Intelligent Machines

Going Out of Print

The new generation of e-book reading gadgets will transform the troubled book, magazine, and newspaper industries. But it’s uncertain what that transformation will look like.

Apr 20, 2010

For serious readers, products like Amazon’s Kindle 2, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and Sony’s Daily Edition are a godsend. It’s not just that these electronic reading devices are handy portals to hundreds of thousands of trade books, textbooks, public-domain works, and best-sellers, all of which can be wirelessly downloaded at a moment’s notice, and to scores of magazines and newspapers, which show up on subscribers’ devices automatically. They’re also giving adventurous authors and publishers new ways to organize and market their creations. A California startup called Vook, for example, has begun to package cookbooks, workout manuals, and even novels with illustrative video clips, and it’s selling these hybrids of video and text to iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch owners through Apple’s iTunes Store.

Unfortunately, you can’t get away with charging hardcover prices for an e-book, which makes it hard to see how traditional publishers will profit in a future that’s largely digital. As a result, book publishers are facing a painful and tumultuous time as they attempt to adapt to the emerging e-book technologies. The Kindle, the iPad, and their ilk will force upon print-centric publishers what the Internet, file sharing, and the iPod forced upon the CD-centric music conglomerates starting around 1999–namely, waves of cost cutting and a search for new business models.

Publishers are lucky in one way: the reckoning could have come much sooner. From 1999 to 2001, I worked for NuvoMedia, a Silicon Valley startup that developed a device called the Rocket eBook. The Rocket and its main rival at the time, the Softbook Reader from Softbook Press, prefigured the current generation of e-book devices. Owners could shop for books from major publishers online, download the publications to their PCs, and then transfer them to the portable devices, which had monochrome LCD screens that showed one page of text at a time.

But three factors conspired to kill these first-generation e-readers. First, book publishers, fearing that digital sales would cannibalize print sales, offered only a limited catalogue of books in electronic form and charged nearly as much for Rocket and Softbook editions as they did for hardcovers. Not surprisingly, consumers demurred, which in turn discouraged publishers from offering more titles digitally. Second, the technology wasn’t quite ready for mass adoption. The devices weren’t small or thin enough to be truly portable, and the book-buying process was convoluted. Third, NuvoMedia and Softbook Press were acquired and then combined by a larger company, Gemstar, that was distracted by other issues and let its new e-book division languish, eventually closing it down.

Business conditions are very different today. For one thing, there are more big players with an interest in seeing the e-book business blossom, including Sony, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and now Apple. Using their pull with publishers, these companies have assembled huge catalogues of e-books–Amazon has nearly half a million commercial titles–and they’ve kept prices lower, in the $10-to-$15 range for new trade books.

Just as important, mobile computing technology has improved drastically. Cheap 3G data access is the biggest advance. Now that readers can browse, purchase, and download e-books and periodicals directly on their devices, they can access new material almost instantaneously, without having to be near a desktop or laptop computer with an Internet connection. Having owned a Kindle 2 since May 2009, I can testify to the allure of this feature: I’ve bought a couple of dozen more e-books for my Kindle than I would ever have ordered from Amazon in print form in the same period.

Today’s wireless e-reading devices fall into two groups, each with its strong points. The “electronic ink” devices all use black-and-white electrophoretic displays manufactured by Prime View International. (The Taiwanese display maker acquired the company that developed the technology, MIT spinoff E Ink, in 2009.) The $259 Kindle 2 is the best-known of these products, but Barnes and Noble’s identically priced Nook and the $400 Sony Reader Daily Edition offer similar functions. The Kindle DX ($489) and the forthcoming Plastic Logic Que proReader (expected this summer, starting at $649) have larger screens and are intended mainly for reading textbooks and business documents. The Prime View screens on these devices depend on reflected ambient light, which gives them two advantages: they’re easier on the eyes than backlit LCD screens, and they use far less power. Their batteries can last for days, and sometimes weeks, between charges.

In the last year, however, devices with LCD screens have reëmerged as credible e-book readers. Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad are leading examples. The LCD screens use battery power faster, but they have the important advantage of being able to show moving images and full color, capabilities that are still at least a year or two away for electrophoretic screens.

For book publishers, color screens are interesting but probably not revolutionary. Vook titles like The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen ($4.99), a cookbook that bundles recipes with related instructional videos, provide a taste of what’s possible. But with most long-form writing, the words are paramount. If their purpose is to stimulate the mind’s eye, then color and animation are overkill, which is why I doubt that the iPad will wholly undercut the market for the Kindle-­style devices.

For magazine, newspaper, and textbook publishers, on the other hand, the iPad and the wave of tablet devices just behind it create enormous opportunities. Magazines are distinguished from books not merely by their periodical nature and their bite-size articles but by their design. If digital-age readers still want information that’s organized and ornamented in the fashion of good magazines–and there’s no reason to think they don’t–then devices that mimic the form and ergonomics of old-fashioned print pages will be needed to deliver it.

But to succeed on the new platforms, publishers will have to innovate, not simply imitate established media: they will have to move beyond the current crop of static digital magazines. The problem with most of the publications built on e-­magazine platforms from Zinio, Zmags, and other startups is that they are simply digital replicas of their print counterparts, perhaps with a few hyperlinks thrown in as afterthoughts. Publishers should look for better ways to use tablet screens such as the iPad’s, with its multitouch zooming and scrolling capabilities, and to make their content interactive.

There are many reasons, however, to suspect that the transition to the new distribution technologies will be rocky for the traditional publishing industry. For one thing, publishers may not be able to charge as much as they’d like for electronic editions. Kindle customers have frequently boycotted e-books priced above $9.99, and publishers’ plans to charge up to $14.99 for e-books sold through Apple’s iBooks application have raised a serious outcry.

Magazine and newspaper buyers, too, have been trained to expect lower prices for digital editions. The New Yorker costs $35.88 per year on the Kindle, compared with $39.95 for a print subscription and $234.53 on newsstands. The $0.75 price tag on the Kindle version of the Sunday New York Times, whose newsstand version costs $5 or more, gives me a larcenous thrill every weekend. (And obviously, I can read newspapers on the Web, at least for now, and pay nothing.) On top of all that, there is little information yet about how readers respond to the ads inserted into the e-reader versions of magazines and newspapers, or how much publishers will be able to charge for the advertisements. And generating elaborate interactive content for digital periodicals will almost certainly drive up production costs.

The new digital reading platforms do, of course, provide an upside for traditional publishers: the technology will give them the opportunity to package material in surprising new forms that could attract new audiences.

In the best scenario I can envision for the publishing industry in 2020, basic text-centric digital content (nonfiction books, novels, daily news) will be so accessible and cheap that it will actually turn more people into regular readers, the way dime novels did in the 1870s and paperbacks did in the 1940s. In this way, publishers could begin to make up in volume what they will inevitably sacrifice through lower prices. But at the same time, they will be creating compelling multimedia experiences and packaging them at higher prices. After all, consumers who are willing to drop $14 to see Avatar in 3-D ought to be willing to spend the same amount on an edition of Hamlet souped up with video clips of Olivier, Jacobi, or Branagh. Maybe.

Wade Roush is the chief correspondent at Xconomy and a former senior editor for Technology Review.