The 10th birthday of the Kindle was on Sunday, which has been met with all sorts of retrospectives. Getting less coverage is that it’s also the tenth anniversary of Amazon’s self-publishing platform. In this excerpt from the forthcoming third edition of Let’s Get Digital, I argue that the real revolution is something else again which is also ten years’ old this month: the Kindle Store itself, which didn’t just open up publishing by allowing anyone to sell their books, it also democratized which books get recommended.
I’ll be posting in more detail about the launch, and the two books on marketing which will follow. Digital 3 won’t be available as a free update like last time, as that caused way too many problems. However, I will be making the pre-order available for 99¢ so that anyone can update for the minimum possible cost.
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Digital is heading to the editor today – so this is unedited. Please excuse any errors.
Chapter 11 – The Birth of the Kindle
It’s almost exactly ten years to the day that the first Kindle was launched—as I write these words, at least. There are a lot of interesting articles circulating about the launch on 19 November 2007 and it’s funny looking back at that first device, which resembled a slimmed-down fax machine. I remember thinking no one would ever use such a clunky thing to read a book, and they certainly wouldn’t pay $399 for it!
The future makes fools of us all.
But maybe Jeff Bezos isn’t quite as visionary as popularly depicted because that first Kindle sold out in five-and-a-half hours. And it didn’t just sell out, it sold its entire Christmas stock. Amazon wasn’t able to put it back on sale until April 2008—five months later. It’s amazing now to think that even Amazon didn’t realize how much latent hunger there was for digital reading.
What happened next is well-known: successive iterations of the Kindle were released with better specs, greater capacity, and new features, always allied with a lower price. The display got crisper, the device got lighter, performance improved, and Amazon began selling Kindles internationally too. By the time the third-generation Kindle came out in August 2010, the price had dropped from $399 to just $139. This lower price point ushered in the digital revolution in earnest. Sales of what became known as the Kindle Keyboard exploded, and kickstarted a corollary uptick in the sales of ebooks; all these new Kindle owners had devices to fill. Those first hardy self-publishers mapping out the digital landscape during Christmas 2010 reported a massive boom in sales, one that made plenty of writers (like myself) take a serious look at self-publishing for the first time.
The sudden flowering of digital reading and ebooks and self-publishing puzzled many long-time observers of the sector. Ebooks had been around since 1971 when Michael Hart typed up the Declaration of Independence and made it available to download on a rudimentary precursor to the internet. The first patent for automated reading is older again, filed by Spaniard Angela Ruiz Robles in 1949—although the concept itself can be traced back to author Bob Brown’s manifesto from 1930 called The Readies. In terms of commercial availability, ebooks were purchasable on floppy disks since the 1980s, ebookstores had been around since the early 1990s, and dedicated devices were available since Sony launched the Data Discman in 1992—a full fifteen years before that first Kindle.
So why did ebooks suddenly flourish? How did Amazon essentially create the modern ebook market? Why did Amazon end up being the dominant force rather than, say, a first mover like Sony? These questions are easier to answer if you realize something important: it was never about the device. While Amazon is responsible for many hardware innovations, I don’t think anyone would argue that the Kindle Fire is higher spec than the iPad, and Kobo arguably led the way for many years in terms of dedicated e-readers without grabbing Amazon’s market-share.
It was about the store. Continue reading