Jason Merkoski has been getting a lot of attention this week. His new book Burning the Page has just been published, and according to the press coverage it gives the reading public a rare inside look into the rise of the Kindle, and Jason's time as a tech evangelist and senior Kindle program manager at Amazon.
I wasn't planning to write a book review but yesterday I came across a video Jason made a few months back. The video elaborated on one of his ideas which I disagreed with. I was planning to write this post as a rebuttal to that video, but as I got deeper and deeper into my thoughts I realized I needed to understand the author better. And so I bought Burning the Page.
This book is more of a collection of essays and personal narratives than a linear history book or a single idea, though I will note that in the first half of the book there does seem to be a coherent link between one essay and the next. It's also not really an early history of the Kindle (a memoir maybe), though that is covered to some degree.
I gave up on the book about halfway, but I've come across a few points that make me wonder whether I should take this book seriously or even bother to finish. Most of the points are little things like the Kindle edition not being all that well made (for example the go to table of contents link doesn't work) or the links inside the book that lead to what I had assumed were discussion points. In reality those links simply auto-tweeted (without my permission or informing me) that I had read a part of the book.
Update: There is no some evidence that the problem with the link was caused by my KFHD, not the ebook.
And then there are the factual details that Jason either got wrong or left out.
For example, the historical background info that Jason offers is often missing important details. He writes about Sony releasing the first E-ink ereader but neglects to mention Sony's previous ereaders, a partially successful line of products that very likely influenced the Sony Librie. He discusses Amazon's and Sony's interest in ebooks in the early and mid-2000, but leaves out the previous ebook bubble - you know, the one that gave Mobipocket their start and thus something for Amazon to build the Kindle on top of. There's also several mentions of the Nook, but no mentions of B&N's earlier ebook efforts, Borders' ebook efforts, or Fictionwise/eReader, B&N's first acquisition in the process of building the Nook platform.
It's kinda hard to write a history of the ebook when significant turning points go unmentioned.
And what details Jason includes are sometimes wrong. For example, Jason makes claims like "Sony started the ebook revolution", a point that I won't even bother to refute. He also mixes up the Epub support (and Adobe integration) that Sony added to their ereaders in 2008 with the earlier Sony Reader devices that were launched in 2006.
But in spite of the historical inaccuracies, I will note that some of the insider details from Amazon were new to me and/or useful confirmation. I had long suspected that the Amazon behavior that many had written off as "Amazon just likes to lose money" actually had specific internal data to back up the behavior. According to Jason, Amazon uses the best data they have to make business decisions.
But that's about the only good part of this book, and it's outweighed by the problems.
Jason writes a number of these essays in a rambling narrative style, almost flow of consciousness, and that sometimes led to unexpected results. There were times that one of the essays would look like they were approaching a conclusion and then suddenly go off on a tangent without finishing the previous story. Sometimes an essay will start out in one direction and end up on the other side of the city before it's done. Though these issues might sound like minor irritations, they tend to weaken the impact of the relevant essays.
If you want to read an example of Jason's rambling writing style, I'd recommend the essay on "The Launch of the Kindle". The essay on the pico projectors is another good example.
The latter essay was largely responsible for me buying the book, and it was the first one that I spent a fair amount of time trying to grasp. (And by "grasp" I mean that I tried to distill it down to the keypoints, hold them in my head at once, and see what argument is being presented.) It's focused on what Jason sees as a possible future for ereader technology, only I'm not quite sure what Jason thinks the future is supposed to be.
He frames the beginning of the chapter as a first-hand account of using the (fictional) Microbook, Amazon's newest addition to the Kindle platform. The Microbook, as described in the text and the following video, is basically a next-gen pico projector - one of those pocketable battery-powered overhead projectors that some business folk are carrying around today.
Jason sees the Microbook as a possible future ereader technology, and I am so skeptical of the idea that I have to wonder whether we're supposed to take that idea seriously. But you don't have to take my word for it.
Here's a video Jason made a few months back. It shows off the concept for the Microbook:
In an earlier draft of this post I explained in detail how the MicroBook was impractical, but I am going to skip the technical debate on the Microbook and simply point out that battery life and cost will be serious issues.
I think it's more important to note that in the middle of this essay Jason inexplicably segues from pico projectors as the future to super cheap ereader being effectively the same thing. I am still stumped as to the connection.
The essay then segues through the lack of privacy on many platforms, skips to how ereader makers could subsidize the hardware with ads, jumps to an inaccurate historical footnote about Gillette selling handles cheap in order to make a profit on razor blades, and then jumps back to the pico projector.
Somewhere in that mess there was also an analogy that the ereader and ebook are inevitably intertwined like a razor blade and a handle. Given that I was reading that essay in an app on my Android tablet I do not see how that could be the case.
Folks, I know that a review is really supposed to address the arguments more than the style, but for the life of me I cannot tell what argument he was trying to make in that essay. And frankly I've given up trying.
This book is not worth my time. Between the obvious factual problems and the incomprehensible editing, I'm not wasting any more of my time on this thing.