Rewriting the Ebook Story

One of my favorite things about flying is having the opportunity to read for hours at a stretch. I saved two good books to read traveling to and from Buying & Selling eContent conference in Arizona this year. I had some work to do, so I was pretty sure they'd last me the entire trip. It can be pretty disappointing to face hours in the air with nothing to read except Sky Mall.

Of course, this is a wicked, old-school travel entertainment strategy-one that the editor of EContent should have moved well beyond. Yet, while I want an e-reader, I haven't found the device that's quite right for me.

In flight and around airports, I saw many e-readers and felt pangs of envy. It took restraint (something I'm not known for) not to do some unofficial user surveys. I did eavesdrop on some techno show-and-tell in which e-reader owners did impromptu demos for fellow travelers.

So my existing interest had climbed significantly by the time I attended the Sunday ebook forum. SKS Advisors' founder Steve Sieck led the forum at this year's Buying & Selling eContent conference. Panelists included Lindsey E. Schell, collection management, University of Texas Libraries; Scott Brown, owner, Social Information Group; Chris Palma, strategic partner development, Google Books; Eric Freese, solutions architect, digital publishing, Aptara; and George Scotti, channel marketing director, Springer Science+Business Media.

Ebooks have moved out of the niches and into the mainstream, and this panel demonstrated how players of all types are examining the opportunities they present. Not surprisingly, one of the primary concerns forum attendees expressed is confusion given the number of devices and competing standards on the market.

Another issue is speculation that Amazon has put the industry in jeopardy because its $9.99 ebook price is too low to sustain publishing. This reminds me of when the music business failed to lower CD prices and refocus on producing products worth paying for, not to mention today's tension about sustaining the age-old print news infrastructure in an era of free news supported by low-cost web ads. As digital technologies supplant their physical predecessors, creation, distribution, licensing, and pricing models will be forced to change in kind. Book publishing is no different.

While I have heard much from those drunk on iPad Kool-Aid, foolishly speculating that a device can save publishing, there is something that e-readers in general, and maybe the iPad in particular, can do for publishing: push us to rethink the user experience of the book to make it worth buying.

My favorite part of the Ebook Forum was when Aptara's Freese pulled out a stack of seven different e-readers to show and share. No. 1 in the "oh, wow" department was the Entourage eDGe. The dual-screen device combines the functions of an e-reader, a netbook, a notepad, and an audio/video recorder and player.

The iPad is also a strong multitasker. And, without a doubt, the rotating image featured on the iPad app The Elements had a coolness factor of 10. However, what was really exciting about this ebook was that it didn't seek to reproduce a physical book experience. Ebooks and e-readers won't save publishing. Rather, they present an opportunity to reinvent publishing. Yet, as Gale, a part of Cengage Learning's VP of strategic partnerships Stephen Abram said in his Tuesday Content Containers panel, "Every first version of a new technology replicates all of the problems of the previous models."

We are way passed version 1.0 with digital content. Yet our industry is dominated by replica metaphors: page-flipping, paperback-sized, pseudo print layout. Even content ownership is retro and object-restricted: If I buy a Kindle book, I can't read it on many phones. Google's Palma said that the company was striving for seamless interoperability so you can start reading a book on an e-reader in bed and finish that same book on your smartphone while riding on the train to the office the next day. However, while the company boasts 32,000 publishers in its partnership program, it faces entrenched DRM thinking and proprietary behavior. We know how this story ends: If our old-school mechanisms get in the way of user expectations, they will circumvent us through piracy or direct-to-consumer delivery.

So yes, it is time to rebuild the ebook infrastructure from the ground up-from author contracts to licensing models to delivery networks and mechanisms. Yet I would also propose that unlike other content types that have already faced much of the pain in this transition, text-based content must look more deeply at the user expectation developed through years of internet use. As we seek to rebuild publishing, let us reconsider what experience digital delivers to our readers that its page-flipping predecessors did not. Let's not become obsolete middlemen in the content value chain. Ebooks are crying out for nonlinear editors who can push the form and format to create a nonprint experience that will resonate with readers steeped in short-form, stone-skipping, socially intermediated digital reading experiences. These, like the potential I saw in The Elements, will deliver a user-optimized, multidimensional user experience that could do a lot more than save books. It can reinvent them ... and the industry along the way.