Has Kindle e-book development stagnated?

Has Kindle e-book development stagnated?

Thanks to a reader (if you’d like to be credited in the blog, just let me know) who alerted me in a private e-mail to this intriguing essay in Aeon:

Digital books stagnate in closed, dull systems, while printed books are shareable, lovely and enduring. What comes next? by Craig Mod

It’s well written, and both deeply researched in some areas and based on personal experience. I recommend reading it.

That said, I don’t have the same assessment of the situation that the author does.

The basic premise is this:

” As our hardware has grown more powerful and our screens more capable, our book-reading software has largely stagnated.”

One explanation given:

“It seems as though Amazon has been disincentivised to stake out bold explorations by effectively winning a monopoly (deservedly, in many ways) on the market.”

I think the first question we have to ask is if this is limited just to EBRs (E-Book Readers)…that is, not tablets like the Fire. We are continuing to see development on the tablets, including Amazon’s new Word Runner featured. That’s even available on the

Fire, 7″ Display, Wi-Fi, 8 GB – Includes Special Offers, Black (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) $49.99

It shows you a book one word at a time, in the middle of the screen. There’s a lot more to it than that, but it should greatly increase your reading speed. You can read more about that here:

The new feature I most want to try on Fire tablets

That’s a recent innovation which Amazon arguably didn’t have to do…and it certainly isn’t stagnant.

It was, perhaps, to respond to the competition of Spritz, which does a similar thing.

The fact that there is competition, though, tends to refute the premise of Mod’s essay.

What about those EBRs? Does there continue to be development there? I do want to say that I assume the author is only talking about EBRs. The article mentions “backlit” Kindles, but I think that may be confusion with the Paperwhite’s (and later the Voyage’s) frontlighting…many people confuse those two.

We’ve gotten some typography changes recently, and we got Page Flip (a way to look ahead in the book without losing your place) not that long ago.

Those don’t feel as amazing as some of the earlier things we got…but should we expect that?

One reason why some people consider paper books one of the greatest technological innovations is how little they have had to change since our basic form factor came into being.

Sure, paperbacks were a change, starting in the 1930s…but they weren’t radically different from hardbacks. They certainly weren’t more different from hardbacks than the Voyage is from the first generation (2007) model.

For more on the history of books, see the

ILMK E-books Timeline

Maybe Kindle books have changed that much in the past few years…because they already do pretty much what we want them to do.

That’s not to say that the system can’t be improved!

We continue to make progress…but I do think, for example, that we could still have much better management of the books on the Amazon website. It would be nice to be able to see which books are on which devices, for example.

The author of the essay has a couple of suggestions, and I do think they are intriguing.

However, I also suspect the author’s desires aren’t the same as those of the majority readers.

Look, I’m weird…and I know it. 😉

My Significant Other got me one of my favorite t-shirts. It says, “Nobody’s Target Market”.

I’m not sure, though, that Craig Mod has quite that same sense of self awareness.

Mod is very into book design. So into it that a great story in the article is about Mod buying a travel guidebook because of the way it was constructed…even with no intent to use it.

I don’t think most people care that much.

That doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate a great design, but my guess is that the majority of people are happy to be able to get right into the text of a book…they don’t need the sensual experience of drawing a beautifully crafted volume being drawn from an equally painstakingly designed slipcase.

Now, would I rather have my Kindle books start at the cover, rather than Chapter 1? Yes, I’d like that option.

I don’t miss the physicality of a p-book (paperbook), though.

I love owning 100 year old books, sure…I have several of those. I feel like I am in a special presence when I see a vintage book.

For my day to day reading? Give me an invulnerable digital file with increasable text, please.

I was a bit amused to be reading the article through the medium of text-to-speech in my car, after using the “Send to Kindle” extension for Google Chrome (which then let me use my Kindle Fire HDX 7).

That’s a big improvement for me.

Do I think that e-books wipeout p-books?

Nope…vinyl is still around for records, despite its relative inefficiency.

My best guess is that it is not an unreasonable model for the future for publishing: the vast majority of reading being done on e-books, with p-books being what they were before mass manufacturing: luxury items.

We aren’t close to that, yet.

Craig Mod and I have different ideas about what people tend to value in books, and what the future will bring.

That’s a good thing. 🙂

Again, I recommend the piece as evocative, thoughtful, and well-written.

Thanks again to my reader for the heads-up!

What do you think? Has Amazon diverted resources from Kindle book development to other things? If they have, is that an opening for someone else to take part of the market? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things. 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


8 Responses to “Has Kindle e-book development stagnated?”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    We’ll perhaps get a bit more insight into Amazon’s resource allocations when they report earnings on the 22nd. Clearly, as Amazon has diversified wildly, media (of which books are an ever smaller part) contributes less (on a % basis) to Amazon’s financials.

    I’ll make some points (some of which I’ve made before):

    — Reading (in the classic sense) is becoming less of how we spend our discretionary leisure time. This has been going on since at least the last quarter of the 19th century as technology has given us many more leisure time opportunities.

    — eBooks possibly present opportunities to transform what we mean by reading. What these might be are not inherently obvious. The initial eBook developments added some features that derived essentially from what we knew from our prior pBook experiences.

    — The apologists/defenders of pBooks going forward are mostly older fogies like you and me 😉 . We have a long history with (and probably quite a bit of nostalgia for) the printed book. The future (or not) of pBooks (save for certain high-end niches) will be decided by the likes of those who have grown up in a mostly eBook era (millennials and youngers).

    — I don’t have the same interest in Word Runner as you. I have used such systems in other non-Amazon contexts. I don’t read word by word — I’m not sure I read phrase by phrase either, but seeing words in their immediate context is key for me. Using things like word runner slows my speed down quite a bit, and my comprehension goes in the toilet.

    — Given the choice to learn about a topic from a video or a textual article (where the information content of both is about equal), I will always choose the text over the video. I don’t know whether that’s just me, or is it something inherent in our bio/psycho makeups?

    — We are just at the beginning of the digital media era; most advances thus far have been derivative. I suspect true revolution will come from some startup’s garage somewhere. Who knows where or when? Isn’t that a song? (:grin)

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Thoughtful, as always!

      Let’s see…

      Books may contribute proportionally less to Amazon’s financials over time, but I think they will remain symbolically important for at least another decade. “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” was how many of us became acquainted with Amazon…and that was only about twenty years ago. It’s a bit like William Shatner post-Star Trek. Attacking Star Trek would not be (wasn’t?) a good strategy. T.J. Hooker ran more seasons (even had more episodes) than Star Trek: The Original Series, but it probably took until Boston Legal to establish another character for the mainstream audience. People first loved Amazon for books…they have to be careful about how they get past that (if they ever choose to really de-emphasize it).

      I’d question your timeline a bit on long form reading. It took penny dreadfuls and dime novels, and then significantly for mainstream books, paperbacks (rising in the 1930s) to make book ownership more widely accessible and acceptable. Generally, I think people are reading more, although tending towards shorter pieces (like blogs and websites). As go to more text-to-speech as part of voice interactivity (Alexa, for one), will we consider that reading or not? Alexa currently can read me small bits from some news stories, for example.

      Actually, my experience is that Millenials are more committed to p-books than Baby Boomers. That’s certainly true in my family. Is it just that vinyl-loving hipster vibe? Not sure… What to call the next generation after Millenials? I’d say “Gen Z” is catching on, although I’ve also heard and like “Screeners”. Back to Boomers: they invented home tech, and benefit from things like increasing text size and lighter to carry more than Millenials do (although I think Millenials often have a smaller living space).

      I should say, I’m quite interested in Word Runner, but am not an advocate yet. I haven’t used it enough yet. I only did a test with Spritz. If it works (and retention does matter to me on that), I would expect to use it for short pieces and non-fiction more than for novels.I

      I agree with you that, given equal content, I’d rather read it than watch it. I think that is in part due to the time. I can read ten facts much faster than you can show them to me. 🙂

      On your last comment…to paraphrase Gil-Scott Heron, “The future will be crowdfunded”. 😉 However, there is a good chance that an existing mega-corporation will purchase that independently developed revolution before it becomes mainstream…or at least, benefit from its delivery.

  2. Tom Semple Says:

    I think the article touches on some interesting points, but at the same time represents something of an ‘elitist’ perspective, and though I’ve read it several times through since encountering it a few weeks ago, I find his arguments curiously incoherent and unconvincing.

    It goes without saying that digital reading is different than reading a physical book, and it is not reasonable to insist on parity. These are different containers and they have different properties and features. I think we are culturally enriched having developed both and having access to both.

    There are a number of things I would like to see improved about the digital reading experience, and specifically the Kindle experience, but none of it is critically bad: it is more than ‘good enough’.

    Amazon innovates with the Kindle platform more than others, yet he does not give them much credit for it. Innovation is not necessarily what most people care about.

    I have been following Kindle forum discussions about Word Runner, for example, and most people comment about how they don’t like the idea, or can’t imagine it of any use, etc., without actually trying it, or only trying it for a few minutes. Very few say that they are looking forward to trying it out and are prepared to spend enough time with it to get to a point of comfort with it. So Amazon can’t just innovate at will, they have to keep things simple and make sure people aren’t distracted with functionality they will never use.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      I think we think similarly on a lot of this. 🙂

      I think one point that was both correct and yet a reasonable weakness of e-books was the ability to take in many titles at once looking at bookshelf of p-books to select a title you want. I’ve posted pictures of our library on this blog: I can quickly visually scan for a title in our physical library more quickly than I can scan for one in my Amazon archives…but not as quickly as I can search for one.

      However, I do have a general sense of where a book is on the shelf in the library, which helps with the searching.

      The inherent problem with scanning is that the Kindle screen isn’t two meters tall. 🙂 If I took the ends off a shoebox (each about the size of a Kindle screen) and only let you look through that at a physical bookshelf, it would much more approximate what we are doing on our Kindles.

      The Kindles/Fires could move titles around much more easily than we can move physical books (that can be a real chore!). As the essay writer indicates, they could do a better job of prioritizing and suggesting titles for us to read next…that’s gotten better over time (suggesting the next in a series when I finish a book, for example)…I’m sure that’s an area of exploration and opportunity for Amazon’s developers.

      • Tom S Says:

        Interesting. It’s been long since I’ve interacted much with our still-large collection of p-books, and it it can sometimes be difficult to locate a given book. At one point I bought a database program specifically to construct a catalog, with shelf locations and such, but it was too much work, even with a bar code scanner, and internet to fill records with metadata. So I argue that being able to scan lots of shelves at once is a broken feature. You can never be sure the book is still where you expect it to be, unless you are the only one doing the shelving, and even then, memory is fallible. And if it is not where you expect it, good luck finding it.

        By contrast, on a tablet it only takes a few seconds to scan my entire ‘To Read’ list on a tablet, even though it is approaching 300 items). And if I remember any part of the title or author, it is even quicker to type in (or speak) a few words or letters.

        That said, it could be better. For example iBooks and Nook ‘auto stack’ books in a series. It would be nice if you could dynamically search by category (e.g. based on book listing) or even LOC/Dewey classification. One might argue about how some books are classified, but it would be a start.

        In general I don’t have any difficulty finding books in Kindle Store with just author or title. And such searches often include related books.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Tom!

        I can (usually) find things quite quickly in our physical library…which is thousands of book in that one room.
        However, I am the only person shelving normally, and I have a quirky memory that will typically remember pretty much right where the book is (even years later), despite a given shelf not being all that organized.

        Generally, though, they are pretty organized, which helps in the rare occasion that someone else needs to find something or reshelve something.

        For example, the science fiction/fantasy books are alphabetical by author, and alphabetical by title within author.

        Than can be argument there though, as you note. I tend to follow Leonard Maltin, and treat numbers as though they are spelled out words…20,000 Leagues in the T’s, for example, not with the number “2” coming before the letter “A” as a computer would.

        I also treat “Dr.” as thought it is “Doctor”, so under “Do” rather than “Dr.”.

        No question that organization could be better for e-books! I would start with several paths from a book: by series; by author; by title alphabetically; and by similar topics/genres/moods (the last one with, perhaps, a word cloud). The system would learn what the user tended to choose as a path, as well as what an aggregate of users chose. Then, it would promote those choices.

        Let’s say that most people who read a non-fiction book on dogs want to read another non-fiction book on dog next. That would be the promoted choice…a book in your library which you have not yet read about dogs.

      • Edward Boyhan Says:

        I have about 1200-1300 pBooks in the house — maybe 900 mass market fiction titles, and 3-400 technical & academic titles. The fiction breaks down 70% paperback, 5% trade paperback, and 25% hardback. The technical books are maybe 15% hardback, and the rest are trade paperbacks.

        One thing I’ve been increasingly noticing is that all these pBooks are mostly at this point just decoration. Technical books have a relatively short lifetime — most of those I have in print are more than 5 years old, and are basically obsolete. Since I got my first kindles, all my technical books have been acquired as PDFs.

        On the mass market side, my bookshelves are quite deep such that I can put 3 paperbacks one behind the other on a shelf. I keep all books by an author together, but maybe only one or two spines are on the outer level; the inner levels might expand like an iceberg — depending upon how many titles by an author I have. Certain shelves are only mystery/thriller; certain are only science fiction. Shelves and authors are not contiguous/alphabetical, but I pretty much know where everything is.

        Thing is though: if I decide I want to reread something I have in pBook form, I almost always go ahead and buy an eBook version — so I rarely ever read pBooks anymore.

        Back before I got my first kindle I had a bar code reader that was surplus from an NCR POS system. That little handheld reader, could read and store up to 500 barcodes, each separated by CR/LF. After it was full I could easily transfer the barcodes into systems that could get the associated metadata from places like Amazon.

        Amazon allows you to put books acquired from non-Amazon sources into the Manage My Content page (as documents not books), and I find that almost good enough.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Edward!

        Pick up an p-book out of my library and read it cover to cover? Not for years. I do still sometimes look something up in a p-book…it may not be available in e-book form, or I may not have bought it that way. There are cases where I wouldn’t want to pay for it as a p-book. However, if I could wave a wand and have searchable digital copies of all my p-books? (“Digitalio!”) I’d do it in a heartbeat!

        As to your barcode reader…I thought it was great that Firefly on my Fire Phone could identify my p-books…even just by the cover, not by the barcode. However, it didn’t let me put it from there into Goodreads! That would have been nice…

        My shelves are generally separated by topic and alphabetically by author, although not all of the are (humor, for example). Still, I tend to have a pretty good idea where the books are: I just remember, in many cases.

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