Amazon’s Jeff Bezos actually *gets* books and their value
I’ve been quite enthusiastic about the Kindle and the e-reading revolution ever since buying a Kindle DX last year. I’ve also been pleased at the way Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos continues to say things that demonstrate his authentic commitment to positioning the Kindle as a device that doesn’t destroy the reading experience but instead preserves what’s most valuable about it.
Case in point: In connection with yesterday’s release of the most affordable Kindle yet, Bezos spoke to USA Today this morning about the stunning growth of the e-book market. And what he said indicates that both his head and his heart are in the right place regarding books and reading and their translation into a new digital environment:
USA TODAY: Why not add multimedia to e-books?
JEFF BEZOS: You want to enter the author’s world, the great novel or engaging non-fiction narrative. In the case of a physical book, you’re not noticing the stitching and the glue and the paper and the ink. That all disappears. We’re always trying to make Kindle get out of the way.
If it’s a book about music history, having music people can play at certain points in the book can be useful. Maybe biology textbooks can benefit from certain animations. You’re not going to make Hemingway better by adding animations.
— “Volume of Kindle book sales stuns Amazon’s Jeff Bezos,” USA Today, July 29, 2010
To which I reply: Yes! And not just because I agree passionately with the idea Bezos is advancing, but because I’ve actually experienced that disappearing of the physical technology and absorption into the author’s world that Bezos describes and the Kindle successfully accomplishes. Books have always done this. It’s their signature magical power. I well remember Stephen King describing his own experience of test driving a Kindle a couple of years ago, before I bought mine. He specifically highlighted the aspect of the experience that we’re talking about here:
Will Kindles replace books? No. And not just because books furnish a room, either. There’s a permanence to books that underlines the importance of the ideas and the stories we find inside them; books solidify an otherwise fragile medium.
But can a Kindle enrich any reader’s life? My own experience — so far limited to 1.5 books, I’ll admit — suggests that it can. For a while I was very aware that I was looking at a screen and bopping a button instead of turning pages. Then the story simply swallowed me, as the good ones always do. I wasn’t thinking about my Kindle anymore; I was rooting for someone to stop the evil Lady Powerstock. It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
— “Stephen King: Books with Batteries — Why Not?“, Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 2008
And now, of course, the necessary disclaimers or caveats: Yes, I’m aware of the problems involved with Amazon’s insistence on using their proprietary, DRM-protected .azw e-book format instead of something that’s cross-usable like e-pub. Yes, I’m aware of the financial problems they’ve caused for book publishers by pricing most e-books at $9.99. Yes, I’m aware of the valid concerns about their odd new semi-incarnation not just as a bookstore but as a by-God publisher or publishing adjunct, which seriously muddies the waters of the publishing world, and especially the part having to do with the role, status, and ultimate fate of authors. Scott Turow, who’s currently serving as president of the Authors Guild, talked to NPR two days ago about Amazon’s shocking new deal with the Wylie Agency. He called Amazon the “behemoth” behind the current turmoil in the publishing world, and identified them as the entity that really needs to get sand kicked in its face instead of the authors whom he says are suffering.
So all of this is duly noted. But nevertheless, I think a long-term e-book revolution is clearly inevitable — barring, that is, a (semi-possible) return to pre-industrial technological conditions within the next century or so — and so it’s great to know that a behemoth like Amazon is helmed by somebody who actually respects and loves reading in itself, and disdains the possible corruption and devolution of the printed word into a mere adjunct to whiz-bang digital videos and music and such.
Image credit: aamazon_0622, used under Creative Commons from TimYang.net