Category Archives: amazon

book machine

Philip M. Parker, a professor at Insead, the international business school based in Fontainebleau, France, has written 85,000 books and counting. He’s like a machine. In fact, he has a machine that writes them for him. The Guardian has more.
Most, if not all, of these books can be found on Amazon. Sifting through them felt like a bad riff on “The Library of Babel.” I felt like I’d stumbled upon a weird new form of bibliographic spam -? thousands of machine-generated titles gumming up the works, jamming the signal, eroding the utility of the library. Matt Kirschenbaum, who forwarded the link, said it recalled the book machines in Italo Calvino’s great meta-novel, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler:

He has you taken into the machine room. “Allow me to introduce our programmer, Sheila.”
Before you, in a white smock buttoned up to the neck, you see Corinna-Gertrude-Alfonsina, who is tending a battery of smooth metallic appliances, like dishwashers. “These are the memory units that have stored the whole text of Around an empty grave. The terminal is a printing apparatus that, as you see, can reproduce the novel word for word from the beginning to the end,” the officer says. A long sheet unrolls from a kind of typewriter which, with machine-gun speed, is covering it with cold capital letters.

Prices are often absurdly inflated, up to the many hundreds of dollars. While, on Amazon, you can’t peek inside any of the books, the product descriptions read like prose recycled from free government business or health leaflets (stuff that usually feels like it was written by a machine anyway). There seem to be a few dozen tropes which are repeated with slight variations ad nauseum. A few sample titles:
-? The 2007 Report on Wood Toilet Seats: World Market Segmentation by City (330pp., $795)
-? The 2007-2012 Outlook for Lemon-Flavored Bottled Water in Japan (140pp., $495)
-? Avocados: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide (108pp., $28.95)
-? Brain Injuries – A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography, and Annotated Research Guide to Internet References (244pp., $28.95)
In fact, there’s a whole trope of titles that are guides to “internet references,” which makes me wonder if Parker’s machine is just scraping the entire Web for content.

amazon reviewer no. 7 and the ambiguities of web 2.0

Slate takes a look at Grady Harp, Amazon’s no. 7-ranked book reviewer, and finds the amateur-driven literary culture there to be a much grayer area than expected:

Absent the institutional standards that govern (however notionally) professional journalists, Web 2.0 stakes its credibility on the transparency of users’ motives and their freedom from top-down interference. Amazon, for example, describes its Top Reviewers as “clear-eyed critics [who] provide their fellow shoppers with helpful, honest, tell-it-like-it-is product information.” But beneath the just-us-folks rhetoric lurks an unresolved tension between transparency and opacity; in this respect, Amazon exemplifies the ambiguities of Web 2.0. The Top 10 List promises interactivity – ?”How do I become a Top Reviewer?” – ?yet Amazon guards its rankings algorithms closely…. As in any numbers game (tax returns, elections) opacity abets manipulation.

kindle maths 101

Chatting with someone from Random House’s digital division on the day of the Kindle release, I suggested that dramatic price cuts on e-editions -? in other words, finally acknowledging that digital copies aren’t worth as much (especially when they come corseted in DRM) as physical hard copies -? might be the crucial adjustment needed to at last blow open the digital book market. It seemed like a no-brainer to me that Amazon was charging way too much for its e-books (not to mention the Kindle itself). But upon closer inspection, it clearly doesn’t add up that way. Tim O’Reilly explains why:

…the idea that there’s sufficient unmet demand to justify radical price cuts is totally wrongheaded. Unlike music, which is quickly consumed (a song takes 3 to 4 minutes to listen to, and price elasticity does have an impact on whether you try a new song or listen to an old one again), many types of books require a substantial time commitment, and having more books available more cheaply doesn’t mean any more books read. Regular readers already often have huge piles of unread books, as we end up buying more than we have time for. Time, not price, is the limiting factor.

Even assuming the rosiest of scenarios, Kindle readers are going to be a subset of an already limited audience for books. Unless some hitherto untapped reader demographic comes out of the woodwork, gets excited about e-books, buys Kindles, and then significantly surpasses the average human capacity for book consumption, I fail to see how enough books could be sold to recoup costs and still keep prices low. And without lower prices, I don’t see a huge number of people going the Kindle route in the first place. And there’s the rub.
Even if you were to go as far as selling books like songs on iTunes at 99 cents a pop, it seems highly unlikely that people would be induced to buy a significantly greater number of books than they already are. There’s only so much a person can read. The iPod solved a problem for music listeners: carrying around all that music to play on your Disc or Walkman was a major pain. So a hard drive with earphones made a great deal of sense. It shouldn’t be assumed that readers have the same problem (spine-crushing textbook-stuffed backpacks notwithstanding). Do we really need an iPod for books?
UPDATE: Through subsequent discussion both here and off the blog, I’ve since come around 360 back to my original hunch. See comment.
We might, maybe (putting aside for the moment objections to the ultra-proprietary nature of the Kindle), if Amazon were to abandon the per copy idea altogether and go for a subscription model. (I’m just thinking out loud here -? tell me how you’d adjust this.) Let’s say 40 bucks a month for full online access to the entire Amazon digital library, along with every major newspaper, magazine and blog. You’d have the basic cable option: all books accessible and searchable in full, as well as popular feedback functions like reviews and Listmania. If you want to mark a book up, share notes with other readers, clip quotes, save an offline copy, you could go “premium” for a buck or two per title (not unlike the current Upgrade option, although cheaper). Certain blockbuster titles or fancy multimedia pieces (once the Kindle’s screen improves) might be premium access only -? like HBO or Showtime. Amazon could market other services such as book groups, networked classroom editions, book disaggregation for custom assembled print-on-demand editions or course packs.
This approach reconceives books as services, or channels, rather than as objects. The Kindle would be a gateway into a vast library that you can roam about freely, with access not only to books but to all the useful contextual material contributed by readers. Piracy isn’t a problem since the system is totally locked down and you can only access it on a Kindle through Amazon’s Whispernet. Revenues could be shared with publishers proportionately to traffic on individual titles. DRM and all the other insults that go hand in hand with trying to manage digital media like physical objects simply melt away.

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On a related note, Nick Carr talks about how the Kindle, despite its many flaws, suggests a post-Web2.0 paradigm for hardware:

If the Kindle is flawed as a window onto literature, it offers a pretty clear view onto the future of appliances. It shows that we’re rapidly approaching the time when centrally stored and managed software and data are seamlessly integrated into consumer appliances – all sorts of appliances.
The problem with “Web 2.0,” as a concept, is that it constrains innovation by perpetuating the assumption that the web is accessed through computing devices, whether PCs or smartphones or game consoles. As broadband, storage, and computing get ever cheaper, that assumption will be rendered obsolete. The internet won’t be so much a destination as a feature, incorporated into all sorts of different goods in all sorts of different ways. The next great wave in internet innovation, in other words, won’t be about creating sites on the World Wide Web; it will be about figuring out creative ways to deploy the capabilities of the World Wide Computer through both traditional and new physical products, with, from the user’s point of view, “no computer or special software required.”

That the Kindle even suggests these ideas signals a major advance over its competitors -? the doomed Sony Reader and the parade of failed devices that came before. What Amazon ought to be shooting for, however, (and almost is) is not an iPod for reading -? a digital knapsack stuffed with individual e-books -? but rather an interface to a networked library.

amazon raises paperback prices

An interesting twist in the Kindle story reported at Dear Author:

Amazon’s pricing for mass market books has suddenly gone full retail, no discount since the release of the Kindle. When questioned in Newsweek about the low pricing, Bezos said “low-margin and high-volume sale – ?you just have to make sure the mix [between discounted and higher-priced items] works.” It looks like Bezos is hoping to make more money off the high volume of sales from those mass market purchasers.
…I guess this is one way of forcing readers to purchase the Kindle. If Kindle success rises or falls on the backs of the mass market purchasers, this is going to be ugly because I see a whole bunch of Amazon purchasers being pretty upset about this turn of events.

Thanks to Peter Brantley for the link.

siva on kindle

Thoughtful comments from Siva Vaidhyanathan on the Kindle:

As far as the dream of textual connectivity and annotations — making books more “Webby” — we don’t need new devices to do that. Nor do we need different social processes. But we do need better copyright laws to facilitate such remixes and critical engagement.
So consider this $400 device from Amazon. Once you drop that cash, you still can’t get books for the $9 cost of writing, editing, and formating. You still pay close to the $30 physical cost that includes all the transportation, warehousing, taxes, returns, and shoplifting built into the price. You can only use Amazon to get texts, thus locking you into a service that might not be best or cheapest. You can only use Sprint to download texts or get Web information. You can’t transfer all you linking and annotating to another machine or network your work. If the DRM fails, you are out of luck. If the device fails, you might not be able to put your library on a new device.
All the highfallutin’ talk about a new way of reading leading to a new way of writing ignores some basic hard problems: the companies involved in this effort do not share goals. And they do not respect readers or writers.
I say we route around them and use these here devices — personal computers — to forge better reading and writing processes.

of razors and blades

A flurry of reactions to the Amazon Kindle release, much of it tipping negative (though interestingly largely by folks who haven’t yet handled the thing).
David Rothman exhaustively covers the DRM/e-book standards angle and is generally displeased:

I think publishers should lay down the law and threaten Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with slow dismemberment if he fails to promise immediately that the Kindle will do .epub [the International Digital Publishing Forum’s new standard format] in the next six months or so. Epub, epub, epub, Jeff. Publishers still remember how you forced them to abandon PDF in favor of your proprietary Mobi format, at least in Amazon-related deals. You owe ’em one.

Dear Author also laments the DRM situation as well as the jacked-up price:

Here’s the one way I think the Kindle will succeed with consumers (non business consumers). It chooses to employ a subscription program whereby you agree to buy x amount of books at Amazon in exchange for getting the Kindle at some reduced price. Another way to drive ereading traffic to Amazon would be to sell books without DRM. Jeff Bezos was convinced that DRM free music was imperative. Why not DRM free ebooks?

There are also, as of this writing, 128 customer reviews on the actual Amazon site. One of the top-rated ones makes a clever, if obvious, remark on Amazon’s misguided pricing:

The product is interesting but extremely overpriced, especially considering that I still have to pay for books. Amazon needs to discover what Gillette figured out decades ago: Give away the razor, charge for the razor blades. In this model, every Joe gets a razor because he has nothing to lose. Then he discovers that he LOVES the razor, and to continue loving it he needs to buy razors for it. The rest is history.
This e-book device should be almost free, like $30. If that were the case I’d have one tomorrow. Then I’d buy a book for it and see how I like it. If I fall in love with it, then I’ll continue buying books, to Amazon’s benefit.
There is no way I’m taking a chance on a $400 dedicated e-book reader. That puts WAY too much risk on my side of the equation.

newsweek covers the future of reading

6032-newsweekkindle.jpg Steven Levy’s Newsweek cover story, “The Future of Reading,” is pegged to the much anticipated release of the Kindle, Amazon’s new e-book reader. While covering a lot of ground, from publishing industry anxieties, to mass digitization, Google, and speculations on longer-term changes to the nature of reading and writing (including a few remarks from us), the bulk of the article is spent pondering the implications of this latest entrant to the charred battlefield of ill-conceived gadgetry which has tried and failed for more than a decade to beat the paper book at its own game. The Kindle has a few very significant new things going for it, mainly an Internet connection and integration with the world’s largest online bookseller, and Jeff Bezos is betting that it might finally strike the balance required to attract larger numbers of readers: doing a respectable job of recreating the print experience while opening up a wide range of digital affordances.
Speaking of that elusive balance, the bit of the article that most stood out for me was this decidely ambivalent passage on losing the “boundedness” of books:

Though the Kindle is at heart a reading machine made by a bookseller – ?and works most impressively when you are buying a book or reading it – ?it is also something more: a perpetually connected Internet device. A few twitches of the fingers and that zoned-in connection between your mind and an author’s machinations can be interrupted – ?or enhanced – ?by an avalanche of data. Therein lies the disruptive nature of the Amazon Kindle. It’s the first “always-on” book.

amazon kindle due out monday

In CNET news: “Amazon to debut Kindle e-book reader Monday.”
While it’s got more going for it than any of its predecessors or present competitors -? wi-fi connection, seamless integration with the biggest online store in the world, access to dozens of periodicals, keyword search for crying out loud, which the Sony Reader still bafflingly lacks -? I’m skeptical about the Kindle. If the device ($399) and individual electronic titles (barely marked down from print) weren’t so absurdly overpriced, it might make more sense to readers. Over at Teleread, David Rothman wonders about the solidity of Jeff Bezos’ long-term commitment to books.

penguin enlists amazon reviewers to sift fiction slush pile

In an interesting mashup of online social filtering and old-fashioned publishing, Penguin, Amazon and Hewlett Packard have joined forces to present a new online literary contest, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. From the NY Times:

From today through Nov. 5, contestants from 20 countries can submit unpublished manuscripts of English-language novels to Amazon, which will assign a small group of its top-rated online reviewers to evaluate 5,000-word excerpts and narrow the field to 1,000. The full manuscripts of those semifinalists will be submitted to Publishers Weekly, which will assign reviewers to each. Amazon will post the reviews, along with excerpts, online, where customers can make comments. Using those comments and the magazine’s reviews, Penguin will winnow the field to 100 finalists who will get two readings by Penguin editors. When a final 10 manuscripts are selected, a panel including Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the current nonfiction paperback best seller “Eat, Pray, Love,” and John Freeman, the president of the National Book Critics Circle, will read and post comments on the novels at Amazon. Readers can then vote on the winner, who will receive a publishing contract and a $25,000 advance from Penguin.

visual search

I just came across oSkope, a snazzy new “visual search assistant” built by a Zurich/Berlin outfit that allows you to graphically browse items on Amazon, ebay, Flickr or YouTube. More than a demo or prototype, it’s a fully functioning front end to the search engines of the afore-mentioned sites. I played around a bit in Amazon mode… below are some screenshots of a search for “Kafka” in Amazon’s book category. Each search cluster can be displayed in five different configurations (grid, stack, pile, list and graph), re-scaled with a slide bar, or rearranged manually by dragging items around. Click any cover and a small info window pops up with a link to the Amazon page. You can also drag items down into a folder for future reference. Very smooth, very tactile.
Graph (arranges items along axes of price and sales rank):
A few months back I linked to another visual Amazon browser from TouchGraph that arranges book clusters according to customer purchase patterns (the “people who purchased this also bought…”). I’m still waiting for someone to visualize the connections in the citation indexes: create a cross-referential map that shows the ligatures between texts (as pondered here). Each of these ideas is of course just an incremental step toward more advanced methods of getting the “big picture” view of digital collections.
oSkope, though it could still use some work (Flickr searching was unpredictable and didn’t seem to turn up nearly as much as what I’m sure is in their system, Ebay wasn’t working at all), is a relatively straightforward and useful contribution – ?more than just eye candy. It even helped me stumble upon something wonderful: a recently published study (appropriately, visual) of Kafka, a collab between comic artist R. Crumb and Kafka scholar David Mairowitz.
Browsing graphically is often more engaging than scanning a long list of results, and a crop of new tools – ?LibraryThing, Shelfari, Delicious Library, and now Google Books – ?have recently emerged to address this, all riffing in similar, somewhat nostalgic ways on the experience of shelves (Peter Brantley just blogged another idea in this vein). iTunes too has gotten in on this, its album cover flipper becoming a popular way to sift through one’s music collection.
Perhaps it’s telling, though, that these visual, shelf-inspired browsing tools are focused on old media: books, albums… all bounded objects. You couldn’t simply graft this onto web search and get the same effect (although page previews, of the sort that Snap provides, are becoming increasingly popular). For vast, shifting collections of unbounded, evolving, recombining, and in many cases ephemeral media, different vizualization tools are most likely needed. What might those be?
(oSkope link via Information Aesthetics)