I’ve read tens of thousands of words over the past few years in which people mourn the receding of physical books by focusing on what they’ll miss about the physical object itself: the smell, the feel, the ability to read in the tub. There’s so much of this that snarky book industry tweeters play bingo at conferences as these references pile up. Much more interesting to me, though, is what changes in the experience of reading when people move from taking in words on paper to reading on screens, through software. In this realm, two quotes I’ve read recently illuminate each other.
First, James Fallows describing what he did on his winter vacation:
…I read lots of books! You remember, actual “books” — those big, made-of-paper objects whose contents, I find, lodge more firmly in your mind when you see them on a physical page than on an electronic screen.
And second, the ridiculously quotable James Bridle dropping some analysis on how the content of books enters the mind. Bridle says that books are “repositories of the experiences we have with them, and they are ultimately souvenirs of themselves”. And he compares the experience of digital music to the experience of digital literature:
The radical ephemerality of the MP3 file suits music in the same way that it destabilises the book, which has always existed to provide the corresponding physical weight to literature’s intellectual heft. Freeing the idea of the book from paper and hard covers thus entails reconceptualising what “the book” is — a weight that has proved hard for devices to take on.
Much more interesting than the bathtub thing, right?
The New York Times can be counted on for coverage of the
book industry that is often entertainingly out in left field.
Poor Times reporters pass along terrible insights from “industry
analysts” like Jordan Selburn, a “senior principal analyst
for consumer platforms at IHS”, quoted in yesterday’s Times.
In the era of the tablet, the difference between
a book and diaper disappears
As a father of people who were once babies, my first thought on reading this was: that is a disappearing difference that could lead to a real mess.
My second thought was: that is an unusually meaningless observation
even taken in the presumable context of the interview. The point
Selburn seems to be making is that since Amazon’s tablet, unlike
the original Kindles, offers access to the whole Amazon store, not
just books, e-book pricing will shift in a way that makes them more
expensive, now that, according to the reporter, “each product will
have to carry its own weight”. That’s a very odd point, since the
Kindle Fire table is only one of a gadrillion ways customers might
buy stuff from Amazon.com: desktop PCs, mobile phones, tablets of
all kinds all are ways to access the store, and the fact that
Amazon’s newer hardware accesses more than just books can’t make
much difference to their pricing model amidst all those people
coming in from all those directions.
I’m pretty confident that the real dynamics driving ebook prices aren’t illuminated in this article. As entertaining as Times analyst quotes (“A lot of these-book consumers aren’t behaving like lab rats at a feeder bar”?
Uh-what?) and mysterious hardware references (the caption to the
accompanying picture claims the device in the picture is a “Google
e-reader”, which does not exist) are, I’ll have to agree in
this case with Sarah Weinman’s tweet on this one:
UPDATE: In addition to desktops, phones and tablets, I have become aware that there are also now things called, yes, phablets.
Postscript on my earlier post on The Adjustment Bureau:
1) In a talk to the Association of American Publishers yesterday, Len Riggio, chairman of Barnes and Noble, pushed his audience to consider new ways of selling their content. Among his suggestions, according to Shelf Awareness,
they can publish shorter works, chapters, novellas, a single short story. “Who says all books are read cover to cover?” he asked.
Right on. There is so much opportunity in electronic versions of single short stories, nonfiction chapters and other “chunks” of books. And I would ask, why is it Amazon that was ready with the 99 cent Kindle version of the Philip K. Dick short story the movie is based on? Shouldn’t Random House have been ready with the story as a standalone purchase on Kindle as well as other platforms? (I admit, as I said in the earlier post, that the rights situation with this story is not totally clear to me, but I believe, since Amazon was able to publish it, that the original publisher of Selected Stories could have done the same.)
2) Publishing the standalone story clearly was a customer-friendly move: Adjustment Team was #106 in the Kindle sales rankings the weekend the movie came out and has now, 5 days later, fallen to #186.
Via yesterday’s Very Short List email I discovered Welcome to Pine Point, a brilliant “interactive documentary” made by The Goggles, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, formerly of Adbusters Magazine, now making “story based media projects” like this one. The Flash piece consists of photos, video, audio and text, and documents the disappearance of a town in northern Canada.
I have found myself recently searching for nouns to describe these new forms of expression that are popping up–”this thing” hasn’t been cutting it. It was simpler once, when we said “book” or “film” or “photography collection” and we all knew what we were talking about. Today creators like the Goggles choose routes through projects to best tell their stories and find themselves coming out the other end with new names for what they’re doing.
“This was supposed to be a book”, the Goggles write on their About this Project page. “We were developing a concept for a book, about the death of photo albums as a way to house memory” when they discovered the emotional power of the Pine Point story and changed course. “It could have become a book but it probably makes more sense that it became this.”
Though I have no idea (actually, I have some half-ideas) what “this” means for the bookselling industry, I would say from the result that it absolutely made sense as a creative decision, and look forward to many more creations like “this”. As the same forces that transformed photo albums as a place to store memories sweep over what we used to call books, new creative forms sprout up on the web (and I hope there will be more on the web rather than walled off apps). As the VSL folks put it, “The Internet has a new heart now, and it’s as big as the whole (Canadian) outdoors.”
Great review in yesterday’s Times of the new movie The Adjustment Bureau. Lots of people will be interested in reading the Philip K. Dick story, called “Adjustment Team”, that the movie is loosely based on, and I spent some time seeing what they’ll find when they go looking. Imagine a customer searches one of the big bookselling websites for the name of the movie or the name of the story:
- Search B&N.com for Adjustment Team, the name of the story, and the site doesn’t lead you to a book containing the story; the only result is something else entirely. Search for Adjustment Bureau, which is what more customers will likely do, and the top four results are apparently different formats of an audio version, at three different prices, and there is no data or content on the title pages to explain what they are. In other words you’re hit with metadata flotsam, data that has flowed through from one of B&N’s providers that does not give a customer understanding of what the items are. And you don’t find a book with the story.
- On Kobo, neither Adjustment Team nor Adjustment Bureau searches bring back anything by Philip K. Dick on the first page of results. At Indiebound, the story name brings back something unrelated and the movie name brings back a 92 page, $43 edition of dubious origin that appears to be a printed Wikipedia article .
- At Google ebookstore, a search for the story name does bring back The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick from Random House, a collection that includes the story, as the first result. But searching the name of the movie brings you to a bunch of unrelated titles.
- Now try Amazon. Type in Adjustment, and the search box dropdown’s top two choices are The Adjustment Bureau and Adjustment Team (lots of people searching both this week!). Choose either one and you get The Selected Stories as the third result, but above that, the first result is the short story as a 99 cent Kindle purchase. Ding ding ding! As far as I can tell, Amazon was apparently able to produce and sell this because the story has become public domain, for complicated reasons explained in this Wikipedia entry (though, unlike other Dick stories, it’s not available at Project Gutenberg, so I’m not sure whether that Wiki entry is right.) Very smart of Amazon to offer that in time for the movie (shows a pub date of Jan 16, 2011), and to ensure searching either name brings it back on search results. Anticipating the movie’s release, they set up search rules and/or tags on the titles to direct a search for the movie title to those books. Very smart and effective.
- In summary, Amazon wins at 1) immediate discovery through search, 2) product offer of a 99 cent e-option for just the story, OR the hardcover OR e-book story collection (OR, actually a rare edition of the original publication, yet another option for a collector) 3) anticipating demand for the story and ensuring customers would quickly find something to buy.
I will be writing about Borders shortly, and about indie bookstores’ ongoing battle with Amazon. One big front of everyone’s battle with Amazon is pricing. But this example shows that another, possibly larger, front is the sheer effectiveness of Amazon’s shopping experience. Type what you’re looking for into the big search box and they’re much likelier to return what you’re looking for than the competition. Don’t understimate how hard that is to match.
Further explanatory notes if you’re really into this sort of thing:
- The Google ebookstore search for Adjustment Team search led to Selected Stories, I think, because those keywords appear in the synopsis from Random House on the title page. B&N has the same synopsis on their title page but their search engine apparently doesn’t search that text, so there is therefore no match, and the customer won’t find the book. Kobo and B&N both list the story’s title in their e-book table of contents but again, apparently the search engine apparently isn’t hitting that data. Customer satisfaction failure.
- Interestingly, Amazon’s page for the Kindle edition of Selected Stories doesn’t list the Contents, which both Kobo and B&N do, so there’s no list of included stories, which is not customer-friendly. But a customer, Doug, took the time in 2005 to list the individual stories as a review. That review has risen to the top of the reviews section, as 172 customers have rated it as helpful. Another pillar of Amazon strength–gadrillions of user reviews, containing not only opinions but valuable supplementary information helping other customers make a buying decision. Well-cared for data + powerful, effective search + mountains of user content + smart anticipation of demand = many sales lost to Amazon.
To introduce their new Google ebooks service, folks from McLean & Eakin, a very wonderful bookstore up in Petoskey, Michigan, made this very cute but sharp video (via Shelf Awareness). A bit of commentary below the embed….
I think that moment during the ellipsis, the poignant pause when the Kindelz guy says “But…our local bookstore rox,” and bangs himself in the forehead, contains the dilemma for indie bookstores over the past decade. Customers hold in their heads the idea that they respect or even love their local bookstore. Yet at the same time Amazon has made it so easy, so frictionless, so satisfying to find, buy and consume a book, and all at a now-expected lower pricepoint. People hold that in their habits. Breaking that habit will require some very smart maneuvering by indies. Like the smarts behind this video, for example.