Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (7 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
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On July 12, 1562, Diego de Landa, the Bishop of Yucatan, started a horrific bonfire. Hundreds of Mayan scrolls were tossed into the fire, as well as thousands of sacred images. Diego de Landa believed himself to be in the moral right, having found what he called “superstition and lies of the devil” in the books. He had gained the trust of the Mayans, gained access to their sacred books, but then with the might of the Spanish conquistadors behind him, he burned them all. Only three full scrolls of the formerly vast Mayan empire remain now, plus charred portions of a fourth.

The Nazis too are known to have burned books. Jewish and “degenerate” books—including volumes by Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway—were raided from libraries by Nazi youths and consigned to flames. At least 18,000 distinct titles were identified as officially objectionable, and untold hundreds of thousands of copies were burned in well-attended public events.

Book burning has historically been a tool used by tyrants in authority to penalize or marginalize detractors. Do you think America was more enlightened? Not really. Even though we value free speech in America, we have at times taken a tyrannical approach. During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, it was decided that “material by any controversial persons, Communists, fellow travelers, etc.” would be removed from libraries and burned. In fact, this was enacted by presidential decree.

It’s harder to burn ebooks.

Burning an e-reader will cause you to choke from the fumes, so don’t do it. And while digital book burning won’t happen, a more subtle version might arise. The handful of retailers who control the distribution of digital books could choose not to make one or more books available for any number of reasons.

Consider the time, shortly before the iPad launched in 2010, when Amazon decided to yank the “buy buttons” from books and ebooks published by Macmillan, one of the top U.S. publishers, to protest new pricing terms Macmillan wanted. Amazon removed tens of thousands of books in all.

It was one of the brazen moves Amazon sometimes makes. Pulling the “buy button” from items in the store means that it’s not possible to click on any button to actually order a given book shown on the Amazon web page. You can see the book—it’s tantalizingly close—but you can’t buy it. As long as the buy buttons are gone, orders can’t be placed.

It’s a money-losing proposition for Amazon and any business partner it decides to yank the buy buttons from, but contractually, it’s something Amazon is allowed to do. But why would the online retailer want to do that? It’s like Amazon is shooting itself in the foot. Perhaps Amazon had previously shot itself in the foot so many times that it thought it had bulletproof shoes. Or enough scar tissue not to mind.

Yanking the buy button is a punitive gesture that Amazon has been known to pull with publishers, like a tyrannical Byzantine emperor who holds ultimate sway over his court. It’s a powerful threat in business negotiations. But Macmillan wasn’t a mere vassal to some king’s court. That publisher is an empire unto itself in the publishing world. The move to yank books backfired when publishers became enraged and retaliated as a unified group. Ultimately, Amazon needed the books and the support of publishers and its customers, so the company backed down.

Some choices are tough, but leaders are judged by the decisions they make when given tough choices. I believe the Amazon leaders made a mistake. An ethical retailer has a social contract to uphold with its consumers. It’s not appropriate for a retailer to yank or censor content based only on its internal machinations, its policies for better profit margins.

Thankfully, I believe this example shows the power of public outrage to enact change. It’s possible to shame a corporation that has done something wrong or, at the very least, to make a company aware that it should have been more careful about its actions. The same public outrage was hurled at Apple when it released a “Baby Shaker” app that rewarded users who could shake a virtual baby to death. Developed by another company, this iPhone app is grisly and should never have passed Apple’s QA standards. Mercifully, public outcry caused it to be pulled from the app store in less than a day.

No company has perfect QA policies or editorial standards for what content to shelve in its store. Companies need to listen to consumers, read what people post on product reviews, and monitor the blogosphere. But reciprocally, companies need to have strong enough standards in place to avoid smear campaigns and acts of undeserved bullying. Knowing when to remove or reinstate content requires an ethical balance and strong sensibilities.

It’s a tough editorial choice: though a given book may be objectionable, where do we draw the line when it comes to free speech? And more importantly, who is drawing the line? What moral or literary sensibilities do the executives of Amazon have? What about the retailers at Barnes & Noble or Google or Apple? You have to ask yourself whether you trust these men (because they are mostly men—and mostly white men, at that). Do you trust them to make decisions for you on what books you’re permitted to buy?


The First Competitors

You can create an innovative breakthrough, but you can’t own it forever. Eventually, competitors come out of the woodwork, challenging you with similar or sometimes advanced versions of the very innovation you crafted. For Amazon, the first major competition came from an old rival, a company that Amazon was used to competing with in books. But it was a company that, back then, would have seemed most unlikely to make a tech-product marvel. Yet in November 2009, that’s exactly what it did.

» » »

Los Angeles is all sunshine and short sleeves. It’s still got a 1960s design, like it was influenced by
, but with more palm trees and fewer spaceships. It’s got atomic roadside diners and terrific tangled, spangled freeway sprawl. It’s got the best mom-and-pop taco shacks in the most unlikely of places, like wedged between Laundromats and exotic pet stores in strip malls.

I’m at one of those strip malls on a long layover from a flight, visiting a Barnes & Noble store. I’ve been sitting here for a few hours watching people. I’ve been watching the kiosk where a saleslady named Bettina is showing off Barnes & Noble’s new Nook e-reader. A few people come every now and then to look at these Nooks. More often than not, people come up to ask her where the bathroom is or what time the store closes, like she works the information booth. The Nooks aren’t exactly selling like hotcakes.

I go over to her and show an interest in the Nook. To torment her a little, I keep calling it a Kindle. “What can these Kindles do?” I ask. She laughs, explains, and walks me through a demo. I tell her that it would be nice if some sort of sticker on books inside the store would show if they’re available on the Nook. Something on the print book’s front cover, right there on the retail shelves. It’s the sort of thing that Barnes & Noble can do but Amazon can’t because it doesn’t have a physical presence.

After a few minutes, some sweatered, grandmotherly looking men come over to look at the Nook, and so does a woman with so many facial piercings that she’d probably set off a metal detector. I slowly drift away.

I love real-world retail. It connects you right to your customers, without the web as a nameless, anonymizing barrier. Bookselling as we know it emerged at the end of the Roman Republic, around 50 BC, at a time before publishers existed. Retailers would contract directly with scribes, copyists, and authors. Then they’d create lists of books for sale and post them for customers to see outside their stores on Rome’s winding side streets. Bookselling as we know it grew more complex with the proliferation of separate roles for authors and publishers and retailers, as well as the advent of copyright and of securing rights for publication, and the explosion of mail-order and online commerce.

Though I’ve worked in online retail for two decades, I still never get tired of looking at bookstores. I’m a bookstore tourist whose first vacation priority on arriving in a new city is to check out the local independent bookstores. And I have a special place in my heart for Barnes & Noble, the biggest of the retail bookstores.

They’re sharp on the ebooks side, as well. Out of all the retailers who sell dedicated e-readers, they’re the most innovative. They were the first to release new book-reading features and to innovate on the hardware side. They were the first to have touch-sensitive eInk screens. They innovated digital book lending for swapping books between friends. Heck, if you’re in one of their stores, you can read any Nook book for free for an hour or so. They totally get the social experience of books in the way that it crosses over from the real world to the digital.

They can innovate so fast because they’re not burdened with their own R&D group. Instead, they use a company called Inventec, a sort of hired gun in the world of R&D. It’s a kind of Lab126 that hires itself out to the highest bidder. By outsourcing the nuts and bolts of their product development, Barnes & Noble can focus on innovation.

Their Nooks are downright futuristic too. When I first got my own Nook, I was just as perplexed as everyone because it had a big eInk screen for reading and a thin color screen at the bottom for navigation. The day I opened my Nook for the first time, I was sprawled out on my living room floor like a child opening a birthday present. (Okay, a birthday present I had bought for myself.) The Nook’s dual screen is clever and innovative, even if it is neurocognitively jarring. (When you get confused by all the screens you have to navigate, that can take you out of the reading experience.)

One of the reasons that Barnes & Noble makes such innovative devices is because they don’t have to worry about building their own operating system, unlike Apple and Amazon. Those two companies are slowed down by the boatloads of engineers who tweak and tune and build an operating system from scratch. Barnes & Noble simply uses Google’s free Android operating system, which lets the retailer put its engineers on other projects to make e-reading even better.

Barnes & Noble is innovative with the software as well as hardware. For example, the Nook was the first e-reader with a game platform. So you have to give credit to every engineer and director at Barnes & Noble for what they’ve done.

Even more so, what they did with interactive children’s ebooks threw the publishing industry for a loop. For the first time, you could actually play with an ebook. You could touch an elephant to hear it bellow, or you could become a character in the book. And it’s not hard to extrapolate from interactive children’s books to interactive books for adults or readers of any age.

If you ask me, though, in spite of such interactivity, ebooks aren’t ready yet for children. I think a children’s book should be sacred and sensual, an inviting canvas for the imagination that can be colored in with crayons. For children, words are already puzzles. They’re strange glyphs that children need to decode as they yearn with outstretched fingers for fluency in their language and to grow up into readers. Games can be distractions from that process.

Most publishers agree, and I think they’re right to move slowly on children’s ebooks, because being a digital native may have long-term consequences related to learning how to read. We’re in danger of rushing a whole generation of children into something unplanned and unexpected.

And while I like the occasional TV show, I still look back at my childhood with some resentment because the television was often my babysitter. I was raised by Buck Rogers and Oscar the Grouch and geriatric game-show hosts like Bob Barker. And I can still quote the price of Cocoa Puffs from the 1980s, thanks to
. Digital books, like television and other media, are best meant for those Pandoras who’ve already opened their boxes and know what demons to expect inside.

That said, I applaud the Nook team for inventing interactive ebooks. It was a bold, innovative move. And one that Apple and then Amazon were soon to copy. Likewise, when Nook introduced ebook lending, the other retailers were swift to add that feature.

» » »

Ebook innovation is a game of cat and mouse. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of this game is that it becomes all-consuming—and innovation becomes harder to do when you’re trying to keep up with competition. When Apple launched a tablet, Amazon had to follow suit, even though it undoubtedly had other features on the drawing board, innovations that wouldn’t be launched until at least one other retailer had launched them.

I think some competition is healthy, because it forces an evolutionary Darwinism of features: if a feature is successful, it will be copied. But untested features languish in unread business requirement documents, and resources that would have gone into building those features get redirected into keeping up with the Joneses.

Amazon is winning the ebook revolution, but it may lose the war. Competitors like Barnes & Noble and Apple have successfully blurred the lines and proven that they can provide a great media experience, so Amazon’s brand matters less in the eyes of readers now. Any tactical advantage Amazon has is primarily related to its deep ties with publishers, ties that are much deeper than those of other retailers, except maybe Barnes & Noble.

The revolution started with one clunky, four-hundred-dollar device with four shades of gray that could only hold a hundred books, but the war is about all media now, about the convergence of books and audio and video. The war is on as different retailers compete for your attention. Books were once hugely popular, but they have been relegated to a small slice of the media pie. And though book media is still a billion-dollar industry, it’s becoming outranked by TV and movies and audio and video games in per capita media consumption.

A 2010 Nielsen survey of American households showed that books account for only 3 percent of an average family’s monthly discretionary spending, while music accounts for 5 percent, video games 9 percent, and videos a whopping 29 percent. There’s no room for niche players to succeed at just selling books, which is why the digital retailers are getting into the game with all kinds of media. And now that ebook content is being sold at commodity prices, the true differentiator will ultimately be in the reading experience itself.

The winner of this war won’t be decided by generals with scale models of battleships and airplanes and tanks on a simulated table. No, it will be decided by designers, by user-interface artists, by people who connect to the humanistic spirit that flourished in the Renaissance as print books gained in popularity. The Renaissance saw the rise of readable fonts, innovations in binding and page layout, and the placement of illustrations. And typographers always experiment, whether with the more lavish encrustations of the Art Nouveau period or the German grid style that emerged in modern times.

In the end, design matters.

Spend a weekend in Los Angeles, and then spend a weekend in Seattle, and ask yourself which city you’d rather live in. Seattle started out as a logging town and as a gateway to further riches in the Yukon. Its roots are founded on the exploitation of resources, as if there’s an infinite supply of trees to chop or gold to mine. Historically, Seattle is a city that has drawn hard-core, hard-boiled businesspeople. That’s why you see the likes of Microsoft and Amazon and Boeing around Seattle. Frankly, it wasn’t the most auspicious place to start a venture that would revolutionize books.

Places like New York and Los Angeles are still rooted in the arts. New York has theater and publishing and advertising, and L.A. was founded on Hollywood, the movies. You don’t get that artistic sensibility in Seattle, and you can tell by looking at the current Kindle and all the knockoffs that copy its design. Bullish as I am about ebooks, something is missing, and this flaw is perpetuated by the fact that all the e-readers are made in Silicon Valley. Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble all have designers in Silicon Valley because that’s where the technical talent is. But what you don’t get with this technical talent is an artistic, book-oriented design.

As consumers and readers, we’re not dummies. We don’t want an impoverished reading experience. We don’t want a cracked plastic case and a blurry screen—which, sadly, is what many e-readers offered, especially in the boom years between 2007 and 2012 when everyone seemed to be trying to sell a budget e-reader. For good or for bad, we define ourselves in many ways by the gadgets we use and the clothes we wear. We don’t want to surround ourselves with cheap products. Nobody really aspires to that. We also don’t want to pay for a diamond-encrusted e-reader. We don’t need bling; we just need to feel like the design speaks to us.

That’s the genius of print book covers. There’s a reason why print book covers evolved to a highly specialized, soulful art form. They add very little to the cost of a book, and yet they make reading a vibrant, colorful experience. When you think back to a book you’ve read, you’ll often remember the cover before you remember any words or ideas. As designers re-embrace the original strengths of print books, I think we’ll see more book-oriented themes in future e-readers.

Eventually, the line between print and digital will blur and finally vanish. Ebooks borrow from print books now, in terms of their design metaphors. They copy bookmarks and annotations, as well as the concepts of turning the page and of page numbers themselves—even though page numbers don’t even make sense in an ebook.

What’s a page number? What’s a page, if you can dynamically change the font size or the font? What’s a page, if you have a game embedded in the book and the game spans many levels? These design metaphors are yesteryear bolt-ons from physical to digital. But there’s an opportunity to reinvent the digital reading experience while keeping the best parts of print.

Companies with more humanistic sensibilities than Amazon will win the e-reader war by making the experience more human, more engaging. Children’s ebooks should be playful and adult ebooks thoughtful, soulful, or entertaining. Companies should create opportunities for interesting, unexpected experiences to happen. Perhaps digital insects scuttle across the page if you’ve had the book open for too long without turning the page. Perhaps in a thriller, as you read the ebook, you’re startled by the unexpected sound of a gunshot when you turn the page to a crucial passage. Though this can’t easily be done in hardware, you can create an engaging experience in software and make it soulful instead of awful.

Let’s face it: there’s still something emotionally bereft about a Nook or a Kindle. Perhaps over time the industrial design will become more human, more like the “illustrated primer” described in Neal Stephenson’s
. Or like the book Penny used in the
TV series, a digital book with actual pages that could be turned. Better design will be part of the rebirth of reading. But to get there, we must be as ready to innovate in design and soul as we are in technology and cost.

The company that does this best is Apple. They blew away everyone’s preconceptions about e-readers when they launched the iPad.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
9.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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