This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, entitled “Why the iPad Marks the End of Price Controls for eBooks—and Why Publishers Have Won.”
I slept on it and changed my mind.
I still hold to yesterday’s argument, which is that price controls for e-books, heretofore a serious concern among publishers, will shortly be thing of the past — much like newspapers, interest in actual space exploration at NASA, and any plans for a mechanically hoisted torch during future opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
Yes, publishers have indeed won the pricing wars. Unfortunately, it may be a hollow victory.
Ironically, the reason publishers may ultimately not have much cause for celebration is precisely the same reason that publishers won the pricing war in the first place: the iPad is not a dedicated e-book reader.
As you may recall through the haze of last night’s pricing victory celebrations (I did warn you not to break out the champagne just yet), I argued that because the iPad is not a dedicated ebook reader — and because there are so many ways of delivering content to the device — pricing controls are not central to Apple’s strategy nor enforceable even if they were. This argument carries beyond the product development strategies of One Infinite Loop to the coming hoard of multi-function tablets (as noted yesterday, everyone from Silicon Alley to Shanghai with a touch screen, a silicon chip, and a soldering iron is working feverishly on designing their very own tablet).
Because the iPad is not a dedicated ebook reader, there are, unfortunately, many things that users can do with the device other than read books. Unlike the Kindle, where publishers have the device all to themselves (OK, book publishers do have to share with publishers of newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, and even a blog or two — but at least they are all publications), iPad users will be able to surf the Web, play games, watch movies, view their photo collections, listen to music, watch TV, send e-mail, work on a presentation, or access over 100,000 applications that do any number of distracting things.
Publishers may have won the pricing war, but the real struggle is going to be for users’ attention.
Let’s look at this in terms of flying to Tokyo (the “Godzilla Test,” if you will). Steve Jobs promised explicitly in his keynote that the iPad’s battery can power the thing from San Francisco to Tokyo, spouting video the entire way. Now, I’ve flown to Tokyo a number of times. Usually, I’ll watch an in-flight movie, catch a nap, do some work, and read a book. A lot of book reading takes place on flights to Tokyo. It’s a particularly good flight for reading — it’s long enough to really get into a book. Plus, unless you are in business class, the screens for movies are not very good and the selection is limited. And the seats are not really designed for laptop use so you can only do so much of that. Books are really ideal — as are tablet computers. Now, with an iPad (or whatever tablet I am using), I can be powered the whole way and I have everything on one machine — my book, movies, and work. But I also have games. And TV shows. And, if the plane has WiFi, I now have the entirety of the Web (minus the Flash pages). The question is, will I be able to finish that book, or will I be too distracted by all of the other things that are now quite literally at the tips of my fingers?
If I’m like most other people, I will get distracted. Indeed, most people apparently live in a state of perpetual distraction. According to the widely cited “Reading at Risk” report from the National Endowment for the Arts, people became increasingly distracted between 1992 and 2002, which correlates with the rise of the Web (a connection not lost upon the NEA). During this period, the number of adults in the US who read books not required for work or school declined by a precipitous 7%. The report blames television and the Internet for the decline. And that was before the television and Internet were on the same device as books. And well before that insidiously distracting Web could be accessed on a flight to Tokyo.
On the other hand, lamenting the fallen state of American book reading is a pastime nearly as old as, well, American book reading. The New York Times reported on the dismal state of American reading nearly 100 years ago, blaming a lack of reading on the distractions of “modern amusements.”
The New York Times piece makes reference to an article in the Atlantic Monthly by George Brett, Sr., chairman (at the time) of Macmillian. There are actually two Atlantic articles on the book trade authored by Brett appearing around this time. I highly recommend taking the time to read them as they prove definitively that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
In “Reading of Books Nowadays” (1914), Brett reports the complaint of a fellow publisher, describing how the “selling of books to the public had been curtailed in turn by the multiplication of cheap magazines, by the increasing use of the automobile, by the invention of the Victrola and other mechanical producers of music, by the invention of the motion-picture film, and last but not least, by the new fashion of dances which absorbed . . . the attention and time of young and old alike.”
In “Book-Publishing and Its Present Tendencies” (1913), Brett assigns the blame for lackluster book sales on “the inadequacy of the present methods of distribution.” He goes on to suggest that whomever “discovers or invents a new method which shall be both practical and effective for the distribution of books… will confer a boon upon the author . . .the public . . . and especially upon the publishers themselves, whose profits increase greatly as increasing numbers of copies are sold.”
The devil is in the details, of course, as the current CEO of Macmillian has noted.
The same National Endowment for the Arts has more recently announced a reversal in the 100-year-plus American spiral into illiteracy, with adults now reading more books than they did in 2002. If the trend holds, and if no new dance craze distracts us all (fortunately, that is one distraction book publishers do not have to contend with on the flight to Tokyo — though Guitar Hero is a possibility), perhaps there is hope for book publishers yet.