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Jason Pinter

Jason Pinter

Posted: October 5, 2009 11:25 AM

Why the Digital Revolution is Missing the Big Picture

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I should have a Kindle. Or a Sony e-reader. Or a Cooler, an iRex, or some sort of tablet that plugs directly into my brain, then downloads whatever book I'm thinking of in .005 nanoseconds. I'm a book addict, and as Milton might say (not the "Paradise Lost" guy, the one from "Office Space"), "The ratio of books to space is too big."

To my surprise, I have not purchased an e-reader of any kind, despite incredible temptation. E-reader companies keep trying to lure me in with new versions of their machines, with lavish press conferences that trumpet huge sales figures that are so big they just can't be made public. And all that, that's the problem.

You see, for years we've all been pelted with articles about the oncoming digital book revolution, with columnists and press release regurgitaters telling us how ebooks are going to change the face of publishing and reading all while damning those old printed dinosaurs, with their antiquated dust jackets and unit costs that terrorize P&L sheets, to the same landfills that currently house millions of cassette tapes, CD boxes and copies of that old "E.T." game for the Atari system that was about as much fun as having being repeatedly poked in the eye with a sharp stick. Though all of this, they want me to buy an e-reader. Me. And that there is the problem.

You see, I'm not the audience e-readers should be aimed at. By marketing the Kindle to people like me -- i.e. adults who already read regularly and don't need to be sold on how great books are-- publishing is merely doubling down on the biggest problem facing the industry: not enough people read books. Right now, e-readers are being touted as an alternative to paper. The print killer. Big mistake. E-readers should be promoted as a cool option for non readers or hesitant readers. Instead, those readers are stunningly being ignored. I'm the one being sold...but I was sold a long, long time ago.

When the digital revolution hit music, it hit with the force of a sledgehammer. Napster was the snowball at the top of the hill, and once that bell had been rung it was over. We'd all been in those interminable car trips and plane rides, lugging around CD cases as thick as your luggage, changing discs mid-turbulence because, really, Chumbawumba only had one catchy song and once "Tubthumping" ended you had no more use for it. The first generation of MP3 players froze every other song and stored barely enough music to last through takeoff. Then the iPod entered the market -- I'm on my third one of those -- and everything just changed.

Why should we continue to buy CDs? They weren't attractive or decorative and held no emotional value. And did we really need liner notes filled with pictures of the band looking like they'd spent the entire recording session getting high?

I remember buying my first CDs in the early 90's, using all my bar-mitzvah money at HMV to stock up on the new Guns N' Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam CDs. (Guns N' Roses and HMV: both are dead in the U.S., only one didn't seem to get the memo) Music is built to be sampled, skipped around. So when a device came out that allowed you to drop those traveling CD suitcases and create a mix with all your favorite songs - regardless of band, one after another! - even download them straight to your computer so you didn't have to worry about taking out an entire storage unit for the cases, it was a no-brainer. We were sold.

But when you talk about books...it's not quite that simple.

Books are not meant to be chopped up and consumed in pieces. You don't read one chapter of the new James Ellroy and then flip to Margaret Atwood's latest and back again. Books, to many, are fixtures: permanent and tangible and meaningful beyond the words themselves. Records have only been around since 1948, when the first vinyl album was produced. We outgrew it in just over 60 years. The printed word has been around for thousands. Something tells me it's a little more durable than your old Snow "Informer" single.

Now, I can sit in front of my computer for hours and read blogs, websites and multi-thousand word articles. But when it comes to reading books, I just can't. I'm not sure if there's something wrong with me, or it's just that books themselves have an appeal that goes beyond the skeleton of words and paper. I don't mind lugging five paperbacks with me on a two-day trip, and there's something oddly enjoyable about scouring your shelf for the right five books, because heaven forbid you run out of reading material during those 48 hours. My shelves are lined with books -- read and unread -- and I have hundreds more in creased storage boxes. I pine for the day when I have enough shelves to house every one of them. I love physical books, love the weight, love the texture, love the feel. Yes, I am that guy in the bookstore picking up every new hardcover, who finds that books with a rough front make him feel fancy.

I've downloaded numerous free e-reader apps for my iPhone (and even bought a few books for them), but other than killing a little time on the subway I haven't read more than fifty pages in total. As a publishing obsessive, worried to death about the state of reading given the onslaught of entertainment that embraces exploitation and ignorance over any sort of wit or intellect, my grandest hope is that e-readers bring in that coveted demographic which currently seems to embrace the printed word only to the extent that they skim the captions beneath a photo of a bikini-clad Kim Kardashian.

Ebook sales among 12-15 major publishers has increased from $4 million in the second quarter of 2006 to over $37 million in the second quarter of 2009. Right now, ebook sales appear to capture about 1.5-2% of the market, a very small slice but one that has been growing appreciably over the past few years. Even The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's mega religi-opus, has only sold 5% of its copies in electronic format, despite the e-edition being priced a whopping $20 below the hardcover. Now here's the thing: I want that percentage to grow. I want it to grow to 10%, 20%, hell, 50% of the market. Ebooks don't need to cannibalize their printed brethren, but right now they're being marketed to do just that. People shouldn't be buying ebooks just to save money. Advertisements for e-readers seem like they're aimed at the same people who subscribe to the New York Times Weekender.

Ebooks should expand the book buying market, not be used as an alternative for the print edition. Look at the ads for the iPod: they're fun, they're cool, they feature all sorts of (pastel-colored) people who are far funkier than anyone you or I know grooving to the licensed beat. Then consider the ads for the Kindle: the music is straight out of your local elevator. Hesitant readers aren't going to rush out to spend $299 for the reading equivalent of John Tesh. iPods sell the experience. E-readers are selling the gadget. And that's bass-ackwards.

Where are the ebook skins? Ads of Edward drooling over Bella like she was a stack of cheddar-flavored potato chips? Percy Jackson and Grover sitting next to a kid on the school bus? Jack Reacher looking like he's about to bust some skulls and break the heart of every woman in town? David McCullough waxing historical eloquence on the subway? The gizmos are merely the gateway to the reading experience. And I don't buy that e-readers are price prohibitive; the original iPod was $400, and you have to sell a kidney for Jonas Brothers ticket since you won't find an empty seat in the arena.

I don't want to feel like e-readers are targeting me. I'm not the one who needs to be sold on the joys of reading. So here's the challenge: with this new technology, publishing has a small, slowly closing window to do what they've struggled to for so long: show people in doubt just how cool reading is. More readers -- that's how we save publishing.

 
 
 

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