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Amazon Announces Kindle Unlimited, $10 Monthly Access to More than 600,000 Books

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Safari001.pngAmazon today announced Kindle Unlimited, a $10 per month all-you-can-read subscription to Kindle e-books. Amazon touts “unlimited access to over 600,000 titles and thousands of audiobooks on any device for just $9.99 a month.”

I alluded to this a few days ago, when Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited webpage was prematurely leaked. I’m not sure what the value of this type of service is. As I pointed out in my article, more than 600,000 books does not mean that you will always find books that you want to read. Amazon highlights a number of books that are available via Kindle Unlimited. These include the Hunger Games series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Harry Potter books. Amazon also shows a number of popular novels and non-fiction books, and lets you browse what’s available. But they don’t offer any books from the big five publishers, so those books that are highlighted are part of a small selection of popular titles.

Taking a quick look at the Literature & Fiction category, I noticed that certain subcategories are very well represented: Action & Adventure (25,121), Erotica (34,703), Horror (19,312), and Short Stories (28,614). The Romance genre contains 35,571 titles, and Mystery, Thriller & Suspense has a whopping 46,293 titles. Let us not forget Science Fiction & Fantasy, which reaches the astounding number of 50,245 titles. These are genres where self-published books tend to lurk. And the genres I cited just above make up, together, more than 300,000 titles, or about half of what’s available from Kindle Unlimited.

What is more interesting about Kindle Unlimited is the access to audiobooks. However, there are currently only 1,704 titles available, which is a very small number. Amazon calls these “books with narration,” rather than audiobooks, which makes me wonder if these are indeed audiobooks, or just books that allow you to use the text-to-speech feature on a Kindle or other device.

Kindle Unlimited is only available in the US for now, so I won’t be able to try it out. I’m very interested to see how well this works; as I pointed out in my article the other day, given the amount that I read, this could be useful for me.

Amazon Considering Kindle Unlimited: One-Price Access to 600,000 Books

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I’m a book person. I have thousands of books in my home, and read at least one or two a week. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good library near home, so I buy a lot of books. I look carefully for the lowest prices, buying sometimes from Amazon, sometimes from third-party sellers on Amazon, and sometimes used.

I also buy ebooks, for books that I know I won’t want to read again, but, also, since when I recently moved from France to the UK, and realized how many books I had (and culled half of them), I vowed to not let my book collection grow so large again.

Ebooks aren’t great, but they are fine for certain types of books: fast-read novels, non-fiction that I won’t read more than once, and books where I’m unlikely to read footnotes. I buy Kindle books rather than iBooks, because the Kindle is a better reading device than the iPad or iPhone, and, if I buy Kindle books, I can read them on any platform. I like reading outdoors, and I can’t do that on my iPad, but I can read on my Kindle in the sun. If I want to read on my iPad, I can do that with the Kindle app. Win-win.

So, the (unsurprising) disclosure that Amazon is testing a Kindle Unlimited service interests me as a reader. But before getting out the credit card and signing up, it’s worth considering what kinds of books you can get from a service like this.

A few months ago, I tried out Scribd, which offers a similar service. My experience was not very positive. Services like this only get books from a limited number of publishers, plus nearly every self-published book on the planet. Nothing against self-publishing, but lots of that stuff is simply dreadful. If Amazon offers such a service, it will certainly have similar content. Out of there 600,000-odd books, it’s likely that the vast majority will just not be any good.

Amazon has a feature of its Amazon Prime service called the Kindle Lending Library. There are, here in the UK, “over 500,000 Kindle titles to borrow for free.” Alas, I’ve not come across any when searching for books I want to read. So I fear that Kindle Unlimited would be similar.

I’m not the kind of person who will only choose books to read from what’s available from a service like that. Could you imagine only watching movies on Netflix because you’ve paid for a subscription? Kindle Unlimited will only be interesting if it includes lots of books from major publishers. I can imagine that new releases wouldn’t be included, and that’s fine, but if it’s only small publishers and self-published books, it’s not worth it.

As an author, however, I’m less interested in a service like this, and given the types of books I write, I wouldn’t allow them to be on a one-price-per-month service. But that will be the subject of a future article…

Hardware Notes: Anker 40W 5-Port USB Charger

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001.pngYou know how, when you have a dozen or so devices to charge, that it gets increasingly complicated to charge them? You only have so many USB ports on your computer to plug them in, and it’s annoying to keep playing musical USB ports with your cables.

Here in The Barn, I’ve got lots of stuff (and I’ll only list my own devices, not my partner’s): iPhone, Android phone, iPad air, iPad mini, iPod touch, iPod classic, iPod shuffle, digital camera, Kindle, Bluetooth headphones, FitBit; there are probably a couple of others I don’t see.

To charge these devices, I’m constantly moving them around, disconnecting their cables, and connecting them to one of my Macs, or to a wall charger (for the iOS devices).

A couple of months ago, I spotted this Anker 40W 5-Port USB Charger (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), for a mere £20 on Amazon UK (it’s currently $26 on Amazon.com). It plugs into the wall, and has five USB ports that can charge any device that connects to that type of port. They say it’s a “smart” charger, adapting its voltage to the device. I don’t have anything to measure it, but it’s certainly made my life easier. I keep it on a shelf, with five cables sticking out of it, and use it to charge everything that’s not an iOS device; I charge those from my Mac, most of the time, when I sync them. (I also charge my iPhone with a wall charger overnight.)

It’s a life-saver. No longer do I have, well, all my devices on my desk; it’s still a mess, but less than before. For devices that don’t sync, there’s no need to ever connect them to my Mac, and I have half a shelf in a bookcase with the charger and a bunch of cables. I keep some cables connected to the charger all the time; I leave one free port to connect others as needed.

It’s a small device, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and it’s one of the most practical gadgets I’ve bought in a long time. Until we get wireless charging for our portable devices, this is the best way to keep them juiced.

iWant: More Fonts and Sizes on the Kindle and Kindle Apps

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IMG_1927.pngIn spite of the fact that I use Apple products, I’m a Kindle user. Apple’s iBooks only lets me read on iOS devices and Macs; with the Kindle, I can read on just about any device with a screen. In addition, I like the Kindle Paperwhite (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) because I can read it outdoors; something I can’t do on my iPad or iPhone.

But the Kindle – both the Paperwhite and the apps – has a serious limitation: there aren’t many fonts. On the Paperwhite, there are only six fonts; the iOS Kindle app only offers five. This is too few for devices with excellent screen resolutions: the Paperwhite is 212 pip, and the Kindle iOS apps use the native resolution of iOS devices.

In addition, the font sizes are wonky, especially on the Paperwhite. With some books, the difference between the font that’s just-too-small-for-me-to-read and the next one up is huge. So I have to choose between a tiny font and one that’s too large. I don’t know if this has to do with the way books are generated, but I’ve seen it very often. This is less of an issue on the iOS apps, which seem to have more font sizes, or at least better rendering.

These are both important points, as the Kindle does one thing, and does it well: it lets you read books. The thing you read is the fonts. I’m surprised Amazon hasn’t done more to offer a variety of fonts and sizes for their devices and apps.

Amazon Should Allow Multiple Accounts on Kindles

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I’ve complained about Apple IDs, in a recent Macworld article, as these IDs control the DRM that regulates what content you can use on different devices. But Apple’s not the only company running a DRM ring that limits how you can access your content. Amazon does this as well, with the DRM on Kindle books.

With Apple, you can have content from two Apple accounts on a single device. For example, a husband and wife can each have Apple IDs, and download content with them, and put all of that content on the iPhones, iPods and iPads they each own. So Alice can buy an app, and Bob can also use it on his iPhone. Bob can buy a book, and Alice can read it in iBooks on her iPad. All this requires is each user logging in on the computer that syncs to these devices.

With Amazon, you simply can’t share Kindle content. Sure, Amazon has a way you can lend or borrow books, but it’s very limited; you can only lend or borrow certain books. You need to check each book to find out if you can lend it.

This is a ridiculous system. The nature of books is that we lend and borrow them; it’s how we discover new books, it’s how we share the books we love. If Alice buys a book she really likes, she may want Bob to read it, but, the way the Kindle DRM works, this isn’t possible. The only way to do so would be to de-register a Kindle device or app, then register under another account; this is complicated, and it erases any books that were on the device from the original account.

Amazon needs to allow multiple accounts to be accessed on a Kindle or a Kindle app. I understand the need for DRM, but I also find it unfair that I can’t buy a Kindle book, then lend it to my girlfriend so she can read it when I’m finished. It’s not complicated to allow this. Come on, Amazon, get back in touch with the way the world works. People share books; let them do this easily.

iPad mini vs. Kindle Paperwhite

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I like the idea of the Kindle, and the idea of the Kindle Paperwhite even more. Offering the ability to read both outdoors in sunlight, and indoors with a backlight, it seems like the best of both worlds.

Alas, having received a Kindle Paperwhite yesterday, I’m very disappointed. Not only is the backlight not very bright – not really bright enough to read indoors if there’s a lot of light – but it’s very uneven, with dark spots around the edges, especially at the bottom.

Here’s a photo I took of the Kindle Paperwhite next to the iPad mini, the latter showing a book in the Kindle app. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

As you can see, even in this small photo, the lighting is uneven at the bottom of the Kindle, and there is a very large difference in brightness (both devices are set to maximal brightness in the photo above). While the iPad mini won’t work in bright light – such as outdoors – I have a Kindle Touch for that. So that Paperwhite is being returned. It’s a good idea, but it’s just a bit cheap and poorly designed. Amazon should really do better with a device like this.

Why I Want a 7″ iPad

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I’ve been an iPad owner from day one; well, month one. The first iPad wasn’t initially sold here in France, but I had a colleague in the US buy me one and ship it to me. From the beginning, I felt that the iPad was the computing device that I never had but had always needed. I had played around with a number of small computing devices over the years. I never owned a Newton, but for a couple of months, in the end of 1996, I used one when translating a manual for some Newton software. I owned a couple of Palm pilots in the late 1990s, but I found them too small. I wanted a device that I could use for applications, but also for reading books.

The iPad is certainly a revolutionary device, and was exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t the first tablet; there were a number of Windows–based tablets before it, but they were big and clunky. Just as Apple revolutionized the MP3 player when the company released the iPod in 2001, the release of the iPad did the same for tablet computing.

There are two things, however, that I dislike about the iPad. First, it is relatively heavy. At 651 grams, plus a bit more for a case, you notice it when you’re carrying it in your backpack. When you think about it, an iPad is roughly the weight of an average hardcover novel. Compare that to the smallest E Ink Kindle; at 168 grams – just 30 grams more than an iPhone – I don’t notice it when it’s in my backpack.

The other problem with the iPad is that it takes a long time to charge. Battery life is decent, but I find that if I play a few games, then read the news or a book for a while, my battery life can go down pretty quickly. Unlike the iPhone, which seems to charge extremely quickly, the iPad really needs to charge overnight to fill its tank.

As rumors circulate about a seven-inch iPad, I realized that this would be the perfect size for such a device. It would be smaller and lighter, and for most of the things that I use an iPad for, it would be sufficient. Not only would it be big enough to read and play games, but with the smaller display, it might have longer battery life (though the smaller size also means a smaller battery).

There are two uses for the iPad: creating and consuming. Many people use an iPad to create content: they write, draw, or edit documents that they or others may have made on a computer. If you’re fiddling with a spreadsheet, you want as much room as possible. If you’re writing an article, you may want a larger screen to see more of what you write. (Though in many cases, you could probably write just as well on a 7″ iPad.) However, if you are simply consuming – reading books, web sites and e-mail, or playing most games – the smaller display won’t be much of a problem. Sure, there are some games that wouldn’t work well on a 7″ iPad, and you may need to zoom a bit more to read web pages, but given the lighter weight, I think this is a fair compromise.

It’s no surprise that Amazon’s Kindle – both the E Ink version and the Android version, the Kindle Fire – are so popular. The people who buy these devices are media consumers, not creators. You don’t need a very big screen to read books. While I feel that the smaller Kindle is a bit cramped for reading, this is more because of the limited number of font sizes, and the poor pixel density. A 7″ iPad with a retina display would be far more practical for reading than an E Ink Kindle.

I think that if Apple releases a 7″ iPad, it will be a hit. It may cannibalize the larger iPad market a bit, but it may also attract owners of Kindle devices, who will see the better display and understand the disadvantages of the E Ink Kindles. I know I’ll buy one. There’s not much that I do on my iPad that I couldn’t do on a smaller model. Given the lighter weight, it would be much better for reading books, which is one of my main uses for the iPad.

What do you think? Would you buy a 7″ iPad? Vote in the poll in the sidebar to the right, and if you have any comments, feel free to add them to this post.

Apple, Amazon and Others Look Over Your Shoulder When You Read Ebooks

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I guess it had to happen. There should be a new rule: If content providers can collect analytic data about anything, then they will. Or, to put it more crudely, If they can watch you, they will. Welcome to the digital panopticon.

An article in the Wall Street Journal explains how Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble collect analytic data when you read ebooks. How far you get in a book, how fast you read it, whether you buy a sequel, and which search terms or highlights you use when reading a book.

Analytics is a technique that is used on the web, and with some software – notably that on mobile devices – to track what users do. You can see how long users stay on a web site, which links they click, where they come from and more. But for books? Do publishers really need to know how fast people read books? Or whether you read them straight through or flip back and forth between books?

Two things worry me here. First, that this data is collected without users being aware of it. It is said that this data is anonymous, but we know that this anonymity is not something we can take for granted. I checked on my iPad and my Kindle and saw no options to turn off this data collection. While I expect Amazon to follow my purchases in order to recommend other books or CDs, I find it annoying that they may be checking on how I read ebooks.

The second issue is more fundamental. Once you have analytic data, you want to do something with it. In order to justify the cost of crunching this data, and paying for people to analyze it, you need to have an objective. You need to be able to translate this data into actionable tasks. And what could the goals be? To go back to writers and tell them to write differently? Granted, for some mass-consumed books and genres, writers might be willing to adjust their styles, or the length of their books if they think they’ll sell more. But I think this is a red herring. Good books sell; bad books don’t. If a book is good, whether it is long or short, people will tell others about it. Gone With the Wind is a huge book, nearly 1,500 pages in the mass-market paperback edition. Should an author be prevented from telling the story they want because some metrics geek thinks it’s too long?

I think this is none of their business. The way I read should be private. I can’t see how this information will help me as a reader, or me as a writer. If this metrics collection is going to continue, readers should at least have an option to opt out.