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The battle for the soul of the book

In my previous post about the ebook wars I was talking mostly about the fight between Amazon, publishers, and ebooks buyers over the pricing of ebooks— a battle in which so far most of the collateral damage has been to writers, as they turn out the be hostages to their publishers' fortunes. That battle still rages, as evidenced by the lively debate in the comments of this article in The Atlantic that attempts to sort out the logic of various schemes for setting the price of ebooks.

However, on further reflection, I think that the pricing battle is merely the prelude to Armageddon. What to charge for an ebook is really merely a question of the economics of shifting book publication from print distribution to digital. That question may result in upheaval and consternation in publishing circles, but the ebook itself is— in spite of what print-book fans insist in their moaning about the smell of old books— merely the text (and sometimes illustrations) translated to the screen (whether e-ink, as on a Kindle, Nook, or Sony, or LCD as on an iPhone/iTouch). The ebook is still a book.

What the iPad does is open up the door to radically change books themselves from words on paper(e-paper or plain paper) to something else entirely. A first step might be to add "extras" such as video interviews with the author, rather like a DVD of a movie might have director's comments. Publishers might see this as a way to generate more revenue, in the belief that it makes the ebook more valuable. Whether or not that would help is debatable. It seems to me that DVDs are moving away from that model, except in the case of blockbuster movies like STAR WARS or LORD OF THE RINGS.

Random House has already started a program offering enhanced ebooks that include online games (for kids' books) and graphic novel versions of adult titles. These offerings are reached via a browser, which means that probably they will work on an iPad. The vook from Simon and Schuster takes things a step farther and intergrates video with text narrrrative. The reader opens the vook through his browser, and reads the story until he is directed to the first video segment. He watches that and then returns to the text. I don't have any info on how they're doing, but they since you experience the vook on an internet enabled PC, I see them as prime iPad fodder. After all, Steve Jobs is actually quoted as say, "People don't read anymore" (although he is cooperating on a biography, so maybe he thinks they just need an interesting book.)

The question is, how far down this path can publishers go before the book as we know it becomes lost? If you can sell a text-only ebook for $10 max, and a vook for $20, will publishers sell out for the revenue? The day might well come when Project Gutenberg and "indie authors" (formerly known as self-published authors) are the primary source for plain old books. Wouldn't that be a kick in the slush pile!

[Addendum to my original post: this post eagerly looking forward to the expansion of ebooks sounds more enthusiastic about the topic than I feel.]





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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
mtlawson
Feb. 16th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
Excellent post, Karen, even if I'm one of those people who like the smell of a book. ;-)

Here's a few ponderables:

If a publisher comes out with a graphic novel version of a text, what will happen to comic books in the future?

It sounds like the vook is following in the footsteps of video games, where you have cutscenes interspersed with the gameplay. I'm not so sure how that will work in the future with text, particularly since that will throw certain aspects of the text (like description) right out the window.

From what I can tell, DVDs have two price levels: the no frills cheap edition, and the "all the extras" deluxe edition. Maybe eBooks will move in that fashion, or allow for upgrades to the "book experience".

Steve Jobs had a financial stake in making sure people didn't read; he had a financial stake in Pixar, for instance. (And there's that iPod thing, too.) I doubt he's going to turn around and start promoting reading just because he's got an iPad out. In a real sense, Steve is a lot like Ted Turner in their usage of occasionally inane commentary. Steve also has this opinion that rules don't apply to him, so I'd take whatever he says with a grain of salt.

A publisher offering a vook will also mean that the publisher has to pay more people to produce the work; the costs involved will most likely mean that the vook will be limited in scope to blockbuster works only.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 16th, 2010 09:09 pm (UTC)
Your comment about "enhancements" costing money is quite true. Even if the author isn't paid to do an interview, the sound guy won't work for free. I do like the idea of having a plain (cheaper) version as well as an enhanced one.
peadarog
Feb. 16th, 2010 10:14 pm (UTC)
When I was a kid, there were comics that were more like story books -- A picture, with text underneath. They didn't do too well and couldn't compete with either real books or real comics. Vooks aren't going to compete very well with real movies or real video games or real books. A short-lived gimmick, I think.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 16th, 2010 11:55 pm (UTC)
I hope so! I suppose if I had any faith that vooks would lure movie-goers into reading books, I would see them as a good thing, but in fact I see them as more likely to accomplish the opposite.
jongibbs
Feb. 16th, 2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
Another good post, Karen, though if you ask me, it'll be a loooong time before e-readers of any sort become the norm.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 16th, 2010 11:58 pm (UTC)
Well, it is true that ebooks are still a very small percentage of books sold. But they are growing so fast, they have publishers really worried.

And I will also say that while the Kindle-Nook-Sony type dedicated eReader has converted a lot of voracious readers, the iPad has the potential to convert the larger mass of casual readers. With any luck, it would persuade them to read more!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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