Enhanced ebooks and steel filing cabinets

Image - iStockphoto: Iscatel57
Image – iStockphoto: Iscatel57


Funny how #FutureChat can change your mind.

Camille LaGuire
Camille LaGuire

Camille LaGuire, whose beret-ed avatar is familiar to many of us in our weekly discussion from The Bookseller and FutureChat, started Friday’s chat by announcing:

Not sure I have much to contribute about the Future of Enhanced books discussion on #FutureChat today.

By later in the day, she’d not only jousted with typical self-assurance along with everyone else during the discussion, but she’d delivered herself an article on the matter: Real Innovation — What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?

We may need another #FutureChat all its own to debate whether we’re all getting smarter on topics about which we thought we had nothing to offer in our weekly yak together. But suffice it to say that LaGuire found herself unexpectedly engaged. As she wrote in her follow-up:

Whenever that subject [enhanced ebooks] comes up among publishing professionals, I always end up chewing through a steel filing cabinet in frustration.

We’re sending a replacement steel filing cabinet to Michigan.

Join us every Friday for #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

LaGuire seems to have come away from our conversation concerned that a good examination of the issues around enhanced ebooks requires a firm determination of whose problems you’re interested in addressing with innovation. From her column:

Publishing people keep talking about their own problems [instead of the customers’ problems]. How do we keep from being marginalized?  How do we compete with games and movies and the internet for our customer’s attention?
And yes, the correct answer to those question is innovate!  But then you have to actually BE innovative, and that means:
You have to focus on solving the customer’s problems, not yours.
The customers do not have a problem that is solved by enhanced books. They have all the shiny, push-button-y, video- and audio-enhanced everything in the world they can want.  They’re not bitching and moaning about not having enough bells and whistles.  If they feel the need for that, they have plenty of products that fulfill the need.

We’re all hoping that Camille will stop beating around the bush, of course, and tell us what she really thinks.

But she’s getting at what became a more engaging discussion that might have been expected: At a certain point, the group began questioning whether books are actually the thing on which we need to innovate.

Think about that for a moment. There are good reasons to ask this.

It’s generally accepted that early efforts at enhanced ebooks, especially when things went in the app-y direction, have been difficult to pull off, costly to execute on, and generally not loved by the readership, those customers-who-have-no-problem, per LaGuire.

The theatrical comparison

Image - iStockphoto: Lscatel57
Image – iStockphoto: Lscatel57

I found myself using the loose — don’t look too hard at this — parallel of live theater and film. All former actors make these comparisons, we can’t help ourselves. What we know about theater and film is that as the much-newer medium of film became the stupendously successful art-unto-itself it is, capable of a verisimilitude and out-of-this-world fantasy painter undreamed of in theater, live theater lost ground. Today, staged theater draws a tiny fraction of the audience of film. Part of that, yes, is distribution: You don’t have to assemble everybody’s bodies in the same physical room to show or see film, digital puts it everywhere. But what’s more, the aesthetic accomplishments of film simply outweigh — for most people, not all but most — the attractions of fellowship and symbolism in the live-theater experience.

I used the example of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. That could work as a stage show. Did I feel the need to have that “personal contact” of live theater when I saw the film? Not for a minute. I was completely engaged, and probably far more effectively than I could have been if this small-cast, intimate setting piece were played in the round or on a good thrust.

The parallel here to books is the question of what bookish people, like theater people, may do to “stay relevant.” Look how much of theater in recent decades has been a bid for bigging-up to try to get hold of some of the fantastic image-generating power of film. Theater will never succeed at that kind of “innovation,” no matter how many stunt people  you hurt trying to make Spider-Man look like a living film.

Theater hardly has to die, far from it. But it does work best when it regroups in its own medium and capabilities and work, as it must, for the smaller audience and the immediacy of imagination. To keep trying to innovate that ancient art into something more cinematic produces a lot of the expensive fools’ errands we’ve seen on Broadway and in the West End for too long. This is better understood now in theater, happily, than it was late in the last century, but you can still find a lot of theater artists chafing at the fact that their art is not film.

Books on ice! 

The parallel problem that we discussed a bit in #FutureChat may lie in trying to use “enhancements” to innovate a form that isn’t right for innovation. What if we need to think more fundamentally about storytelling, start there when we want to match a new form to old content, and … leave books alone?

If those customers whose needs have left steel filings in LaGuire’s teeth are happier with books being books, should we take our innovative instincts somewhere else? Per our #FutureChat walkup, The Bookseller’s Philip Jones has told us he sees glimmers of new hope for some potential enhancements, and Enders Analysis’ Douglas McCabe has issued a scary warning that publishing really, really needs to get going on the innovation thing right now.

But I was especially glad that we had Canelo’s digital director Nick Barreto with us for a bit in #FutureChat. He’s the type publishing worker who’s having to do a lot of thinking about these issues. And he’s of a class of talent that is — we want to say this carefully — not always finding the stomach or ability to make many digital developments thrive at major publishing houses. I’m not talking about Canelo but other publishers who have seen their digital directors depart in the last year. There aren’t enough of them to constitute an “exodus” but the few have been high-visibility walk-aways that you start to wonder if, well, we’re trying to innovate in the right places.

Lots to think about, thanks to the ever-lively #FutureBook crowd. And you’re invited. Hope to see you with us in a session soon.

There’s more to this story: Read the rest

By Porter Ander­son  

The FutureBook:  Enhanced ebooks and steel filing cabinets: A #FutureChat recap

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook




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