Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Problem with "Enhancing" E-Books, or, Another Premature Obituary for Print

As I noted in my previous post,  Wired online recently previewed Ray Kurzweil's multi-platform e-reading technology called Blio. I think Blio is nifty but I stop short of sharing Wired's opinion: that it means "the end of the paper book. Right now, e-books are poor copies of paper books, with a single advantage: convenience. A book is just a container for text, not its natural home."

Wired is right that so far e-books are inferior replacements for books printed with ink on paper. For all their virtues, no e-text display is yet as pleasant or easy to read as an old-school book. This, I believe, is the main (not only) reason why consumers don't like to pay print-book prices for e-books. It's not that readers calculate, as various opiners have done, that publishers' cost of goods and distribution is lower with e-books and therefore we should lower our prices. Nor is it that Amazon has nefariously conditioned Kindle customers to believe $9.99 is what a book is worth. It's simply that, notwithstanding the ease of obtaining or carrying an e-book (and for some readers, the hugely useful ability to make the type larger), no e-book serves the purpose of reading (or browsing in, studying, or annotating) a text as well as its printed cousin.

But I don't want to rehash the e- vs. p-book debate here; I want to take up the implications of Wired's comments on Blio.  I assume what Wired means by the line quoted above is that what makes e-books now superior to printed ones is not that they do the same job better, but that they can present content in a way mere ink on paper cannot. They, along with Mike Shatzkin who has also posted about Blio, wax enthusiastic about the platform's capacity to add all sorts of multimedia goodies--videos, soundtracks, animations, hyperlinks--to book texts.

It's an alluring vision--imagine a history of World War II that includes not only a narrative, and the grainy photo insert such books have had for decades, but newsreel footage, FDR's or Ed Murrow's radio broadcasts, animated battle maps, or later interviews with survivors of Pearl Harbor or D-Day; it could include not just footnotes but hyperlinks to every source cited, or for that matter every New York Times article about the war from 1939 to 1945. 

Wouldn't that be cool? And you can imagine similar "enhanced" e-book treatments of all sorts of titles, from cookbooks to celebrity biographies. There's just one problem, and it's a big one. To create all this multimedia content is incredibly expensive. Leaving aside the cost of obtaining the rights, in my hypothetical WWII example, to newsreels, radio broadcasts, and six years of the New York Times--all of which could be prohibitive in itself--the time and energy involved in developing such material editorially (and which would probably involve both a book author and talented in-house staff) would be the equivalent of creating probably half a dozen text-only titles, or more. Simply creating hyperlinked footnotes--something I'd love to find in a digital book--could take up weeks of someone's time. 

Yes, digital publishing allows us to create vastly richer products. But richness doesn't come cheap. You can create an amazingly sophisticated straight-text book very economically, because the sophistication comes from the author's mind. To create an equivalently sophisticated multimedia book is far more demanding. It's like the difference between creating a floor plan and building and furnishing a house--and requires an equivalent increase in person-hours and resources. 

Don't forget, we've been down the road with multimedia books before--back then they were on CD-ROMs. Books on CD failed, not only because consumers weren't ready for the technology, but because very few of them, in my opinion,actually delivered on the promise of the medium. And those that did tended to be priced far higher than what readers were used to paying for books. 

In effect there are two ways to go with "enhancing" e-books. There's the low budget, easy way, where you attach some video or audio content alongside of what's basically conventional text. And there's the expensive, difficult way, where you really reconceive the work and develop the content in all the ways digital makes possible.  I can't see any means of making the latter economically viable without charging prices that are at least three or four times what hardcovers usually bring.  Now, we may find the market will bear such prices. Would you pay $75 or $100 for the fabulous WWII e-book I described above? As a history buff, I might. But unless I, and thousands like me, actually will, I think Blio and its kindred will remain an underutilized technology.  

Even if a high-end market is established for such truly enhanced e-books, it's hard to see them displacing straight-text display (whether that's a printed page or e-ink) for a long time. The written word is still by far the most efficient and economical way of conveying information. "Enhancements" may add value to it, but they subtract efficiency. 


Gordon Jerome said...

Hey Peter,

I find it interesting you bring this point up because I was recently watching the trailer for a book when it struck me that a trailer is a movie and a book is a book. The two are not the same thing, and the trailer does not entice me to buy the book.

I read a book to read a book, I really don't need videos and extras. If it's non-fiction, then illustrations are great. If it's fiction, illustrations actually interfere with the reading experience (i.e., I'm not able to create the scene in my head the way I naturally would.).

Technology will allow us to do things, but that doesn't mean we will want to in the end. You can make a cell phone so small you can't use it. You can make an e-book so distracting no one wants to read it.

It's like those Discovery shows on TV where the guy is sweating in the desert and suddenly there's this CGI insert of the guys entrails going through changes as he loses water. Yes, one can make CGIs of a person's anatomy; It can be done--but it's stupid and distracting.

That's why novels will never be paid for by advertising as some suggest they should. The first time I see an ad in a Kindle book, I'll delete it from my reader. We read to escape.

Great post, Peter. Thanks for writing it.


Unknown said...

What is it with Wired Mag and other pro-techies predicting 'the end of the book?' Why all this hatred for the book? The people promoting this technology obviously feel some sort of anti-intellectual fervor is going to help them shill their technolgy. Not to go all Freudian, but maybe they were never readers to begin with?

Thomas Taylor said...

this is a great post, with something new (for me) to think about.

I do believe there would be some willing to pay $100+ for the fabulous WWII history you describe, just as some would pay a lot for an enhanced, multimedia biography of Picasso or an exhaustive digital history of the space race. But not many.

Most of us just want to read around a subject a bit, using something convenient and pocket-sized, and if we want more there's always the internet.

David Crotty said...

The CD-ROM comparison is perfect--meet the future of the book, it's 1990.

The problem with the sort of thinking that Wired is pushing here is that it assumes a zero-sum game. If a new form of expression arises, the previous form must disappear. The DVD dealt a death blow to the VHS tape.

But in that case, you're just shifting formats of the same content. Here, you're talking about a new type of content. Movies didn't kill radio, television didn't kill movies, none of the above killed off the book. Some new format that takes advantage of new technologies is going to be something new, a new form of expression with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Had a blog posting along similar lines a few weeks back:

Terry Stonecrop said...

It all sounded so great...until you mentioned the price.

Myrna Foster said...

I've never thought about the time and copyrights that would go into a project like that. You're right, it would and should cost a lot of money, but college textbooks cost a lot of money. When you were describing your WW II e-book, I thought about how having a multi-media text like that for a college course would be great.

Peter Ginna said...

Myrna, you're right, and textbook publishers are already far down the road on this, as David Crotty mentions in his piece whose URL is in his comment. In textbooks, the prices are higher and sales more predictable, and print runs often large. Also, publishers are always trying to outrun the used-book market so they like to add bells and whistles to each new edition. Big-course textbooks are often multimedia packages now.

Myrna Foster said...

Yes, his piece is interesting too. Thank you.

tautologico said...

About your comment on ebook prices: everyone that I have talked with regarding ebook prices, so far, says they expect the ebook to be cheaper because it costs less for the publisher (production, distribution and storage costs being non-existent). This can also be seen in forums like mobileread, where threads about this subject appear often.

I've never saw someone saying "well, the ebook is nice and all but the physical book is better, so I'd want to pay less for the ebook". Not once.

This is just anecdotal evidence, of course.

rrtzmd said...

..."For all their virtues, no e-text display is yet as pleasant or easy to read as an old-school book."...MAJOR ERROR!...I put off buying a Kindle because I didn't like the gray on gray presentation...nevertheless, I went ahead and purchased one for its "convenience"...and having experienced the product, I find the display is MUCH easier to read; it is MUCH more pleasant...not only am I able to adjust the font to suit my taste; the gray on gray is actually more "soothing" -- for lack of a better description -- to read...moreover, I'm less distracted by trivial peripheral factors such as holding the book open, "finger licking" before turning a page, etc...for me the whole experience is magnitudes above an "old-school book...regarding enhancements, publishers had better be sure that whatever they come up with is easy and quick to access...if it requires more than a tap and a millisecond, I suspect most users won't find much appeal...

Peter Ginna said...

rrtzmd, I'm glad you like your Kindle but I don't concede my comment on print books being more pleasant to read is an "error." As I have said elsewhere on this blog, the Kindle has many virtues and I use mine happily. But I think you're in a minority in preferring the gray on gray display to a crisply printed, black ink on white paper of a "p-book." Nicholson Baker in the New Yorker memorably described the Kindle screen as a "sickly gray. A postmortem gray."

I agree with your comment about "milliseconds." In fact another thing that bugs many users, including me, about the Kindle is how long it takes for the page to change when you touch the forward or back button. It's quicker to turn a paper page! However, I'm sure that future versions of e-readers will have better and faster displays.