How Different Are Books Digitally?

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.

via Brave New World: HELLO! Books Are Digitally Different.

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.

Eoin

 

 

*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.

Go Read This | Russian state fund takes 25% stake in YotaPhone – FT.com

Interesting news this. I don’t know that it will revive ereaders as a segment and I think we would be better pushing smartphone readers to simply use their current screens to read rather than making life more complicated for them, but:

YotaPhone’s makers managed to fit two devices inside one surprisingly lightweight handset. This is not just a Kindle strapped to a phone. The slim contours are even more remarkable considering the layers of protection needed prevent heat from the battery impairing the e-reader’s “ink”.

Once the basic instructions have been mastered, navigating YotaPhone becomes relatively easy – especially the central conceit of being able to” flip” content from the smartphone screen to the back e-reader.

News from the FT feed, for example, rolls down the electronic ink screen, making it easier to read and, crucially, consuming much less battery. Books and magazines can be flipped to the back to read.

via Russian state fund takes 25% stake in YotaPhone – FT.com.

Go read This | Past, present and future | The Bookseller

Interesting piece by Stephen Page of Faber in The Bookseller:

Publishers and other media companies have always been as singular as those who invest directly with talent to license properties. This is changing. Netflix’s House of Cards demonstrates that players further down the value chain are trying to expand their role to include investment in intellectual property. Alongside this, the transformation of self-publishing has demonstrated that those upstream from larger scale publishers are also able to exploit copyright. We are all part of one continuum, and will co-exist to the benefit of readers and writers alike.

via Past, present and future | The Bookseller.

Go Read This | the left room» Blog Archive » some quick thoughts on that report on author earnings

Much to think abut in the aftermath of Hugh Howey’s data dump! Thos is just one of the many god posts on it:

The reality is that publishing anything is a unique path. If you have a book, and you’re trying to decide whether to self- or traditionally-publish, there is only the apparition of help for you in these figures. It might be that you traditionally-publish and sell 100 copies, and would financially have been better off self-publishing. It may be that you sell a million copies through traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that you’ve left money on the table simply because those million sales if self-published would have netted you more. You can’t say what might have happened had you chosen a different route – whether you would have got those 100 or those million sales or something different. This is one problem I see with Howey’s piece (and numerous others). The number of copies a book can sell is not some intrinsic part of its make-up. The way you choose to sell it, and what happens along the way, will play a huge part and can’t be discounted.

via the left room» Blog Archive » some quick thoughts on that report on author earnings.

Go Read This | Macmillan To Publish First Novel From Swoon Reads, A Crowdsourced Romance Imprint And Online Community – Press Release – Digital Journal

Publishing is a complex ecosystem (something I wrote about nearly three years ago when I wrote about The Value Web that was emerging in trade publishing), one in which there is no ONE way to publish or be published. Here’s a very nice example of that reality in play:

Sandy Hall, a teen librarian from Hawthorne, New Jersey, posted A LITTLE SOMETHING DIFFERENT to the Swoon Reads site in November 2013. Within weeks, the manuscript was rated “Five Hearts” by the Swoon Reads Community and considered to be one of the most “Swoonworthy” on the site. This brought it to the attention of Jean Feiwel, Publisher of Swoon Reads, and the rest of the Swoon Reads Board. One e-mail and two phone calls later, Sandy Hall signed her first book deal for World rights. 

via Macmillan To Publish First Novel From Swoon Reads, A Crowdsourced Romance Imprint And Online Community – Press Release – Digital Journal.