20 Jan 2010
E-books show all the signs of conforming to Cringeley's Law. Formulated by pundit Robert X Cringeley, this states that the initial uptake of new technologies is often surprisingly slow - much slower than we have any reason to expect - yet the long-term impact can be immense.
I think we may be at a transitional stage. The Kindle has been with us for a while now and has largely been little more than an object of curiousity or even contempt. Until, that is, this Xmas. As far as we can tell (Amazon keeps its sales figures to itself), it sold in large numbers over the gift-giving season. That resulted in Amazon selling more e-books than print books on Christmas Day.
Now we have the Nook and countless other e-readers. Apple's tablet computer, possibly dubbed the iSlate, is expected to be announced on 27 January, and Apple is in talks with HarperCollins, presumably to sell books for the device. These may well prove to be 'augmented' books, with additional content, much as DVDs now come with extras. And there are rumours that Apple is also doing deals with newspapers, including the New York Times.
The technology is advancing, too. Electronics firm LG has shown off a 19in flexible electronic ink screen. And Skiff has used a smaller, 11.5in version of this on its new reader. Such devices may answer the question "what's the future for newspapers and magazines".
Everywhere you look, publishers and content owners are cutting deals for electronically delivered content.
We're in a process that is so common that one analyst company has even given it a name. Gartner calls it the Hype Cycle. I think Gartner's model is a little too rigid (it has to be because that's the only way the company can 'own' the phrase and use it to promote itself). But this is my interpretation of it (the names given to the phases are Gartner's):
We're definitely in stage 4 and maybe about to hit that final plateau. The people who succeed in e-publishing will be those who held faith and got on with the task of making it work, technically and from a business perspective.
Excuses for not embracing e-publishing - such as "people like to read real books" or "you can't use an e-reader in the bath" - will sound increasingly hollow and silly (much like saying, "but all my music collection is on 78s").
It's also partly a generational thing, of course. This may be the last generation to have such a strong relationship with paper. In fact, that generation is already in decline, as today's kids develop stronger relationships with their phones, their computers and - perhaps - their tablet devices. It's possible that it won't be long before books seem quaint. "Where are the web links?" kids may ask, or "How do I search the text?".
What does this mean for writers who self-publish? Well, my approach is this - develop your book for the screen, not the page.
Most writers (and publishers, for that matter) still view the printed book as the end product of their work. If they're smart, somewhere along the line they also start thinking about an e-book edition. If they're not so smart, then once work has been completed on the print version, they'll have a moment of panic and somehow crank out an e-book version.
Today, I think that's the wrong way around. Start with the e-book. Why? Because that makes you think about what additional content or features you might be able to provide. At the very least, with an e-book there's an opportunity to embed web links in the text. There are also some limitations with design when producing e-books (I'll deal with this in a forthcoming post). If you don't allow for this, producing an e-book edition of your print book may be unnecessarily difficult. The InDesign template I've created for our books, at WebVivant Press, is geared to e-books, but works just as well for print.
I think we're now nearing the stage where the e-book will be the default format, with perhaps print versions available as an alternative for those who want them (with such sales fulfilled using POD technology). Rather than lamenting the decline of the book, why not celebrate the coming of age of a new and exciting form of sharing knowledge and enlightenment?