Progress – the ebooks debate rumbles on

Paul Raven @ 11-03-2009

Progress - Penny Arcade on ebooksI suppose I shouldn’t be, but I can’t help feeling surprised at how widespread the debate about ebooks is becoming – I honestly didn’t expect so many people would care so soon. Penny Arcade‘s take is unsurprisingly snarky [see right], but also somewhat conservative given their games’n’gadgets leanings (even allowing for comic license).

The best thing about the breadth of the discussion is that we’re getting a whole lot of different perspectives beyond authors and book-nerds. For example, The Big Money gives us the business logistics guy’s view, namely that “[d]igital readers will save writers and publishing, even if they destroy the book business”:

Here’s where the Kindle comes in. The collapse of bookstores almost ensures that the Kindle will thrive. Not because it’s better than a book; that doesn’t matter. The nation-within-a-nation that reads for pleasure and to be informed is a small but vibrant republic. Heavy readers make up a large portion of the book-buying public. These are people who read two to three books a week and buy 50 or so books a year. The Kindle will solve a number of problems for the citizens of Biblandia, not the least of which is having to go find a bookstore to get their next read.

Elsewhere, uber-PR guy and social media pundit Steve Rubel sees the Kindle and its ilk as “the last Great White Hope” for monetizing text media like journalism:

The Kindle, like the iPod, is an emerging critical mass device that actually encourages people to pay for content rather than get it for free. When Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, people were skeptical that people would shell out cash for music they could snag for free from file sharing networks. They did. The same was true when Apple, and later others, rolled out movies. However, today millions rent or buy movies online.

The Kindle offers a similar experience in a much larger market – text. This one is tougher to monetize. In the digital age books have managed to remain premium content. However, beyond books, magazine and newspaper content is available in abundance online for free. Yet, I still believe that people will pay to receive some of their favorites on their Kindles or their Kindle-enabled phones. Meet them there now while you can.

And of course, there’s the segment of the publishing industry that has gotten itself beyond denial and/or arm-flapping to the point of grappling with the potential that’s sat on their doorstep. Rather than dismissing ereaders as imperfect implementations, the Pan Macmillan digital team are looking ahead to what they see as an inevitable “iPod moment” for text:

… the iPod had a phenomenally intuitive control, especially given the bemusing buttons and rollers of it’s competitors (and I should know as I held out for some time, before caving in with a combination of resignation and glee). Characteristic of it’s manufacturer this no doubt has been an enormous boon to the device. Beyond that though the now iconic look from legendary Apple designer Jonathan Ive was what made us want one. The iPod wasn’t just useful, fun etc- it was jaw grindingly desirable.

Usability and covetability. Two principles for world domination.

What strikes me as being the interesting parallel with these two, aside from the the slightly obvious observations just outlined, is that both came from behind. They did not have first mover advantage. Instead they used these design concepts to leapfrog into pole. Indeed, it could be argued that precisely not coming first was an advantage in that it allowed the pair to fine tune their product and get these two crucial areas right.

Going back to the ereader then, I get the sense that we are on the cusp of when useability and covetability collide, uniting in a glorious burst of reading device nirvana. Ok maybe not quite, but once those user interfaces have been tweaked, and once someone like Ive gets there hands on a reading device, they will be back.

So we’re not quite at the “all bets are off” stage, but we’re certainly beyond the point where it’s a few evangelists with sandwich-boards prophesying the end-times. The more I look at it, the more I suspect that with ebooks the question is no longer “if?” but “when?”

What about you lot – how many of you have a reader already, and how has it changed your text media consumption? And for those that don’t have one, what will be the change that makes you cross the line?

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8 Responses to “Progress – the ebooks debate rumbles on”

  1. Fedman Kassad says:

    Kindle-schmindle, dedicated ebook readers are a big pfffft, convergence is the word of the day. 😉

    I’ve moved from a Palm device used ages ago to mobile phones with increasingly larger, brighter and higher-res screens and never looked back. When I absolutely *have* to read something from paper, I feel a near-physical discomfort. The next step are miniature projectors to go with the phones for those pesky tech books with large diagrams, and then it’s fully bye-bye to paper.

  2. Kian says:

    Too be honest I think the only thing that might convert me more to E-Readers is more based around the books that are hard to find or out of print (assuming they are uploaded). Personally I spend far too long staring at a screen for work and recreation and I quite enjoy having time away from it, so I doubt I will be an easy convert no matter really what happens.

  3. Radiofoot says:

    The Kindle seems best suited for well-off, busy, on the move,
    intellectual folk, people who need multiple news sources as well as
    a variety of books (the “guests of the Daily Show” community). As a white guy in his mid-20’s who makes a decent
    but not super high income, who reads regularly but not voraciously, hard
    copies of books are the way to go. I have the library (free), I have
    my friends’ books (free), I have used books stores (cheap). And my friends
    are the same way; none of them are getting a Kindle anytime soon, primarily
    because of the prohibitive cost, but also because they LIKE the physicality
    of books. And yeah, I agree with Kian, when you stare at a screen all day,
    it’s nice to sit down with an actual book. Likewise, I think this article
    makes a good point about the craveability factor of the Kindle; it really
    preys on our desire to have all our content in one place. What do you
    think about the emergence of cell phone novels amongst Japanese women?
    I think that’s definitely something to look at when examining this issue.
    Either way, we should applaud the demise of channel surfing in favor of
    individualized content that stimulates intellectually.

  4. Hallen says:

    to Radiofoot, small point: libraries are not free; underfunded, sure. As a punter im waiting with bated breath for my local council to decide its cheaper/less hassle to just give everyone a Kindle. As a librarian, shrug..

  5. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    It happens that I commented at length on this very subject today on the Book View Cafe Blog. Of course, I’m both an author and a book nerd, but I really want a good e-book reader. I don’t have one yet because I bought the Rocket book when it first came out and learned the hard way about the price of being an early adopter. Buying the latest gadget is fine if what you’re basically interested in is gadgets, but if what you really care about is what the gadget can do, it’s better to wait until a few of the bugs shake out.

  6. Gopakumar Sethuraman says:

    The cost of the Kindle is prohibitive and that’s only where the low tech books win out. The physicality of the book is highly romanticized. After all, a good story sucks you right in and makes you forget that you’re holding something physical. And unless one is in major city with a well stocked public library the wait time for new books is quite long and sometimes budget restrictions may see the library not getting certain books. The battle of the ebooks should be fought in developing and underdeveloped nations where such technology can provide easy and quick access to information/knowledge. Most of those markets don’t serve genre niches at all and what is published (the most mainstream works) have abysmal quality (making the physicality all too prominent).

  7. caitlan says:

    I like the way I interact with paper books. I can read them then lose them, share them, store them, annotate them, or whatever. I guess I would switch if there was a lightweight, large screen reader that wasn’t too expensive and downloaded my blog subscriptions and magazine subscriptions. AND INSTEAD OF A SCREEN IT SHOULD BE A PEN SIZED PROJECTOR.

  8. Paul Raven says:

    Interesting points, Gopakumar – a project like the $100 laptop for books could be a really powerful tool for change. Provided it didn’t end up as riddled with FAIL as the actual OLPC project seems to have become…