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.


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