Kindling eBooks

With the Amazon Kindle ebook reader announcement increasingly looking like it is imminent, and with a review at Ars Tecnica of the latest generation Sony ebook reader ready to stoke a smoldering fire, it is an interesting time to speculate about the future direction and utility of ebook readers.

Booksquare today had an interesting muse about what makes the ebook experience potentially viable, and it is not the kind of DRM-laden entrapment that many vendors are providing now. Rather, the model should be that developed in other content areas, such as video.

[Start] with the expectation that media — whatever kind — will be accessible on demand. For my money, no matter what cool this or that is launched by major entertainment media, it’s the YouTube model that exemplifies today’s environment. Love it, hate it, don’t understand it, YouTube works. You don’t have to do anything special to access programming. This “just works” ability is what today’s consumer desires … and it’s the base level expectation of today’s youth.

The blog’s authors observe how potentially capable the Apple iPhone is as a platform for ebooks, with its native support for reflowable text (including, potentially, IDPF’s ebook format, .epub). But with Amazon pushing Kindle hard, how much attention is being paid to alternative channels, such as the iPhone, or the not-quite-here-yet promise of Google’s open stack, Android?

Quick show of hands: how many publishers out there are actively engaged in discussions with Apple to ensure that the iTunes store stocks and promotes ebooks? Making sure that the iPhone has the right technology to facilitate reading ebooks? Or heck, any other kind of text? How many of you are making your voices heard when it comes to making certain that iPhone customers are able to download and read books on their phones?

With the bevy of press starting to ride herd on the new generation of dedicated readers, I’ve begun to try to think through how I feel about their potential success or failure, with the inevitable comparisons to the iPod and the music industry. (Alert! Speculation rampant below!).

I think, on reflection, that the comparison between audio (and video?) and book acquisition is less apt than it might seem at first glance. Given the extant media packaging within each sector, there was innately a higher barrier to the goal of acquisition and use in the music — compared to the book — industry, with the possible exception of a few select publishing markets. With growing digital options, the “LP album” as a compilation of tracks quickly became an obviously inefficient, undesirable bundling of content, screaming for disaggregation; perhaps the closest counterpart in the publishing industry, reference works including cookbooks, travel lit, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, have similarly and thoroughly escaped their legacy bounds; in these cases the conversion to print was not merely literal, but transformative.

In contrast, when one considers long form narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, there is less of an impetus to migrate from print use except for the possible advantage of portability and more extensive support for visually handicapped readers; on the flip side, there exist some non-trivial barriers (drm, format wars, etc.) to electronic access. Exceptions to this equation tend to be concentrated in areas where consumption modes are inherently mass-market, and where volume exists in transactions; Harlequin may well be the single most successful ebook publisher in the market today. Replicating their striking success through niche markets, or across smaller-impact imprints, is likely to prove difficult.

One might argue that until text-based book production, as a creative process, turns more mixed media, and lends sufficient scaffolding for user generated content, re-use, and re-publication, the appeal of any dedicated, standalone device will be weak. Instead, it will be easier to generate marginal cross book-sector penetration with mixed-use devices (iPhone/gPhone) in which reflowable text/html formats (such as epub) are a straightforward application.

Not coincidentally, it is these same devices that will most readily support the envisioning and enactment of new forms of creative expression, ranging from discursive texts which mutually engage authors and readers; location-sensitive rich-media manga with self-selected forking plots; narratives with multiple entry points and randomized outcomes; hybrid reality games where communication, collaboration, and interaction occur in a combination of physical and the digital spaces; and artistry that we cannot yet imagine.

Maybe the Kindle and Sony devices will be successful; if so, I think it is likely to be a short-term success, a last gasp of a long-enduring form of socially constructed content packaging rendered anew in digital form. Unfortunately, current ebook manifestations lack the emotive sensitivities of the old, without taking advantage of the opportunities of the new, both in terms of consumer experience and in their power to inform and entertain. How we read will be transformed as much as what we read.

Intrinsically, what will ultimately make devices a success is their openness to hacking and experimentation – although content publishers and distributors might not want to hear it, that is ultimately what will make the market.