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We’ve all heard the pronouncements — the e-book revolution is here, boring old books made up of words will soon be replaced with exciting, radical digital artforms. In an article about the rumored Apple Tablet, Gizmodo’s Brian Lam says we need to “create hybridized content that draws from audio, video, and interactive graphics.” The always entertaining Fake Steve Jobs wrote a piece that was insightful in many ways (covered by Kent here), but which called for content that “incorporates dynamic elements (audio, video) with static elements (text, photos) plus the ability for the audience to become content creators, not just content consumers.”

Is it just me, or does this all sound kind of familiar?

Flash back to the early 1990s, when an exciting new technology called “CD-ROM” or “multimedia” arrived on the scene, with the promise of tearing down the publishing industry. CD-ROMs could contain hybridized content that drew from audio, video, and interactive graphics. They could incorporate dynamic elements with static elements as well.

How’d that work out?

The CD-ROM had a brief, shining moment in the sun, but was rapidly replaced by the Internet, which proved to be a much more flexible way of distributing information and melding different types of content.

Take a look at the exciting new Vook offerings. This is innovation? Are we just chasing the same multimedia dead ends? If the CD-ROM was beaten out by the early, primitive Internet, why would recreating a CD-ROM in a fancy new package work now? If a return to the CD-ROM is indeed the future, then what happens to e-ink based e-readers like the Kindle or the Sony Reader? These can barely show black and white pictures, so video is a non-starter. Barnes & Noble attempts to get around some of these limitations with a clumsy kludge of having segregated screens on their device, not quite the imagined integration that creates a new form.

Just as the smarter content companies of the 1990s focused on the web instead of the CD-ROM, many of the top digital players, Google, Apple, and O’Reilly seem to be ignoring e-ink and its various formats and instead focusing on XML and HTML.

Meet the hot new e-book device–it’s called “Internet Explorer,” and the revolution will result in an exciting new product called a “web page.”

The problem with declaring the book “dead” is that it assumes a zero-sum game — one art form must disappear if another is to appear. I’m not sure this is the case. The birth of MTV and the music video hasn’t made the CD disappear; both seem to coexist and even synergize. While the web has had immeasurable impact on so many aspects of the way we live, one thing it hasn’t conquered is long-form reading, particularly for fiction. The web can be great for non-fiction, for textbooks, manuals, and the like, and it’s very easy to see these sorts of books going exclusively digital. Most scholarly publishers have been working on this transition for the last 10-15 years, moving journals online, and building websites around textbooks. We’re already generating video and audio content, spectacular visualizations of data and interactive animations.

But the transition is not as simple for other types of books. I’ve tried to read novels online, but barely made it through a few chapters.

Most readers have trouble finishing my longwinded blog entries — imagine if I went to novel length!

For many authors, the whole point of putting your novels up on web pages is that it encourages readers to sample them, then buy the print version for a full reading. The novel is a highly evolved form, one that’s extremely good at delivering content in an effective manner. That’s why, despite the limitations, e-ink devices like the Kindle work so well. They’re a digital recreation of an efficient analog form, and perhaps nothing further is needed.

I’m not convinced that Moby Dick is going to be improved by being interrupted by videos of whales, or a background soundtrack of sea shanties.

Yes, the market for books is going to change, although it’s more of a continuation of a change that’s been happening for a long time. Fewer people read books, and that’s likely a trend that will continue. Eoin Purcell thinks print will continue to thrive.

My colleague Richard Sever likes the analogy of live theater, which is certainly less at the center of the cultural world than it once was, but has its enthusiasts. The average person may go to the theater on a special occasion, maybe once every year or two. Now, instead of taking the Mrs. to see a play for your anniversary, perhaps you’ll buy her the new Harry Potter novel (or whatever is popular at the time).

That said, I do expect to see new forms, new ways of telling stories to emerge from new technologies. I don’t mean CD-ROM-like content. Too many pundits are so limited in their ideas that they are merely insisting on turning books into other already existing forms rather than creating something new. Add enough video to a book and it becomes a movie. Add enough interaction to a book and it becomes a videogame (scratch that bit about Internet Explorer above — meet the new e-book reader, “the Gameboy”).

Mike Cane hits on some interesting directions here, where he discusses the graphic novel Watchmen and the television series The Singing Detective. Both are groundbreaking, tour-de-force works where the medium being used is an important part of the storytelling. It’s definitely food for thought, though creators like Alan Moore and Dennis Potter are singular visionaries. It’s hard to imagine an entire industry of creators living up to their creative standards and incorporating form in such an imaginative way.

Another valuable suggestion comes from Robin Sloan, that a new format will arise based around events. This is intriguing on many levels—the end product can be enjoyed simply as the final work, or the entire experience can be participatory on many levels. You can readily imagine how a scientific meeting or course could be presented in this manner, and evolve into a new type of textbook or lab manual.

One further thought—as “mobile” becomes the current buzzword, expect to see a return of a form that has languished in recent years, the short story. If long-form reading is hard to do on a web-based browser, shorter fiction seems perfect for filling in those train rides or waiting room delays. We’re already seeing some entertaining attempts at this, like Electric Literature.

Take all that with a grain of salt. If history is any measure, it’s not yet possible to predict what new forms will arise. Twitter started off as a means of sending out status reports, but its users found better and more interesting things to do with it. Google has released Wave, and judging from the comments on this posting, users have already discarded Google’s intent for the tool and are instead finding completely different ways to use it.

With such uncertainty, the only sure path for a publisher is to remain open, flexible and aware. Books will be around for a while yet, and abandoning a currently-profitable medium is premature. But rather than seeing this as the death of something, it instead should be viewed as the potential birth of something new, and the flexible publishing house will incorporate these new media alongside traditional forms.

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


10 Thoughts on "The e-Book Revolution — If At First You Don’t Succeed . . ."

Scholarly publishers should also apply the ‘good enough’ maxim here – to the format.

We all now routinely supplement online articles with movies and other content not reproducible in print, but the reality is these are very rarely viewed by readers. The text (and/or figures) delivers the message they want, and they don’t have the time to view anything else.

Since no new interactive format is likely to alter the fact that the production costs of “audio, video, and interactive graphics” are vastly greater than typesetting/mark-up, we should be cautious of adorning content with expensive bells and whistles no-one listens to.

I’d love to see an actual breakdown across a variety of journals of the number of readers who download a pdf of an article versus the number who download the pdf and access the supplementary material. As you note, the latter is likely a very tiny percentage of the former.

I think ebook readers could be having their brief shining moment in the sun because right now they are able to deliver content in a manner that that isn’t available by any other means right now: on a small, light, eyeball-friendly e-ink screen with a super long battery life.

In a couple of years we could all be walking around with eyeball friendly e-ink screens in our pockets that have long battery lives AND access the internet in full color.

If I have a web browser in my pocket, why do I need a new format to deliver “hybridized content that draws from audio, video, and interactive graphics”?

We are heading into the great age of the webpage alright!

It seems inescapable to me. Why try and reinvent the wheel when consumers are already pleased with the webpage?


>>>I’m not convinced that Moby Dick is going to be improved by being interrupted by videos of whales, or a background soundtrack of sea shanties.

No one is saying it should be, especially not me. My advocating of digital books is as a new art form in themselves, as you observed from the post you cited.

Isn’t that exactly what the pundits quoted in the first paragraph are suggesting? I know you’ve called ePub a dead end, and am glad there are those out there who can see the potential for something new rather than retreading the same mistakes of the CD-ROM era.

Great post, the ebook and CD ROM parallels, and great links. You foreshadowed the “birth of something new” in yesterday’s iPad announcement, as the in-between device. I completely agree this is not a zero sum game, there is room for many players, and room for new ways to read old content and content that used to be one-way (books, movies, games, CD ROMS) can develop into two-way conduits where audience can truly be content creators (as with Web 2.0).

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