Friday, June 13, 2008

The future of books: Amazon's president talks about electronic books you can snuggle up with...

(Photos are of Jeff Bezos giving his lecture, me asking him about the future of the bookstore while wearing my coolness "Al Asad" T-shirt, holding an actual Kindle at the Amazon booth and my oldest daughter in front of the L.A. convention center)

I was standing in front of the bulletin board at the 2008 Book Expo in Los Angeles last week, trying to decide which talk or lecture I should go to next, when the guy standing next to me started practically going into spasms. At first I thought he was having an epileptic fit, but it turned out that he was just excited. "OMG," he cried. "Do you SEE who is giving a talk next? Jeff Bezos!"

"Jeff who?" Never heard of him.

"You've never heard of Jeff Bezos? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN! He's the freaking president of Amazon!" You mean that he's from Brazil?

"He's the president of!" Oh. That Amazon. Okay. Since the man was practically drooling by now, I decided to follow along. At least I might be able to keep him from swallowing his tongue.

Bezos kept talking about someone named "Kendell". Hey, the little girl who lives next door to me in Berkeley is named Kendell. Maybe he's talking about her? I highly doubt it. She's six years old. "Kendell Kendell Kendell." Well. It turns out that I also got the wrong "Kendell" too. And it's spelled K-I-N-D-L-E. And it's the name of a new electronic book put put by Amazon. And apparently it is selling like hotcakes.

"The first day we put the Kindle on sale, it completely sold out -- and it took us ten months to get it back in stock." At $359 a pop, that's impressive. "What we tried to design was a purpose-built reading device and this is it." But did he have one with him to wave around so I could see what it looked like? No.

"We wanted to design an electronic device for reading books," Bezos continued. "We wanted a paper-like display that would be readable in sunlight, have a low battery consumption, allow books to be easily retrieved, have the look, feel and heft of an actual book and have the capacity to change font size. And what we came up with is the Kindle."

Apparently this book is wired like a cell phone instead of a laptop, can download books in 60 seconds wirelessly from anywhere you can get cell phone reception and currently has 125,000 titles available. "Travelers on airplanes are big fans of the Kindle. Some of its users have rated it right up there with Häagen-Dazs and sex. People who love to read will find that the Kindle makes reading easier. It's a gateway drug to reading, getting people hooked on buying and reading books. And our goal is to have every book ever printed available to our readers. In any language. We are aiming for 20 million books." Wow!

"And another great feature of the Kindle is that it can make textbooks, out-of-print books and niche books with small markets readily available at reasonable prices. And it's revolutionized the e-book market as well. I've been selling e-books on Amazon for ten years now and up until now you practically needed an electronic microscope to read our sales reports on them, but the Kindle has changed all that. Reading e-books is now a whole different experience. Plus you don't have shelf-space constraints. And nothing ever goes out of print."

At first, according to Bezos, publishers were unhappy with the Kindle because they were worried that it would cut into their profits. But apparently that not only hasn't happened but their profits have grown. "They found that people are buying the same amount of actual physical books PLUS the books they buy on Kindle. In addition, because the Kindle cuts down on the use of paper when people buy electronic books, it's also good for the eco-system."

Hey, I'm a book publisher -- sort of. And I want Kindle to publish MY book! So Bezos told all us writers and publishers in the audience how to get our books listed on his new toy. "Just go to the Amazon website and click on the link." Hey, I'm gonna be published on Kindle -- as soon as my friend Alex Farr can figure out how to upload the text. [Shameless plug -- make sure that you read my book "Bring Your Own Flak Jacket" on that new Kindle that you are just about to run out and buy -- and also read Alex's book too. It's called "Metro" and it's all about being a taxi driver in Oakland.]

Then Bezos talked about some of his other favorite back-to-the-future ideas. "We're working now on developing an elastic compute cloud." What is that? Not a clue. "It allows software guys to buy computer time. Why generate your own massive data center when you can use a centralized data center and just rent computer time from us." Bezos is also working on developing a space center. "I've been fascinated with space since I was a kid and I want to develop a spaceship so that people, including me, can go up into space. But I'm a coward so it has to be safe."

Bezos gave an interesting lecture and I was glad that I came. But one question kept burning through my brain that he hadn't answered or even touched on, so I went up and talked with him afterwards. "If everyone starts to use Kindles instead of actual physical books, then what will happen to our bookstores and libraries? Will they be forced out of business? Or will they just become small empty rooms that sell only the Kindles themselves?"

Bezos considered my question for a moment and then answered, "I'm not sure exactly how this will evolve but things always DO evolve -- so we will just have to see." Or words to that effect. Then I ran off to the Amazon booth in the main exhibit hall, dragging my oldest daughter (the computer whiz) with me and we got to play with the new Kindles there. And guess what? They really DID have the heft and feel of a book. Sort of.

PS: I am aware that on one level Bezos' speech wasn't anything more than a glorified info-mercial, but it did get me to thinking about more important things as well -- such as "If there is a future for books, then there must be a future for other things too." Don't you just hate it that most human beings aren't allowed to see what Fate is going to throw at us next? I really resent that I have to freaking GUESS what kind of stuff going to happen to me further on down the road. It makes me feel insecure. I HATE feeling insecure.

But if books have a future, then I must have one too. "Things do evolve."

PPS: One of things I would love to know about in the future is if I will ever be able to get dental work done. "That's no problem," said my daughter Ashley. "You just commit a crime, go to jail and get your dental work done there." Hmmm. If I did that, then I wouldn't have to worry other things either such as gas prices going up, food prices skyrocketing and housing foreclosures. All I have to do is rob a bank -- in the grand old tradition of the Federal Reserve and Charles H. Keating, Jr -- and my future's secured!