Kindle 101

A basic introduction to the Amazon Kindle

Version 1.3 – 1 February 2011

Now that Kindles start at $140, and free Kindle software is available for a wide range of devices, it’s easy for almost anyone with an Internet connection to buy and read Kindle books.

“But not me!” you say. “I don’t even know how this stupid Kindle thing works!”

That’s where this guide comes in. It’s meant to serve as a quick introduction to the average newcomer, and it should quickly bring you up to speed so you can decide whether to buy Kindle ebooks or even a Kindle device. (If you’re already a Kindle customer, it might show you some aspects of the system that you haven’t been taking advantage of.)

Like to jump around? Here are the four sections of the guide:

Part 1 – Pros and cons
Part 2 – What you need to get started
Part 3 – How it all works
Part 4 – Extra tips and info


I. The pros and cons of buying Kindle ebooks

Here are three things you might want to consider before trying out any ebook system, not just the Amazon Kindle.

CON – “They’re not real books!”
PRO – The convenience outweighs the lack of a printed copy for a lot of titles.

A lot of readers love the look, feel, and smell of a traditional book, and it’s true that you lose all of that with an ebook. You can’t put an ebook on your shelf at home, or be interrupted by a stranger in a coffee shop who wants to ask you about what you’re reading. You can’t write in the margins.

If you read a lot, though, you might quickly discover two benefits of ebooks:

  1. They often cost less than new printed books.
  2. You can carry a large amount of ebooks in a very small amount of space.

In addition, when you get absorbed into a book, the thing you’re reading it from tends to disappear (provided it’s not heavy or bulky). The latest Kindle model is so thin and lightweight that it’s easy to forget about the device once the book grabs your attention.

At the very least, you can save money by going “e” for those books you want to read but don’t want to keep forever–the massmarket paperbacks you take on the train, or to the pool or beach, or on vacation.

CON – “I don’t own the ebook outright!”
PRO – Uhh… it’s complicated?

This is a weird issue because everyone is still trying to figure it all out. Here’s the short answer, and if you want to know more you can open the long answer below.

The Short Answer: It’s true, you don’t. What you own is a perpetual license to read the book, which is what every major ebook retailer (Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Apple) offers. The license is enforced with something the industry calls DRM, which locks that particular copy to your account.

As far as backups, Amazon lets you download copies of the ebook whenever and as often as you want. It also keeps a copy for you on its servers, so that you don’t have to keep all of your purchases loaded on your device at all times. And as far as worrying about Amazon honoring the agreement, it all depends on how much you trust a large company; historically, Amazon has built its business model around good customer service, if that’s any consolation.

The Long Answer (click to expand)

CON – “It’s cheaper to go to used book stores and the library.”
PRO – If you read a lot, going digital can be both cheaper and more convenient.

First the bad news. A lot of the biggest publishers have successfully pushed to raise prices on ebooks over the past year, so that many new releases are $12.99. While that’s still usually cheaper than a new hardcover, it’s more than the $10 threshhold that Amazon has pushed for.

Now the good news. This move on the part of big publishers has given almost all small and independent publishers an incentive to lower their prices so they can enjoy a pricing advantage. There are now hundreds of $2.99-and-under novels for sale on the Kindle store in all sorts of genres.

In addition, lots of publishers–even the big ones–like to make certain titles temporarily free to promote them. Some recent examples of free offers on the Amazon Kindle store: a Sookie Stackhouse novel, a Twilight novel, the first in Charlie Huston’s vampire detective series, and 10 of the 13 Lemony Snicket books.

There are also thousands of free books in the public domain, including some of the most famous classics in literature. In general, if you don’t limit yourself to just national bestselling authors or this month’s Oprah selection, you can stretch your book budget much further with ebooks.

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Part II – What you need to get started

So you’ve decided you want to get started, but have no idea what to do? There are two basic things you need:

What you need to read a Kindle ebook

Let’s look at these two requirements.

1. An Amazon account.

If you don’t already have one, you can open an Amazon account without having to provide any personal banking information.

However, to buy Kindle books, you’ll need one of the following attached to it:

  • credit card
  • debit card
  • gift card balance

Why? Because when you buy a Kindle ebook, there’s no normal Amazon check-out process. Instead, the retailer uses its “1-Click” payment option to streamline the purchase. (Don’t worry, if you buy an ebook by mistake you can get a refund for the purchase.)

In order to use 1-Click, you have to provide a default billing address on your Amazon account and manually activate the 1-Click setting.

The gift card option is your solution if you don’t want to add a credit card or debit card to your account. You’ll still have to provide a default billing address, but instead of a credit or debit card number you can enter the code on a gift card and the available balance will be used each time you make a 1-Click purchase.

Here are more details directly from Amazon on how to set up the 1-Click payment method or redeem a gift card:

“Setting Your Kindle Payment Method” []

Here’s where to buy Amazon gift cards from physical stores, if you don’t want to buy them online:

– services like Western Union and Coinstar
– retail locations

2. One of the following devices:

  • Kindle device (sold by Amazon)
  • Windows PC (XP, Vista or Windows 7)
  • Mac PC (10.5 or higher; Intel only, not PPC)
  • Blackberry (check here for eligible models)
  • Windows Phone 7 (forthcoming)
  • Android smartphones and tablets
  • iPhone or iPod Touch
  • iPad

If you buy a Kindle device, you don’t need any other software. The 3G model automatically connects over a built-in (free) cellular network without needing any configuration from you. If your model comes with Wi-Fi capability, you’ll have to enter your local network’s password to use the Wi-Fi.

For all the other devices, you’ll have to install some free software that Amazon provides. This software serves as your ebook library–it’s where you’ll store your purchases as well as read them.

Kindle for PC
Kindle for Mac
Kindle for BlackBerry
Kindle for Android
Kindle for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch
Kindle for Windows Phone 7 (coming soon)

So that’s it. Get your account set up, install the right software, and you’re ready to start buying and reading Kindle ebooks.

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Part III. How it all works

I made flowcharts!

You can register up to 6 devices to one account and manually select the destination. If you have just one device, Amazon sends it there by default.

Not every book you buy has to be stored on every device–it’s up to you. You can download just what you want to read and leave the other titles stored on Amazon’s servers if you like.

If more than one person is reading the same book on your account, she can elect to turn off syncing so you don’t interfere with each other’s bookmarks.

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Part IV – Extra tips and info

* If you own a Kindle device, you can put this catalogs directly on your Kindle and browse through thousands of classics and modern works in the public domain:
    •Project Gutenberg Magic Catalog

* You can also use the Kindle’s web browser to look through the collection of free ebooks at Feedbooks’ mobile site:

* Here are some keyboard shortcuts for your Kindle device.

* Did you know you can replace the screensaver images with custom images?

* There are lots of other places to help you find free ebooks.


Q: Do I have to make backups?
A: It’s up to you. You can let Amazon take care of all of that if you don’t want to bother with it. However, if you want access to your full library even when you’re not able to connect to Amazon’s servers, you’ll need to either keep everything on your device all the time or you’ll need to keep your own backup library on your computer.

Q: Do I have to re-purchase Kindle books for other devices?
A: No. Buy it once, and you can read it on any Kindle-ready device. However, there’s a limit to how many devices you can have connected to your account. Usually that limit is six, but sometimes a publisher sets it lower.

If you’ve exhausted your limit because you’ve changed devices, you can contact Amazon and ask them to reset the limit for you. You can also go into your account on Amazon and deregister old devices that you’re no longer using.

Q: If I delete a book, do I have to buy it again?
A: No. You deleted it from your device, but it’s still stored on Amazon’s servers, and you can re-download it again at any point in the future. (It is possible to permanently delete a book from your account if you really want to, but you have to do it from your Kindle account management page on the Amazon website.)

Q: If I sell my Kindle to someone else, will they have access to my purchases?
A: Only if you let them. If you don’t deregister your Kindle before selling it, the person who buys it will be able to access your full Kindle library and even buy more books under your account. Fortunately, you can easily deregister a Kindle directly from the Settings screen on the device.

You can also do it remotely–for example, if you lose your Kindle–by logging in at and clicking on “account management” at the top of the page. After you’ve deregistered a Kindle remotely on your account management page, the next time the Kindle goes online and connects to Amazon’s servers, it will remove all of your information and return to a “like new” state.

Q: Does the Kindle device display PDF files?
A: Sort of. On older Kindle models–especially the first version–PDF support was pretty lame. Even now, on the smaller 6″ screen it all depends on the layout of the PDF file. Newer models can zoom and pan on PDF pages, but it’s still less than ideal for reading long PDF documents.

If you have the large-format Kindle DX, this isn’t a problem, and most PDF files will display just fine.

You can also email a PDF file to Amazon and it will attempt to convert it to a Kindle-friendly format, then either send it back to you via email, which is free, or send it directly to your Kindle, which costs 15-99 cents depending on whether you’re a U.S. customer in the United States at the time. In my tests, conversion results vary widely in quality.

Find more information at Amazon’s “Sending Personal Documents to Kindle” page.

If you’re reading Kindle books on any other device, the question is moot because the Kindle software won’t display PDFs. Just use whatever you’ve always used to read PDFs on that platform.

Q: What file formats can I read on the Kindle?
A: The answer depends on what device you’re using. If you bought a Kindle, here are the accepted formats. If you have something in a different format than what’s on that list, you can try sending the document to Amazon to see if they can convert it for you, or you can try one of the solutions mentioned on the Converting Stuff page.

Q: Can I share Kindle purchases with other Kindle owners, or send Kindle purchases as gifts?
A: As of October 2010 you can’t lend, sell, or give away Kindle ebooks, although Amazon has promised to introduce a 14-day lending feature by the end of 2010.

If you want to share your Kindle purchases with people you trust (like family members), remember that you can register up to six devices on a single account, and every one of those devices will be able to access your full library.

Currently, there is no way to buy a Kindle ebook and give it to someone else as a gift. The best you can do is buy an Amazon gift card and let the recipient use that to fund Kindle purchases.
Useful Amazon links

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