Saturday, May 01, 2021

Why I'm Excited About Book Covers on Kindle

Amazon released a new update for Kindle that I've wanted for a while: to show the cover of the book you're reading on the lock screen. The Internet and I sighed a collective FINALLY when it happened.

I needed to restart my Kindle Paperwhite (without ads) to see it in All Settings -> Device Options -> Display Cover.

The reason for my excitement is simple. The benefit of the Kindle is that it can hold thousands of books. And when you turn it on, it takes you right to the page you're reading, along with a percentage indicator of where you are in the book and how much longer you need to read to finish the chapter (or book). I also like highlighting, writing notes, and searching for passages. It's great!

But, I started to notice something concerning: I would sometimes forget the author's name and sometimes even the book's title!

Here's my hypothesis: with a physical book, you look at the cover - with the title and author's name - every time you pick it up. I read in 10-15 minute sessions, which means I see it 25-50 times per book over a couple of months. I couldn't help but memorize the author and title from the repetition. It's the slowest method of memorization, but it works.

But with the Kindle, I never got the repetition because the device opens directly to my current page. If the name didn't stick right away, I never looked at it again.

It's the same for me with Apple Music. I don't remember the album, the artist, and sometimes not even the song's title. Maybe that's a big reason why searching for music now includes song lyrics? That's the only information I remember to find a song. I often keep the Apple Music mini-player open so I can see the cover art and song title.

This is, in my opinion, one of the surprising (to me) consequences of aggregators. Is it any wonder that all of the largest tech companies are aggregators? Google aggregated website content, including news (which used to be a major aggregator of writers and ads) & video. Facebook, your friends. Amazon, your shopping. Apple's iPhone, your phone + email + music + calculator + flashlight + laptop + etc + etc. Airbnb (and other hotel & flight aggregators). Uber & Lyft. Netflix. Zillow. Craigslist & eBay.

You get the idea.

Each of these services separated the content/product from the creator, making it seamless to look at multiple options, compare, and make choices based on the merit of the content/product itself. It saves so much time and allows for better discovery. I think it's a net benefit to society. (I suppose Walmart is the best physical example of an aggregator.)

The big problem is that the aggregator leads to same-ness, making everything a commodity. Do you remember the name of the last movie you watched on Netflix? I don't. It had Paul Rudd. It was funny, but not funny enough to recommend, which is probably a good thing since I don't remember the name!

There are undoubtedly significant economic and social consequences of aggregators. It's a tension that will constantly need managing. Megahits, like Taylor Swift and J.K. Rowling, will be fine. And the long-tail of discovery will allow newcomers a chance to succeed. But it's the middle of the tail, like that movie or decent smartphone apps, that can get stunted by aggregators if the tension isn't well managed.

But for me, the surprising impact is the personal one: forgetting the creator, even in situations like Kindle where I intentionally bought the individual book.

With this Kindle update, I'll get to see my book covers again. I'm delighted to start remembering authors and titles better.