I developed the daily habit for reading the newspaper growing up, Long Island New York’s Newsday specifically. My step-father would often take the main section, or Part I, when it arrived, which meant I could get my hands on the “good stuff,” or Part II, the interior entertainment section that included the TV listings and reviews from TV critic Marvin Kittman. This is one of the reasons that I developed into a TV and pop culture geek.
I moved to Berkeley, California in 1998, and that coincided with my having access to two things at the same time: a personal computer and dial-up Internet access. If you had roommates around this time, it was the era of hearing, “Yo, are you online bro?” when someone wanted to make a phone call on a single shared phone line at your place.
I have a specific recollection, on a beautiful Bay Area Sunday morning, of recognizing that I could go online and read The New York Times…. for free! (No paywall back then!) At my weird Berkeley apartment, whenever I wanted! Everything changed for me in that moment. I knew I would never subscribe to a print publication again.
Cut to the late 2000s and several moves later — which included hauling my accumulated treasure trove of books, CDs, and DVDs around the west coast — and I’m married and living in Pasadena, California. Everything changed again with my purchase of a first edition Amazon Kindle. Once I realized that reading books on a digital device was as comfortable as reading a print edition, I knew that my days of buying printed books were in the past. Sure, I value the aesthetic and tangible qualities of the printed word — I still admire my collection of Winston Churchill’s WWII memoirs, which sits on top of our piano to this day, for example — but going digital is vastly superior for all kinds of reasons. Hauling stuff around just being one of them.
Not to sound too cheesy about it, but I really did feel like I could access the world’s largest bookstore from anywhere. And that bookstore was accessible through a company we all know, called Amazon. The killer feature was the ability to download samples of books. For free! Weird sci fi horror, obscure philosophy that you were supposed to read as an undergrad but never checked out, a history of Genghis Khan, you name it, check it out for free, or not, and delete or abandon anything you’re not willing to purchase. In some ways, eventually switching to the Amazon mobile app and adjusting to reading books on the smaller form factor of my mobile device (I currently have a Samsung Galaxy S10) only deepened my addiction to reading books.
Total aside: Stephen King wrote an incredibly fun and dark novella based on the Kindle’s initial “experimental” Internet browser, called Ur.
Now, let’s jump to the present. The Amazon bookstore does a good enough job of recommending books to read, but I’m most influenced by recommendations that I get from friends and people I trust on social media. For example, author Don Winslow, who I’ve mentioned a few times, does a great job of pushing new books from authors that he thinks readers of his work will like. Stephen King for his part and lots of other writers do the same. Often, these recommendations are for books that are to be released at a future date, and they’re trying to do their best to build awareness, buzz, and, importantly, pre-sales for these books.
Here’s where things tie together in this little treatise: you can’t pre-order a book sample on Amazon. It seems crazy to me that this isn’t offered as a product feature in 2019. You can “follow” an author “to get new release updates and improved recommendations.” So outside of other means such as setting a calendar reminder for yourself, the only way to make sure you are able to access a free sample is to remember or get reminded via someone like Don Winslow on Twitter that indeed the book is available.
That’s all to say that Amazon has trained me (and my wallet) to consume free samples, out of which I’ve made many digital book purchases over the years. They would surely yield additional purchases from myself and others if we were able to pre-order book samples ahead of book release dates. And what a cool “surprise” that would be — to open up your Kindle app library and think, “Oh wow, that book sample I pre-ordered awhile back is now available!”
This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.