks you through all the events that led up to July 4, 1776 — but you don’t have to content yourself with a historical analysis for your American history fix. When he was 65 years old, Benjamin Franklin began writing a fascinating autobiography of his own life which is available on the Kindle as a free ebook. Franklin continued working on it over the next 20 years, until his death in 1790, noting wryly that “the Affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the Interruption…”

It’s especially poignant that he begins the biography in 1770 as a loving letter to his son. But Franklin’s son sided with the British druing the American Revolution, and Wikipedia notes that they were hopelessly estranged by the time Benjamin Franklin sat down to write part two in 1784. Now he was 78, and laying down his thoughts on the idea of…a public library. And in part three — written in 1788 at the age of 82 — Franklin also remembers inventing his famous Franklin stove…and then declining a patent because it was for “the good of the people.”

It’s currently one of Amazon’s top 20 free ebooks, so I’m obviously not the only person who’s reading it this weekend. It’s a great way to answer the question: What kind of men launched the American Revolution?

With a little research, the Kindle can give you an almost magical glimpse into the real past of America…

I was surprised when Google sent a visitor to my blog who was looking for “fairy tales for Kindle”. It turns out Google was sending them to my old blog post, “Why Beatrix Potter would Love the Kindle.” (It’s now possible to buy an illustrated edition of Beatrix Potter’s fairy tales, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and its sequel, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny.) But if you’re looking for fairy tales, don’t overlook this forgotten treasure chest: the dark and quirky original stories by the Brothers Grimm.

The Brothers GrimmHousehold Tales by the Brothers Grimm is a free ebook that collects over 200 gnarly pieces of authentic folklore that the two brothers had carefully collected over their lifetime. The table of contents even supplies the original German titles for the stories (though the collection is written in English), so the tale “Little Snow-White” is also identified as “Sneewittchen.” (And “The Bremen Town Musicians” was originally called “Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten”.)

I’m not kidding about the stories being dark, quirky, and gnarly. One of them is titled “The Girl Without Hands,” and there’s some absolutely horrifying plot twists in “Our Lady’s Child” (“Marienkind”). A mute queen’s three children are kidnapped by the Virgin Mary, and the queen is then burned at the stake because the king’s councilors believe that the queen killed and ate it herself. (Surprisingly, there is a happy ending, but the twists along the way are pretty hair-raising…)

And early in the book is another tale called “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.” A man on the road points him to the tree “where seven men have married the ropemaker’s daughter, and are now learning how to fly.”

“Sit down below it, and wait till night comes, and you will soon learn how to shudder…”

But instead, the youth worries about whether they’re cold, as “the wind knocked the hanged men against each other.” So he sets them around his campfire, but “they sat there and did not stir, and the fire caught their clothes…” Soon has fearlessness has led him to take a king’s challenge of spending three nights in a haunted castle, where he’s assaulted by black cats and dogs “from every hole and corner,” all carrying red hot chains. He kills them with his cutting knife, crying “Away with ye, vermin,” and then lies down to sleep in the haunted bed…

The story-telling is very simple, but it’s still a wild and unpredictable experience that I’m sure I’ll never forget. Just remember that while these are authentic fairy tales, they’re not necessarily the cute and colorful legends you might be expecting! If you’re looking for a “cute and cuddly” free fairy tale book, there’s also a free edition of the Tale Peter Rabbit, but as one reader complained, “Instead of including the illustrations (which the Kindle can handle beautifully), there’s text, and then it’ll say [illustration] [illustration]. Really awful. No wonder it’s free….”

But you can get a fully illustrated version of Peter Rabbit, for free, as part of the “sample chapter” for the illustrated Beatrix Potter.

I just have to say it…

Kindle for PC logo
I love the logo that Amazon came up with for the Kindle for PC.

I just found out that my blog is currently the 77th best-selling technology blog in Amazon’s Kindle store. But I’m basically just someone who’s young at heart, loves reading, and wants to share my excitement about the Kindle. Maybe that’s why I identify so much with the boy in the silhouette. If I could, I’d steal that picture and use it as the logo for this blog!

Sometimes the ebooks I read only have one problem. I get so excited about them that I want to stop reading immediately so I can write a blog post about them…

The Kindle in Iraq

June 29, 2010

Kindle military camouflage cover“I took my Kindle with me to Iraq…”

So I’ve finally started reading Amazon’s discussion forums for the Kindle, and just discovered a fascinating post titled “Kindle and the Navy,” where one female soldier from Maryland reports, “I loved having my Kindle with me on deployment.”

“I used to carry around bags of books,” she remembers, adding that in fact, “my last deployment on the ship I ended up having close to $800 worth of books sent to me — only about half of which I kept because I ran out of room!” The thread was started when a another soldier’s mother and sister asked whether the Kindle would make a good gift, and they received an enthusiastic response. “If he is a vicarious reader, I would say go for it!”

“I would have LOVED a kindle back in the day when I was deployed…” added another soldier. “This is a GREAT idea for deployed people!!”

Another gift idea was a sturdy carrying case to protect the Kindle, and someone even found a a carrying case with a Navy camouflage pattern (though other posters recommended the even sturdier waterproof cases from M-Edge). There’s even a campaign called Operation ebook Drop, in which some authors give service members free copies of their ebooks!

I’d never thought about whether the Kindle would be used in the military, but it seems like a natural fit. (My friend in the Navy once complained that some days fell into the category of “Hurry up and wait.”) And it does seem like it’d make a nice gift for a soldier. At least while you were stationed far from home…you could always have something to read!

A Very Funny Typo?

June 28, 2010

I love the poem at the beginning of “The Jungle Book.” But there appeared to be a dreadful (and funny) typo in the best-selling free Kindle edition. See if you can find it…


          NIGHT-SONG OF THE JUNGLE

Now Rann the Kite brings home the night
     That Mang the Bat sets free —
The herds are shut in byre and hut
     For loosed till dawn are we.

This is the hour of pride and power,
     Talon and tush and claw.
Oh, hear the call! — Good hunting all
     That keep the Jungle Law!


See what looks like an out-of-place word? If not, let me help you out. Here’s how the site Urban Dictionary defines the word “tush”.

1. Rear-end, butt, behind
She had a nice tush.

2. what ZZ Top looks for downtown


I didn’t think the animals in Rudyard Kipling’s jungle were hunting with their tushes…

It seems obvious from the context that the word is “tusk.” (And that’s the word that appears in some online editions of the book.)

This is the hour of pride and power,
     Talon and tusk and claw…


But what’s even more interesting is the “tush” version now appears 2,500 times in a Google search – while the “tusk” version appears just 266 times. (That is, almost 90% of the online editions are using the word “tush”.) Even the Encyclopedia Britannica site republished Kipling’s poem with the word “tush”, along with several universities. In fact, according to Google thousands of people are now fondly quoting that version of the poem, including Ask.com, San Diego State University, The Wild India Guide, and a site called The Poetry Lovers Page. My favorite was a medical facility that performs “world-class research in Alzheimer’s disease”. A misguided human resources document quoted the “tush” version of the poem – then added it “could very well be a guide in defining and understanding organizations.” (Tush-friendly organizations are described by the HR document as places that include “unwritten codes and culture,” and adhering to them “determines one’s chances of survival…”)

What’s going on? My friend Andy Baio pointed me to the Oxford English Dictionary, explaining that tush “is another name for the elephant’s early tusk.” And then I felt like kind of a jackass (no pun intended), because as Amazon points out, the free etext was created by “a community of volunteers”, and here I was trying to second-guess their work.

But I’d already noticed some valid complaints about some free Kindle editions of Kipling. And I was a little miffed when I downloaded a free collection of Kipling poetry, and discovered that every single poem appeared without any linebreaks (including classic Kipling poems like “Gunga Din” and “Mandolay”).

But I’d argue that what’s really going on is a quiet triumph for the Kindle – and for the community of volunteers preparing the free texts. Their free version of The Jungle Book is now one of the top 100 best-selling free books in the Kindle store. That’s how I found it, which added me to the pool of people watching for typos.

We can then notify the community of volunteers to make fixes, in a kind of “spontaneous collaboration” to preserve stories that were written more than 100 years ago. It ultimately shows that they’ve already succeeded tremendously in popularizing classic literature to a new world of digital readers — and that those readers, in turn, can help improve the quality of future digital editions.

Krazy Kat and Ignatz mouse and brick
I’d blogged the other day about the shortest Kindle sample ever. But I’d forgotten about a funny experience I’d had when I first bought my Kindle.

I hadn’t seen any illustrations on my Kindle yet – except for the screensaver images that kept surprising me every time I put down my Kindle for too long. So I’d searched for a collection of Kindle comic strips, and eventually found one of the all-time classics! Krazy Kat is a strange and surreal slapstick comic strip that first appeared in 1913 – and I’ve always loved it. It’s a simple, sweet world where the cat loves the mouse, and ordering a sample seemed like the perfect way to test out the Kindle’s graphics capabilities.

So imagine my surprise when I’d downloaded the sample to my Kindle, and discovered…nothing. Followed by this sentence.


Enjoyed the sample? Buy Now or See details for this book in the Kindle Store.


Now that’s surrealism – a zen-like sample filled with emptiness and arbitrariness. (I felt like I’d just been clobbered with a brick!) Or was it just another surreal landscape drawn by George Herriman in which everything had disappeared?

I e-mailed Amazon’s customer service (saying that I’d really just wanted to know whether my Kindle would display images of all the comic strips in the book), and in the end it still became a very positive experience. They’d promised that yes, I’d see the actual comic strips – confirming my faith in Amazon’s customer service – and reminding me that if I wasn’t satisfied, “you can return any item purchased from the Kindle Store within 7 days of purchase.”

So I finally purchased An Anthology of Krazy Kat Komics. And though it’s short, and I have to enlarge the images just to read them, I’ll always have a special affection for this ebook, because it included the first illustrations that I ever saw on my Kindle.

And also because they’d sent me the strangest Kindle sample ever.

Okay, this wins the award for what may be the single shortest “Sample” I’ve ever received on the Kindle.

Earlier this month I’d blogged about how you can finally download the original Winnie-the-Pooh onto your Kindle – including its classic black-and-white illustrations by Ernest Shepard. (And yes, those would make some excellent screensaver images!) It’s fun to see them on the Kindle, and even as an adult, it’s still a very fun read. But if you download the book’s sample, they send you exactly one sentence from the book’s first chapter.


“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.”

And that’s it!

Although to be fair, there’s also several illustrations, plus several pages of the humorous introduction to the book that was written by A. A. Milne.


I had written as far as this when Piglet looked up and said in his squeaky voice, “What about Me?”

“My dear Piglet,” I said, “the whole book is about you…”

“So it is about Pooh,” he squeaked. You see what it is…


But imagine clicking through the sample, and discovering that most of it is devoted to things like the the title page, the table of contents, the publisher’s information, and even a disclaimer that Winnie-the-Pooh “is a work of fiction.”


“Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”


Who knew that so many lawyers lived at the House at Pooh Corner?

Yes, it is possible to play games on your Kindle. Click here for my updated list of the 10 best games for your Kindle.

But when I first got my Kindle 1, it wasn’t nearly this easy to play games. Here’s my original post – written about my Kindle 1 – so you can see how much better things have gotten!

                        *                        *                        *

It turns out you can play Sudoku on your Kindle – and some other games too!

I was feeling a little jealous because Barnes and Noble had upgraded the Nook so it offered users the ability to play Sudoku. And then I discovered that it’s also possible to play Sudoku on your Kindle! That link leads to several interactive Sudoku puzzle books that you can download, and they’re played using the Kindle’s wireless web connection. Use your menu to select the row where you’ll enter a number, and then choose the appropriate square within that row.

I ordered a sample from several of these Sudoku books, and ended up with a nice collection of free Sudoku puzzles for my Kindle. Having said that, it was still a horribly clunky way to play Sudoku. (It takes almost 10 seconds to enter every number.) And on my original edition Kindle, the squares were simply labeled “Input Field”. I had to count each separate “Input Field” until I’d figured out which square I was looking for!

It’s also possible to play Tic Tac Toe on your Kindle — if you order the appropriate “book” from the Kindle Store. Tic Tac Toe (Kindle Edition) uses the same format, letting you select the row for your move with the menu — and then selecting the appropriate square. It was also a little clunky. On my original Kindle, the menu would still say “Zoom Image” if a square already had an X or O in it — while the empty squares were labeled “Follow Link” in the menu. Yes, it’s possible to play a game of Tic Tac Toe using this book. But what’s hardest about winning the game is simply navigating the menus!

And finally, it’s also possible to play Minesweeper on the Kindle. This is a free game that I’d just assumed was a hidden “Easter Egg” — a secret feature that was pre-installed, just to make users feel special when they discovered it. Hold down the Alt key and the shift key directly above it while also typing M at the same time, and a grey 8 by 10 grid appears on the screen. You use the keys on the keyboard to navigate to the square for your next guess, and the space key reveals whether that square contains a number or an exploding mine! Like the other games, it’s a little clunky.

And to tell you the truth, I’d rather use my Kindle for reading!

UPDATE: Ironically, I just discovered this blog post has become one of Google’s top matches for the phrase: “Can I play Sudoku on a Kindle!” But it turns out there’s an even more famous game that you can play on the Kindle: Jumble puzzles!

I’m sure you’ve seen these “scrambled word” puzzles in your daily newspaper. (Circles in the squares mark all the letters which appear in the final set of scrambled words — which is usually the punchline to a question asked in the cartoon.) I’ve always loved doing Jumble puzzles (which I’ve also seen called “the Junior Jumble”).

And now you can play them on your Kindle!


So I’d searched the Kindle store for a free version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – and I couldn’t find one. Amazon showed me six pages of search results, all offering different versions of Jules Verne’s classic adventure story – with each one costing at least 95 cents. But since the book was published in 1869, why couldn’t I find a free version?

And then I figured it out. I’d typed in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” — using a comma in the number 20,000. Strangely, if you type Verne’s title without the comma, you pull up an entirely different set of results. (There’s 36 versions if you spell the title with the comma, but you’ll get what appear to be 35 more versions if you spell the title without the comma.) And yes, I finally located the free version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

It’s currently #66 on Amazon’s list of the the top 100 free eBooks, so obviously there are lots of people who are finding it. But in my case, I’d had to drag myself out of my beloved armchair, and use a desktop PC to access the Kindle store, so I could sort those results by price.

But then it felt like I’d finally located Captain Nemo’s elusive submarine…

So I was the first guy in line to see “Jonah Hex” this afternoon. (Mainly because nobody was in line to see “Jonah Hex” this afternoon, except a trio of high school girls…) But I’d already read a bunch of the violent western comic books — and it got me to wondering if I could find any Jonah Hex content on my Kindle.

Turns out the answer was both yes and no. It was “No” in that searching the Kindle store returned the discouraging message that “Your search ‘jonah hex’ did not match any products…” But it was “Yes” in that as I curled up in my armchair and began wirelessly browsing the web, I eventually stumbled across a four-page preview of the newest Jonah Hex graphic novel.

And even though it was just released 10 days ago, there I was reading it on my Kindle, in all its hyper-violent western glory.


So it IS you! Folks say yore the fastest gun…

BLAMMM!


I’ve often thought about the lack of good illustrated material on the Kindle. (If you Google the Kindle store for Spider-Man, you’ll find the book adaptation of Spider-Man 3, but not, say, a comic book adaptation!) And granted, I was looking at color illustrations on a black-and-white display, and it was only four pages. (And yes, on the tiny screen of my Kindle 1, I couldn’t read the small text in that first balloon of narration.) But I still felt I’d achieved some kind of milestone.

I’d sat down to search on the Kindle for a specific comic book character. And eventually, I’d found it!

My friend just perfectly summarized what’s so exciting about a digital reader. I’d written to him about what I like – that “It’s just so cool that you can think of a book, and then have it beamed down to your lap within seconds!” And he wrote back…


“Little bit scary in fact. Too easy!

In the bookstore I tend to wander around and think about if I *really* need a book. On the Nook, it is a few clicks away!”

Yes, he bought a Nook instead of a Kindle. But ultimately we both discovered another advantage that the Kindle has over the Nook – and as his next e-mail explained, it’s exactly the opposite problem!

Something I don’t like about the Nook: In order to delete some Barnes and Noble content, you have to do it on their website!

When the Nook synchronizes with the website, it will archive the materials. Seems complicated, mostly because it is a little complicated. You can delete files via the USB connection…but it would be easier to have a “get rid of this” or “archive” button on the user interface.

How’s that for ironic? Both of these digital readers can download books instantly. The Kindle’s advantage is that it can make them go away instantly!

(Just open the menu when you’re reading any item, and select “Delete This Item”. Or go to the Home Page and select “Content Manager” to check off ebooks to be deleted as a group…)

Yesterday I mentioned Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and how that free edition had become #61 on Kindle’s list of best-selling (free) ebooks. So here’s another tip about free ebooks for Rudyard Kipling fans.

There’s only three stories about Mowgli the jungle boy in The Jungle Book. The other four stories are about other animals. (When I read this book at the age of 13, I was surprised to see the fourth story was “The White Seal” — which is obviously not about a jungle animal at all!) But Kipling included five more stories about Mowgli in an often-overlooked sequel called The Second Jungle Book..

And yet surprisingly, on Amazon’s list of best-selling free ebooks, Kipling’s sequel is only ranked #1,325.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

Here’s another author we would make a great Kindle screensaver: Rudyard Kipling.

But watch out if you try to read a Kipling work on your Kindle…

My girlfriend’s been contemplating a trip to India, so I tried downloading some of Kipling’s classic India stories to my Kindle. But soon I discovered comments on Amazon warning me that for some of the free editions, the formatting was absolutely terrible.


No italics. Straight quotes. Dashes are hyphens. No paragraph re-wrapping at all – the original book’s line endings (or perhaps every 80 characters) are just hard-coded,

Loads of typos/ocr/spellcheck errors – e.g. “Thou Knobbiest” for “Thou Knowest”.

Avoid. It’s terrible.

That’s for Kipling’s story Kim, about the young orphan of a British soldier stationed in India. And another reviewer seemed to be mimicking the bad formatting you’d experience if you tried to read the ebook, by adding lots of unnecessary extra line breaks!


This one’s not properly formatted
for the Kindle
Don’t bother!
It will drive you nuts

What’s sad is that sometimes the editorial problems are more serious. One Amazon reviewer noticed that a very crucial part of the text was left out of one ebook version of “Just So Stories” — the poems!


Being a free Kindle edition, I was expecting that the drawings and their attached descriptions would be missing. What I was not expecting was for the little poems often found in the stories to also be missing. Things like the Sloka the Parsee sings after the Rhinoceros eats his cake, that are usually block-quoted and italicized in published versions, are not included. The stories can certainly be followed without them, but as the text that IS there specifically says a little poem or song is going to be related to the reader, the gaps are quite obvious.

I’m sure this will all get sorted out over time, as more editions become available for great works of classic literature. In fact, the free edition of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” is already in the top 100 of Amazon’s best-selling free ebooks.

But readers still have some complaints…

As to formatting of this kindle edition: there are blocks of Kipling’s poetry in between the stories, some of which was difficult to read as the formatting had not carried over well to this Kindle edition. Not a critical issue, but Kipling’s poetry is excellent and the formatting errors were annoying.

Over 20,000 people read my blog post from Wednesday. But I think my problems started in 1902…

That was when Beatrix Potter first published The Tale of Peter Rabbit (which eventually I read when I was a kid). So when the Kindle came along, I was excited there were finally digital illustrated editions of Potter’s books, including slick black-and-white versions of her fairy tales’ watercolors.

Last week I’d blogged about it, adding as an afterthought that I thought Beatrix Potter would’ve liked the Kindle. (In 1906, she was already experimenting with a new non-book format for her books, though with the absence of digital technology, her idea was a long, folded piece of paper that could be carried in a wallet.) Sunday the big wave of traffic came when my post got linked by the great geek web site, Slashdot – though not everyone agreed with my premise.

There were nearly 100 lively comments on their site about everything from color screens, copyrights, and the iPad to the reading habits of infants. But in the middle of the discussion, someone argued that ebooks themselves were just a trendy fad. They panned the “buzz” around the Kindle vs. “a content delivery system which has been proven over the course of centuries.”

Their harshest line? “I may be a luddite but at least my books will still function after the collapse of civilization.”

And then someone posted this response, titled: “Sorry you are a luddite.”

The new digital world is pervasive and more permanent than you could ever imagine. In a world of 6 plus billion people, the only way for everyone to have access to books, literature, everything written down by the humans for the past 10,000 years is through digital form. This is the future. A single paperback book costs on average, $20 today. A near future netbook/ereader will cost around $100 and will have access to millions of works via a cheap connection to the internet. You can’t compete with that with your lump of soggy paper.

And sorry to say, the first thing the mobs do when civilization ends is burn the libraries to the ground, along with all the book hoarders. For any printed book, there may be thousands, or even tens of thousands of copies, but for a digital book, there can be an infinite number of perfect copies.

Beatrix Potter was a populist who wanted to make her books accessible to all segments of society. She would surely see the advent of digitalization as a GOOD THING.

And then, just to leave things on a lighter note, he ended his post with a joke.

“You may now go back to admiring and dusting your book collection.”

I’ve found the answer!

Last week someone went into Google and typed:

who are the authors on the kindle screen

And Google sent them to me. (Like I know everything about the Kindle?) Fortunately, with a little research, I found a great discussion on a web site called “Mobile Read.” And apparently someone there has compiled a definitive list!

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Edgar Allen poe
Mark Twain
John Steinbeck
the one with the 17th century astronomer & his wife w/ giant sextant
the Hercules constellation
the Audubon finches-in-a-tree
Kindle definition with falling letters
Agatha Christie
Man at table with lion in foreground
Charlotte Bronte
James Joyce
Virginia Woolf
Alexandre Dumas
Jules Verne
Kindle feedback request w/ some sort of coding machine
Durer
Oscar Wilde
Woman with book
John Milton
Lewis Carroll
Medieval illumination page
“Albertus” page
Emily Dickinson
Jane Austen
Cathedral floorplan

Er, but I’ve got to be honest – I can’t bring myself to actually read through the list. I really love being surprised! I’ve written about screensaver serendipity. (I blogged that when that ghostly picture of Oscar Wilde came up, “I just assumed that my Kindle was haunted…”) This is also why I don’t want change or replace my Kindle screensaver images.

So I was more interested in a different part of the discussion on that forum. Someone suggested that when it’s at rest, your Kindle’s screensaver should display the cover of the book that you’re reading. But then a poster named SirBruce had the ultimate response.

I thought of that idea as well, but then I reconsidered: Do I really want folks seeing the cover of Naughty Nurses 3: Nude at Night?

UPDATE: Some people have been arriving to this page after searching Google for the phrase “kindle definition with falling letters.” I’m not sure exactly what they’re looking for, but there’s at least one Kindle screensaver that provides a definition…of the word “kindle”.



kindle
\ kǐn´ dl \

v : light or sent on fire; arouse or inspire (an emotion or feeling)

By reading to me at bedtime when I was a child, my parents kindled my life-long love for reading.



But of course, there’s another “definition” screensaver where Amazon reminds you that their Kindle “is a whole new class of device.

“Thank you for being an early adopter.”

UPDATE 2: Five hours later, I’d figured it out. They’d meant the Kindle definition that appears on the box in which the Kindle was shipped! For some reason, that definition is a little different.

kindle (kǐn´ dəl)
 v.t. 1. set on fire. 2. inspire, stir up.
-v.i. 1. catch fire. 2. become animated.

Image courtesy of Jess Park

Now, this is cool!

I’ve been blogging for a while about people who want to change or replace their Kindle screensavers. It turns out a blogger named Jess Park has turned this into a real artform.

In the spring of 2008, Disney unveiled the “Nouveau Collection,” elegant designs inspired by classic art nouveau paintings… [W]ith help from bloss_japanime, who posted high-res pictures of the journal covers, I’ve put together this delightful collection for use with your Kindle!

There’s The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Princess Jasmine from Aladdin.

And of course – Snow White!

It turns out I’m not the only one excited about Beatrix Potter’s stories on the Kindle. Four different children’s stories by Beatrix Potter have turned up in the top 20 of Amazon’s list of best-selling (free) children’s books!

And I’m also not the only one who noticed that the free editions didn’t include Potter’s original illustrations…


“Sure, it’s free, but what’s the point, if the images are missing in a children’s book…”

“Instead of including the illustrations (which the Kindle can handle beautifully), there’s text, and then it’ll say [illustration] [illustration]. Really awful. No wonder it’s free….


So here’s my helpful tip for the day. You can purchase fully illustrated Kindle versions of Beatrix Potter’s fairy tales in a collection that costs just $1.00. If you ask for the sample, they’ll even send you a free, illustrated version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Just remember to stay out of Mr. McGregor’s garden…

Last Christmas, I couldn’t find Winnie-the-Pooh books for the Kindle. The only A.A. Milne story I’d found was an obscure comic mystery he’d written in 1922. But by spring, it looks like Pooh bear had magically crept out of the Hundred Acre Wood, and squeezed his way onto the Kindle, since you can now buy Kindle editions of both
Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

And it’s not just the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. A. A. Milne also published two books of children’s poetry – When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Many of the poems mention Christopher Robin, and there’s also a few that are specifically about Winnie-the-Pooh, as Milne explains in the book’s introduction.

Pooh wants us to say that he thought it was a different book; and he hopes you won’t mind, but he walked through it one day, looking for his friend Piglet, and sat down on some of the pages by mistake.

Best of all, they include all of the memorable original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Since the illustrations were already in black and white, they look great on the Kindle. And there’s something really precious about seeing those old-fashioned children’s book images on the screen of my 21st-century reading machine.

By the way, am I the only person who thinks A. A. Milne should be one of the authors included among the Kindle’s screensaver images?

Yesterday I wrote that Beatrix Potter’s fairy tales are now available on the Kindle — including her spectacular watercolor illustrations. And I’d like to think that Beatrix Potter would approve. In 1906 she’d actually tried a new format for delivering her famous fairy tales — and it didn’t involve a book!


Intended for babies and tots, the story was originally published on a strip of paper that was folded into a wallet, closed with a flap, and tied with a ribbon.

The format was unpopular with booksellers and within a few years of the book’s release it was reprinted in the standard small book format of the Peter Rabbit library…


Click here to see a picture of the book’s original format!

Only two of Potter’s shorter stories were published in the “panorama” format — The Story of Miss Moppet and The Story of a Fierce, Bad Rabbit. (Yes, that really was its title…)

It just seems especially appropriate that they’ve escaped the book format once again, and 100 years later…you can buy them on your Kindle.

(UPDATE: And ironically, if you Google “fairy tales for kindle,” this blog post is now one of your top results!)

I’ve found all the original Beatrix Potter stories for the Kindle — and with all of their illustrations in tact!

This is a real triumph, because you can also purchase all of the stories for free — if you’re willing to forgo the illustrations. (Because many of them were published more than a century ago, I’m guessing the copyright on the texts have expired.) Surprisingly, there are illustrations in at least one of the free editions of Beatrix Potter’s books — Project Gutenberg’s free version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit — but they’re by an entirely different illustrator named Virginia Albert. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find any illustrated versions of Potter’s books that could be read on the Kindle.

Fortunately, one of the Amazon reviewers reported that, yes, the pictures do come through on the Kindle — in black and white. “This brings me back to the time I learned to love reading,” they added, and I think it is a kind of a milestone. For many people, I’m sure that among their first memories of reading are those lavishly-illustrated fairy tales by Beatrix Potter.

And now you can read them on your Kindle!


(Here’s a list of the stories included in this illustrated edition….)

The Tale of Peter Rabbit
The Tailor of Gloucester
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny
The Tale of Two Bad Mice
The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle
The Pie and the Patty-Pan
The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher
The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit
The Story of Miss Moppet
The Tale of Tom Kitten
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The Roly-Poly Pudding
The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies
The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse
The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes
The Tale of Mr. Tod
The Tale of Pigling Bland
Ginger and Pickles
The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse
Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes

Good Men in a Bad World

April 27, 2010

I think this is poignant. Someone came to Google and typed in…

Everyman is a good man in a bad world

Were they looking for solace? Someone to understand? Whoever they were, they found their words echoed back, in the first line of a long-ago novel written by William Saroyan.


Every man is a good man in a bad world… Every man himself changes from good to bad or from bad to good, back and forth, all his life, and then dies. But no matter how or why or when a man changes, he remains a good man in a bad world, as he himself knows…

That’s from the 1952 novel Rock Wagram, and I’d blogged about Saroyan as “The Novelist You Can’t Read on Your Kindle.” I just worry that he’ll be one of those authors who won’t transition into the next generation of media. In our shiny future, we’ll have expensive “readers” with fancy new features – but with a couple of last-century authors who somehow just didn’t make the cut.

Which makes its feel that much more poignant that here on my blog, at least, I was able to match up this long-ago author with one more anonymous reader from the 21st century.

One more anonymous good man who’s lost in a bad world…

I had to laugh when I read this line in a 1998 children’s picture book.

It’s about a boy who lives in outer space. His parents leave him with a robot baby-sitter, who insists that 8:00 is always bed time. (The book’s title is Benjamin Braddock and the Robot Babysitter.) He hacks the robot’s controls, convincing it instead that 8:00 is always fun time.

And then he tries to explain to the robot what fun is…

“Books,” said Benjamin. Books are fun.

“They never need batteries, they fit in your knapsack, and when they get broken, you can fit them up with tape!”

Well, one of those things is true for the Kindle — it definitely fits in your knapsack! But it does need a battery.

And you can’t fix it with tape.

That’s what I typed into Google the day my Kindle died. And surprisingly, Amazon was no help. Their only suggestion for a possible cause was…a low battery.


1. Plug the Kindle into a wall outlet.
2. Ensure the Kindle is charging (the indicator light should be on).
3. Wait 2 minutes.
4. If necessary unplug the Kindle and reset by moving and holding the power switch for 15 seconds before releasing it.

That didn’t solve the problem. And according to other posts on the web, that wasn’t even the only possible solution. One web site revealed that it was possible to perform a “soft reset” by pressing three keys at the same time: Alt, R, and Shift (the upwards-pointing arrow). And when that didn’t work, I went on to their next suggestion: the hard reset.


Turn your Kindle over.
Take the grey cover off.
You see a small hole labeled, “Reset.”
Take a paper clip and press it in the hole.
Hold for 5-10 seconds.


It didn’t work — my Kindle’s screen was still frozen on a blank Wikipedia page. But the site had one more piece of advice…


Again, if that doesn’t work, try again with the Kindle plugged into the charger.

And that worked! I’ve never been so happy to see the Amazon logo smiling up at me from the grey screen of my no-longer-lifeless Kindle. I let it continue charging, and eventually checked to see if would actually display my home page. And there it was…

Including the Charles Dickens novel I’d been reading just before my Kindle went blank!

The Day the Kindle Died

April 19, 2010

I’d been reading a free Charles Dickens novel — Hard Times — and realized I was more interested in learning some details about Charles Dickens’ life. Charles Dickens died in 1870. My Kindle died on April 18, 2010…

I’d pressed the search button on my Kindle, and then used my favorite shortcut — typing @wiki to begin a search on Wikipedia. And soon I was reading another page of trivia about Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop straight from Wikipedia.


Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who may have read the last installment in Britain), “Is Little Nell alive?”

In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I hit the back button, but my wireless connection had blipped out. The Kindle wasn’t even able to reload the page about Charles Dickens (which I’d already been reading). Frustrated, I pressed the Back key, and the Home key, but nothing happened. I even tried pressing Alt-P — to at least see if I could make it play music!

“She’s not answering my helm,” I told my girlfriend — doing my best impersonation of either Captain Kirk or an old British sailing captain. I turned my Kindle off, but even that didn’t affect its screen. It continued displaying the blank beginning of the Wikipedia page which it hadn’t been able to download.

My beloved Kindle…was dead.

Come back tomorrow to find out what happened next!


(Oh boy. My first blog post with a cliff-hanger ending…)

By the way, there’s a fascinating bit of trivia about the “Author You Can’t Read on Your Kindle.”

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver

William Saroyan was a first-generation Armenian-American, who have a custom of “inviting over relatives and friends, and providing them with a generously overflowing table of fruits, nuts, seeds, and other foods” (according to Wikipedia). There’s even a scene in a movie that Saroyan later helped to write — “The Human Comedy” — in which an Armenian woman offers the same courtesy to young Mickey Rooney when he comes to her house to deliver a telegram. I think she even says, “I give-a you candy.”

If you recognize that line, it’s because it’s also used in a famous song by Rosemary Clooney — which was based on the same Armenian-American custom.

Come on-a my house, my house
I’m gonna give you…candy.
Come on-a my house, my house
I’m gonna give you everything.

Coincidence? Hardly. William Saroyan co-wrote the lyrics in 1939 (though it didn’t become a hit until Rosemary Clooney recorded it nearly 12 years later in 1951.) And his co-author on the song was his cousin, a man named Ross Bagdadsarian, who 19 years later…created Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Interestingly, 1939 was the year that William Saroyan declined a Pulitzer Prize. That same year, he and his cousin were writing these lyrics.

Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house I’m gonna give a you
Peach and pear and I love your hair ah
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house a come on
Come on-a my house, my house, I’m gonna give you Easta-egg

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver
Ever read an old novel, and realize how different its style is?

Maybe it’s a romantic novel from the 1800s, or a rambling post-modern narrative from Ernest Hemingway. But around the 1940s, you get what I think of as “The Great American Novelists”. That is, people who were consciously setting out to write glorious, high-stakes pageants about life itself.

I was a big fan of Thomas Wolfe, and finally got around to the watching a breathtaking production of a Thornton Wilder play. But this all brings me back to the man I now think of as “the lost novelist”.

Because you can’t buy his books for the Kindle.

William Saroyan grew up in Central California, and later depicted all the joys and dramas of small-town life in “The Human Comedy,” a devastating, bittersweet look at one family during World War II. He was always creating rich settings for touching stories about simple people facing an extraordinary crisis. The jacket of one book calls him “one of the permanently significant names in modern American fiction.”

Today I went to a public library about three hours from where Saroyan grew up, and I pulled one of his books off the shelf. It was published in 1951, and I’d never heard of it. (It’s called Rock Wagram – the story of a Fresno bartender who later in life struggles with the unexpected pitfalls of success.) As I held the book in my hand, I thought: this is something you can’t do on a Kindle.

You can’t read this.

Every man is a good man in a bad world. No man changes the world. Every man himself changes from good to bad or from bad to good, back and forth, all his life, and then dies. But no matter how or why or when a man changes, he remains a good man in a bad world, as he himself knows. All his life a man fights death, and then at last loses the fight, always having known he would. Loneliness is every man’s portion, and failure. The man who seeks to escape from loneliness is a lunatic. The man who does not laugh at these things is a bore. But the lunatic is a good man, and so is the fool, and so is the bore, as each of them knows. Every man is innocent, and in the end a lonely lunatic, a lonely fool, or a lonely bore.

But there is meaning to a man. There is meaning to the life every man lives.

Saroyan goes on to say it’s “a secret meaning.”

And then the novel begins…

Ever want to change the images in your Kindle’s screensaver? It’s as easy as putting new 600 x 800 images into the system/ folder on your Kindle – and then running a script which finishes the update. At least, according to one web post (citing a discussion on a mobile books forum).

It links to the script to run, though it’s important to also read the page’s comments. Some users are having trouble running the update, and there may be a better way to accomplish this!

Caveat: I’ve never tried this myself. (And I’m not sure if it works for all Kindles, or only for the Kindle 2.) But I’m definitely visiting that web page when I’m finally tired of my Kindle’s pre-loaded screensavers!

William Saroyan won a Pulitzer Prize — which he refused to accept. And the author wrote a wonderful scene about books at a public library in his novel “The Human Comedy.”

But the scene is different if you watch the movie. Saroyan quarrelled bitterly with the film’s producers, and actually wrote a novel-version of the movie, after-the- fact, to try to make the story more hard-hitting. In the movie, the librarian tells two little boys that she’s been reading books for more than 70 years.

“And it still isn’t enough time.”

Tonight I looked up the same scene in Saroyan’s book version. The two boys still visit the librarian, and she gives the same speech. But in the book, she only insists that she’s been in the world reading books for sixty years.

“And it hasn’t made one bit of difference!”

It’s a interesting counterpoint to the life of William Saroyan. His popularity declined, and he eventually funded a foundation to publish his works — possibly just to shore us his legacy. So it’s interesting what happens when you look for Saroyan ebooks for the Kindle.

You don’t find any.

But you do find a biography about his bittersweet life…

The Kindle Kills a Minister?

February 13, 2010

I heard the Kindle mentioned on NPR this morning. There’s a news quiz called Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Three stories are read to the contestants — one true but unexpected, and two which are outright lies. And this week the category was “technology disasters.”

The first concerned Apps-berger’s syndrome — a newly-discovered medical syndrome in which people use cell phone apps obsessively to perform tasks they could just as easily do by themselves. (I was pretty sure that story was false!) And story #2 concerned a guy who insisted to his girlfriend that the sexy text messages she’d found on his cell phone had actually been pre-loaded on the phone when he’d bought it.

So was story #3 true or false?

It concerned a minister who bought a Kindle. Actually, not just a Kindle. Late in life, the minister become a raging technophile, while also helping elderly members in his congregation learn how to use technology themselves. (And at one point, he even placed a bet on the exact date of the Apocalypse.) He bought himself a pocket-sized Kindle, to which he downloaded the Holy Bible, and he always carried it with him in his jacket’s vest pocket.

One day while hunting, a gun accidentally fires a shot. The bullet rips through his jacket – and rips through his Kindle – before passing
through the minister’s is body and then out his back. Two nearby hunters heard the shots, and rushed to the aid of the fallen minister. Looking down at the scene, one of the hunters said…

“Where the hell is your pocket bible? That would’ve stopped the bullet clean!”

🙂

The name of the news quiz was “You were supposed to make me happy!” And it turns out the true story was… #2. (The pre-loaded cell phone text messages — which was my guess. It reminded me of a similar true story about a cellphone that was pre-loaded with someone else’s pornography!) Still, it’s worth noticing that the Kindle was also included in this pageant of technology folk tales.

Digital readers are now part of the popular consciousness. In the year 2010, I turned to the mass media — and saw people who were talking about the Kindle.

A reporter asked me if I was worried about possible price increases in all Kindle books from Macmillan publishers. And I said no — because most of the books I read on my Kindle are free!

And I’m not the only one…

Look at Amazon’s list of their best-selling Kindle books. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is actually in the top 10 — 120 years after it was published — and “Treasure Island” is #24. In the top 100 you’ll see Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Dostoyevsky and H.G. Wells — plus several books by Jane Austen and other classics. There’s also two books by Leo Tolstoy, the original “Little Women”, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

And that’s just in the top 100! I’ve seen other classics with a sales rank just below that, so I know other Kindle owners are “buying” free books as well. The list of free books on my own Kindle fills up nearly three pages. Curious? Here’s a quick sample….

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper
The Story of a Mine (by Bret Harte)
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
The Autobiography of Ben Franklin
A Short History of the United States (a classic history text)
Two Years Before the Mast by Henry Dana

Maybe it’s the dirty secret about the popularity of digital readers. A
traditional bookstore will still charge you for a hard copy of a classic.
But on digital readers, they’re all free. And (judging from Amazon’s
best-seller list) the classics are already extremely popular.

Now I’ll admit I don’t know how popular the classics were before, in print editions. But they’ve got to be even more attractive when they’re absolutely cost-free. I’d already started to think that digital readers will change reading as a pastime. But one of the surprising results may also be an increased popularity in the classics!

We are on the cusp of a future already rewriting itself…

Today Apple finally released their iPad – a tablet-sized device that’s the same size (and price) as a Kindle DX. As I argued last week, this proves that the tablet-sized reader is here to stay. And in honor of today’s milestone, there was some interesting perspective from an Iranian-American journalist on The Huffington Post.

To me, Kindle is like the first Black and White TV that showed up in living rooms, the kind that streaked like a zebra in motion and crackled like a kid’s walkie-talkie, the kind that required antennae-fiddling to get a clear picture and decent sound, the kind that families increasingly bought and sat around.

As primitive as it is, it’s the first wave of a much bigger change. Digital readers will become part of our lives, and (as Charlotte Safavi writes), “When it comes to books, I have come to terms with the fact that it is the written word that counts, not the medium upon which it is delivered.”

And I was touched by the example she used: the epic 19th-century poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman.


It avails not, time nor place–distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence…


I was touched because I was just reading that very poem this Saturday.

And yes, it is available for free on the Kindle

I was watching Wheel of Fortune, and I swear we passed some kind of milestone. Vanna White started flipping around the letters, and it turns out the contestants were trying to guess the phrase:

Digital Book

Apparently the words “Digital Book” have become a household phrase now — it’s considered so common that even game show contestants are expected to know it! And as I pondered what this meant, I received confirmation just a few episodes later.

One of the prizes they were giving away was a Sony digital reader…

I’ve heard an interesting rumor about Apples’ “tablet” device — which could be released as soon as next week. One analyst described the possibility of “a bigger iPhone, big enough to read with.” It’ll still have a backlit screen, presumably, so the Kindle still offers a superior reading experience. But Apple’s tablet will further legitimize the Kindle — since more people will now be carrying a Kindle-sized device!

I think this firmly establishes the tablet “category” of devices – and now they’re just getting more sophisticated. The Nook gave digital readers some color on their menus, and Apple’s tablet just brings the color to the entire screen. There’s already a Kindle app for the iPhone, but now Apple’s making it available on a tablet-sized device. The devices are becoming more and more similar — but personally, I’d like to see the evolution go in the opposite direction. Maybe someday we’ll see an iPhone with a Kindle-like screen — one that isn’t backlit, and that uses natural light!

But that’s just the beginning, according to an article in Sunday’s business section. We’ll ultimately be surfing the web on our TVs, and watching TV on our cell phones. It’s all just digital content, and in the next few years every boundary will fall away. I’m looking forward to the day when I can read books on an enormous flat-screen TV
— broadcasting literature into my living room. And it’s pretty mind-boggling if you think about it, since the progression of media
hadn’t changed much over the previous two thousand years.

I mean, it started with pictures that cavemen drew on the walls. Eventually humanity developed text (and of course, text accompanied by pictures). But it took until the 20th century before we’d developed moving pictures. (And within a few decades, that was upgraded into moving pictures with sound.) Now we’ve finally reached the next milestone: live moving pictures with sound — which means we can just look at our friends and loved ones, and even enjoy a real-time conversation.

But out of all these developments, I’m still most excited about the books.

I still want to see literature in my living room…

I had an interesting idea. I’m trying to make a list of all the different devices on which I’ve read a complete story.

See, right now I’m reading a Star Trek novel on my Kindle — which is super-weird, because I’d also read these as paperback books when I was a teenager in the 1970s. They’re stories set in the distant future, but now I’m in the future — 30 years from the 1970s — and I’m using a real futuristic reading device…to read about a fictitious future!

And meanwhile my screensaver’s showing me a picture of the Gutenberg press…

So over my lifetime, I’ve read stories on lots of different devices. And as an exercise, I tried write up a complete list of them all. I mean, the first thing I ever read was a “See Dick Run” children’s reader. And when I was six years old, my parents bought me a comic book about two squirrels. So here’s how that list would begin…

A picture book
Comic books

I thought about also including “The titles of cartoons on TV,” but realized it would take too long to list everything I’ve ever read. (Billboards, valentines, medicine bottles, the instructions on parking meters…) So I tried narrowing the list to devices on which I’ve read a complete story.
Even then, I still ended up with…

Bubble gum comics

Technically, a Bazooka Joe comic strip is still a story. (And for that matter, so are the four-panel “stories” that you’d read in a daily newspaper.) But still, most of the stories I read were published as books. Until the internet came along and added new ways to read stories…

Online eTexts from Project Gutenberg
Short stories posted to Usenet
A type-written manuscript that a writer sent me…

Someone in Hollywood also once sent me a PDF file with a TV show’s script. And I think that completes my list of every device on which I’ve read an actual story.

But it’s a very challenging exercise — try it! (Because I’d love to know what other story-reading mediums I’ve missed…) And it’s also a very satisfying experience. It’s like tallying up an entire lifetime spent reading, while also highlighting the moments when new technologies came along. And of course, the exercise has to end by adding one final item.

Reading stories on my Kindle

“I love reading history,” writes Barbara Strauch, “and the shelves in my living room are lined with fat, fact-filled books.

“The problem is, as much as I’ve enjoyed these books, I don’t really remember reading any of them.”

She’s the health editor at The New York Times – and she’s written a book about the problems of an aging mind. It’s something I’ve worried about: will I still be able to enjoy reading as I grow older? I have fantasies of retiring, and finally having all day to read. (Maybe then I could finally tackle Remembrance of Things Past or War and Peace.) One reason I bought my Kindle was to increase the font sizes on books — so I wouldn’t need spectacles or special Large-Print editions. And with WhisperNet, I’m now invisibly connected to all the literature I could ever want to read.

The problem now isn’t the reading technology — it’s the physical problems of the reader! Will reading be a different when you’re doing it with a differently-aged brain? Strauch apparently answers the question in her upcoming book – but there’s reason to be optimistic. The book’s subtitle is “The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind,” and according to the blurb on Amazon, “the middle-aged brain is more flexible and more capable than previously thought.”

And in the New York Times this week, Strauch informs us that “The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture.” So I won’t lose my ability to enjoy the great works of literature before I die. And in fact, if I’m understanding her correctly, our ability to literature may actually improve with age.

“If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can…”

Here’s one of the things I love about my Kindle. Not only am I successfully juggling 10 different books at one time. They’re all free!

I live near San Francisco, so it’s especially fun to read what’s essentially a blog post about the city…written in 1836.


Friday, December 25th. This day was Christmas; and as it rained all day long, and there were no hides to take in, and nothing especial to do, the captain gave us a holiday, (the first we had had since leaving Boston,) and plum duff for dinner. The Russian brig, following the Old Style, had celebrated their Christmas eleven days before; when they had a grand blow-out and (as our men said) drank, in the forecastle, a barrel of gin, ate up a bag of tallow, and made a soup of the skin…




That’s from Two Years Before the Mast, a young Harvard grad’s journal of his years working as a common ship’s hand — as they work their way up the Mexican territory on the Pacific Coast which, just 13 years later, would enter America as the state of California.

It’s one of the first moments where I’ve felt such an intimate connection to someone who lived nearly two centuries ago. But while young Richard Henry Dana was traveling in what was then a foreign land, he seems lonely but intrigued, which gave him a special willingness to share his sincere human reactions with a concise humility.

My girlfriend told me Dana was a student of Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard, and Dana’s father was a poet. But in his own honest way, I think Dana stumbled into the grandness of literature itself.

Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain.

The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous…

That’s the second time in a row that’s happened! The screensaver is of an author whose books I’m reading on the Kindle!

This time, it was Alexandar Dumas. (I’m reading The Three Musketeers). And boy, does he look happy about it…

Yes, I’m looking up more ways to hack the Kindle’s screensaver images. And yes, I want to replace them with my own favorite authors. But as January 1 rolls away, it reminds me that this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. In fact, I hacked another set of author images 10 years ago — before the Kindle was even invented.

And I think the two experiences sprang from the exact same impulse…

Everyone has their own personal favorite authors. But when you’re selling a device — whether it’s a Kindle or a calendar — you just have to guess. The Kindle guessed Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austin, and Emily Dickinson (among others). And in 2000 I’d bought a “Great Names In Literature” calendar that had made — pretty much the same choices.

But they’d left out my favorite authors. (Where was William Faulkner? And how about Norman Mailer? Man, that guy was a hoot…) I also wished they’d included Jack Kerouac on my calendar. And then, I did something about it.

I went to the public library and photocopied giant pictures of my favorite authors — including Faulkner, Kerouac, and Mailer. And then I pasted them directly into my calendar — over pictures of my own least-favorite authors. (Don’t ask who!) I take my calendar far too seriously — I believe it’s a January ritual consecrating hopes for the year to come — or something like that. So I was hoping I’d end up writing my own book that year — and I wanted the right authors looking down from my calendar!

I could always do that to the Kindle’s screensaver images, but I won’t — because I really like the Kindle’s screensaver images. But I still might add a couple of my personal favorites into the mix as well.

What a nice moment. I’ve been reading Around the World in 80 Days — Jules Verne’s original novel. In the next chapter Phileas Fogg launches his trip, so I pick up my Kindle, but its screen-saver’s on.

And it’s showing me Jules Verne!

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. One of Verne’s other books is #46 on the Kindle best-seller list. (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – written in 1870.) It’s been in the top 100 for 268 days.

But I’m guessing that’s not the reason Amazon included his picture as a Kindle screensaver. Jules Verne is one of those authors who symbolizes the reach of literature (since he famously wrote about submarines and space travel before either of those things was actually invented!) I’m guessing Amazon chose his image as a Kindle screensaver before they’d realized just how popular Verne would be for their digital editions.

But also, Jules Verne just looks like a novelist. (Wild French hair brushed back like he’s facing a gale — plus an old-timey bow tie and a classy 19th-century suit.)

But it got me thinking about just how exactly does Amazon pick the authors for their screensavers. So far I’ve also seen Emily Dickinson. I felt kind of sad. I remembered that she’d lived a lonely life — never left the village where she lived, and often never even leaving her house. (And I was surprised they’d used a picture of young Emily Dickinson. Or maybe she just looked young…)

And, yeah, when Oscar Wilde came up, I just assumed that my Kindle was haunted…

Sometimes it’s not an author — sometimes it’s just a cool image And sometimes, it’s a tip – which are actually pretty useful. (I didn’t know I could type my way to selections on the home page if I sorted the books by title…) 

And yes, there is a way to change your Kindle screensaver

An Excited Update

December 31, 2009

There’s so many things I want to say. I’m reading 10 books at once — Jules Verne, Bret Harte, James Fenimore Cooper, and more. I’m reading Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and a mystery by A. A. Milne — all at the same time.

My girlfriend downloaded a cookbook! I’m reading the original Christmas Carol! I even downloaded a sample of Curious George — just to prove that I could! Plus a book I first read nearly 40 years ago…

I’m playing Minesweeper! I’m listening to mp3s! And — if I can believe this book’s description — soon I’ll even be playing Sudoku on my Kindle.

So there’s a lot I want to say. Bear with me until the euphor