Close, but no Kindle

I want to buy a Kindle. I really do.

There’s just one problem. A minor concern. I have something on the order of _three thousand_ ebooks already in my Calibre library. I can convert these to .mobi format and drag them into Kindle for PC. I can drag them over USB to a physical Kindle device.

But I do most of my reading on my iPhone. And while the Kindle iOS app is wonderful for reading books purchased via Amazon.com _there is no official way_ to add personal content to Kindle for iOS.

Until the jailbreaks of last weekend, there was no way at all, official or otherwise, to load personal content onto Kindle for iOS if you were using the latest revision of the operating system. Now that I can—and have—jailbreak 4.1, I can verify that if you know the specific folder on the iPhone where the Kindle app stores its books:

> /private/var/mobile/Applications/A9EB2B1F-4AA1-4FE3-9E41-3C6ECE723776/Documents/eBooks

you can copy .mobi files to the device and they’ll show up in your book list the next time you start the Kindle app. Now, this is just for Kindle iOS version 2.3.1.3. The next time I download an update to the Kindle app, that A9EB2B1F-4AA1-4FE3-9E41-3C6ECE723776 changes to something else.

But at least I can get my personal content on to the device. For now. As long as I keep playing the game of cat and mouse with Apple and Amazon to keep my phone jailbroken and keep track of where the books are.

But one of the key advantages to the Kindle platform is Whispersync, the ability to pick up where you left off on any Kindle reader no matter what device you were using last time. This doesn’t work with personal content. I even verified that if I name the files using Amazon’s product ID the way Amazon does it internally—Stephen King’s _On Writing_, which I’ve already purchased from eReader/Fictionwise _and_ Audible, would be B000FC0SIM_EBOK.azw—and carefully insert a copy in the ebooks folder for Kindle iOS and Kindle PC, even though it says it’s uploading and saving my furthest read location on the iOS device, opening the same book in Kindle for PC doesn’t jump to the same location.

In short, I’ve done just about everything I can do to make this work without access to the code.

So for right now, I can’t read _all_ of the books I own seamlessly on whatever reading platform I happen to have at hand, which is the whole point of the Kindle experience. Only the books I actually bought from Amazon sync with my iPhone. So either I deal with finding my place myself—which I already do if I’m reading the same book as an ebook and an audiobook, the only way I get through some things—or I rebuy books I’ve already paid for if I want them to sync—which also includes the ability to archive (delete) books from the device and then easily redownload them over the air later if I need to.

And yet, if Kindle 3 prices drop again for the holiday season to $99 for WiFi-only and $149 for 3G, I might have to bite the bullet and buy one anyway. I’m already hooked.

Just not completely.

Maybe if it weren’t so freaking ugly

With Amazon’s Jeff Bezos pushing the Kindle like it’s chicken-fried Jesus and media heavyweights like Oprah on board, ebooks are finally getting some respect in the mainstream media.

Perhaps with Oprah’s help and a new and improved version due next year, the Kindle will achieve escape velocity and Amazon can stop showing me the annoying Kindle ad and disclose how many units have been sold. As for eliminating physical books from the warehouses, books are lagging music and video. The end of print is not near, but the writing is on the virtual wall. The economics of the Internet, as well as technology innovations such as improved virtual paper, instant translation, and always on, fast connections to a universe of knowledge indicate that Bezos is on the right track, just as he was in creating a virtual shopping mall for physical goods in 1994. And, he will have lots of company, or competition, as the digital age gets into full swing.

Amazon’s Kindle obsession: Bury the printed book | Outside the Lines – CNET News

I’m on record, many, many times, as saying standalone ebook readers are a dumb idea. While I haven’t yet seen a Kindle “in the wild” I have seen several Sony readers and I remain unimpressed by e-ink technology. I read more books on my Treo, I’d wager, than even the most avid Kindle fan. And eReader on the iPhone has become the most widely used ebook reader on the market (what the heck, the iPhone may as well be good for something).

But I was predicting the end of print over a decade ago, and that was before a whole new generation was introduced to Harry Potter. While I don’t have much use for them myself, printed books aren’t going anywhere for a long time, and the Kindle, for all its advantages (e-ink, great battery life, built in EVDO connection for buying and downloading books directly) isn’t going to get bibliophiles like my mom to stop lugging tree pulp around.

As for me, I’ll stick with smartphones. I like the look of the rumored second generation Kindle (and was it intentional to name this thing after paper used to start a fire?) but I’m already lugging around a smartphone, netbook and all the associated power cables, sync cables, batteries and whatnot for those. I have room to add a Kindle to my Scott e-Vest (seriously!) but I don’t honestly see the point when I can read perfectly comfortably on my phone.

Thoughts on the Kindle 3

I’ve had my Kindle for about a month now, so it’s time to tell you what I think of it.

I, uh, kind of love it.

I know this goes against everything I’ve ever said about dedicated ebook readers. I know I’ve said dedicated reading devices were a dumb idea. I know I’ve said I could read everything I needed to read on my phone and be happy with that, thank you. (Although I did just about nail predicting the Kindle in 2003.) I know I even said I would never, EVER buy a Kindle after the 1984 fiasco.

I was wrong. I was so, very wrong.

You’ve all seen reviews that labor over the device specs, so I won’t bore you with that here. But let’s talk about the screen for a minute. You really need to see this in person. It looks like print. It looks like a printed overlay you often find on LCD screens for shipping, as a matter of fact. It threw me a little when I first took it out of the box; I kept looking for the tab to peel it off and see the real screen. The resolution is 600×800 for the six inch diagonal, which comes out to 167 pixels per inch, about half the resolution of the iPhone 4 and just a bit higher than the iPad’s 132. And yet, because it’s grayscale, it works. It looks just as sharp as the text you’d see in the average paperback.

eInk really makes a difference. I had to install a lamp next to my bed, but I can attest that the recent studies showing that transmitted light versus reflected light before sleeping screwing with your melatonin levels and affecting your sleep have some validity. I’m sleeping a lot better reading an hour or two per night on my Kindle before going to sleep than I did reading on my iPhone, even with the iPhone brightness at minimum.

So it’s nice, and it does what it says it does. But what makes it so compelling? The real difference I think is not what the Kindle does, but what it doesn’t do.

The Kindle allows you to share highlighted passages on Twitter, but it doesn’t come with a Twitter client. Or an email client. There’s a webkit based browser, but the refresh speed of eInk will disavow you right away of any thoughts for using it for long term browsing. The Kindle displays books. You can organize them into collections, you can download them directly to the device, but what the Kindle is really about is reading. It’s the first device I’ve ever seen where I can read a book and have the book “disappear” into the story the way it does with a particularly good book in print.

Yes, I read Kindle books on my iPhone and my desktop and netbook PCs. And the Whispersync technology Amazon uses to keep your place in sync works flawlessly (with the minor exception that it doesn’t work for books you didn’t purchase from Amazon, which we’ll get to later). I enjoy reading on those devices when I have a few minutes.

But on the Kindle itself, I read for hours.

It makes a difference. So much so that I’m now woefully behind on my Hulu queue and I don’t even want to look at my Netflix Watch Instantly queue. I spend all my leisure time reading. I’ve got around 500 books on my Kindle, a mix of old favorites and stuff I still haven’t gotten around to reading. Maybe a few dozen of those are purchased from Amazon.

And therein lies my one complaint about the Kindle 3.

I already own thousands of ebooks, purchased from various sources over the last dozen years. I’ve organized these in Calibre, which does a fantastic job of not only making such a collection manageable, but also converting books to whatever format I might need. I was able to convert all my books to a Kindle-compatible .mobi format easily. I can copy them over to the Kindle directly within Calibre, and keep track of what books are on the device. What I can’t do, however, is sync my place in those books between my Kindle, the Kindle for PC apps on my home desktop, work desktop and netbook, and the iOS Kindle app on my iPhone. In fact, on the iPhone, I can’t load the non-Amazon-purchased books at all without jailbreaking and manually copying them over via SSH. Given that these books use the same “location” alternative to page numbers as the books you purchase at Amazon, it should be trivial for Amazon to keep a list of file names and reading locations for all the books you open, even if you didn’t buy the books from them. Why don’t they?

My theory is that this is to reduce or discourage piracy, by reserving Whispersync for “authentic” ebooks they know you’ve paid for. Sure, you could have converted that .mobi file from a .pdb file you downloaded from eReader.com—I have over 500 such files—but you could have gotten it from a torrent. I love Amazon’s service—I’m also a Prime subscriber—but I don’t for a second think Amazon does what it does for the good of its customers. When it sold every ebook at a loss before the agency model, it was giving customers a better deal, but it was also selling a lot of Kindles and anchoring the sub-$10 price for ebooks, giving it power over the publishers. In providing sync services to books you didn’t purchase from Amazon, they would have to pick doing something good for their customers over their own business interest in selling you more ebooks. Never expect a corporation to do anything not in their own best interest.

That said, their vile little scheme works. I rely so much on Whispersync to catch a few pages here on my iPhone and a few pages there on my desktop that I will buy Amazon editions of books I know I’m going to reread, even if I already have a perfectly good, well-formatted copy I bought somewhere else and converted over. I doubt I’ll do this for books I expect to only read once, but for perennial favorites like The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s worth the expense. (However, note that both of those books are omnibus editions, so I’m only buying one book instead of several, and they’re longer reads and thus more likely to be read across multiple devices.)

Okay, lecture over. A few more observations:

The Kindle allows you to group your books into Collections, as well as just sorting them by recently opened, title and author. If you have a large number of books on your device, this is handy. I have all my Aloysius Pendergast books by Preston and Child in one collection, all of my Rizzoli & Isles books by Tess Gerritsen in another. I have collections for Foundation (10 books, including various prequels), James Rollins’s Sigma Force (5 books) and Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, among others. I also have 23 books in Thrillers, 45 in General Nonfiction, and a whopping 235 in To Read. The only downside to organizing your books in collections is that Calibre doesn’t understand them (and as the developer of Calibre doesn’t use collections himself, it isn’t likely to). There is a Windows app that lets you organize into collections from the desktop, but it doesn’t show you which books still aren’t in a collection, so it’s of limited use.

One of the great features of the Kindle ecosystem is that you can download a sample—generally the first few chapters—for free from just about any book. These have the same formatting and whatnot as the full book, they’re just shorter. You see a little “sample” label next to the title to differentiate it, and there’s a “Buy this book” menu item when opening or reading the book. When you get to the end of the sample, there’s another link to buy the book immediately in the Kindle store, making it drop dead simple to buy the book if you enjoyed the sample.

Samples have another nifty feature. You can add them to collections. So for series I haven’t read yet, I’ll download all the samples of the books I don’t have, and put them in a collection. The reason I have over 200 books in my To Read collection is that I’ve bought a lot of ebooks over the years I never got around to reading. I suspect that if you’re enough of a book lover to read this far into this article, you know this phenomenon well. By using samples as stand ins, I can snag the samples for books I previously would have just bought, sort them into my library and move on with my life. If I actually get around to reading them, I don’t have to pay for them until I’ve already started reading. I expect to save a lot of money this way.

Maybe. I’ve also noticed that even using samples as placeholders, I’m buying a lot more books with the Kindle than I did even when I was buying from the Kindle store and reading on my iPhone. Let’s talk about ebook pricing. When Amazon started selling the Kindle, they sold just about every “Big Six” ebook at a loss. Their deal with the big New York publishers was to pay them half the hardcover price—with hardcovers retailing for $25-30 before discounts, that came to $12.50-15.00—and then sold the books to the consumer for a flat $9.99. As I alluded above, this was to anchor the price in the minds of their customers so that book prices overall would come down, as well as to sell a lot of Kindles.

Instead of lowering their prices, the publishers, in literary terms, threw a hissy fit. They pulled their books from Amazon entirely in some cases, and eventually renegotiated to what’s called the Agency Model. The publisher gets to set the price—something they can’t do with physical books, which are priced by the bookseller—and Amazon gets a straight 30% cut. This has led to some older books, the stuff you wouldn’t see on bookstore shelves at all anymore, priced around $7, while new bestsellers go for $13-25.

But there’s another piece to this puzzle. Amazon also allows individuals to publish their own books on the Kindle store right alongside books from the New York heavy hitters. And if you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99, you get the same 70% the big publishers do (35% otherwise). This has led to an interesting phenomenon. Indie authors are pricing their books below the traditionally published books, often at the minimum $2.99. And by making the book essentially an impulse buy—I almost never download samples of books cheaper than 3 bucks, preferring to just buy them outright instead—they’re more than making up the difference in sales price in volume. See Joe Konrath’s blog for the hard numbers, but the effect for readers is that there are lots of 4 and 5 star rated books available for the Kindle under 5 bucks. You may not be familiar with the authors, but you will be.

Another great use for the Kindle is reading the newspaper. Yes, the newspaper. It still exists, and it’s actually more convenient now that you can read it without getting ink on your fingers. The Kindle allows you to subscribe to periodicals—newspapers and magazines—for a reasonable monthly fee. I pay $6.99 a month to read the Denver Post on my Kindle, updated automatically every day. I pay $2.99 each for both Analog and Asimov’s, the two big SF magazines, a price I think is more than fair per issue, and it keeps me current on what’s going on in the field. I also pay a buck or two a month to reach each of a few must-read blogs (Konrath, above, Nathan Bransford, Lifehacker) now that I no longer pay any attention to Google Reader. I declared RSS bankruptcy months ago and now get my articles entirely from the the sources above and links from people I follow on Twitter. Those links get sent to Instapaper, which also sends a compilation of unread articles to my Kindle automatically every day. Periodicals are currently limited to the Kindle itself, but Amazon is working on supporting them via their other clients.

And sometimes you want to read when you can’t read. The Kindle has you covered there as well. Amazon bought Audible a couple years back, and the Kindle fully supports playback of Audible audiobooks. In fact, as an Audible subscriber since 2000, I was surprised to find that when I took my Kindle out of the box and turned it on for the first time, it not only had all the books I’d already purchased from the Kindle store available in my archived items, but it also had my more than 500 audiobooks from Audible queued up and ready to download.

If you don’t mind the narrator sounding like the people from the “Buying an iPhone 4” video, you can also have your Kindle format books read to you via the included speakers or headphones. The publisher has to allow this, and some don’t, considering it a violation of the audio rights, but for books that do allow it, it’s kind of a revelation. I’ve been waiting years for exactly this feature. To be reading a book at home, get up, get in the car and have the same book read to me while I drive, picking up where I left off, and then be able to continue reading on my own at my destination without having to find my place. Why did it take so long to do this?

Speaking of getting up and going, let’s talk portability. I mentioned earlier that I had postulated back in 2003 that the ideal ebook reader would be about the size of a DVD case. The Kindle is almost exactly the height of a DVD case, and both thinner and narrower. It’s so thin and light, in fact, that there is pretty much no stress at all in holding it for hours, and it fits nicely into the front pocket of my hoodie. I thought I would only use the Kindle at home at read on my iPhone or PCs elsewhere, but in fact I’ve taken to carrying my Kindle just about everywhere. The only time I read on my iPhone is when the lighting conditions make reading on the Kindle sub-optimal.

That said, I did purchase the lighted cover for a whopping $60. This is a nice leather hard cover reminiscent of a Moleskine notebook. It connects to the Kindle via two metal connectors which provide power from the Kindle for a pull out LED light. It works as advertised, but I tend not to use it for a few reasons:

  • It just about triples the size and weight of the Kindle, and makes it as awkward to hold as a real hardcover
  • The additional size is just enough to put it out of pocketability range, meaning I’d have to carry it by hand
  • The battery drain of powering the LED is noticeable, putting it in the same range as the iPhone 4, 6-10 hours of reading on a charge

By the way, the battery estimates you’ve seen elsewhere are accurate. Turn wireless off and you can get a month out of this thing between charges. This goes down quickly, though, if you:

  • Keep wireless on, necessary for Whispersync to work
  • Add a lot of new content to the Kindle, since it has to index each book for searching (yes, you can search your entire library all at once)
  • Power the lighted cover
  • Use the web browser, which requires a lot of data activity and screen redraws

Oddly, playing Audible or having the Kindle read to you in its robot voice uses very little power, especially with the screen turned off.

This version of the Kindle—the Kindle 3 even though it’s not actually called that—is what the Kindle should have been on day one. It’s precisely what it needs to be and nothing more. The right size, the right shape, the right finish on the screen. And if you step back and really look at it, you might even find it looks pretty familiar.