Tuesday, January 05, 2010

E-Books: The Promise and Perils of 2010’s “Big Thing”

In this Post: The Hardware / The Software / The Battle Grounds /A Parallel Universe

This post elaborates on my prediction for 2010 in e-Learn magazine (www.elearnmag.org).

As 2010 arrives, the technology pages of newspapers and tech magazines and websites are all abuzz about the arrival of Apple’s new tablet computer. They anticipate that this could be the hardware that ushers in the age of the e-book.

And so do I. In my e-learn magazine prediction for 2010, I specifically predicted that this year could be to e-books what 1998 was to e-learning (the rise of the e-learning industry). This post explores the issue in more depth and with more of a critical eye: the hardware, the software, the battle grounds, and a parallel universe.

The Hardware

Reports in early December predict a late January announcement and a late March shipment (Apple to launch tablet spring 2010: report, Gabriel Madway, Montreal Gazette, December 9, 2009, http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/Apple+launch+tablet+spring+2010+report/2321918/story.html).

More recently, Alice Rawsthorn speculated that the “impact of the ‘iSlate’ could rival the iPhone.” (New York Times, January 3, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/arts/04iht-design4.html?ref=technology).

(iSlate is one of the many guessed-at names for the product.) Although Apple has produced some products that weren’t hits (remember the Newton?), because this product is essentially an oversized iPod Touch and is perfect for reading books and periodicals online. Moreover, Rawsthorn speculates that existing e-readers are liked but not loved, and the Apple machine will change that.

The Software

Magazines aren’t waiting. Hit by the double whammies of large drops in ad revenue and drops in subscriptions and newsstand sales—partly attributed to the economic downturn, but also attributed to a slow but steady movement of readers from paid, printed content to free online content—magazines are hoping that this will be their resurrection. That some major daily newspapers and long-storied magazines died in this downturn, has only added to the urgency.

Stephanie Clifford reports on an attempt by several major publishers like News Corp, Time-Warner, and Conde-Naste, to open a digital newsstand (Magazines Get Ready for Tablets, New York Times: December 15, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/16/business/media/16adco.html?_r=1&em=&pagewanted=all).

Details of the venture are sketchy, but the idealized version of the magazine can be seen in 3:10 YouTube Video of the tablet-based Sports Illustrated. One of the reasons that magazine publishers prefer tablets is that they have been consulted in developing these machines; they weren’t included in developing the Kindle or Sony Reader.

The Battle Grounds

But what is a magazine, really, especially after it moves online? In a piece for the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan (Articles of Faith, New York Times, December 30, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/magazine/03FOB-medium-t.html?ref=technology) provides insights by exploring the success and failures of some of the earlier ventures, including the gimmicky Feed (which didn’t really succeed), and the content-focused Slate and Salon (though approaching content differently). She suggests that success requires more than gimmicks to succeed; there must be a focus to the content and take advantage of some aspect of the new media.

More than the quality of these online magazines, can they make money. Richard Perez-Pena and Tim Arango’s exploration of the topic (New York Times, December 27, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/28/business/media/28paywall.html?hpw=&pagewanted=all) suggests that could be a problem; users seem comfortable with their free content and some new media sites, like the Huffington Post and Daily Beast, will likely remain free, even after some currently free sites try to institute a payment structure.

Clearly, magazine publishers are concerned by the slow but steady movement of readers online. So are book publishers.

In an Op-Ed piece on the topic, Jonathan Galassi argues that “there’s more to publishing than meets the screen” (New York Times: January 2, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/opinion/03galassi.html?ref=opinion).

Galassi responds to an earlier piece in the New York Times by Mokoto Rich, which explored the battle over the e-publishing rights to the works of William Styron, who wrote “Sophie’s Choice,” among other books (Legal Battles Rage Over E-Book Rights to Old Books, New York Times, December 12, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/13/business/media/13ebooks.html?hp=&pagewanted=all).

Galassi argues that original publisher Random House invested significant work in Styron’s print book, and should benefit now. But Styron’s heirs have given the rights (which were not part of his original deal with Random House) to another publisher.

I have personal perspective to share on this point. Although Random House might have invested a tremendous effort in making Styron’s book successful, and indeed, ASTD Press provided similar support for making my two books with them successful, my experience with other publishers suggests that they merely see authors as a source of content. They invested little in books—and charged the authors for what work they did do—and then did not provide the promised marketing or support. In instances like this, the publishers have inadvertently encouraged their authors to look elsewhere for a better deal. Admittedly, a self-publishing service like Lulu does not provide all of the services that a traditional publisher purports to offer. But if the publisher doesn’t deliver the services that are supposed to make them attractive, then why shouldn’t authors go elsewhere?

In fact, Google’s effort to digitize all of the books in the world and sell those it can has raised numerous questions about rights. Although a settlement was reached in the US, Google lost in France and has been ordered to remove digital versions of French books from its site or face hefty fines (Mathew Saltmarsh, Google Loses in French Copyright Case, New York Times, December 18, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/19/technology/companies/19google.html?hp).

A Parallel Universe

Although this post has primarily focused on e-books and periodicals, television is facing similar battles. On the one hand, while cable subscribers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa prepare to become the battle ground between cable companies and network television stations about whether cable companies pay carriage fees to television stations (cable companies say they shouldn’t have to, television stations—facing increasing competition from cable and ad rates in free fall—want the new revenue stream to survive) (David DeWitte, Mediacom-Sinclair dispute part of larger, national battle, Cedar Rapids Gazette Online, December 25, 2009, http://gazetteonline.com/breaking-news/2009/12/25/mediacom-sinclair-dispute-part-of-larger-national-battle). If the cable companies refuse to anty up, cable subscribers won’t receive the signals (and the football games). (And as I finish writing this, I learned that the Food Channel and Home and Garden TV have been shut off on Long Island over cable carriage fees.)

But the battle over carriage may be a moot one in the end; alternatives to cable are already starting to appear. Nick Bilton provides how-to instructions of a sort on how to watch current television shows without cable—all by downloading from the internet (and legally at that) (Cable Freedom Is a Click Away, New York Times, December 9, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/10/technology/personaltech/10basics.html?em).

But other reports suggest that some major cable providers plan to make shows available to their Internet subscribers—and without having to have a cable subscription. Also, iTunes is rumored to be planning cable-replacement alternatives, too.)

In the end, it all starts and ends with Apple.

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