Books, iPads and chickens

@obionyeaso recently asked me for a view on this by David Gelles and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in the FT – essentially will the iPad / Kindle shatter the book publishing business in the way the iPod and iTunes shattered the music business.

My short answer would be no – it won’t.  The short reason for this is that the form of content that is a book is very well adapted to the form of distribution that is printed and bound bits of paper.  This is unlike news, which is not necessarily well adapted to the form of distribution that is newspaper, or the music track which we have discovered is very poorly adapted to the form of distribution that is an album or CD.  At the same time a book is an important cultural feature in the way that a CD, album or even a newspaper is not.

In more detail – we can see that the answer to this question goes back to the fundamental principle of the social media revolution, namely the separation of content from distribution.  This separation is at two levels: first content can physically escape from the distribution forms that have hitherto constrained it – news content doesn’t have to live in newspapers, video content doesn’t have to live on TV, but it is also a liberation from the need to be popular.   Newspapers and TV placed a requirement on the content that lived within them to appeal to a mass audience.  This was because TV and printing presses were expensive – therefore they had to reach mass audiences to subsidise the distribution cost.

What we are therefore seeing is a flight of content from traditional distribution forms and a simultaneous change in the nature of content from mass appeal to individual relevance.  It is a bit like a chicken really.  It is economically efficient to imprison thousands of chickens in vast sheds but if you give the chickens, rather than the farmers (publishers), the choice, they will all flee the shed and go and range outside and roost in the trees.  The content that is moving away the fastest is that which was never really well adapted to the distribution form that contained (imprisoned) it in the first place.  This is what happened in music.  When the social media revolution hit the music business, what it showed was that the content form of music (especially a music track) was not actually well adapted to the distribution form that was a CD or Album.  Music as content (especially a music track) works much better when liberated in the digital space – a users experience is enhanced (we could carry a whole music library in a tiny device, create playlists, share tracks etc).  Music therefore happily abandoned the distribution form that was a CD or album – and these forms became redundant.  And with it the distribution model based around the CD became redundant.  This wasn’t just the retail model it was also the content model that was based on bundling up a range of tracks on an album.

However, with a book – or more specifically the content form that is a 100,000 word plus narrative designed to be read from beginning to end – the user experience doesn’t become better when it becomes digitised.  Sure, we can carry lots of books around with us, but books are not like music tracks which we want to pick and mix, we generally only ever want to read one or two books at a time.  We want to read books in the bath, on the beach, standing up on a crowded train – places that are not themselves very friendly to digital devices.   So put book content in a digital device and you immediate encounter compromises – the experience becomes worse, unlike with a music track, where the experience became better.

The content form that is a book, or more specifically the content form that is the  100,000 word plus narrative designed to be read from beginning to end, is actually very well adapted to the distribution form that is printed and bound bits of paper.  To return to the chicken analogy – a book is like a nice spacious chicken house, supplied with food and water, surrounded by an enclosed grassy area.  There is not a great deal of incentive for the chickens (content) to leg-it over the fence and make their own way in the digital world.

The real question we probably need to ask is “what is the future of the content form that is the 100,000 word plus narrative designed to be read from beginning to end?”  (Note: at this point the chicken analogy ceases to function).  It was Marshall MacLuhan who identified that we live in a print culture.  The printed narrative text is probably the definitive example of this.  It has become a cultural feature – possibly the defining cultural feature of the last 500 years.  Cultural features have a habit of hanging around for a long time, often long after the conditions which created them have faded away.  What this means is that the future of the printed book is relatively secure, until such time as we find a new way of replacing the cultural value we extract from telling stories in written form.  I am sure this will happen eventually, in the same way that Gutenberg eventually killed off the tradition of spoken storytelling  – but it is not going to happen because of the iPad.  And in any case we will still want to access the cultural history stored within books.

This is not to say that the book publishing business is not in for some turbulence, but it won’t be fatal turbulence.  The thing that will actually kill book publishing (if not the content form of a book) will be when and if the technology evolves to the point where accessing book content on a digital device is better user experience that reading it in printed and bound pages.  I.e. we come up with a digital distribution form that is optimised to the content form and preferably allows us to do something different and better around the experience of reading books.  Funnily enough, this could be something as unexpected as the movement of the popular off-line concept of the book / reading club into the on-line social network space.  Perhaps that is what Steve Jobs should be promoting – iRead, rather than iPad. (Update 14 Sept. 2011 – Read this posted by Anthony Mayfield – this is an example of the sort of different and better experience which I was talking about).

But in conclusion – as with all things in the social media revolution – the answer lies with the content.  Content is now king, it can choose where it wants to live and how it wants to behave.  Distribution now has to follow its lead.  Follow and facilitate the process of content production and you will succeed, chain yourself to the institutions of distribution and you will fail.

3 comments

  1. Obi Tabansi Onyeaso

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject Richard,

    As always it is a great pleasure dining on your profound prognoses.

    I’ve followed your commentary in this area since your November 2008 article, ‘Gutenberg and the social media revolution: an investigation of the world where it costs nothing to distribute information'( http://bit.ly/93lohF ) hence my interest in tapping your views on the FT article.

    I am trying to square your herald of the demise of the Gutenberg Principle and trend towards costless publishing with the continued ‘stranglehold’ of the big publishing houses over the ‘book’ industry for the foreseeable future. Did we call the revolution a day too early? Or does this apply only to blogs and social media but not to books, scholarly work and heavy writing which still require these publishers to defray the costs of production, even if distribution can be costlessly done over the internet.

    I wonder if in another post you could shed some light on the prestige payoff many writers also get from being published by a big house as against just pushing out their content on say UnknownQuantity.Wordpress.com , their personal blog . Is this a hurdle to that shift to costless publishing as well? What role does validation play in the continuing relevance of the Gutenberg Principle?

    Your observation on our cultural fetish with print for books (long-form) but surprising indifference or even inconvenience to that publishing format for news is a bit counter-grain.

    At what word-limit does one draw the line between preference for digesting text in the digital form against the printed form?

    Or is the nature of that line not based so much on the number of characters and on the quality of the content? Are there other behavioural factors that impinge on this choice of consumption.

    For example, we read newspapers typically just once – in a single day – but want to read a book, have to read a book over several days, and maybe share it with friends 9enduring product).

    In a sense, does our preference for the printed format really come down to a fetish for artifacts?

    The problem with this, from my view, would be that such artefact-retentiveness ought to have held for music CDs. We all know people who up to the early 2000s enjoyed displaying their CD and vinyl record collections in their living rooms or talking about 40-CD changers in their cars.

    Then how come in the space of a few years, these same collectors now regard those CDs as junk, in a non-derisory sense?

    Based on this experience, can we know in advance what users of past technologies would do with a new disruptive technology?

    Say, even with all we know now, was it necessarily going to be that music-lovers would have enthusiastically welcomed the ipod? Apart from the convenience it offered and the sleek design, there were a myriad of issues Apple faced in convincing music publishers to sign on to the new medium. I am not sure that it was fated to happen that a product would change the way we buy music in such a revolutionary fashion in the space of a few short years. There were several other factors that could have hastened or declined its progress. But that is a moot point.

    The point you make on user experience as a major factor in the potential success or failure of the shift to e-readers is a very good one and thought provoking too.

    So, I think that the printed format reached its peak centuries ago. It cannot evolve further. It is paper and ink. However, arranged, it is just that. Light coloured paper cut in rectangular shape, dark text arranged in columns.

    But the final form of e-readers has not been achieved. I think that that evolutionary process will be going on for years to come in the design of consumption devices.

    I think that we can expect a lot more progress in their design and the ease with which they help us consume previously printed content. I feel that there will be a greater and greater gap between the tedium of extended reading on a laptop/PC screen and on the screen of these targeted devices.

    I am not sure that anything is settled yet. It can still swing either way. Betamax was a better technology but it lost out to VHS. Maybe it’s still early days.

    I admit that there are so many question and quite a lot of rambling in this comment. It is one that I am passionate about. I hope you will excuse me on that score.

    I do hope you will be observing this space closely and updating your readership with your thoughts.

    I am eagerly looking forward to that.

    Thanks.

    Obi Tabansi Onyeaso

  2. richardstacy

    Phew – there is a lot in that comment which I need to digest!

    However, as a general response, it is important to remember that the social media revolution is about the liberation of content from a prescribed means of distribution and the associated creation of new “distribution independent” types of content and means of information sharing. It is not about the end of publishing – although the end of some types of publishing will inevitably be one of the consequences. Content is not going to fly to the digital space indiscriminately – content will find the means of distribution to which it is best adapted.

    It just so happens that “book content” – or at least long-form narrative content is still better adapted to the old publishing model than it is to the available digital options.

    It is also not really about the costs of production – and therefore the need for mass distribution (which is what publishing is) to defray these costs. The problems which the publishing model sought to solve (especially in scholarly work and heavy writing) can easily now be solved through new forms of social connection.

    Will continue to think about your points!

  3. Obi Tabansi Onyeaso

    Thank you Richard,

    Funny you should say that, because it normally takes me five slow readings to digest the full import of your writings. And I enjoy that slow roast process as much as the actual chewing.

    I’m looking forward to more of your posts soon.

    Thanks a million.

    Obi

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