Martyn Daniels has a good piece over on his Brave New World Blog about why books differ digitally from other forms of content. The nub of his case is (if he’ll forgive me quoting such a chunk – I’d encourage you to go read it):
Whatever the route taken the stupid thing would be to continue to merely pour the same content into a digital container. This logic is flawed as it not only creates competition where competition is not needed and can be counter-productive, but it fails to understand the technology, the cultural changes that are happening and the opportunities that are available for the two that matter – the author and the reader.
I hear this a lot from folks, that ebooks are a misunderstanding of the innovative capacity of digital creation and distribution. I may even have written something that touches on that territory in the past (cf: this piece*). I think this viewpoint misses two crucial issues.
First, that readers and writers have found these crippled tools to be “good enough“. And they think them so “good enough” that they account for 30% of the market. That’s a pretty compelling argument for viewing ebooks as the right technology at the right time.
The second is whether anyone is looking for such innovations. The question those seeking to make more exciting and innovative products from books have to answer is straightforward; will those new products entice ebook readers away from ebooks, entice print readers from print books when ebooks didn’t do so, or entice new readers to read where ebooks and print books didn’t?
I think it’s possible but unlikely that ebook readers will be interested, improbable and unlikely that print readers will have their heads turned, and simply unknowable if non-readers will suddenly turn to reading in clever and innovative new guises. It is far more likely that content from beyond the book world will succeed in eroding the attention time devoted to books (of all forms) in established markets than books** will, in any form, colonise the attention time currently devoted to other content forms (I wrote about the impact of this in the Irish trade in The Irish Times last weekend).
To counter that trend, we will need to find new ways to market ebooks and digital reading to existing print readers in the coming years and that may involve new forms, as Martyn suggests, but one wonders just how much can be done to change reading before it becomes not reading, but something else and whether given the “good enough” nature of ebooks for so many, we need to do so.
When viewed through this lense, ebooks are the heavy infantry at the front lines of the battle to protect and grow the overall attention time devoted to reading, not a mistake or a failure of imagination.
*In my defence, I’d argue that the line was one intended to spur publishers to action, and is, in any case, four years old an eternity in ebook terms!
**Spotted today, by way of Benedict Evans, this rather interesting piece of news about how mobiles are changing reading in the developing world an area where many of the factors I commented on above will be less relevant and where there is a good chance that reading can actually gain serious traction in digital form, even in the face of competition from other forms, though ultimately as incomes there rise I would expect other forms to gain back attention time.