Burning The Page: Jason Merkoski Tells Inside Story Of Amazon Kindle

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, holds the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD at the product's introduction in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, holds the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD at the product's introduction in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

The following is part one of a five part excerpt from Jason Merkoski's Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading. 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:

Working at Amazon was like taking a step back in time to Seattle’s pioneer roots, back when Seattle was the gateway to the Yukon gold rush. Working on the Kindle was like living in the Wild West.

For projects that broke new ground, like the Kindle, there didn’t seem to be any law, any sheriff, or any real consequences for making wrong decisions, because nobody knew the right ones. People seemed to wear their six-shooters out in the open, taking potshots at one another while hiding behind Donkey Kong machines. When vice presidents argued in the hallways, trigger fingers twitching, I could almost imagine a tumbleweed blowing between them.

It was also impossible to tell reality from fiction. No outsiders had seen the Kindle because it was created in a perfect vacuum from the very beginning. Everyone was trying to do the right thing, and no ideas were off the table. Nothing was too strange to consider. People who thought fast often got their way and ruled the day. It was an early Wild West of ideas and innovation. It was crazy and anarchic, and I liked it.

Now, if you’ve never read it before, go download a copy of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. It’s the book that all of Kindle’s hardware code names came from. The book is about a character named Fiona and her “illustrated primer,” a machine designed to look like a book but with links to all libraries, all TV shows, and all human knowledge. (Jeff originally wanted the Kindle code names to come from Star Trek, since he’s such a Trekkie, but more literate minds prevailed.) The book is a treasure trove of other code names for Kindle hardware: Nell, Miranda, and Turing.

So the first time I got a Kindle, it wasn’t called a Kindle but a “Fiona.”

Though primitive by today’s standards, my original Kindle—one of the first Fionas made for select Amazon employees—still works like a charm. True, my Fiona is turning the yellow-gray color of smokers’ teeth, the same way that once white yesteryear computers start to turn an upsetting beige. But it still works, even though it’s been manhandled and chucked many times into my backpack, tossed into many suitcases for trans-Atlantic flights, and left on my truck’s dashboard in the sun for months. And once while walking through Cupertino, California—a city where everyone drives—I got hit by a car while crossing the street, because nobody expects pedestrians in the heart of Silicon Valley. I fell and sprained my arm. But even though my Fiona clattered to the street and got run over by one of the car’s wheels, it still works as great as always.

Needless to say, I love my Kindle.

My original Kindle job had me creating and managing the ebook conversion process—the messy method by which print books are turned into digital ones.

When thinking about how ebooks are created, it’s best to envision a sausage factory. Meat goes in one end, machinery packages it, and a neatly bundled sausage comes out the other. At the ebook factory, you start in the front with books from publishers. They’re chopped up, reassembled and packaged, and finally made available for sale in digital form.

Most ebooks are created using a digital copy of the physical book, usually in PDF format. PDF files have a fixed layout, which means they’re formatted in the way they’re supposed to appear on a printed page. However, ebooks need to be reflowable, which means that if you change the font size on the ebook, the words and sentences and paragraphs should be reformatted so that the words wrap around properly in the paragraph. You can’t do this well with PDFs.

To make a PDF into a reflowable ebook, publishers usually use a conversion house. Such companies, in turn, use a combination of software and workers overseas. Many of the conversion houses use people in India or China, or sometimes more exotic places like Sierra Leone or Madagascar or the Philippines. They often work in a large warehouse or an old factory, with cubicles running from one end of the factory to the other on multiple floors.

Elbow to elbow, the workers stare at words on the screen all day, reading ebooks. They remove page numbers, reformat the ebooks to make them reflowable, and skim through them afterward to make sure no paragraphs or illustrations from the originals were lost during the process.

But not all books are in PDF format; some only exist in print. More brutal methods are often needed to digitize such books. As part of my job, I watched as workers destroyed print books to turn them into ebooks. Pages had to be removed from books so they could be scanned and digitized. As a book lover, I was horrified. To remove the pages of the book, workers would hack the spines off with knives like they were whacking their way through the jungle with machetes. Once their content was scanned, those pages would be tossed into a Dumpster at the end of every shift.

It was destructive, and the books could never be recovered afterward. The ebook revolution was bloodless, in the sense that there were no human casualties. But if books could bleed, you’d find their corpses overseas. You’d find burial pits, unmarked graves, and hundreds of thousands of casualties.

But all this was necessary to launch the Kindle; we couldn’t just launch a hardware product without any ebooks to read. Without ebooks, the Fiona device would have been just an expensive paperweight.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming tomorrow!