Headline 2010: e-Reader device failure

The market knows best, right? Markets are bloody paths to progress. At this writing there are approximately 52 e-reader devices coming to market in the next 12 months. Fifty-two different devices coming to market (Here’s what I wrote about Steve Jobs’ approach to reader devices when there were just 45 e-readers on the horizon). Creative, the maker of MP3 players and computer audio cards, is the latest to announce their impending arrival, Zii MediaBook.

This is the definition of “glut” becoming reality. We can see a glut of e-readers coming and there’s no waving off the Kamikaze piloting most of those e-readers toward the deck. Will they blow up the fuel supply needed to get the next generation of e-reading off the ground? No, but the coverage will likely make it sound like e-reader failures mean e-book failure.

With excessive abundance comes failure, and that spectacular conflagration of hardware products, unfortunately, will dominate the headlines in this market next year as many, indeed most, of these devices are pulled due to lack of sales. They are ridiculously expensive for a market where the vast majority of customers buy one book or less a year—more than 180 million Americans don’t buy a single book in any year.

Many hardware makers will retreat and e-books, not the glut, will get the blame.

Today’s dedicated e-readers sell for roughly 10 times the price of a new hardback book. Most people don’t buy hardback books, so for argument’s sake, let’s say the average price paid for a book by the 120 million Americans who buy a book each year is $12. Amazon Kindle2 and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, both of which sell for $259, cost as much as 21.6 books, which suggests they break the book-buying budget for most people. I don’t want to suggest there is a magic price for reader hardware, because we’ll see some of the new e-readers announced this year selling for $59 next year, because retailers cannot get rid of them. That is a result of fierce competition, but leave it to the press and bloggers to turn the whole process into a mandate on e-books, not the expensive hardware.

This isn’t a horse race, but a complex evolutionary event, that cannot be reduced to headlines. Consider: “T. Rex extinct, world awaits silence of lifelessness” would have made the papers, if dinosaurs had had their Gutenberg.

Yet, it’s a short step from “people don’t want e-readers” to Continue reading

B&N will offer iRex device, too

Dropping in from a flu-induced respite to say: Barnes & Noble is trying too hard. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s Peter Kafka, BN.com, in addition to teaming with Plastic Logic to sell ebooks, now plans to partner with iRex, maker of an upcoming iLiad device the features 3G connectivity and an 8.1-inch screen, described here. BN.com will be the e-book store for both devices.

We get the “we’re more open” argument already, even though every e-book format comes with DRM and compatibility baggage, but the challenge is not merely to sell books but to establish a platform customers can rely on. That comprehensive experience of reading goodness doesn’t come from a shallow focus across many devices, but deep focus on the reader’s experience with an e-book.

It would be a better use of Barnes & Noble’s modest marketplace goodwill to focus on making one device a stellar experience while supplementing that experience withiPhone and other smartphone e-reader applications than to try to sell and support e-books across a growing inventory of devices. Individually, any one device will require a substantial amount of BN customer support, which they are not well placed to provide, and as a group of devices that still are incompatible with half of the e-books or more sold, they increase the complexity of the customer’s choice. So, if BN.com fails to support the devices, even if it is the manufacturer’s problem, they will lose a customer. If their books don’t work with a device, it’s BN’s problem.

Now is the time for focused investment in a pleasing end-to-end shopping and reading experience. Amazon is already poised to compete with compatibility, so Barnes and Noble has nothing to win by spreading its bets. Factor in the Apple tablet-of-destiny (the Journal also reports today Steve Jobs is all over that tablet), which will run all sorts of e-reader apps at launch, and BN’s strategy looks very dangerous. It could be overwhelmed on the customer experience front, the e-book choice front and in terms of its relationships with marginally committed partners—in exchange for a largely undifferentiated (“we’re as open as anyone”) win if they execute perfectly.

Premature evolution: E-book standards alone won’t solve the publishing problem

Peter Osnos, writing at The Atlantic, reiterates PC World‘s Tony Bradley in calling for a standard e-book format, writing that “it is a good place to start.” His article, however, suggests that the reproduction of reading is also the end of the road:

“As readers become increasingly familiar and comfortable with reading and listening devices and the machinery for producing books on what are essentially a new generation of copiers, books can be instantly available. If readers come to believe they can get Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now, and publishers can provide them without the waste, inefficiency, and consumer frustration that comes from scrambling to put out the right number of printed copies, I believe that books will hold their own–and maybe more so.”

Osnos has been working with the Caravan project, whence his Good Books slogan comes, with The Century Foundation for some time, commenting occasionally on the progress. A key idea in his posting today is that e-book reader devices (hardware and/or software) are a “new generation of copiers” and that distribution is the challenge “for books.” As I wrote last week, responding to Bradley’s article, getting words on the digital page is only a small fraction of the challenge ahead, and that any standards should not prevent the development of enhanced reading experiences that transcend the printed book, which is solely a delivery platform, not a networked environment comparable to the Web. It’s my opinion, but it bears repeating as often as we hear the argument that words on a page make a book.

Distribution is the challenge for publishers, not the form we know as the book. Books are packages, which have been applied successfully to moving thousands of words from printing facility to the public for centuries, distribution is the key to making money as a publisher. Books are changing, just as the products produced by every other industry has been transformed in whole or part by digitization. Yet, Continue reading

“Authors must blog” and other truisms displaced by an evening with Pynchon

I’m about halfway through Inherent Vice, which I’ve been waiting for like a sinner waits for confession, because a good novel cleans the soul. I am thinking about why great writers’ works are important, even when some of their books are treated as toss-offs compared to more momentous efforts. In this case, a mystery novel, a private dick story with a psychedelic twist may not seem as big an effort as Mason & Dixon or Against The Day to some, but for the aficionado of a particular author’s work these “second-tier” efforts are the zest and riff that make a jazzman not just cool for the college crowd but skull-ringingly great regardless of who is listening, square or not.

I got to thinking, between hits of Doc Sportello and The Golden Fang, about the meme of the moment, that “publishers are on the lookout for authors who blog” and how that is interpreted by many to mean that all it takes to win a publishing deal is a blog—the story or non-fiction pitch will just fall into place once the contract is signed. Shortened to the quick, the same logic makes all bloggers writers, which conflates the genre with accomplishment.

No, publishers don’t think that every writer needs a blog (even though some may think its easier to source book material from blogs), but it’s convenient to sell the idea to the masses that would like to have published a book and think that authorship is like being an executive on teevee, just one sexy tryst and then another cut-throat meeting before cashing the daily paycheck and leaving for a night on the town, the kids stowed with the nanny and plenty of time for sleep and a visit to the gym between 6 AM and Eight-in-the-morning when the dry cleaned suit appears and it’s back for another romp at the office. If we are all going to live that life, sooner or later the con is going to end. No, writing and instant success because of a new technology, as though Shakespeare would have fallen flat if the words had been scratched on stones, are antithetical realities.

Thomas Pynchon never blogged a word in his life, that we know of. He may have written the Wanda Tinasky letters in an age before everyone could be a wit with a keyboard ,though not necessarily a wit, but so, too, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed pseudonymous letter writing, and Ol’ Ben certainly agreed with Dr. Johnson that only a blockhead writes for free. Authorship is a kind of work that is different than writing, it involves intent and rigid self-criticism, or a very good editor. If you have a blog, the route to publication is certainly shorter today, but that doesn’t mean the work is “writing,” except in the sense that we indulge ourselves in writing a journal or to a friend.

The point is, dear reader, that the story of e-publishing is all glitz and revolution designed to justify readers’ investment in hardware that, to date, does nothing to transform reading beyond addressing a certain breed of convenience. The story is embellished with how-to books that proclaim “you too can be a best-selling author, your buttocks massaged by nymphs and sensually inspired favors of the Muses pumped into your bloodstream in only two hours a week” and e-reader product horse races that, while they signify capital investments and marketing with a furious vengeance, do not represent the innovation that will transform the market for reading. In the end, it will take an author to transform reading using new tools that we haven’t encountered, yet.

This is a market increasingly fed with truisms that, when you read someone like Pynchon, whether you like his work or not, makes the e-reading promotional tactics sour in the mouth and anyone can taste the treacle they are. Then, we can see that how-to articles and product reviews of devices are marketing of feel-good drugs instead of the story of hard won accomplishment.

DRM isn’t dead, it is always regrouping

Several triumphal postings that the RIAA has declared DRM “dead” have been proved wrong. It turns out the Recording Industry Association of America’s spokesperson was not speaking emphatically, but ironically, in reply to a question, “DRM is dead, isn’t it?” The anti-DRM crowd rushed to affirm the truth of the statement, but, unfortunately, DRM isn’t dead. It’s regrouping. The simple fact is that most people, when offered a convenient form of playback with lock-in at the device level, so that they see playback on a particular device as a benefit, are perfectly content to have DRM content.

iTunes continues to encrypt movies and many songs, for example. Amazon’s movie and TV downloads are locked to an application for untethered playback but can be streamed in a browser, making it’s DRM a compromise that splits the difference for most buyers—Mac, Linux and smartphone users can’t play an Amazon movie when disconnected from the store, but the Windows crowd is happy. Amazon’s Kindle is a DRM system that interoperates with its e-books, as are various applications running on the iPhone. DRM is everywhere, often presented as a compatibility benefit rather than a anti-copying system.

I am not arguing for DRM, so please don’t assail me for doing so. The point is that when anti-DRM activists crow about the RIAA’s slowly having learned that treating customers like criminals is a “victory” for open access, they create the impression customers no longer need to ask the question, “Will this play on any device?” In the book world, DRM is so deeply engrained that it is likely most of the e-books sold in the next five years will become inaccessible due to changes in devices and supported formats, DRM being just one of several factors that will change as the market matures.

Compatibility, particularly forward compatibility, should be the key benefit sold to readers. If you are going to sell an e-book today, make sure you are prepared to make it work on future platforms or be prepared for customers to drop your brand and books like hot rocks when they learn others do provide forward compatibility. The easiest way to ensure that compatibility today is to avoid using DRM. Enough said.