Review: Burning the Page

Review: Burning the Page

Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
by Jason Merkoski
published by Sourcebooks
this edition: 2013
size: 443KB (no page count listed yet)
categories: nonfiction; business & investing; history-world-21st Century; science-technology-general & reference
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six
real page numbers: no
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good
x-ray: no
Whispersync for Voice: no

“Those who read this years from now, please don’t forget that the future wasn’t always digital and that books weren’t always electronic.

Because without the ebook revolution, the future could never have happened.”
–Jason Merkoski
writing in Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading

I’m one of those people who is fascinated with the process of things.

I know a lot of people see a movie like The Wizard of Oz, and simply enjoy the end product…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For me, though, I wonder about how it got there. I’ve been a manager, and I’ve taught Project Management, and I’ve lived around human beings. 🙂

Very rarely does someone come up with a plan, and then follows it exactly as expected, and gets the end result they intended…and if they do, they aren’t going to revolutionize the world.

The studio wanted Shirley Temple for the Wizard of Oz, but couldn’t get her. Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett) was cast as the Tin Man, but had a bad reaction to the make-up and was replaced. The suits thought “Over the Rainbow” should be cut, because it slowed down the action, and there was a song and dance number about the “Jitterbug” which was removed.

It took a lot of accidents, and a lot of compromise, to create the movie masterpiece that is the Wizard of Oz.

The Kindle has that same sort of magical feel for an end user.

Sure, there are flaws in it, but people love it.

So, I was really looking forward to reading Jason Merkoski’s insider story of the creation of the Kindle, Burning the Page.

I had seen some good press on it, and Merkoski no longer works at Amazon after shepherding the EBR (E-Book Reader) project, so I thought we might hear some really interesting stories about how decisions got made.

While I did find the book a worthwhile read, it really wasn’t the “here’s what happened” narrative I wanted.

There is some fun stuff about the feel of working for Jeff Bezos, but there was very little about how and why they decided to do this or that.

Some of that may be covered by an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), I suppose. However, the book is much more about the past of books and speculation about the future than it is about the development of the Kindle.

Merkoski writes well. There was a nicely evocative section of imagining what it was like to work in Gutenberg’s workshop…it realistically suggests the social part of that, not just what it was like  getting that Bible done.

This, for example, was a funny line:

“Perhaps Amazon had previously shot itself in the foot so many times that it thought it had bulletproof shoes.”

I didn’t pick that quotation to suggest that the book is all anti-Amazon…this isn’t an exposé (very little does get exposed). Jason Merkoski appears to have liked working at Amazon.

We are alike in some ways, not the least important is our love of books. What comes through of that is really heartening.

However, in some ways it’s more like a series of essays (or better yet, blog posts), than it is narrative. I do think it would qualify as “narrative non-fiction” under Common Core, but if you think of a narrative as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, this isn’t it.

It’s well-researched and well-imagined, but it’s one thing here, then another thing, then another. That may, though, fit a lot of people’s reading style.

I did have some problems with the book.

Merkoski talks about putting on a “futurist’s hat”, but you can’t be a good futurist without knowing what current state is. Merkoski makes many suggestions for the future, including having a communication channel within books where you can talk to other readers, and having a way to restrict a tablet to just reading (which a teacher might do with a student).

Both of those are already here…in Amazon’s  Kindle Fire. In fact, the implementation of FreeTime is a lot more sophisticated than Merkoski suggests for a future device.

I wonder if Merkoski saw the Fire as a…perhaps betrayal of the reflective screen Kindle he created, and has just mentally blocked it from sight. The author does talk about iPads, but the Kindle Fire just shows up in three brief mentions, with nothing about its features.

This was also an odd statement to me:

“…theft of physical books is rare…”

That may be true from personal homes, but as a former brick and mortar bookstore manager, I can tell you that they have been commonly stolen. Our goal for “shrinkage” (theft, employee theft, loss to damage) was eight percent. That’s high in retail…if almost one out of every ten books was stolen, we’d still be on goal.

Now, some of you have read me saying that before, and you know I am proud of having been a bookstore manager.

That may be another thing Jason Merkoski and I have in common…a certain self-satisfied pride.

One of the important things Jason Merkoski wants you to know is how important Jason Merkoski is. 😉

“Almost no one in the company had exactly the right set of qualifications to help Lab126 and Amazon speak to and understand each other, with one exception: me.”

One other concern before I recommend the book (which I am going to do).

The author writes a lot about Reading 2.0 (Merkoski’s term), and how wonderful multi-media and social features will make books.

However, as you may have noticed at the beginning of this post, not much is actually enabled in this book. Yes, you have text-to-speech access, but a publisher doesn’t have to do anything to make that happen. There’s no X-Ray, no lending, no Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, no Whispersync for Voice. The author does these nice little discussion points, and invites readers to participate. The  discussions are in a box…but the box doesn’t really fit on a “page”, so it looks weird to me. It’s an odd graphic choice, affected by the font size you use. If you go to participate in one of the discussions, you have to sign in with Twitter or Facebook at an external website…it just doesn’t feel very integrated to me. There are no illustrations in the body of the book.

It simply doesn’t seem like the book takes advantage of Merkoski’s own ideas.

Still, I am going to recommend this book to you. There is some great writing, and some insight into the Kindle. The definitive story hasn’t been told yet…that may take an outsider, so we get something far more revealing and narrative like Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything. Still, Burning the Page is a pleasant enough read, and Merkoski’s ideas will get you thinking about the future of reading.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

5 Responses to “Review: Burning the Page”

  1. Tom Semple Says:

    I read the book, but my expectations for it were higher. I actually wound up returning it for a refund (the only time I’ve done that). I did briefly link my (nearly unused) Twitter account to ‘join the discussion’ but there didn’t seem to be much actual discussion, while the app ‘hijacked’ my account and generated silly tweets from it, which I found annoying and probably contributed to my negative attitude about the book.

    The futurism didn’t impress me as being credible and grounded, and the narrative seemed disjointed and rambling to me. There were odd gaps in the information, as if he hadn’t kept up with things: he mentions the limitations of mobi format as if kf8 did not exist, never mentions ePub3. Barely mentions the Fire and other reading tablets. He thinks Google is going to do all this great stuff with the books they’ve scanned, but with their renewed emphasis on profitability (killing Google Reader etc.) that does not seem likely. Then his self-importance. So it didn’t work for me.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      Yes, I wondered if perhaps part of the book was written, oh, three years ago or so and then just stitched together (a la Dr. Frankenstein) with more contemporary material. Merkoski did mention something that happened in 2013:

      I think it would be healthy if we could have a used ebook market. There are even hopeful signs that it may be starting soon; in 2013, Amazon applied for a patent on the sale of used digital goods, including ebooks.

      Merkoski, Jason (2013-04-09). Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (Kindle Locations 1575-1576). . Kindle Edition.

      and also gave a status report for the start of 2013.

      I’ve always been bothered by the idea of giving someone else permission to tweet with my account…I’m pretty careful about that. A lot more people see my digital face than my physical one, so I do like to make sure that what they see is me. 🙂

  2. Round up #165: Amazon adds TTS to iOS, Anne Frank pornographic? | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Interestingly, it moves us closer to something that came up in Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski (you can read my review of the book). […]

  3. Round up #169: ultimate PAW EBR, publishers bullied by Apple? | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] supported by Amazon’s research department being called Lab 126, about which Jason Merkoski in Review: Burning the Page […]

  4. The Year in E-Books 2013 | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Burning the Page […]

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