The following is the final part of a five-part excerpt from Jason Merkoski's Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (click here to read Part One, here's Part Two, here's Part Three, and here's Part Four). Merkoski was an early innovator on Amazon's Kindle team, and his new book discusses how ebooks came to be, as well as where they're going. This excerpt is about the inside story of the Kindle:
Sleepless, I stayed awake through the early morning hours of November 19, 2007, wondering about the Kindle on the day it was to finally launch. What would ebooks mean for literacy, for reading, for the book itself? Would the Kindle hasten the decline of the book—a decline that had started with radio and movies and had accelerated with TV and video games and the internet—or would it instead revitalize books and breathe fresh life into them?
Such questions still keep me up at night. I have answers for some of my old questions, but now I struggle with new ones.
On the morning of the Kindle launch, while pondering what would happen to books, I looked through the bedroom window until I had to get dressed and go to work at 4:00 a.m. There was a rare break in the gloom-clouds over Seattle, and I could see a few stars, bright enough to be planets or maybe omens.
The next few hours saw me running the show in Seattle, while Jeff Bezos was on stage in New York announcing the Kindle. The launch was timed to the minute; I had a clipboard and a stopwatch. I was like the mission-controller in the movie version of Apollo 13, the one with the sweater around his shoulders who made sure each team was “go” for launch.
We didn’t want anyone saying, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” which is why the launch was scripted and tested in advance. The script was flawless. It was a dream launch. We got the store and services running at almost the exact moment when Jeff said, “Introducing Amazon Kindle,” in front of thousands of reporters and bloggers.
And then, Kindle was live.
Everyone in the Amazon offices in Seattle, sugar-addled since 4:00 a.m., started cheering. This was the moment Jeff Bezos had been waiting for since 2004.
Jeff is a simple man. His front teeth are a bit chipped from when he grinds them together, and as the years passed, he seemed to grow thinner, his snazzy blue suit slowly engulfing him. What hair Jeff had when I first met him gradually disappeared entirely. He has a great laugh, an infectious laugh. It makes you smile, as all great laughs do. As Jeff stood in New York about to announce the Kindle to the world, I could only imagine what he must have been feeling.
As he said in his press event that day, “We did a number of things that make the experience of discovering new reading material, getting that material into your hands, and reading seem like magic.”
And he was right: it really was like magic. As magical as books themselves.
Three years earlier, Jeff had embarked on the tough challenge of inventing a new kind of book, a new kind of reading experience. But now, as we launched our first product, not only could we all finally read in public with our Kindles, since it was no longer a secret, but we also could introduce others to the joys of ebooks. We could change the lives of our customers by making reading more immediate and more featureful. We could continue innovating, using the original Kindle as a launch platform. We could continue adding improvements to a fundamental human experience, one that hadn’t changed in more than five hundred years. We were giving customers something they never asked for and delighting them with something at once strange, magical, and uplifting.
As for me, I could finally call my family and tell them what I was working on. For the last few years, I couldn’t say because Kindle was confidential, so my parents thought I was working for the FBI! I was excited and humbled. I rode the bus home and proudly read my Kindle and showed it off to everyone—although I was so exhausted that I don’t think I was able to read more than a page. I was temporarily relieved, but I knew that there’d be even harder work in the months and years ahead—not just for me or for Amazon, but for the billion-dollar book industry.
We have the founders of Napster to thank for the widespread adoption of digital music, and we have Netflix to thank for the adoption of digital video. But the future owes digital books to Jeff Bezos.
Those who read this in the future may sometimes forget that books weren’t always digital. They may look back upon us with disdain because we don’t have brain implants to post live Twitter updates. They may look down upon us because we have sex with one another instead of using electronic Orgasmatrons. They may frown upon us with the face of history because we’re no more than apes who type software and emails with fingers of skin and bone, because we’re pitiful creatures who wrap rags around our frail bodies as we walk to and from work.
I can only plead with those in the future who read this to remember that if not for us, there would be no digital books today, and the future would be less rich and nuanced. If not for us, future readers wouldn’t be floating as brains in an etheric vat, surrounded by digital books and videos and music, as they sample from all of human culture like it is one vast buffet for the mind. Those who read this years from now, please don’t forget that the future wasn’t always digital and that books weren’t always electronic.
Because without the ebook revolution, the future could never have happened.