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

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?