Reimagining the e-book Experience

sony-ebook-readerOver the last several years, e-books have experienced good growth relative to the overall market for books.  However, their overall share of that market is still small despite the fact that e-books have been around for years.  Some of the factors often cited for this are:

  • Readability
  • Limited player feature sets
  • Incompatible e-book formats 
  • No pricing standards

The first two factors will no doubt be resolved by ongoing technological progress and market competition.   The third factor will probably be resolved in one of two ways:  either open standards will be adopted or some proprietary player will so dominate the market that its format will become the de facto standard.  (No doubt Jeff Bezos hopes Kindle will achieve the second outcome.)

The fourth factor, I believe, is reallythe most important becaue it is a symptom of confusino both on the part of pubishers and their customers.  The confusion is that pricing is set by reference to content rather than experience.  Publishers often  try to justify e-books prices relative to the price charged for a printed book.  Customers still see an e-book as less valuable than a printed book because it doesn’t offer the same physical experience.  Publishers and e-book manufacturers should work to create an e-book experience that is not tied to that of a printed work. 

How would we make that that experience  different?  By rethinking what a computer can (and can’t) do for the reading experience. 

reel-of-filmWhen films first made the scene in the early twentieth century, they were often staged like plays.  The early film aesthetic was limited by film making technology, the experience of filmmakers and the readiness of audiences to make cognitive that cinema allows – e.g. the manipulation of time.  As film entertainment has evolved, audiences no longer expect that a film experience has to mirror that of a play. 

We are approaching that point with e-books where it time to define a new reading experience.   Most e-books are still very close mirrors of their print book progenitors.  But there is so much more that can be done.  For example:

  • Advanced search features
  • Sharing the experience with other readers in real time
  • Easy switch between reading text and listening to an audio version of the book.
  • More graphics, illustrations and video
  • Internal and external linking via wireless connection
  • Dictionary features like every word defined or foreign words pronounced
  • Bookmarking and excerpting
  • Built in note taking

The feature wish list will grow as readers become more accustomed to e-books.  The one thing we shouldn’t do is try to value e-books in the same way we value print books.  The redaing motivations and experiences are different for each type of book.  In fact, someday we may want to stop calling the electronic reading experience an “e-book.”

ebook-markdown1Once we have an e-book aesthetic that is truly independent of the print book experience, pricing and marketing can be liberated from print considerations which reflect production and channel considerations that don’t exist for e-books.  In the reader’s mind, there will be a completely new set of value judgments by which to determine whether to purchase that experience. 

Of course, this presents challenges for both publishers and authors.  Instead of simply taking print book content and “dumping” it into an e-book format, a greater restructuring will be needed to create a differentiated e-book experience; this is similar to what happens in making an audiobook or, better, a movie based on a print title.  This extra work will create a greater value in the eye of the customer and allow publishers greater pricing freedom and standardization.


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