Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kindle the Gorilla

The Amazon Kindle:
Son of the 800-Pound Gorilla
by Dr. Al Past

I am of two minds about making comments about the Kindle at this point. I have only had my Kindle 2 less than two weeks (though I have read two novels on it), and I hardly qualify as an expert manipulator of the device. (A year from now that may be different.) Anyone who wishes technical descriptions or tricks on how to make the Kindle sing like a canary will not hear it from me, though such tips can be Googled easily enough.

On the other hand, I have been an avid reader and consumer of books all my life, and that is how I choose to think of the Kindle: as an electronic book. In addition, for about six months, I have participated in various online groups where people have discussed the Kindle and other ebooks, shared their reading experiences, and generally reveled in the new technology. Perhaps more important here, I have made my own three novels, the Distant Cousin series, available as Kindle books, have them on my own Kindle, and have observed how they look on the device. I have seen how they have sold, and how the price may have affected sales (and how it compares to sales of the paper editions). Thus, I may have a slightly specialized perspective to offer prospective authors and readers, or so I hope.

First, the Out-of-the-Box Experience. Nothing could be simpler than to get the Kindle up and running. Mine charged fully in three hours, while I browsed Amazon on my computer and one-clicked five or six books I wanted to begin with. If I lived in a metropolitan area, I could have switched on the Kindle's Whispernet feature and downloaded all of them in a minute or two, but being on the edge of civilization, where cell phone coverage is a sometime thing, I took the device outside, turned it on, and presto: seven books on my machine.

Currently Amazon offers a quarter million books for the Kindle. The owner can download many more from Project Gutenberg or other free sites, send them to their Kindle's email address (every Kindle has an email address), and Amazon will convert them, for free (if delivered by computer) or a trivial charge (if delivered by Whispernet). One such customer tells me his Kindle will display books in German perfectly, with umlauts and the double ss and all the rest.

The Reading Experience. Speaking for myself, there are few greater pleasures in life than stretching out on the window seat in my home office to read for a satisfying length of time. I can now report that this experience, so delightful with a handsome hardbound or paperback book, is equally as pleasurable with the Kindle. The machine itself seems tiny, an inch and a half narrower than a National Geographic magazine, two inches shorter, and about as thick. Reportedly, it can contain as many as 1500 books, though I have no desire to test this. (It can also display many magazines, newspapers, and even websites, but again, I have little desire to use it for this, at least not now.) The actual screen is about the size of a mass-market paperback page, with an off-white background, and the displayed text is a dark gray. The size of the font is easily changed, a nice feature. I found the default font rather too large--I was "turning" pages too frequently--and I switched to the next smaller font (about mass-market size, but better spaced), which I got used to in minutes.

It sits comfortably in the hand, and was even more comfortable once I added Amazon's handsome leather cover, which can be opened like a book or folded back for convenience. Closed, it offers decent protection for the screen should one want to tote it about town, though for air travel or the like, a sturdy outer bag or case might be a good idea. Reading the pages is not like reading from a monitor. The page is not illuminated. Amazon's trademark e-ink is sharp and clear, but one needs external light for reading, exactly as with any book. (I have a clip-on LED light as well, which works nicely.)

I sailed through two standard length novels perhaps a little faster than I might have with paperbacks. For one thing, there were no pages to turn, only a button to be pressed. In a strange way, the device reminds me of an electronic Etch-a-Sketch, in that pressing the "next page" button causes the screen to go black for a micro-second, and then flash on the the next, as if all the sand were tossed into the air and re-sifted. I soon learned to press the button as I neared the bottom of a page and release it as I reached the last two lines, achieving a nice, steady pace, faster than with a paperback.

One doesn't easily lose one's place. I could check other books, download more, and go back to the page I had been reading at the exact place I had quit. I do have one gripe in this respect, however: several times I "searched" for terms in the book I was reading and lost my place. There are no page numbers, only "index" numbers of some perplexing kind, probably because one's choice of fonts would change the number of pages. Nor is there a "fast forward" or "fast reverse" feature. I shall have to consult someone more technically proficient to see if there is a better way to flip through an ebook. A dotted line at the bottom of the page, accompanied by a per cent symbol, indicate one's progress through the text.

A built-in dictionary will define all but the most obscure words, like "jehu" (a driver of a coach or cab) with the simple manipulation of a four-way switch, and the text-to-speech feature works surprisingly well. I do not commute to work, but those who do would find listening to a book with an earphone no problem at all. Supposedly, one can control the speed of the voice, but I did not test this.

I was at the computer last week when my wife asked me if I had seen her paper copy (Kindlers call this a "dead tree" book) of Carla Kelly's Marrying the Captain. I said I had not, and while she launched a room-by-room search I turned to my computer, dialed it up at Amazon, and one-clicked it. Then I took the Kindle outside, turned on Whispernet, and downloaded it, for $4 and change. Then I carried it to my wife and told her "I found your book." Time expended: two minutes at the most--an impressive convenience, but probably chilling to bookstore owners.

I have read two novels in two weeks on the original battery charge. (I understand that power consumption is reduced when the Whispernet connection is turned off, as it normally is on my Kindle.) The tiny battery indicator seems to be telling me that it is just beginning to be discharged. If that's correct, I estimate I could read another three or four novels before having to recharge it. Except for the considerable purchase price ($360), I find the Kindle an entirely successful and even delightful way to read books.

The Kindle for an Author. Let's talk about the person who has a book to present to the public: an author. There are many different kinds of authors. Some wish to make a living from their writing. Some want to become famous. Some write how-to books or non-fiction. Some trot hopefully down the long but fading path to a traditional publisher. Others publish their own works (POD) and take their fate into their own hands. Frequently, these categories, and others, overlap. Obviously, one's publishing and marketing strategy should depend on what one writes and what one hopes to do with the book. My experience with having my books brought out as Kindle editions may be instructive for many authors.

In my case, I wrote Distant Cousin because it had been haunting me for twenty years before I retired. I thought it was a good story (typical for an author of fiction), and I hoped others would enjoy it too. Money was not my main goal, though it has turned out to be a good way to keep score. In my naiveté, I went with a POD publisher for simplicity's sake and speed, and because I retained control of the result. The product, from the old iUniverse, was a handsome but rather expensive trade paperback, $21. It was listed on Amazon and has accumulated favorable reviews or better ever since. Sales were not stunning, however. People who knew me and their friends took the gamble, a small number of strangers risked their money, and those who reviewed it were encouraging. I did what I could to flog the internet, but I have little business sense and less talent for self-promotion, so sales gradually tapered off to a trickle.

The publications of volumes two and three, Distant Cousin: Repatriation and Distant Cousin: Reincarnation, revived public interest briefly, earning their own positive reviews, but by this point several things had become clear. First, if the books had been traditionally printed, there would have been one printing and no more. They would have been "out of print," and only available on the used book market. Since they were POD books, however, that was not a problem. Anyone who decided to read one could easily obtain it, no matter when, and for the cover price. Score one for POD. Second, however, the price of the books was a major turnoff for readers. All three together retailed for $56, a major investment for most normal people.

So last September, I made them available for the Kindle. Since I owned the copyright, Amazon left it up to me to set the price. Even though Kindle sales would be totally digital, with no printing and shipping necessary, I was tempted to jack up the price and make some real money for a change. After all, New York Times bestsellers are routinely priced at $10 in Kindle editions, still a considerable saving over the hardcover price. But ultimately, I relented. I have little business savvy, but I am a consumer of books, and I know as well as any reader that a bargain is a wonderful thing. Besides, I mainly wanted people to enjoy the story, so I priced it at $5, which Amazon immediately discounted to $4. The rest is history.

I accidentally found, while Googling around, that Kindle readers had discovered the Distant Cousin series, and I began following their postings. To my surprise, I discovered that this is where the readers are today. They were serious. They read everything, from classics in German, to short stories and essays, to pulp fiction about vampires and cops and romances, to current popular fiction: everything. They especially love bargains, and they loved Distant Cousin, also a bargain. Now, five or six months later, hundreds of copies have Whispernetted through the air to happy readers. My royalties, while small, warm my heart. My optimism about publishing has been reborn.

So what does my experience have to say to Author X?

First, it depends on what you have written. Distant Cousin is meant to be popular fiction. That is, it's beach reading, a page turner, but at the same time a page turner that doesn't insult the reader or follow a conventional genre formula. There's something in it for those who like a little adventure, a little romance, and/or a little science fiction. Assuming a reader can be convinced to try it, there's a good chance they will enjoy it. This was a strike against me when dealing with the literary-industrial complex, which is risk-averse (and may be paying for it these days), but it seems to have been an advantage with avid Kindlers.

Authors should know that Amazon makes it possible to order a free sample of any Kindle edition, consisting (as far as I know) of a generous number of pages starting from the beginning of the book. In the case of Distant Cousin it amounts to roughly 30 pages. Obviously, therefore, anyone contemplating a Kindle edition should think carefully about how one's book looks at the beginning

The author of a how-to book will have to make his or her own decision about marketing and readership. The author of a work that comments on the American scene must do the same, as must the author of a children's book full of color pictures (the Kindle doesn't do color). Indeed, all authors should consider the market for their work. Think of window-shopping at a mall bookstore, but for the digital version. Does it have an intriguing title? You should probably make sure a version of your cover, in black and white, is one of the first pages: is it an interesting page? Some books I have sampled at Kindle merely begin on page one. Others feature reviews or other prefatory matter. What is to your advantage? These are among the decisions that can encourage readers...or not.

Most important, what about the price? As far as I know, Amazon automatically discounts every book 20% from the price the publisher or copyright owner sets. If you are a professional writer with fans and a reputation, like Carla Kelly, you may be able to charge more. If you are a new writer, that might not be the best strategy. I say again: Kindle readers are bargain hunters. It is possible to browse the Kindle store based on price alone, and many Kindle owners do this, often choosing books on price alone. A few books, even from major publishers, are free, though like the matter of pricing airline seats, this is a strategy that is beyond the likes of a simple soul such as myself. Word of bargains spreads. Sales result. My recommendation: do not overprice your book. You will most likely lose in overall income what you gain in royalty per book. Remember how Wal-mart became the biggest retailer in the world: low prices.

I am not the one to punditize on the future of the Kindle, even though lack of knowledge seldom stops a pundit. It's true the Kindle is proprietary to Amazon and that there are several competitors in the bushes, sharpening their fangs and their business plans. Some of these may eventually become serious competition, and all we authors need to scan the horizon for approaching clouds. In the meantime, for my part I'm going with the 800 pound gorilla. I'm rather fond of that gorilla.

See Also: Distant Cousin in Kindle Format


R.J. Keller said...

Excellent article. I've been debating whether or not to invest in a Kindle, and this really did clinch the deal for me. Thanks!

I, too, am an indie author whos novel is available on Kindle. I was a little nervous about it at first, but I couldn't be happier about my experiences. Right now my Kindle sales outnumber my "dead tree" sales by a margin of four to one.

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Without Ribbons said...

Superb article! For readers and for authors.

I owe all of my recent success in POD sales to the Kindle!

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Thanks for writing up this great overview. I've been wondering what all the fuss was about. While I vowed to stay with paper forever, you might have changed my mind.


Al said...

This just in: I learned from a reliable source that the free sample Amazon supplies of a Kindle book amounts to the first 10% of the total file. This jibes with my experience.
You may draw your own conclusions, but if your Kindle book is a short one you may wish to put extended front matter, if any, at the back to give more space to the actual content.
In any case you should have a better idea of just what a sampler will see. You may be able to adjust accordingly.