More Questions Than Answers: Month 3 of the Year of the E-book

First, a blog post got passed around on Twitter. Then the NYT picked up on it, and the following week this video was posted to YouTube:


(better version of this from Penguin’s Digital unit)

Got your mind properly blown yet? (Yes? Good.)

This is just the start of what promises to be a really ground-breaking year of user experience with e-content. In fact, I think we may have to stop calling them e-books. I knew that the iPad would be a game-changing device because of its ability to connect content with video and touch as well as connectivity, but to see its ability to utterly transform content is AMAZING.

I know we’re going to see more of this when the Microsoft Courier makes a debut, and as soon as the Asus eee Pad comes on sale later this year the market will be blown wide open. Just as the touchscreen smartphone became the norm in a little over 2 years, it will take even less time for tablets and “pads” to do the same.

But what else will be transformed? The evaluation of this content is going to be paramount for consumers – a traditional book or media review is not even going to start to cut it for interim consumers stuck between now, where we are in a real Wild West stage of development and innovation and the future, where (hopefully) standards for e-content will emerge… in some way or another. The same e-content could look radically different on one device than it does on another, and lose or gain functionality when ported to yet another.

I’ve said in the past that digital content needs to be device agnostic, and I’m willing to stick to that as an ideal for now. But things are getting very interesting, and it is nearly impossible to deny at this point that the publishing, reviewing, and bookstore/library industries are getting ready to pass through a fundamental change. Will consumers who bought a Nook only three months ago be satisfied once they see what their money could have bought in Apple’s iPad bookstore? Can Kindle fanatics reconcile themselves to plain black and white e-ink when interactivity and animations are available on new-style tablets?

Let’s see what Q2 of 2010 brings.

I downloaded a book (and I liked it… sort of)

I felt as though, after my last post, I should play more with electronic books so that I can speak from a position of experience. So, I fired up my Kindle app on my iPhone – downloaded only because it was free – and flipped through my purchases, such as they were. I had only downloaded a short story and a few sample chapters, so I had no real experience at extended reading on my phone.

Because I’ve been enjoying the TV show True Blood based on Charlaine Harris’ novels, I decided to try the first in her Sookie Stackhouse series. I had flipped through them years before, and thought I might give them another try. After all, reading tastes change and I needed an “average” book to try out: something I would have bought in paperback, not too long or too short, just an average sort of book in order to get an average experience reading using Kindle.

Well, that was a mistake.

Dead Until Dark was a fun little book. So fun, in fact, I was eager to see what happened next in the series. And with an electronic book, all you have to do is hit the download button. It’s like a direct delivery system for book addicts; Kindle crack, if you will. The rush of instant gratification was a little magical and a little thrilling. There I was, in the backseat of a car, and within moments I was reading the continued tales of a vampire-dating waitress from Louisiana. I was about as happy as a real book lover could possibly be.

But that feeling didn’t last very long after I was done. For me, books are just about as social as anything else in the world. So of course I started thinking of people I would recommend this series to. And I realized that I could recommend all I liked, but that I wouldn’t be able to lend them my copies of the books! I’d have to hand over my phone in order to lend out my “books.” And in my mind, that’s a big loss. One of my big readers’ advisory mantras is that recommendations are only as good as your ability to connect the reader and book as fast as possible. Nobody likes to wait, and there’s a reason why Big Chain Bookstores engage in the “here, let me hand you the merchandise” practice: it cements the deal.

So while the e-book version was convenient for me as a solitary reader, it led me into a dead end. Even if I was able to “gift” my digital copy to another reader, it would still only be able to be read on an iPhone or a Kindle itself. I think the experience left me a little poorer than it found me – although now I’ve read the books, I’m not able to share that with other people unless they are willing to pay about $6.00 and go out to find the books themselves.

I’m inclined to think that this hurts the publishing industry more than it supposedly helps them. I rarely lend out an entire series of books, but I frequently lend the first copy in a series to friends and colleagues who are willing to give them a try. How many subsequent sales does that drive? Also, the price point seemed pretty arbitrary to me. I could pay between $2.00-$6.00 for a used paperback copy for the same book locally, and have the residual value of the physical book left over for sharing, etc. In theory, e-books are so cost-efficient to deliver to the consumer that it totally disrupts the distribution model. You only need one copy of the book on a central server to make a copy of for each reader, so I hope more of the profits would go to the writer (but I strongly suspect this isn’t really the case). And finally, publishers are losing their cheapest form of free advertising. Nobody I encountered that day knew I was sitting there reading Dead Until Dark. They had no clue. When carrying around a physical book in public, I usually get at least basic questions from people I encounter like “is that any good?” or “do you like it?” Now those chance encounters are all closed off.

So in the pros column, we have convenience and portability as well as instant gratification. But in the cons column, I experienced a lot of frustration in trying to share my reading experience. E-books also seem expensive given their limitations and restrictions.

While I won’t be repeating this experience with downloadable audiobooks (I am notoriously unable to listen to books, so it wouldn’t be a fair experiment), I do feel like I’ve gotten more insight on the electronic reading experience. If anyone has thoughts to share, I’d like to hear what you have to say in the comments section.

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