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!

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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

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…

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.

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.

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’.”

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?”

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?

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!”


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…

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!

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…

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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
.

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!”

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.”

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?

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.

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

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…

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…