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Amazon Raises the Stakes in Your Reading Experience: The Platform War Continues
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Posted On February 28, 2011


In the first half of February 2011, Amazon announced an upgrade to the Kindle software, consisting of four elements. The first was the enabling of share-able public notes; Kindle owners may now choose to reveal annotations made in a Kindle edition to others in the same way users had previously been able to share highlighted passages made on a Kindle. The second item was the availability of pagination that would correlate with a specific print edition of the same work. The upgrade would also encourage star ratings of a title as soon as the reader had finished reading it and the possibility of posting both the completion status and star rating to either one’s Twitter or Facebook followers. Finally, a new graphical layout for magazines and newspapers on the Kindle better displays a single issue’s contents. The upgrade was applicable to third-generation Kindles devices and the same set of capabilities was subsequently added within the week to the broad range of Kindle apps for other devices.

From the composition of the announcement (which didn’t even rate a formal press release to investors), one might have assumed that the public sharing of annotations was the biggest news. Sharing occurs through the AmazonKindle site (with a tag line of Read, Review, Remember) at http://kindle.amazon.com. That site already aids in discovery of unfamiliar or obscure titles by displaying those titles and passages that have received the most highlighting from Kindle users, and sharing of annotations is a logical extension of those capabilities. Users are slowly being encouraged to transfer sharing and rating activities to that more robust social environment and away from the currently existing Media Library, which in its turn was an upgrade from a even older environment known as the Digital Locker, launched half a dozen years ago to accommodate as a post-sale customer service for holding digital music and owners’ manuals for products purchased through Amazon’s site.

Users are being encouraged to tie their Kindle device to a particular Facebook or Twitter account. However, the social upgrade requires that the link be done through the Kindle device itself. It cannot be done through the new social site.

But, what garnered attention in that initial announcement from Amazon centered around page numbers. During the holiday season when e-readers were a hot gift item, the lack of something as familiar as page numbers in the dominant device offered in the market struck many as strange. (See for example, this rant by TechCrunch writer, Sarah Lacy from last November, or alternatively look at the poll taken by CNET in January). Competitors such as Google Books and Barnes & Noble (which had found ways to implement pagination) had an edge in this regard, posing a threat to Amazon. Page numbers represented a reason for the Christmas shopper to choose a competing device, perhaps the new Nook Color or iPad.

So was this most recent software upgrade to the Kindle simply a case of matching recent benchmarks set by the competition?

The largest purveyors of reading platforms—Amazon, Google, and Apple—are indeed now largely at a similar level of functionality. What is different is the areas of specialization that each has largely claimed as their territory. Apple’s iPad is primarily oriented towards the graphic displays found in magazines. The iPad with its associated apps can take advantage of the opportunity for color, layout, and design, thereby engaging readers whose attention is most immediately engaged through visuals. Apple also leads as a platform for multimedia. Google, with its longstanding Books project, online reader, and huge collection of digitized titles assembled from libraries as well as publishers offers more breadth of scope in its content collection. Amazon, first to market with mainstream ebook offerings, specializes more in frontlist titles and owns the predominant e-reader device.

Amazon’s pagination is tied to a print edition. Buried on the Kindle product page (under product details) a field indicates the ISBN for whatever print edition was used in creating pagination for the Kindle edition. This improves the likelihood of instructors adopting a particular edition for use in the classroom, knowing that students will be able to choose a format personally preferable to them while still being consistent for purposes of classroom references and citation. That page numbers show up in search results on the Kindle satisfies an additional need for those seeking to refer to a particular quotation. Amazon was however attentive to the needs of users beyond the classroom. The size of the font selected by users for their particular Kindle doesn’t impact on the pagination, which was a key worry for some.

Another point of significance is that the value-add of pagination in digital editions is one brought to the table by distribution platforms rather than rights-holders. Amazon (in the announcement referenced earlier) noted that the priority in the application of page numbering was largely sales ranking. They “added real page numbers to tens of thousands of Kindle books, including the top 100 bestselling books in the Kindle Store that have matching print editions and thousands more of the most popular books.”

What might that translate to in the collection of an average Kindle reader? In a random survey of 40 titles on my own Kindle device (perhaps a third of what I own in total of Kindle editions), 35% of those had both linked tables of content as well as pagination. By comparison, 51% had linked tables of contents only. (The remaining 15% was scatter-shot, location numbers only, page numbers only, or too short in terms of length—suggesting that the navigational assistance of either tables of contents, pages, or locations numbers will be almost entirely applied to long form content. Novellas, long essays, Kindle Singles even need not apply.) Of those with both, the titles spanned a full range of providers of all sizes, both trade and scholarly—Knopf, Penguin, Rutgers University Press, Cambridge University Press. Curiously, genre had less impact than might have been expected. One title from a small independent press in science fiction had both table of contents as well as pages, by virtue of being present on Amazon’s best seller list for that genre, but other genres that have also been in the forefront of moving to digital (romance and religious publishing to name two) did not have a particularly strong showing (at least for me). The presence of university presses in this mix is however reassuring. Scholarly publishing will gradually be influenced by what happens on consumer platforms belonging to the big three—Amazon, Google, and Apple.

Industry consultant Joseph Esposito, who has worked with both trade and STM publishers, explains it this way. “The infrastructure in the networked environment is largely being created with the needs of the average consumer in mind. Academic and professional publishers have already created digital platforms for delivering content on an institutional level, but they will undoubtedly watch with interest (and potentially piggy-back on) what is created for the consumer market in order to satisfy user expectations shaped by that reading experience. Networks follow the numbers and the numbers are in the consumer markets.”


 Jill O'Neill is director, planning & communication at NFAIS.

Email Jill O'Neill

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