The Everything Book: reading in the age of Amazon

Amazon won the book war. In a series of rare interviews, the company tells us what's next

By Casey Newton

Chris Green holds an envelope. At least, it looks like an envelope. In reality, it's a piece of office copy paper that's been cut and folded into the shape of a Kindle Voyage, the latest in Amazon's bestselling line of e-readers. Green, the head industrial designer at Lab126, the secret lab where Kindles are designed, unfolds the paper to show it has been stuffed with everything that makes a Kindle: a CPU, a modem, a battery.

Green is a boyish sort, and he hands me his fragile bundle of electronics with a certain glee, but the most important thing in his hands is actually the paper itself. For Amazon, paper is more than a material for making prototypes. It’s the inspiration for the Kindle of the future: a weightless object that lasts more or less forever and is readable in any light. "Paper is the gold standard," Green says. "We’re striving to hit that. And we’re taking legitimate steps year over year to get there."

As Amazon popularized ebooks over the last decade, it catalyzed a necessary change in our reading habits. By 2007, when the first Kindle emerged, the publishing world had to compete with Facebook, mobile games, and a hundred other distractions; to retain their vitality, books needed to adapt. Over the years, Amazon has stuffed its e-readers with features making them easier to read, like embedded dictionaries and translators; it’s added a social network; it’s even introduced a feature that seamlessly turns text into audio and back at our convenience. Books are vessels for transmitting ideas, and today the vessels have ideas of their own own: about what we should read, and how we should read it.

Hundreds of millions of tablets and e-readers have been sold, but today we're still inclined to think of a book as words on a page. Amazon's success with Kindle has hinged on recognizing how much more they can be. So where does the company go from here? In a series of rare, on-the-record interviews for Kindle’s 7th anniversary, Amazon executives sketched out their evolving vision for the future of reading. It's wild — and it's coming into focus faster than you might have guessed.

Amazon Kindle reading feature

Inside the lab

"Welcome to the inner sanctum," Gregg Zehr says. "This is as inner as inner can get. You are one of a very few who can see this." This is a nondescript conference room on the top floor of Lab126 in a Sunnyvale, California office park. As secret labs go, it's a bit underwhelming: There's a conference table, a whiteboard, and a 10th-floor view of Highway 101 — the congested freeway that links San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Against one wall is a row of Kindles, every model since the device was first introduced. On a long conference table sit dozens of prototypes for this year's Kindle Voyage.

Zehr, a kindly, soft-spoken type who previously ran hardware engineering at Palm Computing, has been in charge of Lab126 since its opening. (Famously frugal, Amazon's gift to Zehr on his 10th anniversary was a new employee badge with a celebratory red striped border around his picture.) After making gadgets for years at Palm, Zehr felt drawn to Amazon for the chance to work on something unique. "What we had to do on the first reader," he says, "since no one had done it before, was to be as creative as possible."

"What we had to do on the first reader... was to be as creative as possible"

It's been a decade since "Fiona" was first imagined, the codename Amazon gave to the first iteration of the Kindle. As recounted in The Everything Store, Brad Stone's rollicking 2013 history of Amazon, Jeff Bezos commanded his deputies in 2004 to build the world's best e-reader lest Apple or Google beat them to it. To Steve Kessel, who was put in charge of running the company's digital business, Bezos reportedly said: "I want you to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job."

It took three years for Kindle to come to market. The first model wasn't particularly beautiful: a $400, off-white chunk of plastic with a full QWERTY keyboard. But before the world had ever heard of an app store, Amazon had integrated its bookstore directly into the device. For the first time, you could summon almost any book you could think of within seconds, no matter where you were.

The initial, never-quantified run of devices sold out in five and a half hours, and soon Kindle became synonymous with e-reading. Amazon has never released sales figures for the Kindle, but analysts believe the company has sold more than 80 million of them, and Morgan Stanley estimated the devices would generate revenues of $5 billion this year. (Amazon declined to comment on sales figures.)

More than that, Kindle brought ebooks into the mainstream. About 28 percent of Americans read an ebook last year, up from 17 percent in 2011. And the more popular they became, the more Amazon pushed to transform them.

Amazon Kindle reading feature

Breaking the book

"When you’re reading, you want to fall down the rabbit hole," says Green, a native of northern England who came to Amazon after eight years with Bay Area creative consultancy Frog Design. Amazon has actually built a rabbit hole, of sorts: a reading room somewhere at Lab126, stuffed with comfortable chairs, where pinhole cameras study the way people really read. (Because test subjects are in there using prototype devices, I am not allowed inside.)

It’s in this room that Amazon learned people switch hands on a book roughly every two minutes, even though in surveys they claimed not to. (This is why the Voyage has identical page-turn buttons on both left and right.) The Voyage’s page-forward button is much bigger than page-back, because Amazon’s data showed 80 percent of all page flips are forward. As Green describes research like this, it seems likely that Amazon has spent more time studying the physical act of reading than any company before it.

"We would never make a gold thing"

From the start, Amazon has defined its hardware mission narrowly: to build devices that disappear in the hand, with uniquely useful features, for a low price. "We would never make a gold thing, because that’s too distracting," Green says. "There are many companies that create pieces of jewelry. We’re not going to do that, because that's an added cost that takes away from the actual content."

Amazon Kindle reading feature

Chris Green, Director of Industrial Design at Lab126

Instead, Amazon wants to enhance what’s on the screen with software. If there's a unifying idea to the Kindle as an app, it's in fixing the little things that once made you put down your book in frustration. A feature called X-Ray, for example, stores a books' most common characters, locations, and ideas. Just press on a character's name and a miniature bio pops up; in an epic like Game of Thrones, it’s a godsend. Amazon knows from its embedded dictionary which difficult words tend to trip us up, so on Kindle, they are defined in superscript above the text. Rather than send you to Google to look up a short passage in a foreign language, Kindle translates it for you automatically. It tells you how long it will take you to finish a chapter, based on how quickly you normally read.

Features like these emerge from Amazon’s famously unusual meetings, which begin around the company with employees reading six-page narratives written by their co-workers laying out the points they want to make. These meetings are very quiet — until they aren’t. "It's not kumbayah — we are yelling at each other," Green adds, with a wide grin. "The documents help solidify the yelling."

The result is a book that can can translate itself; can explain itself — who its characters are, its themes, which ideas are most important. Last year Amazon bought Goodreads, which lets you to connect with friends and fellow book lovers to talk about what you're reading. So as soon as you finish a book, Kindle asks you to rate it for the benefit of your friends — and then, naturally, suggests books for you to buy next.

Amazon Kindle reading feature

The story in Seattle

There's another dimension to the future of reading, beyond how we read. It's what we read: who writes it, who publishes it, how it gets distributed. Nowhere are more important decisions being made about those issues than at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. With physical bookstores in a state of seemingly perpetual decline, Amazon has achieved a dominant position: the company sells 40 percent of all new books in the United States, and two-thirds of ebooks.

On one hand, that represents less than 10 percent of Amazon’s overall sales. But even as the company has pursued its dream of becoming a place to buy anything, books have retained an outsized place in the corporate imagination. "Books are home for us," says Russ Grandinetti, senior vice president of Kindle content. "It’s where we started. Not only is it a great business that we like, and many customers know us for, but it’s something about which we have a passion. A lot of us on the team are personally passionate about books. Books changed our lives."

In more ways than one. Because they are easy to ship and hard to break, and because Amazon.com could offer more of them than any physical store, books were the ideal launching pad for Jeff Bezos' original vision of a universal retailer. Two decades after the company was founded, books remain the business in which Amazon is most dominant — and most feared.

"Books are home for us"

Initially, publishing houses found Amazon to be an excellent partner in selling books, in part because it returned many fewer books than the chain stores that previously dominated the business. But as it became more powerful, Amazon extracted a higher and higher percentage from the sale of every book, charging publishers fees for placement on its homepage and in search results. It has proved willing to remove books from the store of any publisher that won't play along, raising the specter of a world where important books become unavailable because of corporate disputes.

These battles have been chronicled in exquisite detail this year by publications including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times. A key issue is who sets the price of ebooks; each side has jockeyed for control. For now, there appears to be a kind of détente: Amazon's high-profile war with Hachette ended last month with a multi-year agreement that lets the publisher continue to set ebook prices, with Amazon offering unspecified incentives for Hachette to price them affordably. A similar deal was signed with Simon & Schuster earlier in the year.

Amazon Kindle reading feature

Russ Grandinetti, VP of Kindle Content

If you’re just a person buying a book, it’s not always clear why you should care about these negotiations: merchants fight with their suppliers all the time. (The largest publishers declined interview requests for this piece.) But there are real worries about what the world would look like if Amazon’s dominance continues, and the company’s relentless downward pressure on book prices is understandably unsettling to authors. "In the book business the prospect of a single owner of both the means of production and the modes of distribution is especially worrisome," George Packer wrote in the New Yorker this year. "It would give Amazon more control over the exchange of ideas than any company in U.S. history." If Amazon squeezes traditional publishers out of existence — or simply pushes them into irrelevance — what will we read?

I put the question to Amazon’s Grandinetti, who leads negotiations with publishers. For starters, he says, we shouldn't assume that publishers’ woes mean that important writers will no longer be able to make a living at their craft. Writing literary works has never been a particularly lucrative occupation; authors have long relied on universities, foundations, and other non-profits to supplement their income. Publishers remain talented at finding and promoting literary works, Grandinetti says. "It’s as viable to write that work as it ever was," he says. "And I feel reasonably confident, based on the way books are going, that it will continue to be as viable."

Amazon Kindle reading feature

Meanwhile, other forms of writing may become more viable. The rise of self-publishing, which Amazon has heavily promoted, has led to an explosion of genre fiction. Kindle Singles, which allow authors to sell work of medium lengths, has become a home for projects no traditional publisher would consider. Cable TV, YouTube, and Netflix created avenues for new kinds of visual storytelling, and new ways to make money; the elimination of gatekeepers in the world of books is doing the same for text.

"Technologies change, and then what people make with them changes," Grandinetti says. He points to the way cable allowed for both Breaking Bad, which told a single story over 62 episodes; and True Detective, a multi-season series that tells a complete story each year. "Nobody would take a chance on those TV shows 10 years ago, because the model didn’t exist. So even though the evolution of these media may taketh away in some places, it giveth in some others. And I think the same may be true in books."

"Even though the evolution of these media may taketh away in some places, it giveTH in some others"

Meanwhile, Amazon has led an effort to translate more foreign-language books into English, potentially a rich new source of high-quality literature that hasn't previously been accessible. As new kinds of books become digitized, too, they'll change in ways that are hard to predict. Sales of travel guides declined as much of the information contained in them became available free of charge online; Grandinetti believes they will evolve in new ways and become useful once again.

They will have to evolve. Everything else that competes for our free time — social networks, games, television — is going to be evolving just as quickly. "Our job is to invent all the things we can to make taking that journey as pleasurable and as rewarding as possible," Grandinetti says. "And I don’t think it’s mine to say, or ours to say, if you want to talk about it in zero-sum terms, that books are going to do better or worse in the future … Where reading will go will be determined, enhanced, or constrained by how inventive we can be in how we support it."

Amazon Kindle reading feature

The book you don't read

A few years after Amazon was founded, and a few years before Apple introduced the iPod, a company called Audible introduced a digital audio device. The $200 Audible Player had 4MB of memory, enough to store about two hours of audio, which it sold at Audible.com. Don Katz, who co-founded the company, was an unlikely tech entrepreneur: he was previously a magazine journalist and book author, of the sort whose fortunes have lately been threatened by changes in the publishing industry. Audible went public in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, and survived the bust by making its catalog available through Apple's iTunes store. In 2008, Amazon bought the company for $300 million.

The company's headquarters are in a mid-rise office building in Newark, NJ, a few blocks from a train to New York. From his office on the 16th floor, Katz has a clear view of Manhattan, where he once got big advances for deeply reported non-fiction about postwar America and companies like Sears and Nike.

"Great writing ought to get into people's brains, and how it gets there shouldn't be a matter of religiosity"

In the early 1990s, Katz saw a shift at the institutions where he had made his name. The magazines he wrote for began commissioning shorter, less ambitious work. "I bailed from career one when I saw the handwriting on the wall from my 10,000-word articles becoming 7,500 words, then 5,000, then 3,500," he says. "Little did I know it was going to get down to 140 characters!" Before there was such a thing as an MP3, Katz founded Audible out of a conviction that we would one day walk around with, as he calls them, "solid-state devices filled with culture."

Amazon Kindle reading feature

Early on, Audible faced skepticism that listening should be considered as worthy a pastime as reading, or whether listening to a book should count as "reading" at all. Katz became practiced at recounting the history of literature — which began, of course, not with the written word but with oral tradition. "Reading is nothing more than the memorialization of what was thousands of years of rich oral culture," he says. Katz will remind you that the Greeks were deeply critical of the written word, which they worried would destroy our ability to memorize texts. And he notes that American literature was born out of the unique rhythms of our speech, which were first captured by writers like Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. "Great writing ought to get into people’s brains," Katz says. "And how it gets there shouldn’t be a matter of religiosity."

Under Katz, Audible's catalog has grown to more than 180,000 audiobooks. In its headquarters are six recording studios, where producers and voice actors create new audiobooks 16 hours a day, seven days a week. In 2012 Amazon introduced a feature that lets you switch back and forth easily between the written and audio versions of a book; put down your Kindle when you leave for work, and listen to the recording where you left off through the Kindle app on your commute. There are now more than 55,000 books you can "read" this way, a fact that challenges our notion of what reading even means. A future generation could listen to the Western canon on their phones. We will define literacy differently than we do today.

Just before I met with Katz, Amazon released Echo, a talking speaker that can play music, tell you the weather, and let you shop, among other things. I ask Dave Limp, Amazon's senior vice president for hardware, whether Echo will eventually read books to us. He declines to speculate, and yet it seems inevitable that Echo will eventually become another node in Amazon's system for ubiquitous reading and listening.

"The reality is that there are unbelievable amounts of time during the day that you can’t use your eyes to read a book or look at a screen," Katz says. "What we’ve done is taken really rich, literate material and then refracted that through an ever-more sophisticated performance. We say, let’s reposition this as a production of some of the greatest scripts of all times — books!"

Amazon Kindle reading feature

David Limp, Senior Vice President of Devices

One more thing

When I graduated from college I moved to a small town in Indiana to work for a newspaper. The town was culturally barren, but in the shopping center where I bought groceries stood a Borders. Nearly every weekend, I would stop there on my way to the market and spend an hour or so walking the stacks. At a time when I felt disconnected from cultural life, a chain bookstore offered me a tether. The books I bought there, and skimmed there, sustained me for the years I spent visiting it.

Today Borders has been liquidated, the location I used to visit replaced by an electronics store. Between the web and social media, I read more than I ever have — and yet I read fewer books than ever. Reading over all my notes about the future of reading, I see I have reported it out of hope that books will evolve to repair what other technologies have started to break: my ability to concentrate over hundreds of pages. I think of a line from The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer: "‘Every book is a miracle,’ Bill said. ‘Every book represents a moment when someone sat quietly — and that quiet is part of the miracle, make no mistake — and tried to tell us the rest of the story."

I’ve never actually read The Tender Bar — I just saw that when someone shared a screenshot of the passage on Twitter.

"Reading is going to have to continue to morph and get better," Don Katz tells me, "both from a quality and a technology (perspective), to maintain its position." The book of the past was a nearly perfect machine for displaying text — but the present has revealed many flaws in its approach.

Russ Grandinetti likes to quote Alan Kay: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." And so the future of reading will be shaped, in part, by what Amazon invents — by how else it decides to augment, alter, or otherwise transform the text in front of us. Anyone that wishes to compete has to reckon with the insight Amazon had seven years ago — that the text in a book is not the end, but a beginning.


Photography by Carlos Chavarria and Kyle Johnson