Jeff Bezos Discusses the Kindle at Book Expo America 2008
Speech by Jeff Bezos as transcribed by Shel Horowitz, Editor, Down to Business Magazine, May 31, 2008 (parentheses are paraphrases, rather than his exact language) [square brackets are my comments]. The Long Tail refers to the concept that tiny niche markets that could not be supported by traditional physical bookstores can be well-served by online retailers that can access any book in print.
One nice thing about e-books: they never go out of stock.
We have one customer who has bought 1076 Kindle books so far.
The essential element of the book is that the book disappears. You aren’t thinking about the glue, the paper. It’s hard to do that with electronic books. Gutenberg if reincarnated today would more-or-less recognize a physical book and know what to do with it. He would be astonished by the printing technology, but he’d recognize the book.
Anything that lasts 500 years is not easily improved upon. The first step is to capture the essentialness, why has it been so useful and so loved for so many centuries. I think it’s the ability to disappear and get out of the way.
Light weight:10.3 ounces.
Eye strain: it is completely unlike any other kind of screen you’ve encountered. [editor’s note: While much improved over previous screen-reading experiences, I still found it taxing on my eyes.]
They have to be usable in sunlight, they have to have long battery life, low power. A laptop will get warm, it’s uncomfortable, you can’t curl up in bed.
The device can’t beep at you. I had a microwave that I called a ‘self-important device’—it would beep until I opened the door.
Books are so good, you can’t out-book the book, can’t clone it. Figure out what you can do with the new technology that you can’t do with a book:
1. A big dictionary. Print version weighs 8 pounds. It’s resident on the Kindle. I used to guess the meaning from context, and Kindle has taught me my vocabulary isn’t as good as I thought.
You can write margin notes, underline, and they’re stored on the server side. In a physical book, retrieval isn’t easy. I can rarely go back and find a particular note. On Kindle, you can never lose them, and you can search a keyword.
You can change font sizes. I read on the treadmill and it’s nice to increase the font size.
The whopper—you can think of a book, and sixty seconds later, have that book. It’s the fastest wireless radio in the U.S. We hide the complexity of the cellular network and business relationship from the customer. We bundle the download costs into the content. You do your shopping directly from the store (resident on the device).
Not just books: newspapers, magazines, blogs—and the subscriptions are automatically delivered overnight.
You can e-mail yourself personal documents; every Kindle comes with an e-mail address.
Reader comments: “Gutenberg cubed.”
“Up there with Haagen-Dasz and sex.”
Stephen King: “It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Kindle sold out the first day; we scrambled for five months to get back in stock. Now it’s in stock.
Price cut to $359 (from $399).
Why are readers excited? Readers love to read. Anything that makes reading easier. It brings blackberry-type convenience to readers (readers report buying and reading more books).
After purchasing Kindle, customers continue to buy the same number of physical books, but their overall book purchases increase by a factor of 2.6. (In other words, Kindle is not cannibalizing print sales.) We’ve been selling physical books for 14 years, and in six months, we already have six percent in Kindle sales.
We had 90,000 titles at launch, 125,000 titles now, including most of the New York Times best sellers. Our vision is to have any book in any language ever in print
We’re very missionary about this, and it’s also a lot of fun.
Publishers wanting to convert to kindle can visit http://amazon.com/
Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, author of The Long Tail, joined the conversation, interviewing Bezos.
CA: what it will take to get most of the 4,000,000 books into Kindle?
JB: It takes time. It could take 10 years. You have to solve the problem of what if the rights are not clear. What if the e-book sales will not be sufficient to justify the conversion cost? There are economic and legal issues. You have to slowly but surely work through all these things. The new books—we’ll be able to get those very rapidly. But as we go further into the long tail—the founding premise of Amazon—we raised $1,000,000 from 22 investors, it took 60 meetings. The more you knew about the book industry in 1995, the less likely you were to invest. They didn’t believe in this idea of the long tail. We were gong to differentiate ourselves by making it easy to find those hard-to-find books. If we’re patient, we can do the same thing with electronic books, and they’ll be so much better (in the future).
Some have been digitized in a haphazard way and can’t be OCRd [converted to editable text via Optical Character Recognition]. The practical nuts-and-bolts issues—if you’re a small publisher, it’s very manageable. But if you have tens of thousands in your backlists, there are costs. And maybe the rights are tied up in estate issues.
It’s OK for there to be holes; what’s important is the vision, and every day, every month, every year, making progress.
CA: How many by next year?
JB: I won’t be happy unless we have 20,000,000—but I’m hard to make happy. I’m very happy with Simon & Schuster’s commitment: 5,000 titles by the end of the year. That’s the kind of effort it’s going to take.
We’re seeing faster adoption among smaller publishers. It’s a more human-scale problem if you have fewer titles.
CA: You’ve caused a revolution in the book industry. How does this change the nature of reading, of writing, of the relationship between writer and reader? Do people write for the Kindle?
JB: I think you can, and you’ll see some changes. Can you have a never-ending book, always a new chapter added? Can you have updates if you cite a population figure in a certain country? Maybe we should go back to Dickens and have books done serially.
We want to create a platform, a toolset with enough flexibility that authors and publishers can surprise us with their creativity. A healthy ecosystem allows even the creators of the toolset to be surprised. I don’t think it’s going to change the heart of long-form narrative.
CA: What have you learned from the mobile phone experience in Asia, and does that put the Kindle in competition with the cell phone?
JB: The hardware, yes. But not the Kindle books. We’ve been selling e-books for ten years and you needed an electronic microscope to see the sales. We wanted an integrated customer experience all the way through. If other devices can buy Kindle books, that’s great. It’ll be a different experience. I’ve read books on my Blackberry’ I don’t recommend it. And I don’t think that’s what most people want to do. I like having a tiny camera on my cell phone, but I still like having a real camera. So if reading is important to you, it’s going to be worth it to have a purpose-built reading device. I could read a recipe on my cell phone but not War and Peace.
CA: The books [that Amazon sold in the Long Tail] failed the traditional economic test, focused on the obscure, the antique.
JB: It might just have a narrow audience, they’re not bad books.
CA: How has that changed the nature of book reading and writing?
JB: If you look at our sales relative to traditional bookstores, we skew so strongly toward the tail. We’re going to be doing Volume in Magneto Hydrodynamics, Volume 2. For most people, that’s not a very important book. But for the people who need it… so the authors get a larger readership, they’re getting the right readership. You sure want the ones who want it to find it.
You don’t have shelf space constraints. We could have millions of titles under one roof, which you can’t do in traditional bookstores. And second, you can provide tools to help people find those things. Once you find one thing, we have a tool, customers who bought this also bought this. You find things that are really relevant to your interests. We call them discovery or serendipity tools. We’re trying to accelerate discovery and serendipity.
Additional Comments from Carolyn Reidy, Simon and Schuster
The idea that our books can be available to any reader all the time is an idea we embrace. Simon and Schuster has been doing e-books since 2000, with Stephen King. We had servers crashing across the country and no one could keep up with the demand. Now, after a lot of effort, we have 4000 titles available in e-book. That’s nowhere near all our titles. When Amazon challenged us to make a huge portion of our titles available on Kindle, we took it. By the end of this year, we will add 5000 titles, more than double our current total. We have worked to select all those books which have been most popular in paper and ink.
Shel Horowitz is the author of Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers and six other books
More Articles from BEA 2008:
- BEA 2008: Booksellers Find the 21st Century
- “My Little Twin Brother”: Cartoonist Tom Wilson, Jr. on Drawing “Ziggy”
Interviewed at Book Expo America 2008 by Shel Horowitz, Editor, Global Arts Review