Amazon Just Made Ads in Books Work – Whether We Like it or Not

So I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that this year, Amazon will release a standard Kindle for $99 or less, making the prospect of buying a device like an e-reader that much more palatable (and possible) for ebook readers. What I didn’t really think about – but Amazon’s announcements overnight made clear – is that for the first time we’re going to see ad-supported Kindles hit the mainstream and make the awkward marriage between advertising and book reading an inescapable reality.

Amazon has been hawking its “Kindle With Special Offers” for nigh on six months now, so the ad-supported model is not something new. Many people complained, when they launched the new line, that the ad-supported Kindle wasn’t worth the $30 saving and made cheap and nasty the very idea of a book. I argued both.

The ad-supported Kindle has been selling relatively well, by all reports, but not shockingly well. This morning Amazon announced four new Kindle models (actually only three): the Kindle Fire (a tablet for $US199), the Kindle Touch with 3G ($149), the Kindle Touch ($99) and an updated standard Kindle ($79). Holy crap, that’s $79.

But the reported price points are all for the ad-supported version of the Kindle:

All three new Kindle e-readers also come with special offers and sponsored screensavers that appear when you’re not reading. Customers enjoy special money-saving offers delivered wirelessly sponsored by AT&T, the Dove beauty brand and Rewards Visa Card by Chase.

There will be an option to pay more for no ads, but it’ll cost $30. Ask yourself whether you’re willing to pay $30 to remove ads from your book. Then remind yourself that you’re reading a blog dedicated to ebook reading that you probably came across on Twitter. Then pretend you’re an ordinary consumer, the kind of person Amazon has always appealed to. The kind of consumer who feels like Amazon is doing them a solid when they undercut all the competition and sell books for less than what they’re worth.

The new line of Kindles is the first time that a brand new shiny has been released that will cost you more to buy if you don’t want ads. The previous ad-supported models were released mid-cycle (a very clever move in hindsight). Nothing about those “Kindle with Special Offers” was new, and so it was easy to ignore what was happening. But these new Kindles are. And Amazon’s customers are very price conscious. Are they going to be bothered by a few screensaver ads if it means they can get a $30 saving? And when Amazon have a couple of hundred million devices floating out there with the in-built ability to display advertising – what do you think those ads will be worth?

They’ll certainly be worth a lot to publishers. Publishers have always wanted an avenue to advertise books that specifically reached book readers. They’ve paid millions in dollars in co-op payments to Amazon and many other stores to promote their books at the front of store (or on the front page of a web store). How much do you think they’ll pay to have (virtually) every Kindle reader in the world looking at the cover of a book they’re selling?

As I said in the headline, Amazon just made ads work in books, whether we like it or not.

The Many Faces of the Kindle

So Amazon have finally started officially letting word out about their new tablet. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has used one himself, and TechCrunch put together the mock-up above to demonstrate how it looks. The tablet will be called a ‘Kindle’ – not a Kindle Pad, or a Kindle Slate or any of the other variations thrown around. I can’t decide if that’s a good move or not – capitalising on the branding/cachet of saying you own a Kindle whilst risking confusion about what a Kindle actually is. Either way, this new Kindle is going to be focused squarely at the book reading market, which is a good thing for all digital readers.

As you can see from the mock-up above the new Kindle will be focused on the content, providing a carousel / CoverFlow like interface that puts the stuff you own on the device, rather than the device itself, at the forefront of the experience. This is quite different to the iPad, and to other Android-based tablets, and I’m sure that’s deliberate. Amazon isn’t shy about owning their own ecosystem through and through, and that’s almost certainly why they’ve been so successful with it. They’ll be using their own Amazon-branded app store, which they launched for Android-based devices at the end of last year. Even the flavour of Android they’re using on the Kindle is completely different to the one used on smartphones and other Android tablets, and apparently there isn’t a Google app to be seen anywhere on the device (Google is responsible for the lion’s share of the development of Android – and releases it for free as open-source to the developer community, which means it can be easily changed by vendors like Amazon to suit their purposes).

So, on to the details. The new Kindle will be 7″ (somewhere between an iPhone and an iPad – and the same size as the original Galaxy Tab by Samsung). It will only have WiFi – no 3G. It looks like it doesn’t include a camera of any sort. But here’s the kicker – it’ll be $250. That’s half the price of the entry-level iPad, and a good hundred bucks cheaper than the cheapest Android tablets. Granted, it’s not going to be as useful as an iPad, but this is going to seriously complicate how I answer the “Should I get an iPad or Kindle?” question.

So what do you think? Will you be tempted to get a new Kindle? Is this something that would lure you away from e-ink? Or is this device just falling between the cracks of usefulness – a big phone without 3G mobile data that isn’t as easy to read on as an e-ink reader? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

BookLamp’s Book Genome Project

So this is an awesome little project I’ve only just heard of. Hands up if you’ve heard of Pandora, the music recommendation engine? If you haven’t and you live in Australia, then you probably can’t use it. Unless you decide to spoof your IP address to get access to it. Either way, Pandora’s Music Genome Project has delighted many for the past few years by predicting the kinds of music you will like based on the music you already enjoy. This sounds pretty standard for anyone used to using Apple’s Genius playlists on iTunes or (or many other similar services). Where Pandora is different is that it uses computers (and people) to analyse the content of music for themes, pitch, tonality and a long list of other features to compile the ‘genome’ of a particular song, artist or album. Similar music recommendation services use an algorithm based on what other people like to recommend new stuff to you. Pandora uses an algorithm to create an on-the-fly radio station of songs similar to what you’re after based on what they actually contain (and not the ephemeral tastes of other people). If you haven’t tried it, trust me – it’s awesome.

BookLamp and the Book Genome Project are now doing essentially the same thing for books. Perhaps this sounds like a Skynet-style artificial intelligent takeover of our book-recommendation habits. That’s probably because it TOTALLY IS:

The key focus of the Book Genome Project is to use computer intelligence to extract and quantify, on a scene-by-scene basis, useful information about these key elements of books. Consequently, we created a “gene structure” for each of the three primary elements that we analyze.

The genomic analogy is imperfect but useful nevertheless: we defined the three elements of Language, Story, and Character as the literary equivalent of DNA and RNA classifications. Each gene category contains its own subset of measurements specific to its branch of the book genome structure.

Language DNA, for example, is made up of components that we call Pacing, Perspective, Description, Density, Motion, and Dialog, and each of these is an amalgamation of alleles which capture the expressions of different aspects of linguistic style.

They are using alleles. I mean, what is that even? Do you know? I don’t. I dropped science classes in Year 10.

At any rate, BookLamp has launched its consumer facing website and will soon be taking books on from publishers to add to their database. It’s not very big at the moment, and that affects the variety of books it can recommend (and the ultimate usefulness of the service), but when it gets up and running there’s no telling how good this engine will get. The best thing about it, from my perspective, is that it gets us out from under the yoke of customer-based recommendation engines like Amazon’s. Amazon’s service is great, but as I’ve written about before, it isn’t necessarily without bias.

What do you think of BookLamp’s offering? Will you be sticking to good old word-of-mouth, or will you give it a go? Sound off in the comments.

The Revolution Will Be Digitised

Some rights reserved by Todd Berman


As Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, has noted in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, ‘software is eating the world’. Hewlett-Packard, a PC maker, is considering dropping its hardware business to invest more heavily in software. Google, a software company, has bought up Motorola’s mobile division. Dominant music, video and book companies are now software companies (or their influence is based on software technology): Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora and many others. As Andreessen says:

Over two billion people now use the broadband Internet, up from perhaps 50 million a decade ago … In the next 10 years, I expect at least five billion people worldwide to own smartphones, giving every individual with such a phone instant access to the full power of the Internet, every moment of every day.

Try to imagine the ten years after that. There will come a time, not too far away, when almost everyone on the planet has access to the internet from the palm of their hand. Try to imagine how that might influence our cultural consumption. There has never been a more important time to get our literary heritage digitised. Paper book apologists are thick on the ground these days, and I can see why. Paper books are a great technology. But if we want to save books as a mainstream cultural artefact – what’s in them, not the paper they’re printed on – we need to get serious about making them available to future readers. The problem isn’t that paper books might not survive the coming transition – it’s that the content in books of any kind might not be able to compete with social networks, viral videos and whatever media is created in the future to service the needs of audiences. To survive, books need to be just as accessible.

Those of us who care about books need to get passionate about digital books, because the companies that are making books available now are not. Amazon – the world’s biggest bookseller – could have sold anything. Apple uses content to sell devices and perpetuate their platform. Google feeds off information – but it doesn’t have to be book-based. It’s clear that the passion for the book has to come from us – readers, writers, editors, publishers, agents and booksellers. If we don’t make it a priority, if we don’t passionately embrace the future of the book, then it will disappear or be marginalised through sheer disinterest. And none of us want that to happen.