Thursday, August 5, 2010

E-books : A paradigm shift in reading and publishing.

Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was one of the pivotal moments of human history. The Renaissance and Reformation movements are considered the children of advent of printing press. Without those two the modern western civilization as we know it would be a hypothetical exercise.

For a very long time there have many false starts that were talked about as the death knell for the printing word. Today, with some element of certainty, we can say that we stand, may not be at a pivotal moment,  but surely at the cusp ofa tectonic shift concerning how we read and publish books.

I never warmed up to e-books until I sampled a few books on the IPad. Books, old and new, have their own intoxicating smell. Buying a used book sometimes has its charms, especially when a moderate but discerning reader had underlined some portions it gives a kick to see another persons ideas. The ability to write on the edges, the ability to flip to the 'notes' section to see the source of some study or further expansion of an idea, the charm of just letting the book fall on your lap and to ruminate etc were not well duplicated in e-book formats. E-books were mostly PDF rendering of the printing page, other than the convenience of carrying several of them on a CD/ thumb drive the reading experience was no where near a book.

Steve Jobs entered the e-book scene much behind Amazon's Jeff Bezos' highly successful e-book reader the "Kindle". The Kindle pretty much mimics a reading experience. When I took an IPad to India recently I decided to try out e-books to beat carrying books for the tortuous commute. I chose books that covered the 2008 presidential election and a political memoir. Those books were page turners. I completely got sucked into e-books as the difference was practically nil compared to a printed book (and bunch of air-hostesses chatted me up to see the very hot new toy, well with my 4 year old and my wife next to me that did not go much further). I could highlight passages, I could bookmark, I could write notes.

The IPad is not just a e-book reader its a "tablet PC". From strictly an e-book perspective though Amazon's Kindle beats IPad on feature and total cost of ownership. Kindle DX (9.7 inch diagonally) retailing at under $400 comes with no-fee 3G connectivity (IPad 3G needs a $30 subscription per month, the cheapest Ipad retails at $400). The only thing that KIndle lacks is the color GUI unlike IPad. Amazon offers way more titles than IPad for ebook (well Apple store will eventually catchup or even exceed). With the Kindle we buy a book at anytime and it gets downloaded presto. TO retain foothold for Apple fans Bezos in a wily move has made a Kindle app for IPad too. So you can use Kindle books bought for Kindle device on IPad too.

The one feature that blew me off with Kindle is finding what most readers had highlighted when they read a book. So you get an idea of what passages most readers think are key to be highlighted. However I wonder how the data is collected and how is privacy maintained???? Other features like downloading chapters for sampling, ability to 'lend' a book electronically to another kindle user, user ratings etc all make the e-book experience not just close enough to a book store experience but in some respect even exceed that.By the way for the past month for the first time Amazon Kindle books outsold hardcover editions.

To be sure the e-book industry has miles to go. The main stumbling block is the format war between e-book device manufacturers. Sony, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Apple, Borders etc all manufacture e-book readers but there is no cross portability. This is where the  printed book still wins hands down.

Thanks, largely, to Itunes and Ipod today the two leading booksellers of USA have sharply cut down the floor space allocated for CD's. Would selling books, hence the book stores themselves, follow that route?  Just 2 days ago 'Barnes and Noble' announced that it is  up for sale. B&N is America's leading bookseller. I often used to point that a book store with a healthy stock price shows how much America loves books and music. That is still true except that there is a new kid in the block. Why would I go to a book store if I can read New York Times book review online and browse sample chapters sitting at home (or a park or a train) sipping the same Starbucks coffee. In fact I can do all that sitting at a coffee store with wi-fi.

All that I said until now only shows how e-books come close to reading a printing book, help give the experience of browsing at a book store and in some incremental way enhance those two experiences. Unlike the Kindle,today, the IPad is redefining publishing industry and how we read.

Publishers are now designing multi-media interlaced books for Ipad. e-books with embedded video and hyperlinks are being designed exploiting the potential of an internet connected tablet PC. Encyclopedia Britannica has cut down sharply its famed printed encyclopedia because doing a research tracing hyperlinks on the net is more fun and I need not stack 30 volumes of books that could contain outdated data.

Publishers were grumbling how Amazon compelled them to drive down prices of kindle editions for new hardcovers when Apple entered the arena they breathed a sigh of relief. However, Apple too, for competitiveness started driving down prices in tandem. Today there is an investigation if Apple and Amazon are indulging in price fixing. That aside, what has enthused publishers is that thanks to electronic formatting they can now sell various "VERSIONS" of the same book at different price levels.

It is a common practice in DVD retailing to sell a "director's cut" with some more extras than the usual DVD. The "Directors Cut" or "Special Edition" would usually be released later than the initial release prompting movie affficionados to buy the same movie twice. This is rarely done for books. Even with a mega-blockbuster like Harry Potter the maximum they could do when the last book came out was to re-issue all the earlier editions and come up with a "boxed set of 7" but that sales was practically nil. Who would waste tens of dollars buying a boxed set when almost everybody had religiously bought each issue and was holding on to it?

Rare exceptions do occur but still with less success than the DVD world. Stephen Hawking's cult classic "A brief History of Time" has been re-issued with pictures and glossy printing. I could see that book make a splash in a very special IPad edition. Imagine reading about curvature of space time alongside an animation of a ball in a trampoline. Any kid would fall in love with science. Reading is never a linear activity but with this kind of reading the mind would race in way more directions and the reading experience itself is elevated to a much higher plane.

Would all this mean the death knell for Gutenberg's invention? Not at all. Still the book remains cheaper and easy to acquire, more universal in format. Broadband connectivity, affordability etc still constrain the e-book industry. Of one thing we can be sure though. We are at the cusp of a new wave.

No comments: