Let’s take a brief break from my series chronicling the behind-the-scenes production process involved in publishing my forthcoming September thriller, Crush (if you haven’t yet read these posts, start from the first entry; if you’re reading this somewhere other than my website, my prior articles are at www.AlanJacobson.com). I want to say a few words about eBooks—specifically, Amazon’s Kindle…with an emphasis on the Kindle2.

For several years, eBooks have been hovering in the background, electronic fodder for the new generation. Some embraced it and loved the portability while others turned their noses because it wasn’t a paper book they could hold and feel. The biggest criticism was that these books needed to be read on a computer-like backlit screen, and these people said they spent enough time in front of their computers…or the light bothered their eyes after prolonged periods. This only served to underscore the fact that there wasn’t a physical book to hold.

Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s eReader sought to attack the problem from a different angle. Rather than using backlit computer-like monitor screens, they use electronic ink on a non-backlit screen—meaning that without an external light source, you can’t see anything. There’s no brightness control. Created by and licensed from another company, the electronic ink technology is quite amazing. The “ink” is instantly arranged where the text letters would be. The “pages” are turned with a click of a button—and the screen flickers to reproduce the turning of a page. The resulting image looks surprisingly close to the page of a real book.

Since I’ve only briefly played with the Sony device, but own the Kindle, my focus will be on the Kindle. Rather than spending time reviewing details of each feature, I’m only going to hit the high points because other reviews are available that dissect the device—and there’s no sense in repeating what’s already been written.

I own both the Kindle1 and the Kindle2. Back when the Kindle1 was first introduced in November 2007, the publishing industry was in trouble (it still is—only it’s gotten worse). I felt that if the device was usable and well made, it could indicate a paradigm shift in how printed matter was delivered. I thus thought it was important to get familiar with this device because my future might reside in the ones and zeroes of electronic ink. Despite the high entry cost and the fact it was an introductory model (it’s never wise to buy the first iteration of a product), I bought one. I realized, shortly after using it, that this was finally a device, coupled with Amazon’s retail heft and customer loyalty, that could forever alter the publishing landscape.

About the height/width of the small-form hardcover Book Club Edition (8” x 5”) and the thickness of a magazine, the Kindle is designed for portability. You can load approximately 1500 books (on the Kindle2) and leave on vacation without fear of finishing your novel on the beach and having nothing left to read. It’s light and can easily be toted around. The Kindle1 came with an awkward vinyl case that made it easy to transport, but difficult to hold while reading. And keeping the device in the case while reading is a necessity because of the way the page turn buttons were designed. For some inexplicable reason, the designers were out to lunch when they engineered this aspect of the unit.

The next page “button” is actually about four inches long. But that’s not the problem, per se. It sits along two-thirds of the device’s right edge, and is angled sharply outward. The result is disastrous. The very place where you would hold the reader is where this page turning strip sits. Thus, you accidentally turn pages. Constantly. I try not to be critical unless it’s truly warranted, but the engineers who designed this were either drunk or incompetent. And the beta or prototype testers were asleep on the job. Seriously—talk to anyone with a Kindle and they’ll tell you the same complaint. You can’t comfortably hold this thing without accidentally hitting the page-turning bar. It’s not fixable, and there’s no workaround—you can’t disable the bar, and trying to hold the device some other way is impossible because of where it’s situated. As a result, you’re constantly turning pages, which disrupts your reading experience. How Amazon could release a device with such an obvious design flaw baffles me.

Fortunately, Amazon heard enough of the complaints—and listened—and redesigned the button for Kindle2,so it no longer slopes outward; the bar in the new design clicks inward, further preventing an accidental page turn, and it requires firmer pressure to activate. Much, much better—in fact, I’ve never accidentally turned a page on the Kindle2.

Another issue with my original Kindle was battery life—it was so horrendous I would only get 2 hours before it died. And that was with the wireless turned off, which also eats power. At last year’s BEA (Book Expo America) conference, I spoke with the head of Amazon’s digital division and he told me my unit was defective because the battery should last two weeks. I’ve since exchanged it, and although it’s better, I can’t say it’s great. (I haven’t quantified it.)

The battery life on the Kindle2, in my experience, is vastly better. I’ve only charged it once and have been using it for weeks, though I only read on it about 15 minutes at a time. I still have a huge backlog of hardcovers to read, so, at present, my Kindle reading time is mostly limited to bedtime. (Come book tour, however, the Kindle will be an enormous advantage. Because I have to travel light, I often don’t pack books to read. The Kindle solves that problem.)

One neat feature—and a core advantage over the Sony—is the Kindle Store. It makes buying books a snap using “free” wireless connectivity. One reason the purchase price of the device is north of $300 and the books are a “deal” at $10 for popular titles ($15 for most others) is that the “free” wireless cost is factored into every purchase. Still, it makes it very easy to buy—you can easily search for the type of book you want, or search by your favorite author (that’d be “Alan Jacobson,” right?)—and in seconds, the book is available to read, right on your Kindle. Newspapers are also available for subscription purchase. Blog subscriptions, through RSS feeds, are also available.

There’s a search function, which is handy—and a dictionary, which pulls up a definition on demand. Very convenient. And you can make notes in the text (on the attached keyboard) for review later. Best of all, you can change the font size with the press of a couple buttons. The entire novel resizes onscreen in the blink of an eye. So when I use the Kindle on my elliptical, I can enlarge the font, which makes it easier to read as I’m bobbing about.

One negative: it’s proprietary. I’m not a fan of proprietary file types…the iPod is one huge example—because if the platform is ever discontinued, you’re screwed unless you buy third party file conversion software—which, when you’re talking about gigabytes of data, is a huge pain in the rump. (Though it might soon exist, I’m not aware of any such software yet for Kindle.) “Control” is part of this equation, as any iPod user knows well: they tell you how and where you can listen to your own purchased property. Got a different MP3 player? Tough. The proprietary file type won’t work (unless you go through the tedious file conversion process). Same, I’m afraid, with the Kindle: the books are not stored as universal PDF or .doc files, but as proprietary “AZW” files, so the only place the books can be read is on the Kindle (or on some Kindle-sponsored reading software, which was recently released for the iPhone). Still, if you think the Kindle platform is going to be around five or ten years from now, having your library stored on Amazon’s servers is incredibly convenient. You don’t have to worry about running out of bookshelf space. And it saves trees. Lots of ‘em.

So as an author, what do I think of using the Kindle—and of reading eBooks in general? I thought I’d hate it. I thought I needed the feel of the book, the ability to turn pages back and forth, to enjoy the experience of reading a book. But I was pleasantly surprised. The words are the same. The benefits—convenience, portability and reading ease—far outweigh any “adjustment” one might have to make to not feeling the actual book. And you’re saving millions of trees in the process.

I do believe electronic books is the future of publishing. I think that due to the success of Kindle (several hundred thousand devices have reportedly been sold), eBooks have now reached a critical threshold. Other device makers will soon begin building devices and we’ll soon see the transformation of books much like we saw the digital transformation in music. I think it’ll take longer—readers are more passionate about their paper books than listeners were about their CDs—but I predict it will eventually happen. At some point, years down the line, the number of eBook readers will surpass the number of paper book readers.

Word is that Amazon is working on a Kindle3, which will have a larger screen and be ready in time for the holidays. With the demise of so many print newspapers, a larger screened Kindle could be their savior. Like it or not, I believe the future is here, now. It just might take a while longer for hardcore book lovers to realize it.

What do you think?