03/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Impulse Buying for Books, Baby

CEO Jeff Bezos watched a master for years. He marveled when the master took over digital music files with a cool new player called the iPod. Later, Bezos became sick with envy while the master waited -- patient and amused -- as the public themselves invented and named a spin-off product, providing the master -- gratis -- with a guaranteed market for the iPhone long before any design appeared on paper.

Bezos yearned to adapt such Jobsian techniques to the sale of books and to recast those sales in the same way iThings had changed MP3 downloads and then put Internet access in your pocket.

Of course, Bezos' company,, had been selling e-books for years. The trouble was, no one bought them. But what if, Bezos wondered, a specially formatted device enabled hard core book junkies -- the kind who might splash out $359 for a luxury reader -- to buy books on impulse?

What if such a junkie in any corner of the country could suddenly feed his or her habit just by pressing a button? Presto! A New York bookstore at your fingertips whether you're on the beach in La Jolla or sipping a latte in the passenger seat during that long commute from Yehuppitzville with reliable, old Mr. Excitement.

Readers are curious people, after all. They want to know things. Readers often buy two or three reasonably priced 'shelf books' for every title they actually read. To confess, I sometimes buy books about the history of sugar or shipping-containers. I don't read them, but I do tend to buy them if they look interesting and if they seem like a good bargain at the time.

E-books are a good bargain. A brand new title will cost you about $10. You save money and you don't kill trees. After you've bought 30 or so books, the device pays for itself (never mind that you've bought a lot of books you won't read). Furthermore, writers get a greater percentage of the list price of some e-books than they do with print books.

Feel good about that. Writers are always experiencing hard times.

There are some disadvantages, of course. Picture books, which I love, don't work very well in e-formats. So don't download Greystone's beautiful The Last Wild Wolves, HarperCollins charming Treasury Picture Book Classics, the Museum of New Mexico's Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico or the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's Cuba: Art and History from 1868.'

In particular, you need to stay away from the extremely beautiful and reasonably priced (well, it's $200, but look at what you get!) Diego Rivera: The Complete Murals which is a big book for people who love big paintings by heavy men. When I first saw it in Green Apple Books in San Francisco at Christmas, I thought it wasn't a book as much as it was a evening's activity, a date, an excuse for seduction: 'Uh...hi! Look, you have to come over and see this truly wonderful book. It's unique. I can't describe it. But you'll love it. Bring some wine.'

If, however, you are a simple book junkie whose needs can be sated in black and white, Amazon's Kindle is for you with only one exception. You can no longer have it.

No. Sorry! Supplies of the first generation Kindle "gave out" shortly before Hannukah and Christmas. Amazon won't say this was bad planning on their part, but they promise the Kindle 2.0 -- streamlined and iPod slender -- some time very soon.

-- it ready, yet?

Yes. Today.

Guessimates place last year's sales (machines only) at about 258,000 units ($90 million gross), and project another $1.2 billion in total Kindle sales (machines and books) during the coming year. (This seems like a lot, but is only 4% of Amazon's projected total sales, so they can afford a little risk).

Steve Jobs is now out sick, but Jeff Bezos has learned a great deal from him. People in Japan are writing novels on their cellphones. Meanwhile Bezos sees dust gathering on oldschool print publishers while more and more writers short-circuit the submission process and follow up self-publishing with long-tail Internet marketing as though they were Indie bands mixing new tunes.

More important, Bezos sees the success of his major competitor, the iPhone's Stanza, so Amazon will now offer its ebooks to cellphone users.

Print is in its dotage, and the day of the ebook has finally arrived.