Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (4 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
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Bookmark: Annotations

I don’t annotate my books. Personally, I think that defiles the printed page. But I know that some people see annotations as a cherished way of life, a way of reconnecting with themselves as they were across the span of years. These people can look at their books and see what they highlighted years earlier with their pencils or fluorescent markers.

All e-readers let you annotate to your heart’s content. You can underline whatever you want, and your annotations and highlights will, of course, follow you from device to device. That is, assuming you buy devices from the same manufacturer.

I think Amazon will support its own ecosystem for handling annotations, as will Sony. But there’s no interoperability yet for annotations among different devices, and there may never be. For the next ten years, your annotations will probably be tied to your choice of ebook retailer. Once you choose a retailer, you’re going to be more likely to stick with it, because you’re going to want your annotations, highlights, and all the books that you already purchased to follow you around as part of your ongoing library.

But what happens decades from now if people want to see what you wrote in your books—perhaps because of scholarly, archival, or genealogical interests? If you’re not around anymore, or your account with Amazon or Apple is closed, your annotations will be gone.

That’s sad, because annotations add lasting value in helping to understand a person’s path through life. One of my favorite books is a very dense volume called
, which was written in 1927 about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s mental life. Its author, John Livingston Lowes, analyzed all the books that were in Coleridge’s library and books he borrowed from friends, as well as annotations he made in those books and in his journals, and pieced together how Coleridge came up with every word in every line in just one of his poems. The 600-page book attempts to explain exactly how his imagination worked for that one particular poem. That kind of literary detective work simply wouldn’t be possible without annotations left behind by the original author.

No one I know is planning an archive service for annotations. It’s a potential startup opportunity, although a very niche one. Perhaps such a startup will preserve all our ephemeral electronic annotations for posterity. While the current crop of e-readers offers the ability to add annotations, those notes are often a lot more free-form and messier than text entries on a printed page.

For instance, my mom’s cookbook is stained a hundred hues of saffron and turmeric. It’s speckled with tomato paste from numerous attempts to make pasta sauce and splattered with bits of molten butter from exploding Yorkshire puddings. Every page in the cookbook is a food-encrusted testament to meals we once had.

No ebook can capture the history of so many Thanksgivings and Sunday brunches like my mom’s cookbook can. It’s like a combination of a scratch-and-sniff book and a time machine. The food stains themselves are palpable annotations of former meals, and I’ve got to tell you, I still use a print cookbook for my own cooking. It’s better to have cookie batter on your cookbook than on your iPad.

Other annotations are more wordlike, but they capture you as you once were. On my writing desk I have a Wolf Scout book I used as a kid, from the time I was eight years old. It has a list of activities inside it, such as “List the ways you can save water” or “Name four kinds of books that interest you.” Free-form fields follow each activity, filled with the answers in my own handwriting. Below the form, you can see my mother’s signature and the date. So not only do I know to the day when I first learned to tie an overhand knot or put a Band-Aid on my finger, or learned to use a pair of pliers or notify the police of subversive Communist activity in the neighborhood (I grew up at the end of the Cold War after all), but I also have annotations of most of these events in my own handwriting.

My handwriting in the book is labored, cursive, and bold; graphologists could look at my annotations and perhaps learn something about me. But they’d never learn anything beyond the factual from a sterile ebook annotation. There are paint splatters in this old Scout book, mud smudges, and decals from a Pinewood Derby racer that I built with my dad. How could they possibly fit inside an ebook, unless future e-readers allow you to insert photos inside them? (Let it be known that I never did get my merit badge in spotting Communists.)

Is there a viable future for annotations? Perhaps. I see a glimpse of it in a recently launched web service called ReadSocial. This web-based system lets readers not only annotate a given ebook, but also comment on one another’s annotations. Best of all, it works for a variety of different ebook formats, and it’s as easy to use as logging on to Twitter or Facebook.

By working across multiple ebook vendors and being brand neutral, ReadSocial (or one of its competitors) has the potential to become the de facto annotation engine for ebooks. Such a service may not preserve decals from my Pinewood Derby race car or smells from my mom’s cookbook or, for that matter, annotations from any print book, but it may pave the way toward creating compelling conversations in the margins of ebooks.

And after all, isn’t that what we’re looking for? To find a kindred spirit in the pages of a book—the voice of the author or perhaps another reader—to carry on a conversation with? In this spirit, why not connect with others right now? Click on this link to meet a kindred book lover through the conversation about this chapter online.


Launching the Kindle

Working at Amazon was like taking a step back in time to Seattle’s pioneer roots, back when Seattle was the gateway to the Yukon gold rush. Working on Kindle was like living in the Wild West.

For projects that broke new ground, like Kindle, there didn’t seem to be any law, any sheriff, or any real consequences for making wrong decisions, because nobody knew the right ones. People seemed to wear their six-shooters out in the open, taking potshots at one another while hiding behind Donkey Kong machines. When vice presidents argued in the hallways, trigger fingers twitching, I could almost imagine a tumbleweed blowing between them.

It was also impossible to tell reality from fiction. No outsiders had seen the Kindle because it was created in a perfect vacuum from the very beginning. Everyone was trying to do the right thing, and no ideas were off the table. Nothing was too strange to consider. People who thought fast often got their way and ruled the day. It was an early Wild West of ideas and innovation. It was crazy and anarchic, and I liked it.

» » »

Download a copy of
by Neal Stephenson. It’s the book that all of Kindle’s hardware code names came from. The book is about a character named Fiona and her “illustrated primer,” a machine designed to look like a book but with links to all libraries, all TV shows, and all human knowledge. (Jeff originally wanted the Kindle code names to come from
, since he’s such a Trekkie, but more literate minds prevailed.) The book is a treasure trove of other code names for Kindle hardware: Nell, Miranda, and Turing.

So the first time I got a Kindle, it wasn’t called a Kindle but a “Fiona.”

Though primitive by today’s standards, my original Kindle—one of the first Fionas made for select Amazon employees—still works like a charm. True, my Fiona is turning the yellow-gray color of smokers’ teeth, the same way that once white yesteryear computers start to turn an upsetting beige. But it still works, even though it’s been manhandled and chucked many times into my backpack, tossed into many suitcases for trans-Atlantic flights, and left on my truck’s dashboard in the sun for months. And once while walking through Cupertino, California—a city where everyone drives—I got hit by a car while crossing the street, because nobody expects pedestrians in the heart of Silicon Valley. I fell and sprained my arm. But even though my Fiona clattered to the street and got run over by one of the car’s wheels, it still works as great as always.

Needless to say, I love my Kindle.

My original Kindle job had me creating and managing the ebook conversion process—the messy method by which print books are turned into digital ones.

When thinking about how ebooks are created, it’s best to envision a sausage factory. Meat comes in one end, machinery packages it, and sausage comes out the other end. At the ebook factory, you start in the front with books from publishers. They’re chopped up, reassembled and packaged, and finally made available for sale in digital form.

Most ebooks are created using a digital copy of the physical book, usually in PDF format. PDF files have a fixed layout, which means they’re formatted in the way they’re supposed to appear on a printed page. However, ebooks need to be reflowable, which means that if you change the font size on the ebook, the words and sentences and paragraphs should be reformatted so that the words wrap around properly in the paragraph. You can’t do this well with PDFs.

To make a PDF into a reflowable ebook, publishers usually use a conversion house. Such companies, in turn, use a combination of software and workers overseas. Many of the conversion houses use people in India or China, or sometimes more exotic places like Sierra Leone or Madagascar or the Philippines. They usually work in a large warehouse or an old factory, with cubicles running from one end of the factory to the other on multiple floors.

Elbow to elbow, the workers stare at words on the screen all day, reading ebooks. They remove page numbers, reformat the ebooks to make them reflowable, and skim through them afterward to make sure no paragraphs or illustrations from the originals were lost during the process.

But not all books are in PDF format; some only exist in print. More brutal methods are often needed to digitize such books. As part of my job, I got to watch as workers destroyed print books to turn them into ebooks. Pages had to be removed from books so they could be scanned and digitized. As a book lover, I was horrified. To remove the pages of the book, workers would hack the spines off with knives like they were whacking their way through the jungle with machetes. Once their content was scanned, those pages would be tossed into a Dumpster at the end of every shift.

It was destructive, and the books could never be recovered afterward. The ebook revolution was bloodless, in the sense that there were no human casualties. But if books could bleed, you’d find their graveyards overseas. You’d find burial pits, unmarked graves, and hundreds of thousands of casualties.

But all this was needed to launch the Kindle; we couldn’t just launch a hardware product without any ebooks to read. Without ebooks, the Fiona device would have been just an expensive paperweight.

You see, we needed both the ebooks and the hardware for the Kindle flywheel.

Many people in dot-com and tech companies think in terms of “flywheels,” but most nontechnical people don’t know what that means. It probably sounds like lots of flies strung up to a mill wheel, slowly turning it to crush wheat into flour.

In tech terms, a
is something that builds up energy as it spins. The goal is to get it spinning faster and faster, however you can. The faster it spins, the more energy you have (or in business terms, the more money you have). The Kindle flywheel, for example, might start with launching an e-reader into the marketplace with a small number of ebooks. People buy the device, and then they use it to buy ebooks. The profit from both can be used to build an improved e-reader, which can be sold more cheaply, which then means more people will buy it and consequently buy more ebooks, the profits of which can then go back into building even better, even cheaper Kindles. With every push the flywheel gets, the faster it spins and the more powerful it becomes.

The Kindle flywheel started spinning fast as the Kindle business grew. And in true Amazon tradition, the business was run with metrics, with meetings called “deep dives” where the team would dive into spreadsheets. Amazon is a highly numerate culture. The numerically literate seemed to do well there, because they could mentally pivot rows and columns of spreadsheets and crunch numbers on the fly.

During a deep dive, you let go of preconceived notions and think logically. You look at data—instead of doing a technical hand-wave, you speak to the specifics. In Amazon’s deep-dive culture, facts are preferred to opinions. Deep dives are like science experiments, and you approach them with a hypothesis you want to prove. If your hypothesis is disproven, then you come up with a new hypothesis, run tests to gather data, and analyze data to prove or disprove the new hypothesis.

Most of the engineers at Amazon dreaded these deep dives because they had to put on something formal, like a button-up shirt and a pair of jeans with a belt. Amazon isn’t a formal place: a J. Crew shirt and Dockers are as formal as it gets. But still, for engineers, even wearing these is an affront against nature, a blasphemous abomination out of a Dungeons & Dragons game or an accursed H. P. Lovecraft story.

In one of my first meetings with Jeff Bezos, we were doing a deep dive on ebook content and what it looked like on the Kindle. We sat and used our Kindles as customers might. In some ways this was like the first digital book club; we were mostly silent, just reading on our Kindles. Sometimes we would annotate content or buy a new book—anything to test all the features.

At one point, Jeff’s Kindle must have crashed, because it became unresponsive. The room had been silent for a while because we were all absorbed in our books. Then out of nowhere, Jeff exclaimed: “I’m hung! I’m hung!” I looked up with a surprised grin on my face, but Jeff was unaware of his double entendre.

All the others in the room were actively trying to stifle their laughs. There was a little bit of hero worship at Amazon. Now, I admire anyone who runs a bookstore, so I can’t help but admire Jeff Bezos. Not only does he run the world’s biggest bookstore, but heck, he has his own rocketship company too. But some of my colleagues took admiration to a whole new level.

I don’t think anyone at Amazon deliberately shaved their heads bald to look like him, but people would be in a Jeff meeting and come out afterward and rave about Jeff’s stories, how he laughed, or a savage insight he had. People would find out about the books he was reading and read them too. (During the Kindle years,
Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
was popular among the Jeffnosanti, although a book he read on the history of tungsten was slightly less popular.) People routinely lionized Jeff for how much money he had and his high IQ. So they certainly did not want to look like they were laughing at him or criticizing his ideas.

Let’s face it: we all contributed to Kindle, but Jeff was the visionary, and digital books will be his legacy. True, there were other digital book pioneers. Heck, I was one of them. I made the first modern ebook in 1999, and I invented my fair share of Kindle features. And I wasn’t alone; we all invented Kindle in our own ways. None of us who toiled in the Kindle workshops were flunkies. We were all colorful characters, innovators, and pioneers.

But only Jeff had the vision and the millions of dollars in seed capital to start Kindle. And trust me, it took a lot of capital, considering the salaries and stock grants for the employees the first few years, as well as all the R&D and acquisitions and startups he had to fund. Jeff not only saw the dream; he also made sure the dream happened, at great financial risk.

So as difficult as our challenges could be, life at Amazon felt like we were creating something revolutionary, and we had the financial means to do it. We were like techie versions of the early workers who toiled in Gutenberg’s workshop.

Life in the Kindle offices in those early days was like working in an alternate, over-caffeinated, sugar-high universe. And I loved it. The offices were loud, with the sounds of BlackBerries and pagers going off. The building shook every ten minutes as a streetcar rumbled past, and the hum of a microwave melting someone’s leftover Indian dinner filled the air at lunchtime. Inevitably the cries of an engineer shouting at the top of his lungs would emerge from a conference room, along with the pounding of his fists against the whiteboard walls.

In the kitchen you would find occasional stacks of Top Pot donuts, local Seattle fritters that tasted like they’d been deep-fried in nothing but pure sugar, cocaine, and aspirin. You’d also find the remains of catered breakfasts or lunches that senior management would put out in a kitchen for anyone else to have when they were done eating, like lords of the manor throwing their serfs an occasional bone to nibble on.

Like most technology companies, Kindle had lots of beer, usually on Friday afternoons. People would often bring in six-packs, open them near someone’s desk, and stand around and talk at the end of a long day. Some crazy conversation would emerge, full of crazy, hypothetical what-ifs like: “If you could suspend a killer whale from a rope and suspend a tiger from a rope and let them attack each other, who would win?”

“Decoration” was hardly the word for what you’d see in the warren of cubicles we inhabited. If you walked among them, you would find Amazon-issued Magic 8 Balls, humming computers, Kindles connected to power cables, teetering printouts of architecture diagrams or spreadsheets, posters from
on how to spot Cylons, tipsy engineers still arguing about whether the killer whale would get the tiger, discarded Kindle boxes being used to prop up Foosball tables, and an arcade-style, fully functioning Donkey Kong game I could never beat.

Amazon was, in short, a bit of a sloppy Seattle dot-com—but one with billion-dollar revenues and razor-thin profit margins. Those thin margins meant that we had to stay focused on launching Kindle, without distraction.

» » »

Secrecy was important in the early days of Kindle. We weren’t allowed to take our Kindles home or show them to our families or get caught using them in public, out of fear that someone outside of Amazon would see the Kindle and leak information to blogs or newspapers.

But with this secrecy came a great feeling of pride and privilege. I felt like one of the first people to use an iPod, years before anyone else even knew it existed. The Kindle was a secret I couldn’t share with anyone, not even my family!

Until the Kindle launched, the only other place on the planet that knew about it was Lab126 in Cupertino, California, where the Kindle hardware was designed.

In the very early days of Kindle, when its eInk screen was just a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye, Amazon was smart enough to realize it had never done manufacturing before. It was great at website sales, but it had no expertise in making hardware. Jeff decided it would be best to spin up a new organization solely responsible for this.

The name Lab126 came from a technical kind of pun. Amazon already had its “A to Z” development center in Palo Alto, which developed technologies like the A9 search engine that Amazon uses. Jeff wanted Lab126 to be a research facility—hence the “Lab” part of its name.

As for the “126” part, well, you have to realize that there was never a Lab125 or a Lab124, just like there was only ever a Preparation H, never a G or an F. The “126” part stems from the fact that “A” is the first letter of the alphabet and “Z” is the 26th, a techno-geeky homage to the “A to Z” development center. Jeff liked his geeky in-jokes—you could have heard his laugh a mile away when they came up with that name.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
3.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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