Can You Believe the Kindle is Ten Years Old?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The Kindle turns ten next month. My, how that little baby has grown!

When Amazon’s ereader first came out (November 19, 2007 to be exact), I sensed most people were skeptical about the future of digital reading. The Sony Reader had been around for years but failed to take hold. “Electronic books” were thought to be the coming thing around Y2K. Publishers Weekly even started a section to cover the subject, but later dropped it due to failure to launch.

Clearly, serious readers preferred paper. So the Kindle would probably sell to some early adopters, but likely would not revolutionize anything.

**clears throat**

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey gave the Kindle her endorsement. Talk about a boost! Then people began to realize they could have all the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky on a single device which they could take on a plane or a train or (in L.A. commuter traffic) an automobile. Pretty doggone cool!

And the biz mavens realized that Amazon was (as always, it seems) making a powerful and forward-thinking business move—selling the Kindle as a gateway to their massive bookstore.

Here at TKZ, we were analyzing all this from the start. On Kindle’s one-year anniversary our own Kathryn Lilley wrote:

I think it’s time for all of us to stop mourning the nongrowth of paper book sales, and celebrate the new digital age. It’s the future. Let’s embrace it. For example, last week when I posted, I was freaking out about the changes in the industry. This week, I have decided to reframe my thoughts about the book publishing crisis, and seek out the hidden opportunities in those changes.

Because ready or not, the digital era is here.

And what did all this mean for authors? Well, beginning in 2009 or so, it became apparent that Amazon was presenting a viable new way for writers to get published—by their own selves!

And get this: by offering authors an unheard of 70% royalty split!

The lit hit the fan.

A complete unknown named Amanda Hocking made a cool couple of million dollars publishing directly on Amazon!

This got the attention of many, including TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison, and a mainstream mystery author by the name of Joe Konrath who, via his blog, began to champion the new digital possibilities.

When I went to Bouchercon in San Francisco in October of 2010, everybody was wondering how to get in on the ebook thing without ticking off their agent or publisher. Agents (and I heard several) were warning writers not to “go there” for fear it would jeopardize their careers. Publishers were not at all sanguine about their authors moonlighting with a company they saw as their biggest threat. Some writers even got sued or terminated over this.

But the money was dropping off Kindle trees! That could not be ignored.

A funny thing happened at that Bouchercon. I was sitting with a couple of writer friends in the lobby of the SF Hyatt Regency, talking about all this, when Joe Konrath arrived and made his way to the bar area. He was flocked by fellow authors peppering him with questions.

The next day, at lunchtime, I was outside the Hyatt and spotted Mr. Konrath and one Barry Eisler walking and talking excitedly along the sidewalk. I thought, “What is that all about?”

A few months later I found out. Mr. Eisler, a New York Times bestselling thriller author, turned down half a million bucks from his publisher in order to publish with Amazon!

It was the talk of the industry. I saw it as a real tipping point. In fact, I gave it a name: “The Eisler Sanction.”

Self-publishing was getting serious.

I put my own toe in the E waters in February of 2011. Now I’m all wet.

So ten years after the birth of the Kindle, what have we seen?

1. Kindle devices and apps are awesome. I’m currently reading the two-volume memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, easily highlighting passages I want to review later. The General is bivouacked on my phone. Cost me 99¢.

2. While other ereaders have appeared—notably Nook and Kobo—the Kindle is dominant and unlikely to lose market share. The poor Nook, which is also a cool device, is hanging by a thread.

3. Kindle Direct Publishing has saved the careers of thousands of midlist writers, and created the careers of thousands more who are making good-to-massive lettuce every month. Those who are doing well have mastered some basic practices but also concentrate on the most important thing: quality and production.

4. The traditional publishing industry was hit hard by the digital disruption. There have been mergers, layoffs, shrinking profits and even a DOJ smackdown.

5. But the Forbidden City is still open for business. And while large-advance deals for debut authors are becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby, they still happen.

6. There has been chatter about the “comeback” of print books, but it appears that most of any increase in print sales can be traced to … Amazon. (And here’s a counterintuitive development: Millennials may actually prefer print books!)

7. Big bookstores took a huge hit due to e-commerce. The massive Borders chain of stores went down, followed by Family Christian. Barnes & Noble stores have been closing steadily for the last eight years, a trend that will likely continue.

8. However, local independent bookstores may be emerging through the cracks. Oh, and guess who else is opening up physical stores? Amazon.

9. On the other hand, many niche bookstores are closing. The latest is Seattle’s Mystery Bookshop.

10. We’ve reached a period of relative stasis in the “self v. trad wars.” From 2010 to 2014 or so, it seemed like we’d get blogosphere firestorms every week cheering for, or predicting the demise of, Big Pub. There was also a lot of “gold rush” talk on the indie side. Reality, as it is wont to do, has settled things down. There’s a lot of information out there now (e.g., Author Earnings reports) and the savvy players have a better handle on where they stand.

In an episode of Downton Abbey, when it became clear that the old ways of life were on the way out, never to return, Carson the butler mused, “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

Kindle brought the flux. And a decade later, we’re living it.

What do you say, TKZers? What are your reflections on the 10th birthday of the Kindle?

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35 thoughts on “Can You Believe the Kindle is Ten Years Old?

  1. When possible I buy epub versions from Smashwords or Kobo to read on my Android tablet. But not the Adobe-protected ones from Kobo. B&N Nook is my second choice. I have only a few books for the Kindle app on my tablet. I like to own my ebooks, not have them at the mercy of some big brother.

    For a lot of reading, paper books are superior. Much easier for flipping back and forth. I recently switched to a paper version of _The Brothers Karamazov_ for that reason. And layout is a problem for things like poetry or computer code, though Nook now has something called Page Perfect. I have Jim’s Plot & Structure in the Page Perfect format. It’s more like reading a pdf in that it gives exact page replication. But you don’t get the text flow that epub and Kindle have. It’s nice in portrait view on a 9×6 tablet. But not so great in landscape view. Just checked the Nook app on my iPhone and Plot & Structure doesn’t even show up there. Nor do a number of others, even though they’re not in the Page Perfect form.

    Trade-offs. Not perfect substitutes.

    • I like that Page Perfect idea, Eric.

      And yes, when you read a big book like The Brothers Karamazov (perhaps the greatest novel ever written!) you can indeed flip back to physical pages easier … and we have a mental picture of which side of the book the passage was on, and what relative position on the page.

      OTOH, a keyword search in an e format may work better sometimes.

      Like everything in life, plusses and minuses, and the deciding factor is preference.

  2. My first publication was with a digital first publisher, and this was years before the Kindle. People read on PDAs. I had an eBookWise and loved that I could read in bed with its back light and turn pages with a press of a button.

    Digital books got their start with Ellora’s Cave because women (or men) who read erotica preferred the privacy aspect of buying and reading without going to a bookstore.

    My first traditionally published book was with Five Star. When they remaindered it, Amazon had just released the Kindle and Konrath was touting it. I figured I had nothing to lose so I took my remaindered book to Amazon.

    And, little known fact, one that Konrath probably doesn’t remember, but at a conference (I think it was SleuthFest), I showed him my eBookWise and he was intrigued and said that was the way to go.

    I read digital and print. I’m an insomniac, so when I wake up at 2 am, I love having an ebook I can curl up with without waking my husband, and one where I can adjust font and brightness so I don’t need glasses. (I am a Nook person, BTW, because they were the first to come out with a back lit reader, and I’d become hooked with my eBookWise.)

    • I never knew about the eBookWise, Terry. Another example of how the free market operates, even when you have a nifty product.

      My first computer was a Kaypro. Man, I loved that machine. 64k of RAM, mind you. And portable! But then DOS replaced CP/M and the little beauty was doomed.

  3. I resisted getting a Kindle for several years. Now I’m on my second one and prefer eBooks. As you pointed out in your post, the ability to take a “library” with me while traveling is a plus.

    I never considered a Nook, although a friend tried to talk me into it. Amazon is where I shop the most, so it made sense to go with a Kindle. I do, however, offer my books in both Kindle and ePub formats.

    • My wife gave me a Kindle for Christmas, 2010 … my kids gave me a cover. I immediately started loading that puppy up with Jack London, Dickens, Twain. Then taking a plane trip where, for the first time ever, I did not take along a printed book. I did have to learn about keeping the battery charged, however.

  4. I love this, Jim. It reminds how hooked I was on print but now am addicted to my kindle. I love shopping at 3am. (Don’t ask) I also use it for a phase of my edits to make notes on typos or plot inconsistencies.

    I still buy print books for research. I prefer flipping pages & margin notes on important stuff.

    Another thing I love about ereaders is the changeable font. I bought a kindle for my mom (89 yrs old & going strong). She loves the font feature, backlighting, & the lightweight device. There are days when I’m bleary-eyed after a long day & I appreciate the flex of changing fonts too. Print books can be a strain to read with small print, even in trade. Some print books are now a challenge for me to read when publishers try to pinch pennies by squeezing too many words on a page.

    I’ve also learned more about indie publishing & promoting. It’s great that authors have many options to publish. You’ve been a great advocate of this for a long time.

    Have a good Sunday.

    • Right, Jordan. Font size and page color options are major plusses. I’ve been places without my reading glasses, and upping the font on my phone lets me read, instead of squinting at print.

  5. I’ll chime in with another plus for the Kindle and the related apps and devices. You don’t have to hold it to read. Osteoarthritis in both thumb joints made it impossible to hold a book, especially trying to hold back pages on a small paperback. With hardbound books I could at least lay them in my lap, until I needed reading glasses. Then they were too far away. I tried book stands and anything suggested. None worked well. Then came the Kindle and I’ve never looked back!

    I have since had surgery to replace the disintegrated cartilage in my thumbs and I can hold a book for short periods, short being the on going problem. Thus they will never replace my Kindle.

    However, as an author, I publish both print and digital. I have a few fans who prefer the print books and they are nice to give as gifts. After all, it’s good to have choices.

    • Good point about physically not having to hold the book. The other reason I like not having to hold my e-reader is I have to spend way too much time seated at a desk (work AND home) and sometimes I set the e-reader on the back of my recliner and stand while I read. It’s a nice break.

  6. I’ve been blind since I was five-years-old, and e-books are the only way I can read–unless I want to wait months for a single book to be brailled. I my first semester of college, I had an English who was so adamant about print books she would yell at people for having them on the computer. Once she started a discussion about it, and I had enough. ?Do you not want me to be able to read!? I yelled at her and didn’t let her speak. There are so many people who would not be able to read without e-books, and it makes me furious that someon would denounce them to my face.

    What hurts more, though, is that I love print books. I love holding them flipping through their pages, and walking through bookstores. I just can’t Fing read them.

  7. First, can you pretty please tell me the title of the 2-volume set you bought on Grant (i.e. is it simply his name or something else)? I LOVE reading that stuff.

    I came late to e-readers–didn’t get my first Kindle until the beginning of 2011. I was smitten from the moment I got it & that hasn’t changed.

    I can carry 700-800 books (at least) around with me wherever I go. That was a physically impossible feat prior to 2011. And that’s a freedom and empowerment I don’t ever want to let go. The other benefit I had not anticipated but am grateful for–my 50 something eyes can handle e-books better than print books these days. With the exception of some non-fiction that does not have graphs & charts well suited to e-reader format, e-readers save my life in the vision department.

    Another HUGE area where e-readers have helped me is in the area of textbooks. I want to be a permanent student but can’t afford the tuition. But you CAN either rent or buy both physical AND E-textbooks to keep studying in the areas you love.

    Also, up until roughly a year ago, you could find a TON of long out of print books for free on Kindle. The covers were nothing special and it was the book roughly formatted to e-reader and nothing else, but I downloaded a ton of free historical content that way, jumping up & down in glee the whole time just salivating over having so much history at my fingertips. I don’t see them as much any more (but in fairness life gets crazier & crazier so I’m not searching almost daily like I did in the early years).

    But there are still a ton of books available for from $0.99 up to a reasonable $5-6 (my arbitrary cap, nothing more). I’ll pay on the higher end for an awesome history book and have done so quite a bit.

    I still continue to be amazed at how high trad publishers keep the cost of fiction e-books.

  8. If I could take this topic one step forward with what I’d like to see improve (speaking in Kindle, since that’s all I know). I wish they would improve their highlighting feature.

    I read mostly non-fic, and I am a mega-highlighter (just as I am with print books). And I use different color highlights for different reasons within the e-text. I use the blue to highlight author names, book titles or websites that I want to go back and write down to follow up with later. I use pink for “HEY! REMEMBER THIS! VERY IMPORTANT!” And then I use the yellow and orange to highlight material I want to make general notes from. THAT’s the great news.

    The bad news is, let’s say I highlight something in blue. Then I read a few lines down & see something else I want to highlight in blue. You can’t highlight in blue again–it won’t let you select the same color. You have to highlight in the wrong color in order to be able to go back and highlight in the RIGHT color. That is a hassle.

    I also have not found a way to un-high if I accidentally do a section I didn’t mean to.

    And if I highlight a few words in one color and try to highlight the next immediate section in another color, it will only let you highlight in the color the prior section was in.

    In short, there are still things they could do to make reading/studying on Kindle a faster, more precise experience.

  9. My wife and I are both lifelong science fiction fans, and longed for what used to be a called a “cyber book” for many years. We almost bought Sony Readers, but waited for the price to drop. Then Amazon released the Kindle. We waited for another long year, and then in the fall of 2008, bought our first Kindle, and then a few months later, our second, so we could each have one. We’ve owned four generations of Kindles since then.

    I still love paper books, but reading on an e-ink display is so convenient. Best of all, books all weigh the same.

    Amazon and the Kindle made digital self-publishing possible-they opened up a marketplace to so many of us. I’m very grateful for that.

    While there’s lots of uncertainty about the future (after all, it is the future), I’m loving my Kindle and the opportunities it gives me, as a reader and a writer.

    • So many things we can look back on …

      …remember when there were no cell phones? Not that long ago.

      …or Google.

      I’ve got to remember to tell my grandchildren how I walked ten miles to school in the snow …

      • Sue Grafton keeps Kinsey in the ’80s. Probably takes a lot of work not to slip up with the technology. I would think placing a story in ’90s or 00’s you would have to research the technology almost to the month.

  10. “KIndle is just a young whippersnapper,” says Marilynn who has an ebook that will be 20 years old in a few months.

    Long before the Kindle, there was the Rocket and half a dozen other ebook-specific readers as well as the Palm Pilot.

    Long before there was self-publishing, there were small ebook publishers who braved the wrath of the big publishers and the traditionally puiblished authors and author organizations that threated them and their authors like sh*t. I have arrows scars in my back to prove it.

  11. It was fun reading all the comments and remembering the days before Kindle. I just want to say it’s quite appropriate that Kindle is celebrating it’s 10th birthday on my mom’s birthday. She died two years ago at 97. But, she was a huge Kindle fan. In her late 80’s and 90’s, when most older people are shying away from technology, my mom wanted a Kindle. I bought the first one for her, the first generation Kindle. She read on that one until the end of her life. Later, I bought her a Kindle Fire, thinking she’d like the features. But, she still preferred the old one. The touch screen was hard for her. Nonetheless she mastered it and ended up reading books on both. It was funny, months after she died, I book appeared on her Kindle. (Obviously she’d pre-ordered it). But, it was a bit eerie.

    Indeed, as many of the comments pointed out, Kindle is a great resource to people who can’t see as well, want to read in dark places, can’t hold books or want to carry around great bundles of books. Nothing beats the e-Reader.

    Nonetheless, my books are published as both e-Reader and print because I still have people wanting print. Not as many, but they are still out there. And, I love to have events and actually sign books. Still can’t do that with Kindle.

    Thanks for this reminder, Jim. I’ll be tweeting you…

  12. My children gave me a Kindle for Mother’s Day. I love it, though I don’t use it as much as I thought I would. I like to be outside and paperbacks are much better for getting caught in rainstorms (dry them out, replace if I like them, toss if I don’t).

    We were out of power for a week with Hurricane Irma. I was grateful for my paperbacks.

    For my day to day, I use the Overdrive app on my phone. I can get library books through that, both e-books and audio. I read faster than my budget allows.

    • Overdrive is terrific, Cynthia. I use it all the time.

      And I love my paperbacks. They are stuffed in bookcases all over the house and garage. I just can’t part with them! I know I should, I know it makes sense. I guess it’s like hanging on to those beloved buggy whips.

  13. I’ve had Kindles for years now, and love them. But I also love paper, especially for reference books. My worst experience with an e-book was with a reference Bible. I thought it would be great having a Bible at hand on my Kindle, but it was way too much of a hassle to look up passages or follow cross references. Fine to read as a novel, but otherwise I much prefer the paper version. I was visiting my daughter’s church once and the pastor was reading his sermon text and notes from his phone. He was a young man and probably trying to “relate” to his young congregation. But in the middle of his sermon, his phone battery died, and it stopped him dead in his tracks. I couldn’t resist – I was in the front row and got up and handed him my Bible, and said, “Here, I think this one still works.”

    • Great story, Dave. The pastor could have riffed a sermon illustration based on Psalm 38:10: My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes.

  14. It was in 2012 and I went shopping with my roommate at Best Buy. She wanted a Kindle. I was not interested in Kindle at all, but I had just received some back pay and wanted to buy a TV. The Kindles were on display and I went over to look at them out of curiosity and to kill some time. When I saw how many books they would hold and how I could adjust the font, I fell in love. I bought the Kindle Touch that day and I am still using it. I have almost the maximum 1300 book capacity right now. I think I need a 12-step program for Kindle. Whenever I see a discounted book that sounds good, I will buy it. Oh, look, this will never be this price again! (Of course, it will, but this is me justifying the download). I rarely read print anymore due to my failing eyesight.

  15. I do most of my reading on the Kindle app, but I’d love to have a Kindle device (need to ask Santa this year). As others have mentioned, you can’t beat the lit background. With the boon of e-books came the ability to buy more books due to price. Our TBR pile is never-ending, but that’s a good thing. The only real issue of the digital era is pirating. Never has it been easier to steal an author’s work.

  16. I received my Nook as a Christmas gift many years ago. I love it but find book availability not as good as Kindle.
    I think I’ll drop “hints” this Christmas for a Kindle update….
    However, I must have hard copy books and I love browsing book stores.
    Hopefully everything will co-exist!

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