“E” is for Experiment (Not eBooks)

The year 2010 will undoubtedly be the year of “e,” but it’s not going to stand for e-book; it will stand for experimentation. Experimentation with contracts, rights, formats and distribution channels; experimentation that will certainly include e-books, and rightfully so, but they won’t be the central focus — for publishers nor readers.

Upon the Kindle’s introduction in 2007, Jeff Bezos famously asked: “The question is, can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well-suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?”

Three years, and at least five generations of technological evolution later, there is still no e-reader that comes close to duplicating the efficiency or practicality (or affordability) of the printed book, and while e-book sales are growing, they still represent a modest fraction of overall sales, and in many niches are completely irrelevant. Based on the offerings displayed at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, it’s highly unlikely the mainstream tipping point will be forthcoming in the near future.

Books are one of the oldest, most efficient, highly intuitive information technologies ever created. Anyone can pick up a book and figure out how to read it, even if it’s translated manga kept in its original right-to-left format. They can dog-ear a page, or write notes in the margins; share it with as many friends as they’d like to; or, simply put it on their bookshelf and never think twice about whether or not it will be there the next morning, the next week, or the next year.

The Coming of the iUnicorn

“What about the extras digitization allows publishers to offer readers?,” you might ask. “Audio, video, auto-magically updated content, an embedded Twitter feed of the author and her five best friends? What about the Apple iUnicorn? Surely that will change EVERYTHING!!!”

Vooks [video-enhanced books] and mobile apps both offer intriguing opportunities to go well beyond the limitations of a traditional book, offering everything from integrated multimedia content to personalization via geolocation and user-generated content. And no one knows yet what new opportunities an Apple Tablet might offer, but as I’ve already predicted elsewhere its impact will likely be far greater on the world of gaming than on publishing.

Much like TV, which quickly evolved from simply broadcasting radio programs into its own unique medium, there’s a line where something stops being a book and becomes…something else entirely; a completely new medium with its own rules, pros and cons.

We’re not there yet, though.

Interestingly, there is one platform where digital reading has already gained worldwide acceptance, though it’s seemingly taken for granted at this point: it’s called the Internet.

WordPress has arguably done more to transform publishing (and empower writers) than any e-reader or Tablet computer ever will, and the most popular blogs primarily contain text, images and the ability for readers to leave comments and interact with each other. Ironically, while some bloggers may have legitimately challenged established newspaper and magazine brands, the really successful ones usually end up with a traditional book deal — or three.

The fact is e-readers will never have their “iPod moment” for one very simple reason: books are not music.

From Page to Screen

In the move from albums and CDs to digital downloads, from Walkmans to iPods, one thing remained the same: we still listen to music through speakers or headphones. And, as bandwidth has increased and video streaming has become increasingly popular, we continue to watch movies and TV shows on color screens of varying sizes and resolutions. Televisions, computer monitors and laptop screens are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

With books, though, the transition to digital formats requires a literal change in the way we read. While e-ink does an impressive job of replicating real ink on real paper, the physical interaction with an e-reader is very different than it is with a book; even more so with a multifunctional device like a laptop or tablet.

Thanks to years of word processing, email and blogs, reading short amounts of text on-screen has become normal, and digital multitasking has become a fact of our corporate and personal lives. And yet, e-books still haven’t found a mainstream audience for long-form narratives, neither in fiction nor non-fiction, despite the pervasiveness of the PDF format; the [not really, not yet] standard ePub format; the existence for several years now of dedicated e-readers, tablet and handheld computers; and Amazon’s two years of putting its marketing muscle behind the Kindle.

Romance is a notable exception here, but it’s an exception, not the rule. The same was true for porn for a long time when it came to paid online content.

With the buzz coming out of CES last week, as a slew of dedicated e-readers and other multifunctional devices that might one day go beyond jet-pack prototypes were announced, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Lost Symbol had sold 4 million licenses in its various digital manifestations.

Or that Amazon had finally confirmed how many Kindles they’ve sold.

Or even that some self-published author had sold a truly noteworthy number of e-books via Smashwords or Scribd…but it hasn’t happened…yet.

(And no, downloads and views of freebies do not and should not count as bestsellers. Ask Hyperion and Chris Anderson about that metric.)

With Great Experiments Come Great Failures

Yes, there is a lot of R&D money being poured into these devices — that’s how technology companies work — and one or more of them may eventually click with consumers, but right now it’s a fledgling market and the hype surrounding it has reached irrational levels in publishing circles.

Much of the public debate around e-books hinges on the personal benchmarking of tech fetishists, and sniping pundits with no skin in the game. There are many fundamental business issues that need to be addressed related to e-books — rights, royalties, pricing, distribution, marketing — and it’s up to publishers, agents and authors to figure them out together and not be distracted by every new shiny object the technology companies come up with.

In 1989, Inc. named Steve Jobs its Entrepreneur of the Decade, and he offered some insightful comments about the rapid evolution of technology and the customer’s point of view that remain relevant today:

I think really great products come from melding two points of view — the technology point of view and the customer point of view. You need both. You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new… It sounds logical to ask customers what they want and then give it to them. But they rarely wind up getting what they really want that way.

You can get into just as much trouble by going into the technology lab and asking your engineers, “OK, what can you do for me today?” That rarely leads to a product that customers want or to one that you’re very proud of building when you get done. You have to merge these points of view, and you have to do it in an interactive way over a period of time — which doesn’t mean a week. It takes a long time to pull out of customers what they really want, and it takes a long time to pull out of technology what it can really give.

Experimentation leads to progress, and every success sits atop multiple failures; that’s a lesson the publishing industry should learn from their technology partners and start to embrace, instead of just being led around led by the nose by them.

NOTE: This article was originally published by Publishing Perspectives.

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