Ticking all the boxes

Last month my Kindle gave up. It refused to take charge, only heating up the  charging cable (and possibly destroying an Android charger) in the process. This wasn’t the first time this was happening.

In 2012, my first Kindle had given up a few months after I started using it, with its home button refusing to work. Amazon had sent me a new one then (I’d been amazed at the no-questions-asked customer-centric replacement process). My second Kindle (the replacement) developed problems in 2016, which I made worse by trying to pry it open with a knife. After I had sufficiently damaged it, there was no way I could ask Amazon to do anything about it.

Over the last year, I’ve discovered that I read much faster on my Kindle than in print – possibly because it allows me to read in the dark, it’s easy to hold, I can read without distractions (unlike phone/iPad) and it’s easy on the eye. I possibly take half the time to read on a Kindle what I take to read in print. Moreover, I find the note-taking and highlighting feature invaluable (I never made a habit of taking notes on physical books).

So when the kindle stopped working I started wondering if I might have to go back to print books (there was no way I would invest in a new Kindle). Customer care confirmed that my Kindle was out of warranty, and after putting me on hold for a long time, gave me two options. I could either take a voucher that would give me 15% off on a new Kindle, or the customer care executive could “talk to the software engineers” to see if they could send me a replacement (but there was no guarantee).

Since I had no plans of buying a new Kindle, I decided to take a chance. The customer care executive told me he would get back to me “within 24 hours”. It took barely an hour for him to call me back, and a replacement was in my hands in 2 days.

It got me wondering what “software engineers” had to do with the decision to give me a replacement (refurbished) Kindle. Shortly I realised that Amazon possibly has an algorithm to determine whether to give a replacement Kindle for those that have gone kaput out of warranty. I started  trying to guess what such an algorithm might look like.

The interesting thing is that among all the factors that I could list out based on which Amazon might make a decision to send me a new Kindle, there was not one that would suggest that I shouldn’t be given a replacement. In no particular order:

  • I have been an Amazon Prime customer for three years now
  • I buy a lot of books on the Kindle store. I suspect I’ve purchased books worth more than the cost of the Kindle in the last year.
  • I read heavily on the Kindle
  • I don’t read Kindle books on other apps (phone / iPad / computer)
  • I haven’t bought too many print books from Amazon. Most of the print books I’ve bought have been gifts (I’ve got them wrapped)
  • My Goodreads activity suggests that I don’t read much outside of what I’ve bought from the Kindle store

In hindsight, I guess I made the correct decision of letting the “software engineers” determine whether I qualify for a new Kindle. I guess Amazon figured that had they not sent me a new Kindle, there was a significant amount of low-marginal-cost sales that they were going to lose!

I duly rewarded them with two book purchases on the Kindle store in the course of the following week!

Books and Kindle Singles

Recently I started re-reading Vikram Chandra (the novelist and Berkeley academic)’s book “Mirrored Mind”, which has been published in the US as “Geek Sublime”. I hadn’t read it earlier – I had only read the Kindle sample and then discarded it, and I recently decided to pick it up from where I had left off.
In fact, that was hard to do, so I decided to start from the beginning once again, and so went through the introduction and preface and acknowledgements and all such before diving into the book again. This time I liked it better (not that I hadn’t liked it the first time round), and so decided to buy the full book. But somewhere midway through the full book, I lost enthu, and didn’t feel like reading further. My Kindle lay unused for a few days, for the “loaded” book on that was this one, and there was absolutely no enthu to continue reading that. Finally I gave up and moved on to another book.So one point that Vikram Chandra makes in the introduction to the book is that he initially planned to make it a Kindle single, but then decided, upon the urging of his wife and others, to make it into a complete book on coding and poetry. While the intent of writing a full book is no doubt well-placed, the result doesn’t really match up.

For when you try and turn a Kindle single into a full book, you try to add words and pages, and for that reason you write things that aren’t organically attached to the rest of the book. You want to add content, and depth, but instead you end up simply adding empty words – those that you could have done without, and chapters which are disconnected from the rest of the book.

And so it is the case with Vikram Chandra’s Mirrored Mind. There is a whole chapter, for example, on the sociology of the Indian software industry, which is clearly “out of syllabus” for the otherwise excellent novelist, programmer and creative writer Vikram Chandra. He goes into long expositions on the role of women in the Indian software industry, the history of the industry, etc. which are inherently interesting stories, but not when told by Chandra, who is clearly not in his zone while writing that chapter.

And then there is the chapter on Sanskrit poetry, which is anything but crisp, and so verbose that it is extremely hard to get through. There is nothing about code in the chapter, and it is very hard to cut through the verbosity and discern any references to the structure of poetry, and that lays waste to the chapter. It was while reading this chapter that I simply couldn’t proceed, and abandoned the book.

This is by no means a comparison but I’ve gone down this path, too. I’ve written so many blog posts on the taxi industry, and especially on the pricing aspects, that I thought it might make sense to put them all together and convert them into a Kindle Single. But then, as I started going through my posts and began to piece them together during my holiday in Barcelona earlier this year, I got greedy, and I thought I could convert this into a full “proper” book, and that I could become a published author.

And so I started writing, mostly in cafes where I went to for breakfast (croissant and “cortado”) and for coffees. I set myself ambitious targets, of the nature of writing at least two thousand words in each session. This might help me get out a skeleton of the book by the time my vacation ended, I reasoned.

Midway through my vacation, I decided to review my work before proceeding, and found my own writing unreadable. This is not always the case – for example, I quite enjoy going back and reading my own old blog posts. I’m quite narcissistic, in other words, when it comes to my own writing. And I found my own work-in-progress book unreadable! I immediately put a pause on it, and proceeded to fritter away the rest of my vacation in an offhand way.

I got back to Bangalore and sent the “manuscript”, if it can be called such to editor extraordinaire Sarah Farooqui, I don’t know what trouble she went through reading it, but her reaction was rather crisp – that the “book” was anything but crisp and I should cut down on the multitude of words, sentences and paragraphs that added no value. The project remains stillborn.

So based on these two data points, one from a great novelist (none of whose novels I’ve read), and one from my not-so-humble self, I posit that a Kindle single once conceived should be left that way, and authors should not be overcome by delusions of grandeur that might lead them to believe they are in the process of writing a great work. The only thing that can come out of this is a horribly overblown book whose information content is no greater than that of the Kindle single originally conceived.

Long ago on this blog I had written about “blog posts turned into books”, after reading Richard MacKenzie’s book on pricing (Why popcorn costs so much at the movies). The same holds true for Kindle singles turned into books, too. And when I started writing I intended to be a 500-word blog post, not the 900-word monster it has turned into. I wouldn’t blame you if you if you didn’t get this far.

Blossom, not babykutty

I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that most of the books I own have been bought at Blossom, the new and secondhand bookstore on Church Street, Bangalore. I have bought significantly from Premier Bookshop also, but there was an inflexion point in my reading after Premier closed, so most of my book-buying has happened after that. I have bought some books from larger stores such as Landmark or Crossword, but they are too few to be counted. In fact, I would hate to classify Landmark or Crossword as “bookstores” any more, given the amount of real estate they allocate for that trade.

So I was at Blossom last month, browsing its shelves. The Karnataka Quiz Association still gives out its prizes in the form of Blossom coupons, and since I still have a few unspent coupons, I was at the store looking if there was a book I liked. And possibly for the first time ever in that store, I was underwhelmed.

Essentially my book buying and reading habits have changed significantly in the last two years (my last “raid” on Blossoms was in September 2011). Sometime in 2012 i got myself a Kindle. While I initially used it to read PDFs and free e-books and instapaper, I soon warmed up to buying books directly from the Kindle store. The gamechanger as far as I was concerned was the free samples. You can download free samples of any e-book on your Kindle, and once you’ve read the sample (typically about 7% of the book) you can purchase the book with a single click (from your Kindle itself). Some of the books which I’ve wanted to explore have had me so hooked that I’ve ended up buying. And now (partly as a result of a weak ligament in my left thumb) I find it hard to read physical books!

The primary reason I felt underwhelmed at Blossom was that my process for book-discovery has also changed, along with my process for book buying. One of the advantages buying regularly from Amazon is that their recommendation engines start working for you. So nowadays, if I want to browse books, i go to the Amazon website and start looking through my recommendations. And so far, I’ve bought a few of my recommended books and have ended up liking them.

Being a regular visitor to the Amazon recommendations page means that I’m clued in to the long tail of books, which would happen earlier only when i visited special bookshops such as Blossom. Also, the breadth of Amazon’s collection means that I’m more likely to find a title I like on the Kindle Store than in a bookshop like Blossom. And add to this my preference for ebooks over physical books and you know why Blossom doesn’t pleasure me any more.

So every time I would look through the shelves on the third floor of the store (the non-fiction section housing secondhand books) and find something interesting, I would find myself reaching for my phone and checking if the book were available on the kindle store. I would contemplate buying the book only if it weren’t available on the Kindle store or if it  were extraordinarily priced.

I had gone to Blossom with about a thousand rupees of coupons (collected over various quizzes) but was able to spend only half of them. Solstice at Panipat (about the third battle in 1761) wasn’t available on the Kindle Store. It was a similar story with KA Nilakanta Sastri’s The History of South India. Jane Jacobs’ Cities and The Wealth Of Nations was available on the Kindle Store but the Blossom price was too tempting.

I realize that despite my binge on the Kindle Store, I have more unread physical books than e-books. I wish some day Amazon were to come up with a program where I could exchange physical copies of my books for ebooks. That way I’m sure I would read more.