The future of e-books: E vs. P—or BOTH?

image"Paper is here to stay, but in different ways than before,” Dan Bloom recently wrote in a TeleRead comment, “and e-books and e-news and e-readers will change life on Earth."

I am a devout e-book fan, but agree with him. Certain media types are better suited to paper, no matter now technology may evolve. And other media types, I think, will migrate to only e-versions. If you are a paper newspaper and you have not yet hit the Web, innovate now!

So how will E and P co-exist in the future? Here's my take on things. Do you agree?

Things that’ll stay paper-based

1. Children's picture books. Even if they get the color and page layout options these sorts of books need, I still do not see books for young children being viable as an e-book. First of all, children that age learn to read with their fingers. I shared my Sony Reader with some five-year-olds one day and they had no trouble grasping the concept of it and the potential benefits and uses, but they had to point at and touch every word they read.

This would pose a real usability problem on anything touchscreen-based. And even a non-touchscreen would become horribly smudged and unreadable fairly quickly. There are also some important concepts of literacy that can’t be taught with a screen.

As a teacher, I have done assessments on three-year-olds where their readiness to learn to read is rated by their understanding of concepts such as understanding what a book is and which way the pages turn. You can’t teach or assess those on a machine. Once they are old enough to read chapter books, I would have no issues loading up an e-book reader for them, but for very early readers, I think the physical book object is here to stay.

2. Cookbooks, coffee table books and other books which rely on photographs and fancy layouts. Appearances count, for one thing. I have seen people write negative reviews of a cookbook because it’s arranged in columns and they prefer standard paragraphs, or vice versa. These are visual media. The other issue is screen size. I need to see the whole page at once when I cook, and if I had an e-book reader big enough to handle this, it would be too large to carry around for my pocket fiction reading. Also, these are the types of books people are very likely to give as gifts, and you can’t wrap up an e-book and put it under the tree.

Things that’ll migrate to all or mostly E

1. Newspapers. News just changes too quickly for print news to remain viable in these days of instant internet updates. Why would I pay money for paper I have to wrestle into the recycle bin when the news it contains is already out of date by the time it hits my door?

Right now, I get all of my news on the net, and I don’t pay for it. I think newspaper websites will have trouble getting people to pay after letting them have it for free. But I think the iPhone/smartphone market will save them and we will see a surge of e-subscriptions. I would be happy to pay a subscription fee for my local paper to deliver an e-version to me every morning, but right now, the only way to do that is to get a Kindle. Somebody needs to get on the smartphone train ASAP and develop an app where one can browse newspapers and subscribe for auto-delivery to their phone every morning.

2. Mass-market fiction. E-book readers are perfect for quick fiction reads. In days past, I would buy a ton of this stuff and then have to get rid of it due to storage issues. There are no storage issues with e-books! And they’re just words, so there is no reason why there has to be a piece of paper I can see. I have not bought a paper fiction book in years.

There is the gift market, I suppose, and perhaps we’ll see small hardback runs for those sorts of buys. Or perhaps the future bookstore will rely more heavily on some sort of wireless/print on demand kiosk where one can browse and buy, either in E or P or both, in one transaction. But I suspect most people who choose to read fiction will be reading it on screens.

3. Anthologies. I think it will become standard practice, if it isn’t already, to bundle books with trailers or teasers for other books. Cross-promotion is everybody’s friend, and I have bought at least one book already on the strength of a sample chapter at the end of another book. To that end, I see the anthology making a big comeback. If you have several authors who all have novel excerpts which can perhaps stand alone as a mini-story, why not bundle them into a collection? The reader could walk away with a book they enjoy in its own right, plus five or six titles to add to their wish list. Everyone wins.

Things which will be a mixture

1. Magazines. I was waffling on whether I thought this would go all-e like the newspapers, but I think it will stay mixed because people like to buy a magazine before they get on the airplane. Part of me thinks that airport wi-fi will let them make these impulse buys straight to their phones, but I wonder how many people want to read People Magazine on a tiny phone screen, or even on a paperback-sized e-book reader. Maybe this is like the cookbooks where you need to see the whole page at once. But any magazine which is more text-based, I definitely see it going e-book. I already get three such magazines electronically through Fictionwise, and I am very happy to have issues of Ellery Queen that I can keep forever and not have to worry about storing.

2. Textbooks. They weigh a ton, so there is definite incentive to move them to e-book-based versions. But some subjects like art history, where visuals are important, may stay print-based. And we are not there yet. The only e-book texts I have tried thus far have been so laden down with DRM and usage ‘rules’ that they were total wastes of money. Why should I spent $40 for a ‘book’ I cannot use past the course end date, can’t cut and paste from to cite in coursework, can’t even search because my computer sees it as a set of images and not a set of words, when for $20 more, I can have the paper version and keep it forever? Right now, the only real winners in the e-book courseware game are the literature majors. I got my degree before the e-book revolution, and the single most expensive book I bought for it was the Norton Shakespeare, which was $80 and weighed about six pounds. I could get all of that on-line for free these days.

3. Manuals. PDF can be a little clunky, but as the e-book formats gradually standardize, I think we’ll see the problem lessen. Already, I have instruction manuals for some products I own downloaded to the computer. Most electronics don’t even come with print copies anymore. But I would like to see this area of bookdom expand. I have lengthy teaching guides for a program I use with my students, and I am in the process of converting them to e-books myself. The advantages are numerous. The primary benefit for me will be that I can clone a copy for each class I teach. So if both of my Grade 1 classes are doing the same story, I can have my own teaching guide, with my own annotations and bookmarks, for each of them. I’ve started with typing notes from the guides by hand, but I am seriously contemplating getting a cheap scanner and running them all through it over the Christmas break.

Image credit: CC-licensed photo by Timonoko.

3 Comments on The future of e-books: E vs. P—or BOTH?

  1. I think there is a flaw in your reasoning. You set the problem up as e-book vs. p-book, and add the option of a mix. You are still applying the logical assumption of aV~a, i.e. excluding other options.

    For example the cookbook. You are right in that we won’t see cook-e-books, but from this it does not follow that we will stick to cook-p-books. What I think will happen is that we get neither but instead cooking apps running in the kitchen communication with my fridge and stove. So I will not get generalized recipes for roast beef from a cookbook but an adapted recipes for the very piece of roast beef I have purchase. Then the cooking app will also control the oven so that it can manage the time and temperature based on feedback from a sensor I stick in the roast beef.

    Just because something is being done as books now and don’t make sense as e-books doesn’t mean they have to stay as books at all.

  2. ficbot, I’d tend to agree with your verdict, provided you add the quaified “near-term” to your assessment. Over the next two-three years, you’ve nailed it; longer term, though, I fear you are under-selling the technology.

    As I see it, the hardware coming our way is going to expand the definition of what a book is beyond static text and pictures and distill the meaning of “book” to its purest essence: packaged information. Thus I would argue that in the long term, “Book” will come to mean *primarily* electronic information formats (plural, yes; I do *not* believe in one-size-fits all straightjackets, ePub or no ePub) and that these packaged formats will acquire many of the interactive features of the formats we now consider software. Specifically:

    Children’s picture Books:

    Exhibit A: Mattel See-n-say
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/See_'n_Say
    Exhibit B: TI Speak-n-Speak
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speak_&_Spell_(toy)
    Exhibit C: Jumpstart Educational Kidware (and competitors–they are Legion, no?)
    http://www.jumpstart.com/aboutus/aboutus.aspx

    For well-on fifty years now, there has been a steady migration of kid educational tools (disguised as toys and entertainment) away from single function gadgets to ever-more-sophisticated interactive applications. The plethora of Kidware on the market these days is one of the strengths of the Windows platform; the fact that these tools are delivered as application software obscures the fact that the bulk of these packages are, in fact, interactive picturebooks. The lack of a standards-based framework for packaging these works in a standard run-time format has forced their Publishers to deliver them as appware (no diferent than the appware ebooks on the iPhone, really) but there is no law of nature that says this state of affairs will continue eternally.
    I would, instead, suggest that as ebooks become mainstreamed over the next decade some adventurous outfit will craft a standard framework (analogous to the easy to use and highly efficient HDi Microsot and Toshiba developed for HD-DVD, maybe even *based* on it; it isn’t wedded to optical media or HD video at all: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HDi_(interactivity) ) to deliver interactive multimedia ebooks, thereby divorcing the content from the runtime application. Benefits would be usual; platform-independence, lower development costs, etc.
    As for the hardware, I would suggest that once plastic substrate color displays (LCD, OLED, or eInk is irrelevant) are mainstreamed in the next decade, a low cost, kid-focused, indestructible tablet could be built to run these interactive picturebooks on the proposed standard framework. All the necessary pieces either exist as prototypes or are imminent. (I would embed the whole thing in a 1 inch thick lucite slab; lets see the rugrats try to break that!) 😉

    Cookbooks:
    Once we accept that PC encyclopedias, tutorials, and training applications are in fact interactive ebooks (packaged information, remember?) cookbooks are a trivial implementation for an Apple Unicorn or a Microsoft Courier or whatever the Asus dual-panel reader ends up being. The added value from the interactivity, instant gratification, annotation, multimedia, and extensibility of the ecookbook would make a compelling case for the digital product among non-luddites.
    Exhibits A-through-J:
    http://cookbook-recipe-software-review.toptenreviews.com/

    Coffee table books:

    I’m going to date myself.
    Back in the 90’s I amassed a colection of a dozen or so “coffee table” CD-ROMs on a variety of subjects. Fun stuff. Most ran 100-200MB in size and focused on subjects like Martial Arts, Space Exploration, Nature, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, etc.
    Strip away the CD delivery mechanism and what remains? Yet another pre-existing example of interactive ebooks delivered as appware.
    Exhibit A: Isaac Asimov’s Ultimate Robot
    http://www2.worldvillage.com/wv/cafe/html/reviews/robot.htm
    Exhibit B: Planet Earth HD collection
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planet_Earth_(TV_series)

    The Ultimate Robot is a clear ebook product; it is structured around a collection of all the Asimov Robot SF stories and places them within the context of the science of robotics. But instead of just limiting itself to still photographs, it enhances the package with audio, video, and animations. As a Pre-HD product, the video is low-res, but it shows how interactivity can add value to the coffee table book niche. Similarly, Planet Earth is arguably a coffee table book in its own right; pretty pictures brought to life in your living room. :) Add in interactivity and, regardless of delivery medium, it serves the purpose of this particular publishing niche.

    Now, I know a lot of people have a problem accepting the concept of interactive books but the fact is there is nothing new there; Philips’ aborted CDi is 20 years past by now:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CD-i

    And the MPC CD publishing wave of the 90’s was also ahead of its time:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multimedia_PC

    But both laid the groundwork in technologies and tools for the modern media-rich web and for the interactive ebooks to come. The technology to address these markets exists today and the economics look favorable; all that is required is for static ebooks to establish themselves first and put pressure on the economics off the printing industry. Both are things I see as inevitable. I don’t think POD is going to be enough to save the mass printing companies and as that industry hits crisis mode in the next decade the publishers of the specialty print products (from coffee table books to comics) are going to see ever-increasing print costs and pressure to move to electronic media.

    Eventually, every form of packaged information *will* be available in digital form commercially. Doesn’t mean all forms of print editions will disappear—not overnight—but let’s face it: the modern print industry is still a volume-driven business. Reduce the volume and the profits might very well vanish…

    So I not only see the means and opportunity for *all* packaged information to go digital, but I also see plenty of motive. It’ll take a decade or two, of course, but the endgame is already in sight. We just need to look beyond the short-term issues of the day and the limits of the *currently* deployed technology; Kindle and its kin are not the last wordinformation delivery hardware and ePub and its kin kin are hardly the end-all-and be-all of publishing. The storm is just beyond the horizon people, but its coming; the satellite picture shows it clearly. 😉

  3. Could the webmaster PLEASE put leading zeros in the dates so they sort correctly in an RSS feed? 1 and 01 are not the same critter!

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