My word of mouth on Kindle

A veteran author and book lover gives props to Kindle, despite Amazon's lack of advertising for the electronic reading device.
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A veteran author and book lover gives props to Kindle, despite Amazon's lack of advertising for the electronic reading device.

I don't know why Amazon doesn't put its Kindle where potential buyers can put their hands on it — say, an electronics superstore, or a Starbucks. Instead, according to WIRED, Jeff Bezos is counting on "word of mouth" — satisfied customers who'll spread the word and evangelize its electronic reader by encouraging their friends to try it. "Word of mouth" is what publishers tell you to put your faith in when you want to know why they're not buying ads for your book or sending you on a publicity tour, and if the sales figures for Kindle (reputed to be less than 250,000 almost a year after Amazon introduced it) are any indication, it's not doing the job for the company any more than it does for the novel you spent ten years writing that was remaindered a month after it was published.

Which is a shame, because it's a pretty neat gadget, which you won't realize until you've tried it out. Googling "Kindle Users Group" to meet a stranger who'll let you sample his or hers may seem perfectly reasonable to the Facebook and MySpace generation, but the people who are going to shell out $360 for this aren't kids; they're boomers with money, the ones whose favorite feature on Kindle may be the adjustable type font, or early adopters who'll spring for the newest technology even before they try it out.

I don't really fit either of those categories. While I love the adjustable font, if I ramp it up to the only size type I can read without glasses, I get only one paragraph to a page. And I'm so late an adopter that by the time I get around to buying the next new thing, it's about to be discontinued in favor of the next newer thing, if my collection of Betamax videos, 8-track cassettes, Walkmans, and Super 8 cameras on eBay is any indication. So when Amazon got into the electronic reader game, I paid little attention. In a city whose residents buy or read more books per capita than any place in the country, frequent its stunning new library, and have a plethora of independent specialty, general, and used bookstores as well as chains to choose from, why bother?

Years ago, I moved to Pioneer Square because of the Elliott Bay Bookstore, which in those days was open until nearly midnight, thus assuring me of ready access, day or night, to its well-stocked shelves. Like a pregnant woman with a craving for pickles, I want what I want when I want it, and in Seattle my literary urges have always been easy to satisfy.

But not quite instantly, which is how I like my gratifications. Late at night when I'm jonesing for a new thriller and I've read every one in the house. Waiting in the dentist's office, where all the magazines are even older than I am. Listening to NPR in the car and hearing a book reviewed that I absolutely must read right this minute, or at least as soon as I get home.

E-readers have been around for a while, and I've never been tempted. But the buzz around the Kindle made my mouth water, especially since it broke just as I was going on vacation to a remote island and facing a familiar dilemma: What will I want to read when I get there, and how many books can I cram into a suitcase and still have room for my clothes?

All that PR buzz when Kindle was launched last fall meant it was spring before Amazon's publicity department could satisfy my, ahem, journalistic curiosity and loan me one: Apparently, too many of the first-tier reviewers on the company's media list wouldn't return the ones the company sent them. I'm still struggling with that myself, since I haven't let mine out of my hands since acquiring it. It's like having a library at your fingertips, without having to find a place for all those books on your already crowded shelves or schlepping them around every time you move. And the somewhat rudimentary Web browser gets you to both Google and Wikipedia, which together have the answers to all but life's truly existential questions — i.e., how many trees must die to satisfy my all-but-unquenchable thirst for the written word?

The out-of-the-box Kindle experience takes approximately three minutes, and the gray-scale screen is glare-free and easy to read. But flipping back further than one or two previous pages is cumbersome. It's the Kindle's biggest drawback, especially if you pick up reading where you left off and want to refresh your memory without re-reading every single page.

My most recent book has been available on Kindle for a few months, but as far as I can tell, it's had little effect on sales. The books I buy most often are the ones I don't care about keeping or owning — popular fiction mostly, especially new mysteries, which at under ten dollars a pop (vs. $24.95 list or around $16 at Costco or online at Amazon) are an extremely good deal. Despite the doom-sayers, I'm not worried that even the Kindle will ever replace the book. At least, not until they make it totally waterproof, so I can still take a hot bath with Jack Reacher.


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