On the Death of My Kindle

My Kindle died yesterday. Technically, it’s still on life support, but as soon as I pull my data off, I’m going to pull the plug and let the battery fade out to oblivion.

It was a tragic little accident, the kind you wouldn’t think much of, but it was enough. It slipped from my hand with the cover open, tumbling as it went, and it came down screen-first on the corner of a wastebasket. The electronic components behind the scenes are still functional, but the e-ink display is ruined. The vast majority of the screen is a jumble of vertical and horizontal lines, making the text not merely unreadable but virtually invisible.

I called Amazon right away, but I am now one month past my one-year warranty. They gave me a credit for what amounts to its “trade-in” value and offered me a discount on some quick replacements. I had already been considering upgrading to the new Kindle Paperwhite, so that’s what I opted for. Alas, given the high demand, my order won’t be filled until mid-December. I might hunt around for some in retail stores, but I’m not optimistic about finding any.

So, that brings me to an economics question about the cost of e-books. I’m not going to argue their price point between 99-cents and $14.99. Instead, I want to talk about the burdened cost of the reader. I paid about $160 for my Kindle, and in some ways, that should be considered part of the cost of those e-books I read. But how many books was that?

Here’s where my situation turns away from that of my friends. While I consider myself an avid reader, I realize compared to many, I am a slow reader. Part of this is the actual speed of my eyes passing over the words, and part is the amount of time per day that I devote to putting those words in front of my eyes.

I’ll point to my well-read wife as an example of a fast reader. Just watching her turn pages, I’d say she scans the text at least twice as fast as I do, possibly even pushing three times as fast. She may be an extreme example, but she’s hardly unique. Now, before you point me towards your favorite speed-reading development program, I should point out that my hearing problems are related to dyslexia. It’s possible that may be placing some kind of upper limit on my actual reading speed.

Furthermore, my wife spends more hours of the day reading than I do. Between bedtime reading and little moments through the day, I probably spend an average of 60-90 minutes a day reading books. Again, she’s easily double that, possibly even triple that. Add it all up, and in years that I’ve been hard-pressed to read more than 20 books, she has pushed through 200, ravaging whole shelves of our home library.

How many of those were e-books? For me, it’s been running about 2 out of 3. I’d have to ask my wife to be sure for her, but I’d ballpark hers at a much lower 1 out of 4. It’s not she dislikes her Kindle, but rather that she has a vast backlog of paper books in her in-pile. Seriously, we own a lot of books. My last reliable count was in the 4500 range, but that number is now a decade old. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re well north of 5000 now, possibly even approaching 6000.

So, at our traditional reading rates, I might find myself amortizing that $160 over a mere 14 or 15 books, i.e. over $10 a book. My wife’s per-book cost would be a lot lower, at perhaps $3 per book, though with her Kindle hopefully lasting another year or two, that will drive down the per-book cost to about a buck. And if her e-book percentage increases, it could fall into the pennies per book.

But a funny thing happened last year. I suddenly started reading more. Some of this was the fact that the larger fonts on the Kindle allowed me to consume text at a faster pace, and some was the fact that the Kindle’s size allowed me to haul it around more places that I would not have previously taken a book. In the thirteen months I owned a Kindle, I did not merely read my usual 20-25 books. I read 36 books, an jump of over 50%.

So, at 22 e-books over those 13 months, the amortized cost per book comes down to $7.30. Alas, that’s still too pricy. That’s as much or more than I paid for many of those books. Now, if it had last 2-3 years, that would have dropped into the $2-$3 range, similar to my wife’s. That’s still a little pricey, but that’s not the only issue here.

Because my sudden jump in reading speed raises a different economic question: How much is it worth to me to be able to read 50% more books than before?

We’ve all heard that saying: So many books, so little time. It’s a mantra for the kind of book-junkies I hang with. Our great lament is not that the books cost so much. It’s that they take so long to read, and they just keep showing up. I was telling my daughter recently that there are more books published each year than she will be able to read in her entire life. Even cutting it down to the types of books I like (speculative fiction and niche non-fiction), there are still several thousand published each year, once again pushing that year of published books out to a lifetime of reading for a slow reader like myself.

But to somehow buy the ability to read faster? At that point, I stop thinking of it as a per-book cost. Instead, I start thinking of it as a per-time cost. Boosting my reading speed like that is like buying more time to read, and at those rates, it’s like buying time at 50 cents an hour. And that’s assuming the next one lasts just a year. Stretch it to two or three, and we’re really buying time cheap.

What about the rest of you? What’s your view on the amortized cost of e-readers?

Harsh on Beginnings

Lately, I have become a very harsh judge on the opening pages of a novel – for that matter, on the opening line. If it doesn’t grab me early, I’m out of there.

I blame some of this on the Kindle. I’m more than willing to check out a new author or novel on the Kindle simply by downloading the free sample. However, there is a fair amount of crap out there, and I can usually tell within the first few pages. Maybe that’s unfair of me, but I’m not alone. Another author once said, “It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.”

So if that opening doesn’t grab me, and the rest of the first page doesn’t do much to pull me in either, then I’m probably skimming by the second page. And if I’m still skimming by page 5, that’s it. I almost never press on to the end of the sample in that case. I already know. If your opening has turned me off, it’s not worth sticking around to hope you’re going to turn it around by chapter 2.

The other thing I blame it on is Jim Butcher. Okay, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s close. In the last five or ten years, I’ve been exposed to some absolutely fabulous openings, and a number of them were written by Mr. Butcher. Others include Lilith Saintcrow, O.M. Grey, and J.C. Hutchins. There have been others of course, but those are the ones springing to mind right now.

Just to tease you, here are some of the openings from their novels. They may not be exact, because I’m quoting them from memory. (That in itself should be a sign of how good they were.)

My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

I was to be King.

The building was on fire, but this time it wasn’t my fault.

The president of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.

These grab my attention. They immediately pull me in and also leave a lot of questions unanswered. Your “working relationship”? Why were you not the King? Ok, whose fault is it? And what kind of four-year-old are we dealing with? I want to keep going to find out what’s going on, and by then these authors have hooked me even more deeply. Forget about skimming to page five. I’ve lost track of time by page five.

So now books without strong openings leave me flat, and if it’s a new author – even one who is good in all things but openings – I often don’t give them a chance. And I feel bad about that. I know that strong openings are something of a niche skill, and it’s a style that has only recently become more common. I look back at the SF/F books from the 70’s and 80’s, and many of them began with long expositions describing the world around us, or heaven forbid… prologues! Any many of them were really good books, but their openings sucked by comparison to some of the eye-grabby stuff we see now.

And the other reason I feel bad about it is that I recognize that my openings probably aren’t up to my own standards. Yes, I’ve tried to use my snap-judgment criteria to pump it up, but I don’t think they’re in the same league as Jim Butcher. (As an aside, Jim Butcher is great for readers… but terrible for writers’ egos. He’s just that much better than the rest of us.) So while I want to give others the same slack I’m hoping for, I’m just not willing to waste my limited reading time on someone who doesn’t grab me by the eyeball and suck me in.

Still, I think there’s hope for me. My openings are getting stronger, and the fact that I am such a harsh judge of openings means that I’m less likely to plop out a turd and hope for the best.

“It was a dark and swirly…” Nope. Gonna stop right there.

What are some of your favorite openings?

Green Eggs and E-ham

Until recently, I was a very conservative, anti-e-book redneck who proudly said that you could have my paperback when you took it from my cold, dead fingers. Now… er, not so much.

I was never a Luddite. Well, not much of one. I got my first computer when I was ten. That’s not saying much these days, but mind you, that was 1977. I grew up as a calculator-watch-wearing nerd, taking down my BBS only to write science fiction. Sufficed to say, I embraced digital technology from an early age.

But the idea of reading fiction digitally never appealed to me. My first option was to read it on the computer screen, and that was a non-starter. I did not yet understand the differences between light-emitting vs. light-reflecting displays, but I did know that looking at a screen for two long caused fatigue, eye-strain, and general crankiness. Why would I ever trade my printed books for that? Heck, even when I needed to read my own stuff, I always printed it first, and that was back in the days of the 2-minutes-per-page dot matrix printer. But still, print was the way to go.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one to reject long-form reading on the computer. Journalists and bloggers found that a different style of writing was required to hold people’s attention on the screen. Prosaic prose was out. Bold punches were in, along with

  • bonus
  • bullet
  • points!!!

Blech! Is that what fiction would have to become to be read on screen?

Next came reading on the smart phone. My wife did this some, but I never understood how she could stand it. The screen was tiny. The font was small and crappy. She had to turn the page every nine seconds. Plus, about the only books available for it were out of the Gutenberg project. On the other hand, she read Dumas’s Three Musketeers that way, so it was not entirely without value.

Then came e-Ink and the Kindle. Now, I’d been aware of electronic ink for a while. I saw it years before in a technology demonstration from someone at Xerox Parc labs, and it struck me as another great idea that Xerox would likely never successfully turn into a product. It was from that demonstration that I became aware of the difference between light-emissive displays (CRT’s or LCD flatscreens) and light-reflective displays, like, well… paper. Light-emissive displays cause eye strain much more rapidly than paper. I suppose it’s because we’re fundamentally staring at a light bulb, making out the tiny markings on its surface. Looking at paper is like looking at everything else in the world, and our eyes are much happier with that.

But still, even with e-Ink, I was not eager to run to the Kindle and e-books. For starters, I felt the technology was not mature enough. It wasn’t the display. It was the format of the books themselves. There were too many, frequently one per reader, and who knew which readers or formats would be around for more than a year or two? “I’m glad you enjoyed my book, but I’m afraid you bought it on BetaMAX and will no longer be able to read it.”

I heard some early adopters say that we shouldn’t bother with standard formats – they’re impossible anyway. Really? Anyone ever heard of JPEG images for the web? Yes, there are also GIF’s and PNGs, but my point is that every browser can display all three. It’s not like you need to format the images on your web page for Internet Explorer vs. Firefox. Perhaps a better analogy is the HTML wars between Netscape and Microsoft, and yet you can still read pretty much any page on any browser. E-books had a long way to go.

The other thing that bugged me was questions over the IP handling. I could buy a paper book, read it, and then let my wife read it. We would do that a lot, pushing books from one in-pile to the other’s. But as I understood it, it would be impossible to “loan” your e-book to another person’s e-reader, even if you are living in the same house. Plus, there were a few early gaffes where Amazon pulled e-book content, allowing a book you were actively reading to simply disappear from your Kindle. Big Brother anyone?  Ummm, no. I like the permanence and flexibility of physical paper, thank you very much.

So with all that going against e-books, you can see why I planned to be clinging to my paperbacks, even with my cold dead fingers.

So how on earth did I ever convert?

Over the summer, I ran into increasingly reliable statistics that sales of e-books were rising rapidly, likely to eclipse sales of paper books sometime in 2011 to 2013. That alone did not convince me e-books were ok. I happen to believe that yes, a billion Chinamen can be wrong. However, as an aspiring author who pays attention to the publishing world, I could not help but see how much e-books were causing a stir in the book-related business circles. I figured that if these were become such a big deal, I should at least see what they were like to better understand what was happening.

So, I bought one, convinced it would be a terrible experience, and that I would just have that much more vitriol and disdain for the e-book e-vangelizers.

Well… damn. This isn’t so bad after all.

In fact, parts of it are pretty nice.

Specifically, I really enjoy being able to adjust the font-size. My impending blindness, er, I mean my age-induced presbyopia means that I can’t read the small print anymore. Even with reading glasses, it is growing difficult. And it seems to me that as books get longer, the print is getting even smaller. So, instead of squinting to read some nine or ten point font in a paperback, I’m reading along in my Kindle at a nice twelve or fourteen point font.

Furthermore, I find the Kindle easier to hold than paperbacks, and that’s saying a lot because one of the main selling points of the old mass-market paperbook was that it was easy to hold one-handed. (No, not like that you dirty-minded monkey. Sheesh!) But the problem was I had to keep shifting it around page by page. I had to keep at least some of my fingers on top of the pages to hold it open, but I needed to constantly shift them around to not obscure that little bit of text at the top, bottom or side of the page. (In addition to shrinking text, I’m convinced page margins have been getting smaller over the years as well.) The Kindle can be held with most of the hand behind it and only one fingertip, likely the thumb, hanging onto an edge to enhance the grip as well as be poised near the page turn button.

Also on holding paperbacks, I would need to shift how the book was angled from one page to the next, particularly in bed where the only light was from a bedside lamp. The best angle for reading the left-side page was bad for reading the right-side page, and vice-versa. I can position the kindle in one spot, and just keep going.

For that matter, I don’t even need to hold the Kindle at all. I can set it flat on a counter or prop it in my lap. This has led me to start reading the Kindle in places I never would have attempted to read a book, e.g. while cooking or even eating.

But the bottom line is that I’m reading faster and more often on the Kindle than I was in paper. The larger font has certainly helped my words per minute reading speed, but it has also reduced my eye strain from reading the smaller fonts, and that means I’m reading longer before deciding it’s time to turn out the light and go to sleep. And the ease of holding it means I’m reading in places and situations where I never would have bothered to even bring a book before. That means more hours spent reading rather than looking around for things to distract my brain from its pervasive boredom.

For example, I recently read a longish book on my Kindle. In paperback form, it’s 448 pages. I read it in about a week. Historically, that’s really fast for me. Normally a book that length would have taken me at least two weeks to read, probably more because this one dragged A LOT. Contrast that with the paperback I’m reading now. It’s the same page length, but it’s an author and series I really like, and I’m eager to find out what happens. After about a week, I’m on page 80.

448 pages per week vs. 80 pages per week. So, how many books to I want to read next year?

Yes, it’s not a scientific experiment, but it’s enough for me to start looking at my in-pile of physical books and think about repurchasing some of them as e-books just so that I can finally get around to reading them.

Now, this whole can’t-loan-it-to-my-wife things still bugs me, but I believe that you can loan some books that way. And if traditional publishers ever start pricing e-books rationally (that’s a whole’nother post), maybe I won’t feel so bad at not being able to loan out my $5 e-book, because after all, I chose not to pay $9 for the physical book.

The format wars seem to be dwindling, with most manufacturers settling on the e-pub format and most others offering a Kindle-format reader on their non-Kindle devices. I’ve even heard rumors that “the next generation” of Kindles will support the e-pub format. Maybe – I’ll believe it when I see it. Still, we’ve moved away from the one format per reader chaos of 2009.

So, if you’re clutching your paperback as tightly as I was in July, let me suggest that you make the relatively small investment in an e-ink reader like the Kindle and at least see what it’s all about. You may find after a while that you too are finding certain advantages.

Then you can join me in the chorus: I do so love green eggs and ham. Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am.