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E-reading - it’s just the beginning


The past is always instructive to understanding the present.  Human beings adapt to new technologies more slowly than new technologies themselves.  Inventors come up with all sorts of ideas, some work, some don’t.  Sometimes brilliant ideas fall by the wayside for reasons of cost or inconvenience, or simply timing issues.

E-reading is essentially a new technology in a period of tremendous and exciting change.  Thousands of people and hundreds of companies are engaged in trying to figure out how people will be engaged and therefore how they can  make businesses out of the broad e-reading experience in meaningful ways.

I think it’s useful to look at the historical beginnings of what are now ubiquitous technologies, to help us understand what the future of e-reading may look like.

In the early 20th century, when the automobile was the exciting new technological opportunity for hundreds of inventors worldwide, there were some incredibly interesting and diverse ideas for motorized transport being explored.  It took several generations of usage, feedback, invention and broad experience before a more or less standardized form we recognize as “the automobile” emerged from this hothouse of invention and human adaptation (and even then there were some amazing outliers, some successful, some not).

In the very beginning stages, automobiles were imagined as motorized versions of horse drawn carriages  - the “horseless carriage.“  At the outset most were steered by tillers.  Steering wheels came later, some on the left, some on the right, some in the middle of the dashboard.

Some cars were electric powered, some were steam driven.  Early gas engines were one cylinder, some were two, some were air-cooled, some were water cooled, most were inline, some were opposed cylinders, there were even a couple of rudimentary vee designs.

Early cars had all sorts of configurations that now seem crazy to us – six wheels, eight wheels, various seating and door arrangements, almost every design element was up for grabs, anything you could imagine could be tried by someone with a workshop, some interesting ideas and access to capital.  

It took some years for the “automobile” as we know it today in its accepted variations to emerge, based on changes in technology in part, but mainly based on usage – how people responded to and utilized the new machine, how they adapted to it and adapted it for their own purposes.

E-reading today is in a very early stage of development.  Maybe we are in the equivalent of 1910 in the passage of automotive history.  We can expect all sorts of oddball inventions and we will not be able to predict exactly or even well the ebb and flow of technology and how it evolves in actual usage by readers.  

Human beings are great inventors.  It is certain that we will see many innovations in reading and the technology that supports it.  We know that we are entering a period of vast change based on energy, climate and pollution limitations of our planet and that these changes must affect how we communicate and read, how our communities will be formed.  We do not know how people will adapt to a carbon neutral low energy world in which the reduced use of physical goods will become a powerful driver of human culture.

What we can be sure of is that it is readers who will determine the future of reading technology, cast against whatever technology, new or old, that may emerge,  Today’s book publishers may well be the builders of covered wagons, only some of them will learn how to build the e-reading equivalent of the horseless carriage,  Others will not.  But readers, like drivers of a century ago, are ready to speed ahead into the future, and they do not care who ends up building it for them.

October 18, 2009

Posted by David Wilk on 10/19 at 09:01 PM
(185) CommentsPermalink

A Rising Tide of Books - or of Readers?


It’s hard to dispute that book reading is not the most popular entertainment activity for the majority of Americans.  When has it ever been?  How many serious readers remember being laughed at by their friends?  Bookworm.  Nerd.  Egghead.

On the other side of that coin: well read, intellectual, knowledgeable. 

Still it’s also pretty commonly accepted wisdom that the minority of the population that does buy the majority of books we publish is reading less and headed toward buying fewer books as well. 

Of course books compete with movies, television, radio, video games and now more than ever the internet, for the attention of all readers.  The internet is especially seductive to a large group of the most dedicated readers – literate book buyers who consume information in printed forms.

Most of us have no more than 40 hours a week available for leisure activities.  If the average book takes 10 hours to read, and we did nothing else with our available leisure time than read, for a total of four books a week (the more quickly read romance and science fiction books aside).

How many people in America read four books a week?  Four a month even seems like a huge amount of reading nowadays.  When I tell people how many books I read every week, they mostly look at me like I’m crazy, or at least trying to show off. 

So how many serious readers are there?  How many unread books do they already own?  How long will it be before readers decide there is enough free reading material stored in their houses, in libraries, and especially, online, so they only buy books when they feel they must, as opposed to being stimulated to buy a book by marketing events? 

The greatest fear for publishers and writers is that people realize that we have enough books-as-commodities to last multiple lifetimes, and we all just stop buying printed books altogether.

Aside from the world of academic, scientific, technical and professional publishing, which works on a different model than “trade” books (“trade” being defined as books meant for general readers), we can readily assume that there are only a few million serious readers available to buy the 200,000 or more new trade titles published every year now.

In a world where reading time is precious, where more books are published every week than it is possible for most people to read in a year, publishers and authors should be thinking about one thing and one thing only: how can we increase the number of readers who will buy our content?   How can we engage readers in ways that provide real value to them?

If potential book readers are mostly on the web every day and night, then that’s where book publishers ought to be.  If people are consuming their information and ideas through electronic reading, then that’s where book publishers need to be.  If people are rewarding authors who give their work away for free, then that’s where authors and publishers will need to be, and if they have to re-create their business models in order to accomplish that, then so be it.

Every decision publishers (and writers too) make about their businesses should be made within the context of change.  Most publishers know full well their world has changed.  Rising tides raise all boats.  What we need now is a tide of readers.   They are out there.  Which publishers and writers are ready to take this on?

Posted by David Wilk on 10/05 at 11:58 PM
(72) CommentsPermalink
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