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.”
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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.
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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.)
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“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.
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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.”
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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.”
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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.”