Thursday, June 25, 2009

Do you love reading or do you love books?

Author Ann Kirschner set out to answer this question by reading the Charles Dickens classic “Little Dorrit” four ways: as a paperback, as an audio book, on her Kindle and on her iPhone. She spoke about her experience on NPR's On The Media last week. You can listen to the interview below or read the transcript here.

Ann's conclusion was that she loves reading and that each of the formats she chose offered something different and was useful in different ways. She loved the familiar paperback, the nostalgic feel of it in her hands. She used the audiobook in the New York subway. The Kindle was good but she didn't like the screen going black between pages.

Then she used the iPhone:

"....the iPhone, which seems, on the face of it, to offer the least enjoyable experience because the screen is so small. And yet.... the iPhone was the revelation to me. The screen is brighter, crisper. You can change pages instantaneously. But the most important thing is that the iPhone is always with you, or at least always with me."

There are two things that I learn from this. The first is the same point that Stephen Fry made recently "books are no more threatened by ebooks, than stairs were by elevators". If you love reading then celebrate that we have so many great ways to read now.

The second is Ann's experience with the iPhone. The fact that it is always with her compensated for an inferior user experience. Easy of use and instant availability trumped quality.

I'm afraid that many publishers are still convinced that their customers love books, after all they are still buying them right? I think that many customers are discovering, just as Ann did, that their joy of reading is stronger than their love of books. I call this the ebook event horizon.

Publishers should be falling over themselves to provide their books in every possible emerging format. They need to worry less about the things that are important for books (like quality) and care more about ease of use and instant availability on any device. What's to fear? After all, we still use stairs don't we?


  1. I agree about the number of emerging formats for eBooks. I think there are, in fact, many of us who love both reading AND books. I can easily envision a world where I still buy coffee table books as housewarming gifts for people, and buy a kindle edition of a mystery, have a travel guide on my iPhone, and take mass market paperbacks to the beach. I don't think book lovers, or more specifially, authors and publishers, fear that the book as we know it will cease to exist. I think the fear is based on the fact that we still haven't nailed all the rights issues. In the latest newsletter from the Author's Guild, Roy Blount, Jr. makes an interesting point about the Kindle 2's read aloud feature: does this infringe on the rights of the audio edition of that book? I can assure you Amazon has not purchased the audio rights, and is surely not paying an audio royalty. Does this mean publishers/authors will have fewer ancillary rights to sell? Perhaps the cost of digital rights, long overlooked as a throw-away, will finally climb to meet the full potential of what's possible with these formats.

  2. Thanks for your comment Diane

    Of course you're right. One thing I have observed about rights and business models is that there is an assumption that all formats other than the printed book are derived rights from the print. The price or royalty is therefore be based on the print book. I think this is holding us back

    There is a fear I think that making an ebook for iPhone for (say) $5 might cannibalize the sales of the print version at (say) $30. The point I am trying to make is that there are so many ways to provide a reading experience now that surely this fear is ungrounded. The more options we have to read, the more we will read.

    I like the example of people like Seth Godin. Much of the content for his books is published on his blog and freely available. Yet his books are bestsellers.