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.