Saturday, January 26, 2013

I Sing the Book Electric

Hold on a sec. Just getting my stuff together before I leave the house.

Let's see... My cell phone. Check. My music player. Check. Where did I leave my still camera? I'm sure I put it right here. Or was it over there? Here it is, next to my video cam. Can't forget my handheld gaming machine, either. Man, I need more pockets.

How often does that little vignette happen at your house? Not a whole lot since about 2007, I'm guessing. All right, maybe 2009 or so with that bit about the video cam. Still, the bottom line is when you shove your smart phone in your pocket, you're also grabbing your music player, your still and video cam, a game console, an untold array of apps and the entire Internet in your pants before you saunter out the door to start your day.

Admittedly, there are professionals, aficionados and die-hards who'll never abandon the latest or favorite iterations of a given purpose-specific technological tool. For one among their number, the new Nikon Coolpix S800c is simply de rigeur, just as Ashton Kutcher says.

But for the ever-growing majority of us, convenience trumps all. Why pay for, attend to, and lug around a handful of devices when we can enjoy all those devices' disparate functionalities in one compact, pretty machine?

The answer is, increasingly we don't. Nor should we. Unless you're making your living as a professional photographer or videographer, the photo and video features on your smart phone serve perfectly well for all your creative visual imagery needs. The music player works great. The apps and the Internet are always at your twitching fingertips. Oh yeah, and it's a phone, too.

One machine that does many things well is what you want. And there's nothing wrong with that. It makes perfect sense. And there's a vast global community of hardware and software engineers, designers and programmers who toil constantly to invent and refine your phone and what it can do for you, giving you opportunities to use that pretty little machine in ways you never knew you wanted to until you knew you could.

So when's the last time you bought a stand-alone camera, regardless of Kutcher's pitches?

Exactly, and that's also the fate of dedicated e-readers, for the same reasons.

Consider the burgeoning popularity of reading books in electronic format. Last December, a study released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that the number of Americans choosing to read e-books escalated from 16% to 23% over the course of 2012. The same study said the number of adults who read printed books declined from 72% to 67% over the identical period.

That's intriguing. But what's more intriguing, particularly for authors and publishers, is this: in 2011, nine out of ten e-books were read on dedicated e-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook. In 2012, that declined to only three out of four. In other words, in the 24 months from January, 2011 to December, 2012, reading books on dedicated e-readers declined from 90% of the e-book market, to 75%.

Where did the e-book reading migrate to from Kindles and Nooks? You guessed it -- to tablets. This is a trend that will accelerate for a long time before it decelerates.

Amazon sells a whole lot of books, and it wishes to continue doing that, so it recognizes and accepts this trend very clearly. Thus its introduction of the Kindle Fire, which is a sophisticated, multifunctional multimedia tablet device rather than strictly an e-reader. The Fire is designed to compete with iPads, Google Nexuses, Nook HD+, and the like, tablets all.

Remember, the iPad was introduced to the world not even three years ago. Technology research firm IDC predicted that when the 2012 sales numbers are finalized, over 122 million tablets will have been sold worldwide. That's up from 65 million tablets sold in 2011, and barely 17 million in 2010.

How will that affect the dedicated e-reader? Let's go back to our friends at IDC. They estimate 2012 global e-reader shipments declined 28% from 2011, from nearly 28 million e-readers in 2011 to less than 20 million in 2012.

What do these statistics foretell? Lee Rainie over at Pew says, "We haven't reached this point yet, but there are reasonable thoughts that the book experience of the future will be dramatically different than today. It will be multimedia, highly social and maybe even incorporate a wiki experience."

Gazalapalooza agrees. As a matter of fact, we agreed quite some time ago, in a post called "The E-lluminated Manuscript" that we published here in October, 2011. Now would be a great time for you to pop over and read that post, as it ties in directly to this one.

The bottom line is that as readers hustle from e-readers to tablets, a significant portion of them will expect, if not demand, that the books they buy to enjoy on those tablets take advantage of more than one of the machine's features. This will be true particularly for younger readers, who've been inundated with multimedia machines since (if not before) they escaped their cradles.

One thing is sure -- these newfangled books will be costly to produce, and so costly as well to purchase. It won't be easy to make an interactive, multimedia e-book on a typical book budget, rather than one usually associated with producing a video game, much less a movie. Talent other than authorial will have to be recruited and paid, and rights to audio, visual, and imagery elements will have to be secured without violating copyrights. But that's not stopping publishers from venturing into this largely undiscovered literary terrain. Penguin says it plans to release about 50 fiction and nonfiction "enhanced e-books" this year. Simon & Schuster has around 60 of them slated for publication in 2013, and Knopf and Random House also have enhanced e-books heading toward a tablet near you before this year's end. Of course, Apple is jumping into the deep end, though its concentration is on enhanced, interactive e-textbooks.

The question is, are these interactive, multimedia tale-telling things "books" in any true sense? They spin stories and impart information, which are the most essential functions of books in their traditional paper iterations. But they also incorporate one or more of music, 2- and 3-D photos, maps, videos, games, puzzles, social media, and wikis. Is it a book, or is it a digital app, or is it a video game? And if it's more than a book, is it really a book at all, or is it something other? If nothing else, the evolution forced on authors and book publishers by readers armed with tablets will twist the definition of the word "book" in ways unforeseen just a few years ago. It may well twist just as profoundly the definition of "author."

And all this enhanced e-book noise may be just a passing fad. Book publishers have stumbled down a path not unlike this one before, when they experimented with multimedia books on CD-ROMS a few years back. To put it charitably, the experiment was not a success. Or, as e-book publisher Open Road Integrated Media's CEO Jane Friedman said recently, "The consumer is not asking for this. It takes it from being a reading experience to something else..."

Still, despite what she says, Friedman's company is dipping its toes into the enhanced e-book market. This spring Open Road is set to release Gift, a novel by Andrea Buchanan for young adults that incorporates original music, graphics, diary entries and a music video by Swedish YouTube superstar FreddeGredde.

All this swirls in my fevered brow as I'm writing the hotly-anticipated sequel to my thriller, Blood of the Moon. For enhanced e-book purposes, am I an author, or a producer? Seemingly the latter. If so, I'm thinking Dave Grohl does the soundtrack. Maybe I can get Steven Spielberg to direct. And a holographic appearance by Marilyn Monroe would surely boost marketing and sales, don't you think?

"Simplicity is the glory of expression."
~~ Walt Whitman ~~

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