Can your eBook do THIS?

Peter JonesWu Wei

Recent email discussions among Unbook and eBook innovationaries deserve closer assessment. With respect to eBooks, Unbook contributor Adam Greenfield suggests that the Kindle service for the iPhone was a huge strategic miscalculation.

For the moment a Kindle-formatted work becomes decoupled from Kindle, the object, it becomes fungible, just another kind of digital document – less like a book and more like an mp3, in other words. I can use it on this device, I can use it on that device. Where have I seen that pattern before? And how much in the way of constraint am I willing to put up with in my music files? Perhaps more to the point, how much am I willing to pay for them?

All of a sudden, the DRM and pricing models which had seemed marginally acceptable – and I do mean marginally – in return for the convenience of a bespoke device/service experience are revealed as the absurdly overbearing impediments they are. I can’t send this file to someone else? Why? I can send a PDF to anyone I want. Amazon wants me to pay $13.99 for a subscription to the New York Times? Why? I can look at the Times any time I want, for nothing, in the browser that’s a tap away from the Kindle application.

I know Adam’s work from references in the Unbook community, and not from his book Everyware, which I have not read yet. Then NYC designer Chris Finlay (who I just met in Toronto last week) posted:

“Book publishers are dabbling in open platforms but are understandably hesitant. Epaper is emerging as strong tech to attach to but who knows where it will settle. Who would have thought so many would want to read on the iPhone’s tiny screen?

Think a lot of the slow pace is because the population of book readers that are rabid fans and want to trade are not as great as the # of music listeners.”

Indeed alt.books are a moving target in mid-air. One of the dynamics is the  different re-tails for books versus music.  A music catalog is infinitely reusable, with a long shelf life for almost any period. A fat long tail.

Books represent cultural knowledge and actually do get outdated, superceded, ignored forever. They still have a long, but peakier long tail with a steep dropoff.  Therefore, recommender systems for music are simple. But algo-recommending obscure books related to your context for a subject, not so easy. We just don’t have the metadata to do that well.

Also, because we’re insiders we may think the uptake of eBooks is “slow.” But even I don’t read eBooks yet, I scan them at best. They take too long to scan compared to print. Their measured uptake can be seen as quite rational, based on their availability, performance, and the smaller pool of people reading from small screens.

There are other, cultural reasons for the long duration adoption curve, for popular (e)books anyway. There aren’t as many fiction readers these days. There are big differences in style, meaning, culture, and cognitive task between books and other media, and between print and eBooks as well.

The main thing these media share are that they are recordable. But books, recorded or printed, require a single point of attention. Music can be played while doing anything.

And there are selection biases – the risk of playing a bad song is low – spending $10 on a book you end up not liking is a bad experience.

What do we think the drivers are for adoption on the handheld format? Is it more habit, convenience and utility based on the ubiquity of the device? I have no doubt a certain number of zealous early adopters will read whole works of fiction on their iPhone. There are plenty of apps for fiction content already.

But from everything I’ve heard from “readers” who actually like books, they want an experience that aids the satisfaction of reading. Older people (over 40) will often have trouble reading from a handheld. E-Ink really does make a difference, but it is not dedicated to the Kindle either. I’ve found older readers who like online reading, and they are still looking for the right form factor. The Kindle is pretty close to perfect there.

For the reading experience, the print book remains the form factor to beat. And Chris notes the Penguin Enriched eBook – on their website I could not see any clue about their value added features. You buy it on their word. $13 for a PDF? Help me understand what the killer app is here?

How much could I buy the same classic book, used on Amazon? Maybe $3 max plus a few bucks for shipping? Then I can share it physically or give it away. I can refer to it later because it serves as a physical reminder.

eBooks will have arrived when people say “yes, but can your book do THIS? The eBook has the author’s video – do you have the image gallery? Are you on their community?”