Simon Rowberry. Four Shades of Gray: The Amazon Kindle Platform.

The cover has the title inlaid as if on the screen of a Kindle

Simon Rowberry. Four Shades of Gray: The Amazon Kindle Platform. MIT Press: Boston, 2022. 272 pages. Freely available. ISBN 978-0262543507.

Users of hardware such as the Kindle tend to have a preferred format, sometimes refusing to replace the device until it has completely gone beyond the point of use. This is just one of the phenomena that Simon Peter Rowberry hits on in his book Four Shades of Gray: The Amazon Kindle Platform (a nod to the greyscale used in the first Kindle back in 2007) as he delves into the inner workings of the Kindle, both as a platform and a larger tool in the Amazon ecosystem. This work balances the line in giving the reader valuable technical information, but remaining readable to most of the scholars, students, and publishers who will find merit in this book. 

Outside of someone working within Kindle at Amazon HQ, Rowberry is well-placed to write this book. His background as an academic at Stirling University and now UCL has focused on the history and wider impact of evolution of digital publishing. And this, his first book, is a solid journey into understanding of both the technical aspects of the Kindle and how the infrastructure around it enabled a massive alteration to the ebook industry, all while trying to find ways to see into the impenetrable ‘walled garden’ of Amazon. The research in Four Shades is extensive. The methodology used and their explanations is valid and robust for a work of this nature. 

In this work, Rowberry traces the development and evolution of the Kindle as a platform, its ebook structures, and the display and navigational systems that have altered over the years. Using images, diagrams, and patent information he leads the reader through technical aspects of the Kindle and its variations over the years. The time spent on hardware development and alterations is a deft choice as it indicates the devices’ relationship to content and Amazon’s role as, foremost, a technology company. As such, Amazon owns a host of patents, which Rowberry points out, are a reflection of their strength in cloud computing and retail, with relatively little focus on hardware such as the Kindle. Rowberry successfully argues that it is the infrastructure that Amazon has developed that enables ISBNs to be re-shaped into web-based metadata that has its value in discoverability, making the ISBN more broadly viable – and making Amazon a long-lasting player in the ebook ecosystem, beyond its Kindle device. 

Those who research the underlying structures of e-reading devices will find much to learn in Four Shades, where Rowberry delves into the formatting of files, data, and code. Though much of this is technical, it remains readable in that the explanations of the formats, including folder structures within different Kindle devices, is accessible. While the chapters on paratext and social reading are particularly of interest to those who want to peek over the wall and see what Amazon built and/or allowed as paratextual services to the Kindle. Dynamic features, games, marketing, dictionaries, X-Ray indexing, popular highlights and links to sites such as Shelfari and the Kindle’s relationships to Goodreads are some of the paratextual elements covered comprehensively.

One of the most valuable areas covered in Rowberry’s extensive disentangling of the Kindle’s role in the ebook market relates to the sociality of reading – the data of knowing who is reading what, when, how fast, etc., known as Whispersync. As part of the information held in Amazon’s walled garden Whispersync collects large quantities of reader data, which Rowberry points out is a trade-off for using the Kindle service. The popular highlighting service can show authors and publishers where readers’ are most invested in a work, and this can be used to better understand a variety of aspects of the writing, publishing, and marketing processes. Rowberry dedicates some space to the ability of Amazon to remove and alter texts without warning, and how these works could/should/potentially be archived, and he also explores the question of what will happen in the future, but these areas would have benefitted from a wider analysis that was as robust as that trained on the hardware and software of the platform.

Four Shades is a well-researched and written book that provides the reader with a digestible history of the Kindle and an understanding (as much as can be had outside of Amazon) of its inner workings and is well-worth reading. A real strength is its ability to make accessible complex understandings of the structures of the hardware and software involved in the platform. The work on the paratextual elements is also valuable to scholars and students in publishing studies, communications, and wider digital humanities. 

Miriam J. Johnson, Oxford Brookes University