By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
A Decade of Reading, And ControversyToday (November 19) marks the 10th anniversary of the first Kindle. And with interesting timing, The New York Times‘ Sunday Review today has carried David Sax’s opinion piece, Our Love Affair With Digital Is Over. Some of us, of course, read Sax’s column on our Kindles.
The column’s headline didn’t do justice to its conclusion in which Sax wrote, “We do not face a simple choice of digital or analog. That is the false logic of the binary code that computers are programmed with, which ignores the complexity of life in the real world. Instead, we are faced with a decision of how to strike the right balance between the two.”
And some of the people behind the Kindle are publishing long-timers, who know a lot about striking that balance.
“I was in finance at Random House,” says David Naggar, Amazon’s vice president for Kindle content, “when we were working on the first economic models for ebook royalties. And that was in 2000. E-reading had been around for awhile” before the Kindle would launch in 2007.
If anything, it’s curious now how many in the business are quick to celebrate the widely reported rise of streaming audiobooks. On December 1 when The Bookseller’s FutureBook conference again features an entire strand on audiobooks alone, it’s not likely that you’ll hear someone complain that they miss the smell of paper when they listen to an audiobook, is it?
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) November 19, 2017
Ebook Royalty Finances: In the Year 2000
“It all comes down to the customer experience,” David Naggar says. On such early devices as the Sony Reader, for example, “You’d go to a website on your desktop, download the ebook file to your desktop on some hard-to-find directory. Then you’d have to go to that directory and side-load the book through a cable to your device. Then, and only then, were you able to start reading.”
What’s easy to forget, he’s saying, was the sheer wireless convenience introduced by the Kindle.
“It wasn’t the hardware itself,” he says, “that caused the Kindle to explode all of a sudden, or that it came from Amazon. It was the fact that it was the first piece of consumer hardware in history to be connected to a cellphone network where the customer paid nothing for it. You were able to sit anywhere—at a bar next to a friend who said, ‘I just read this great book, you should try it’—and 60 seconds later, that book was on your device and ready to read.
“That was the killer device,” Naggar says. “And then people started to enjoy reading on the devices, and that took off.”
On March 4, 2009, shortly before Naggar joined the team, Amazon announced the first Kindle app. Here’s the original press release from that date. Seattle was announcing that the physical Kindle e-reader was no longer a necessity. A “Kindle for iPhone and iPod Touch” app was now ready, free of charge, from the Apple Store.
Quaintly, the release also promised that you could read “104 of 112 New York Times bestsellers” this way.
“We wanted to be sure you were never locked in by your hardware choices,” Naggar says, describing what turned out to enable his jump to Amazon in good conscience.
Before moving to Amazon, Naggar was the president of iAmplify, a self-serve content publishing platform. He’d worked already as Random House Audio’s president and had led Fodor’s Travel publishing group, as well. Dyed deeply in the wool of publishing, Naggar had worked in senior executive roles in sales and direct marketing with Bertelsmann and Random house, both in the States and in France. His mother is the eponymous Jean V. Naggar of the Naggar Literary Agency in New York City, and agent Jennifer Weltz there is his sister.
The app, David Naggar says, “is the reason I joined the business. When I was having my conversations with Amazon, I wasn’t sure about a retailer getting into the hardware business. I’m a 20-year publishing veteran. The interesting thing for me to understand was how much of a content play this was vs. a hardware play. They said, ‘Well, we’ve just released Kindle for iPhone. I said, ‘You got me. Okay, I’m in.’ Because what it meant was you could read Kindle books through the Kindle service without ever buying a device, if that was your choice.
“If you wanted to read on your phone, we wanted to make it just as easy, just as seamless, and just as liberating” as reading on a Kindle device.David Naggar
“If you wanted to read on your phone, we wanted to make it just as easy, just as seamless, and just as liberating” as reading on a Kindle device. “If you were an iPhone user and you switched to an Android phone, we wanted your books to follow you, and we were the first to do that.
“This said to me that it really was about the content. And from a personal viewpoint, this meant to me that it was okay to proceed.”
Not that those devices wouldn’t keep coming along with the apps. Many of us were sold as soon as backlighting and color came in with the Fire line of tablet devices. In terms of bespoke Kindle e-reading devices, the newest waterproof Kindle Oasis is getting good reviews with its seven-inch screen over the previous six inches, physical page-turn buttons, eight gigs of storage to handle audiobooks in its US$249.99 model, which has an Audible app built in with Bluetooth to let you stream sound to headphones or a speaker. Oasis connects over both wi-fi and 4G LTE.
And while some are quick to say that the Kindle devices have seen their day, Lauren Goode at The Verge is reporting that Amazon says Kindle sales “are up year-over-year globally and it had its best day ever on Prime Day of this year.” The closest we can get to numbers of Kindle devices sold is “tens of millions.”
As for the early days of 2007 and before, you can read a Day One blog post here about the development of the device, and it’s amusing now to hear Naggar, this essential Amazon insider, discuss his new fondness for the Oasis, sounding entirely like a customer who had to be won over.
“I’ve been reading on the Oasis now for a while,” he says, “and the larger screen is fabulous. I like the form factor. I’m a convert. I’ve given up my Kindle Voyage for the Oasis.”
Assumptions and the Eye of the Beholder
Still, if you live in the “e-readers are done” camp—maybe in David Sax’s digital-love-affair-is-over-camp—you may see the relative advances of the new Oasis and other models as unable to hold people to a dedicated e-reading device.
But you’d be wrong, Naggar says, to assume that this means that digital reading itself has seen its day, as many in the bookselling high streets of the UK and shopping malls of the US are eager to think. To discount the plethora of Kindle apps now glowing on so many devices, he says, is a mistake, an opinion “coming from a particularly myopic view of the literary business.”
There’s an assumption shared by many in various media, Naggar says, “that as goes the Big Five, so goes the book business. But that’s false now,” he says—a former longtime Big-Fiver, remember.
Those major publishers, he says, “are making choices now on how they price books,” he says, “and the merchandising programs they choose not to participate in like Prime Reading and Kindle Unlimited that keep their book business down. And then there are others who believe that those are really interesting merchandising options—there are some traditional publishers in that bucket, there are also independent authors–many of them see ‘e-reading is dead’ as a very old saw.”
“Every time one of those reporters” with the “e-reading is dead” assumption “calls up, we give them the same quote,” Naggar says: “Our ebook business continues to grow, both globally and in the US.”
“You can make the equation as complex as you want, but everyone in the middle is just trying to figure out how they add value either to a reader, an author, or both.”David Naggar
Both reading and writing have been democratized, Naggar says, by the way the Kindle system has enabled myriad writers to publish and sell their work without publishing contracts.
And by no means is everyone in Big Five leadership unwilling to refer to this. At the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy was asked at the annual CEO talk organized by Rüdiger Wischenbart about the impact of self-publishing on the industry. Reidy said that the effects are “huge” and that self-publishing definitely has “taken away some consumers” from the trade publishers in the US market.
If anything, she said, self-publishing has made it necessary for trade publishers to “make the case for what it is we provide and what self-publishing does not provide…I think it makes us focus more on what we do for the author. Self-publishing makes us make sure our game is as good as it can be.”
“You can make the equation as complex as you want,” Naggar says, “but everyone in the middle is just trying to figure out how they add value either to a reader, an author, or both.” His point is that the Kindle, in terms of publishing, narrowed the divide between author and reader, making intermediaries—publishers, agents, distributors—arguably far less critical when writers can produce and sell their work, themselves.
And to those who say that what the Kindle enabled is also a market more densely crowded with content than at any time in history, Naggar says, “It’s always been hard to choose” a book as the trade industry pumped (and still does) tens of thousands of books per year into the marketplace. And Amazon, he says, has tied in the acquisition of Goodreads to the mix, to bring friends’ recommendations to bear on discoverability along with the consumer-review and -rating system and algorithmically generated leads.
And finally, what a good conversation with David Naggar comes down to is the certainty that the debates around the Kindle and its place in—and impact on—the publishing industry may have another good decade in them.
Few will try to deny that more books are being sold than ever before and most of them by one means or another through Amazon and its Kindle system. But the question of whether you see this as positive or negative may have to do with which 20-year span you’re on in your publishing career, as in Naggar’s case. Or it might be much more about the fact that you just stopped reading a book on your Kindle and headed for the gym with your phone app now picking up the text for you in your ear buds on your Kindle app—right where you left off reading.
Could Alexa have a Kindle app/skill that would let you select which of your favorite narrators (we’re voting for Campbell Scott and Laurie Anderson) read your Audible books to you on the Echo? Having had Random House Audio in his division once, Naggar is listening.
“I don’t know,” he says. “But it’s an interesting idea.”
Well, then, what is the next development ahead from Kindle?
“You’ll see,” David Naggar is getting on with his day. “Stay tuned.”