A Quick Note on the Fabled “iPod Moment”

The Pirate's Dilema (sic) by Browserd
The Pirate's Dilema by browserd

There are millions of books on amazon.com, and on average each will sell around 500 copies a year. The average American is reading just one book a year, and that number is falling. The problem (to quote Tim O’Reilly) isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Authors are lucky to be in a business where electronic copies aren’t considered substitutes for physical copies by most people who like reading books (for now at least).

–Matt Mason, The Pirate’s Dilemma

The op-ed I wrote for Publishing Perspectives earlier this week, “E” is for Experiment (Not E-books), got an unexpected amount of attention and I’m pretty sure it’s the most I’ve ever seen a post of mine fly around the Twitterverse. Writing for someone else’s site is much harder than blogging on your own, so full credit to Edward Nawotka for a great job of editing it, helping me bring forward my main points and carving away the extraneous content, most of which went into my previous post!

One of the comments I got on the article allowed me to elaborate a bit on one of the points I made, that “e-readers will never have their ‘iPod moment’ for one very simple reason: books are not music.”

Dan from BookLamp mildly disagreed with me, making a point about the potential benefits of cost-savings and discoverability afforded by eBooks and eReaders, making a subtle pitch for his own platform that purportedly “matches readers to books through an analysis of writing styles, similar to the way that Pandora.com matches music lovers to new music.”

I replied to him there, but am posting it here, too, because it’s a point I’ve made several times in recent conversations but have never actually included in any of my posts about eBooks:

The first iPod came out 1.5 years after Metallica sued Napster for copyright infringment. The demand for digital music was already there, and Apple capitalized on it by coming out with a better MP3 player than anyone else had at the time. The iTunes store launched 1.5 years after the first iPod. The expectations that one of these new eReaders or even the Unicorn might do the same thing ignore the fact that a) the current demand for eBooks (legal or otherwise) doesn’t come close to the early days of Napster, never mind the iPod; b) Amazon’s ability to sell print and eBooks to a huge and loyal audience gives their “good enough” Kindle the advantage; and c) the kind of multimedia content the Tablet would be best suited for is currently limited, especially from book publishers.

Discoverability is another challenge for eBooks, especially as the relative “ease” of producing them will flood the market, much like blogs have flooded the Internet. BookLamp sounds intriguing, but what advantage does it offer over Amazon’s recommendations, or those from growing communities like Goodreads? Music sites like Pandora and Last.fm are passive, low friction tools; the latter’s scrobbling feature is far easier to enable than manually adding every book I read into Goodreads. Even Amazon’s recommendations can work off of purchases whether I ever review a single book or not.

It’s funny how the zero-sum mentality of most eBook discussions tends to make me feel like a Luddite when, in fact, I’m really a mild gadget freak;  I have a practically new HP iPAQ from several years ago, and two Flip video cameras that I’ve used twice to-date. I’m more early tester than early adopter, but I “get” the appeal of eBooks and eReaders much the same way I get the appeal of jetpacks and teleporters.

In theory, they sound awesome; in reality, we’re still pretty early in the prototype stage.

NOTE: A funny story about discoverability in the digital age. The picture and quote above are not an endorsement of Mason’s book. I was searching “book pirate” on Flickr and found the picture, loving the irony of a print book about piracy on the beach where most eReading devices fear to tread. Intrigued, I checked out Mason’s site and thought the quote was apropos, but the negative reviews on Amazon make a pretty compelling case for not reading it.

PS: I prefer the UK cover (above) to the US cover, which sports a very boring business book look that, coupled with the negative reviews, pretty much killed my interest.

2 thoughts on “A Quick Note on the Fabled “iPod Moment”

  1. Guy, in amongst a whole lot of stuff that makes a hell of a lot of sense suporting your point there's a single phrase that says it all: “zero-sum mentality”. I come across it in writers all the time – the fear that the success of someone who writes the stuff you do renders your own less likely because one of a finite number of spaces has been filled. It's human nature, of course, extending form the unfiltered selfish gene that told hunter-gatherer homo sapiens that every mouthful someone else ate of the roasted mammoth was a mouthful less for you.

    Of course, we evolved by realising that if we kept the whole tribe well-fed we'd hunt a lot more mammoth. But we easily forget that and revert to zero-sum. The fact is that there is virtually nothing in the random, chaotic real world, laced as it is with moments of cruelty, chaos, and kindness, that works to zero-sum. And pulishing is no exception.

    Just as it should be obvious that another author's success with a literary debut about the Berlin Wall makes it more likely rather than less that I'll sell copies of Songs from the Other Side of the wall, so it should be obvious that the expansion of the ebook market will lead to an increase in the overall unit sales of books. Partly because ebooks will reach people who'd never have read anything in old format. Partly because true fans like to have things in multiple format.

    As for the iPod moment – what you rightly say here points to the same conclusion as the non zero-sumness of the book market. The answer for anyone wanting to promote 1. hardware 2. software 3. a new format or even 4. their own books is not to promote that hardware/software/format/imprint/book but to promote literature full stop. Stage one is to get people excited about stories. The rest will follow.

  2. I have thought and thought about the divide between one generation's purchasing and listening and viewing habits and I think my two youngest children's different experiences are “on the other side” of mine, one more so than the other …

    Case One: 22 year old man. PC. No interest in Apple. Buys concert tickets. Reads physical books but doesn't care if they're used. Gets movies & music & tv shows, as far as I can surmise, free. The movies and tv are particularly murky: music is trickier … if he really likes an artist, like Joel Plaskett, he'll buy his cds and encourage everyone else to buy too. Same with books: he'll try to get everyone to read a book or a series he enjoys. His iPod does not seem to be permanently attached to his body.

    Case Two: 20 year old college student, female. She has had access to great free file-sharing software both in high school and now in college but possibly through sheer force of habit, she is a devoted purchaser of iTunes. She has an Apple computer. Also buys some cds. Wants new books from favourite authors but that's on a every month or so basis. Will read used. Can't see her reading a book online (too much like school, not that “new” book feeling she wants). Does she watch “movies” & tv gratis — probably but loves going to the movies. She is much more of a consumer than her brother.

    On some level both of them recognize that if they don't support musicians (through purchasing their music, going to their concerts), the musicians won't thrive. They don't seem to have that visceral sort of relationship with authors. It's difficult to have a discussion with the younger generation about the consuming of an entertainment product for which you have not paid — I think they think that their enthusiastic championing of a movie or an internet only product (like Trogdor/Homestarrunner) will eventually lead to financial success for the developers. And I have bought my share of Homestarrunner t-shirts.

    Will continue to think about this! Certainly in my household books are not going to become the electronic equivalent of iTunes … or so I say now.

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