Should an author have more control over a reader’s Kindle?

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Recent­ly I was talk­ing with a group of Eng­lish majors (I know, I know) about the evo­lu­tion of lit­er­a­ture in the post-infor­ma­tion age. A ques­tion was asked: “What if the future of the inter­net and books was an inter­net specif­i­cal­ly for and about sto­ries?”

This got us talk­ing about our Kindles, and what poten­tial oppor­tu­ni­ties exist for Ama­zon to help bring authors closer to their read­ers. In this arti­cle, I’d like to talk about some of the ques­tions that came up and, more specif­i­cal­ly, some of our ideas around what Ama­zon is doing with the Kindle, what Ama­zon could be doing with the Kindle, and how we might see the future of lit­er­a­ture chang­ing as the way we read changes.

Why can’t authors update their readers instantly?

A post-mod­ern text that changes as you read it. Sounds like inter­ac­tive fic­tion, doesn’t it? Well it doesn’t have to be. Kindles are dig­i­tal tools that hold dig­i­tal files com­prised of basic HTML markup, and enabling lim­it­ed use of Javascript–or even a cus­tom script­ing lan­guage to con­trol and manip­u­late tex­tu­al data–could turn the Kindle into an entire­ly immersible expe­ri­ence.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, stand­ing poli­cies about updat­ing Kindle books pre­vent this type of inter­ac­tive fic­tion from com­ing to your Kindle.

Here’s how it works if you aren’t famil­iar:

  • If an author wants to update their Kindle book, they can pub­lish those updates very quick­ly through the KDP pub­lish­ing sys­tem.
  • If a read­er wants the most cur­rent ver­sion of a book, how­ev­er, they have to login to the Ama­zon web­site with a com­put­er and then man­u­al­ly trig­ger an update on the books that are marked as hav­ing an update avail­able.

Why is it so dif­fi­cult to update a book?

Well, first we should ask, why do we need to keep updat­ing a book? Per­haps this is the under­ly­ing prob­lem here. A “book” or “sto­ry” is always con­sid­ered a sin­gle, immov­able thing that is writ­ten, pub­lished, and then it’s not changed.

I won­der what sort of things we’re miss­ing out on my treat­ing a dig­i­tal book as an unchang­ing, stag­nat­ed thing.

I have a few hypothe­ses.

H1: Ama­zon does not allow authors to have changes to books post­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly to users’ devices because they don’t want authors to sell one thing and then deliv­er (via change) anoth­er.

This is prob­a­bly the most prob­a­ble rea­son, given that Amazon’s KDP pro­gram suf­fers enough from a per­ceived lack of legit­i­ma­cy due to garbage being used to scam the sys­tem. Ama­zon doesn’t want some­thing to appear to be one thing and then turn out to be bunch of affil­i­ate links–or some oth­er scam­my type of thing.

But this type of behav­ior is already hap­pen­ing. Peo­ple take advan­tage of Kindle Unlim­it­ed all the time, and it’s evi­dent with some of the crap you might stum­ble upon if you hap­pen into the bow­els of KU (like I do when I’m look­ing for the next Chuck Tin­gle book).

From Kate Cox @ Con­sumerist:

Scam­mers are basi­cal­ly upload­ing “books” that are noth­ing but files full of non­sense with some link on page 1 that puts read­ers on page 300 or 3000 (the max­i­mum page length for which Ama­zon will pay out) almost instant­ly. In between there’s noth­ing but non­sense, but the scam­mer can use click farms to dri­ve up the rank­ing of their book and so peo­ple down­load it any­way.

H2: Ama­zon does not allow authors to have changes to books post­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly to users’ devices because they don’t want peo­ple to live in their Kindles and nev­er vis­it the Ama­zon web­site (and fun­nel them through pro­duct rec­om­men­da­tions).

I’m just going to assume that this one is not sup­port­ed, but hey, it’s always a pos­si­bil­i­ty.

H3: Ama­zon does not allow authors to have changes to books post­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly to users’ devices because they don’t know that this is a thing read­ers may want.

Here’s the hypoth­e­sis that’s call­ing out to me. I real­ly think Ama­zon just doesn’t real­ize how many Eng­lish nerds like me could be com­plete­ly engrossed in a Lit­er­a­ture Machine if it was designed in such a way that would allow us to be engrossed in one.

Accord­ing to Amazon’s web­site, changes to books that have been pre­vi­ous­ly down­load­ed can only occur if the changes are seri­ous. Even then, the changes will not be auto­mat­i­cal­ly pushed to your read­ers’ devices, but rather, they can login to a page to man­age their Kindle and they will see a link that says “Update Avail­able.”

Two things make this a very poor method:

First, it assumes that authors have all their read­ers on social media accounts, email lists, or liv­ing in their home. I don’t want to spam peo­ple with emails, I want to con­trol the way my pro­duct lives and breathes on their devices. If I don’t have a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with every­one who has ever down­load­ed my book (which I don’t because that data is not avail­able to me nor do I think it should be avail­able to peo­ple), then how can I reli­ably send out updates to books? I’m basi­cal­ly ask­ing for more than one ver­sion of my pro­duct to be out there at a time.

Sec­ond, this method of updat­ing work restricts the type of pro­duct we can cre­ate. Imag­ine the type of fic­tion we could pro­duct if we could change the words in a sto­ry, or the end­ing, or what peo­ple say, at dif­fer­ent times through­out the year, auto­mat­i­cal­ly and seem­ing­ly mag­i­cal­ly while users are read­ing sto­ries? A sto­ry that changes as you read it? It’s like a liv­ing, breath­ing work of art! Of course, not all sto­ries would need this, but there are many artists out there who are incred­i­bly bright and cre­ative. I won­der what they could come up with?

Amazon could do more to connect readers with authors

If some­one down­loads my book, I want to be able to pub­lish updates to a book–fix a typo, add a page break, or even add a free chap­ter at the end of a new nov­el I’ve just published–and have them go straight to my read­ers. I am con­fi­dent that the vast major­i­ty of read­ers would like a sys­tem like this that they could opt-in to as well. The prob­lem I see is when there exists a sys­tem where authors can pub­lish sub-par work and then spend the next few months fix­ing it. The Kindle­Un­lim­it­ed pro­gram is already plagued by hur­ried fic­tion from authors work­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, though, so what’s the

Here’s what I’m envi­sion­ing:

  • I down­load Hugh Howey’s 2025 nov­el that he doesn’t know he’s going to write called My She, Machine, a sto­ry about a wom­an who copes with her dead sis­ter by cre­at­ing a social media bots that repli­cate her per­son­al­i­ty and behav­ior. Every­thing is great until the social media bot starts rela­tion­ships with oth­er peo­ple, even get­ting employed, and even­tu­al­ly becomes so famous that the liv­ing sis­ter has to assume the real-life ver­sion of the robot she made (you know, for inter­views, talk shows, etc). Well, in doing this she real­izes that she is los­ing a bit of her­self the more and more she becomes this per­son­al­i­ty and final­ly at the end she real­izes that this whole time she’s been keep­ing her sis­ter alive it has been her who is dying, to the point that she doesn’t even rec­og­nize her­self any­more when she looks in the mir­ror. Real­ly dark stuff, Hugh. Are you feel­ing okay?
  • Well, Hugh pub­lish­es a sec­ond nov­el in the same uni­verse because the first one was so dark and mys­te­ri­ous and every­one is try­ing to fig­ure out what the hell hap­pened out there while he was cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing.
  • Hugh then decides that he wants to go back to the first book and update it with links to the sec­ond book in the same uni­verse, and even include a free chap­ter or two. Cool idea, Hugh. Appre­ci­ate it.
  • So here I am, in Kindle land, read­ing my book and fin­ish­ing it, and now I’m done. I have no idea Hugh put out anoth­er book because I spend most of my time dis­con­nect­ed from the inter­net and read­ing fic­tion on my Kindle, but:
  • I see a lit­tle noti­fi­ca­tion that says my Hugh Howey nov­el “My She, Machine” has a new update. 
  • When I go to the update, I see that Hugh has added some infor­ma­tion about the newest book to the ver­sion that I have. How neat!

Put more sim­ply:

  • When you down­load a book on Kindle, that book becomes it’s own por­tal
  • When I go to that book’s por­tal on my Kindle, I can: 
    • See author updates about this book (and only about this book)
    • Auto­mat­i­cal­ly have all my “Hugh Howey” books update in their por­tals
    • Inter­act with Hugh in a blog-like fash­ion when he writes about that por­tal, or when oth­er authors write about it, or when oth­er read­ers are dis­cussing it.

I want to auto­mat­i­cal­ly have updates deliv­ered to my books, and I want to be able to opt-in and out based on:

  • Indi­vid­u­al titles
  • Any books in a speci­fic series
  • Any books by a speci­fic author

When I have decid­ed to add Hugh Howey to my library, I am basi­cal­ly telling Ama­zon that

  • I like Hugh Howey and want to read what he writes
  • I want to receive instant updates when Hugh Howey deems them appro­pri­ate for his work
  • Hugh Howey con­trols the pre­sen­ta­tion of the book on my kindle, not me

The book as a portal

There are real­ly two ways to look at this top­ic: either a book on a Kindle is a sin­gle piece of work that you digest and are done with, or a book on a Kindle is a por­tal to not just the book, but com­pan­ion infor­ma­tion about the book and the entire immersible expe­ri­ence the writer has cre­at­ed. Again, this is not for every type of book out there, but rather, this opt-in pro­gram could be for peo­ple who want to be a “Trust­ed Author” on a read­ers’ Kindle, which lets them auto­mat­i­cal­ly pub­lish updates to that read­ers’ Kindle.

The book as a por­tal also gives us the abil­i­ty to rede­fine what it means to be a Book. Do we still think of books as one-off sto­ries? What about books that have alter­nate end­ings? I talked with a stu­dent one time who want­ed to write a sto­ry about a wom­an diag­nosed with a strange mem­o­ry fail­ure. Over the course of a few years, that author want­ed to change parts of the sto­ry so that when peo­ple dis­cuss the book lat­er, every­one remem­bers dif­fer­ent things hap­pen­ing. What an inter­est­ing idea, right? Not so inter­est­ing that Ama­zon would invest in, I’m sure, but per­haps it spawns ques­tions in the minds of peo­ple smarter than me.

Trust­ed Authors could be vet­ted by Ama­zon, and may­be they could be called an Ama­zon Trust­ed Author. They could be vet­ted by read­ers indi­vid­u­al­ly as a sort of opt-in process. It gives me, the read­er, the abil­i­ty to read more than just the books that my favorite author writes; I can read their non-fic­tion (i.e., blog) as well.

Some­one point­ed out that this idea is real­ly just a “faster, more effi­cient design of the cur­rent Kindle sys­tem.” And that may very well be the under­ly­ing prob­lem for me with my Kindle: it takes too many clicks to get a book in my hand (I tend to read two or three books at a time); the inter­face is sort of clunky and designed, obvi­ous­ly, to push the sales of books; I miss the look and feel of my first Kindle which just list­ed the books like an ear­ly iPod list­ed my music.

What do you think about the Kindle expe­ri­ence? Do you think the idea of an “Author Por­tal” or a “Book Por­tal” would be some­thing peo­ple want? 

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