Jeff_Bezos_iconic_laugh1.jpgDear Jeff: Here at the TeleRead e-book news site, we call ’em as we see them.

Editor Chris Meadows this weekend went after a San Diego newspaper and booksellers there for some Amazon-bashing. We look after the interests of e-book-lovers regardless of who it helps or hurts. Like Chris, I’m a huge booster of your $50 Kindle, complete with the text to speech capabilities you included.

Alas, we can’t always say nice things about Amazon. The more we learn about the latest Kindle update, the less we like it, and scores of Slashdotter agreed with our complaint that you’d made the Helvetica font too thin for easy reading by people with contrast issues. Many would say that Helvetica is the least of evils, among what these Amazon customers would regard as your anorexic fonts. Back on TeleRead itself, a Kindle fan named Mary tells how she owns two Paperwhites and one Voyage but stopped updating after the update ruined the view on one of the Paperwhites.

“All of the fonts,” Mary writes in our comments area, “are much lighter in weight than previously.” She asks why your designers “think it is cool to display print so light that you can barely read it.” Also, Mary wants the ability to control font weight—which your competition over at Kobo has. She is highly displeased, too, with your limited font-size options.

Jeff, I know you normally don’t reveal Amazon’s plans. But you should commit now to an immediate fix of the latest update, as well as the addition later on of an ability either to switch all-text boldface on or adjust font weights (and if you can do something about the font sizes, that would help as well). Don’t let your young font designers, or whoever the culprits are, force your older customers to suffer e-books that are illegible to them. No, not everyone has those problems. But if Kobo acknowledges that some people do, why can’t Amazon show the same sensitivity? Wouldn’t that be simply good business?

I am sending a copy of this post to your PR people as well as I’d be very grateful for a quick answer. If I don’t get one, I intend, as an advocate for my fellow e-book lovers, to alert the mass media, the AARP, disability advocates and a congress member or two about the outrageous ageism evident in your designers’ font choices. You are just begging for new provisions in disability laws to specifically cover e-book readers. Ideally, of course, if you don’t want such legislation, you’ll respond now to the font-related complaints.

Whether you respond or not, I’ll continue writing about the many positives of both your company and your products when Amazon merits praise.

Thanks and best wishes,
David Rothman
Publisher, TeleRead


  1. David, keep in mind how the corporate world often works. It ain’t always pretty.

    Back in the late 1980s, I was a contract tech writer for Boeing, which was in the planning stages for a $200 million, highly automated part storage facility. Major aircraft not on have millions of parts, when one can’t fly because of one of those parts, airlines get very upset. Locating those parts quickly was important.

    I’ve heard tales of corporate executive VPs hand walking a work order for a part on the shop floor, saying “Stop what you’re doing now and make this.” At Boeing, an AOG (Aircraft on Ground) order can carry a lot of weight. I once met someone whose company made the metal foil labels that the FAA requires on all electronic equipment. His company would get paid hundreds of dollars to create labels for rush part orders.

    At that tech writing job, my boss’s boss was supposed to be on one of the committees to evaluate who’d get that $200 million contract. He’d didn’t want to spend the time in meeting after meeting, so he delegated the work to me. Not feeling the slightest bit qualified for what I was expected to do, I did my best to avoid the meetings.

    I suspect Boeing did make the right choice for contracting out that automated warehouse, but the evaluation process didn’t impress me, in part because it included me.


    Corporate decision-making is often like making sausage. The process doesn’t look well when subject to close scrutiny. Evaluating these font changes probably went through some review committee of people who wondered why they were on the committee and were eager to discharge the work as quickly as possible. No one who understood vision issues was there.

    Also, keep in mind that the ‘thin is in’ madness in design extends well beyond the obsession at Apple for thin gadgetry, a madness so bizarre, it even extends to desktops such as the iMacs. Apple has gotten similar flack for thinning out its fonts, although in Apple’s case, the disability group apparently carried enough weight, that an option to bold system fonts was added. I suspect that disability group in Amazon’s Kindle department, if such exists, didn’t carry as much weight in decision making.


    While writing this, I finished up upgraded the system software on my ancient Kindle 3 from version 3.3 to 3.4.2. I had to do it manually because no amount of waiting and fiddling would trigger the auto-upgrade. The message that comes with the upgrade does say that they’d “improved the reading font to have more contrast and be more crisp.” That may be what Amazon thinks the thinner fonts you dislike are doing. Crisp if you have excellent vision may mean unreadable if you have vision issues.

    I’m skeptical that Amazon really offers my ancient machine all the features that note claims, including the new formats. Time will tell if that’s true. But at least the update didn’t tamper with text-to-speech. The Kindle 3 (or Kindle Keyboard) was the last epaper model to include that and is one reason I see no reason to upgrade.

    Two final remarks.

    1. That upgrade note closed by asking for users to “share your thoughts and comments with us” at the Kindle team: Those upset by these font changes might want to encourage those they know to let the Kindle team hear directly.

    2. Years ago, I was part of a discussion group working on new standards for then common telephone modems. I made the suggestion that the new standard include support for the old text over phone line standards that the deaf were using. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars of a speciality device, they could get a commodity one for about $50 and also be able to get online. I’d not sure my suggestion made the difference, but the next modem standard did just that.

    Various groups representing the vision impaired might want to do something similar. Rather than depend on companies such as Amazon merely doing something, they should develop a set of standards that’d perhaps include several fonts that address each of various vision issues.

    Executives tend to ignore “do something” requests (much less demands). Learning what that request/demand means would take too much their time. But if the issue were simply conforming to a set of specs, they might sign off on the order. “Include the free, open source SuperLegi font” is easier to order than “Make these blasted fonts thicker, so these pests leave me alone.”

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

    • @Mike: Terrific comments, thanks. If Amazon lacks a disability group now to fight committee stupidity, then it badly needs one. And, of course, disability activists nationally should come up with e-book reader specs.

      Meanwhile Jeff B shouldn’t even bother to consult with the usual suspects. He should admit what a disaster the present “upgrade” is in regard to readability for many older people and also promise a bold switch or better (such as a Kobo-style font-weight adjuster).

      I’ve already emailed Jeff and his PR folks, and If I don’t get an email response by the end of the day Monday, I’ll move on to the media and the AARP. Let’s hope this isn’t necessary. By enlarging the universe of customers, Amazon itself will be the biggest winner if it cares more about fonts and contrast issues.


  2. Just recently I was complaining about the readability of the redesigned Teleread site. I found the new site cluttered, noisy, needlessly repeating the link to the same article way too many times on the same page (up to 5 times!, today it is the “FlightDeck” article, I haven’t bothered to count others), rendering more slowly than the previous one. What impacts the readability the most for me, is the behavior when I try to increase the text size (and leave images original size), white-text-over-noisy-image in the upper mosaic, and the animated sidebar in articles.
    I am pretty sure you remember what you answered.

    Let me guess what will be the answer from Amazon, *if* they bother with answer at all 😉
    “Suck it up. We have sunk lots of effort in the redesign and it looks good and shiny and sharp and modern.”

    In the meanwhile you can install a bunch of plugins or disable flash, animations and scripts, or on case of an e-ink reader, you can liberate the content and prepare your own pdf file, or an e-book with embedded font of your choice.

  3. @Name: Five words: “Most people like the change.” Besides, you can read us here if you want us without the trimmings. As for repetition, I’ve explained the logic. The top of the home page shows the most important posts. The second section focuses on tech stuff. The third carries the most recent items, not necessarily the same as the most important ones. In addition, we have widgets for important categories like Amazon.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail