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The Future of the E-Book

January 21, 2012

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter explores the shifting economic landscape of the e-book. She asks the question: what is the future of the enhanced e-book? Do readers want to pay more for access to media such as video, music, and animated text?

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When you look at a book, what do you see? Do you see an idea? Art? Passion? Neatly bound paper? Or do you see a dinosaur?

People of my generation (Generation Y, but it’s hard to keep track of these things) still value the tangible. They still want things that they can hold in their hands; things that resemble the objects that they are ostensibly buying. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t embraced streaming video, mp3s, and ebooks. It only means that we’re reluctant to give up the things we grew up with and loved: DVDs, CDs, paperbacks.

My friends have made a lot of arguments about why they hold onto their old media, but there’s only one reason I find persuasive: nostalgia. Nostalgia is all that keeps us from giving in to the new media revolution. Here are all these new formats that promise to simplify our lives and allow us unlimited access to the things we love, but we fear the change that they will surely usher in. We want the safe and the comfortable; we inexplicably yearn for a past that we can never reclaim.

The next generation will look back at our nostalgia and laugh. The will wonder why we took so long to embrace products so superior to what had come before; products that are smaller, more portable, and more intuitive to use than their predecessors.

Why then does the publishing industry still refuse to accept this new reality? They still spend billions of dollars stocking shelves with their dinosaur product. It’s as if they’ve forgotten the lessons learned by the recording industry: you can’t stop the technological tide in the Internet age. You can’t even contain it. All you can do is get with it, or go out of business. Which is exactly what Amazon will do to them if they don’t change, and quickly.

What is it that scares them? Is it that I could write and publish my own book? Do they think readers will try to download and steal their digital library? Instead of confronting these and other questions head on and becoming leaders in their industry, they sit and sulk and sabotage?

AXIOM #1: In the New Economy, you must embrace technology or be left behind to die.

The Wall Street Journal article linked above does not focus on the future of the e-book. The e-book is here to stay.1 As more and more e-readers and tablets are in the hands of consumers, more and more e-books will be sold. The trend is irreversible. People want more and easier access, not less.

The article instead focuses on the enhanced e-book. These are e-books filled with features like video, music, and animation. Alter writes about a new novel, Chopsticks, that utilizes all kinds of new functions, including a baffling “shuffle” feature (it allows you to shuffle the order of the text). I predict that this book will fail. Readers are simply not ready for a feature-heavy novel. Not yet.

But these books are the future. Readers want to interact with books. For histories and biographies, this is intuitive. Readers could instantly access speeches, video, interviews, and other media that enriches the subject matter. For novels, it’s not yet clear how this new media will enhance the reading experience in a way that readers are willing to pay extra for. Chopsticks will be the trail-blazer. Like all trail-blazers, it will fail, but it won’t be for a lack of boldness or originality.

Alter provides us with a startling example that ought to make the dinosaur publishers tremble in fear. Touch Press produced a wonderful app for T.S. Eliot’s seminal poem “The Wasteland”. It cost them an astonishing $120,000 to produce. Yet, in just 4 1/2 weeks it recouped its production costs, and was no. 1 on Apple’s list of the best-selling book apps. Not bad for a poem that will be celebrating its ninetieth birthday this year, and perhaps the clearest sign of things to come.

1 I was charmed by the reference to CD-ROM books, likening something simple and elegant (the enhanced e-book) to something clumsy and useless (the CD-ROM).

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