The End of Book Publishing As We Know It

A few days ago, I watched a video demo of the “SI Tablet” (see video below), a new eBook device developed by Time, Inc. and The Wonderfactory. It demonstrates how a touch screen, portability, and the convergence of text, audio, and video can create unprecedented opportunities for content providers. Frankly, it is the most compelling media device I have seen yet.

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According to the video, Time will launch this device in 2010. As a result, the future is arriving faster than most of us thought—or at least I thought. With the advent of the Apple iPad at hand, the eBook space is going to heat up significantly this next year.

After watching the video several times, I have come to a few tentative conclusions about the future of book publishing. Don’t hold me to this. I may change my mind next month. But for now at least, here is what I see as I peer into the future:

  1. The line between newspapers, magazines, and books is about to become blurred. In the old world of analog (non-digital) publishing, several things differentiated these media from one another:
    • The delivery format—newsprint, glossy paper, or bound books
    • The length of time it took to go from concept to market—daily, weekly, monthly, or several months
    • The number of content contributors involved—one author (or two) or many writers
    • The way the contributors were compensated—royalties, staff salaries, or work-made-for-hire arrangements
    • The financial model—advertising, subscription, or outright purchase

    The SI Tablet and other devices like it will create a new kind of multimedia content that is shaped more by the capabilities of the device and the convergence of technologies than the traditional formats.

  2. Publishers will need to envision multimedia content from the beginning. Once consumers get used to this kind of rich media, they will not be content to read text alone. They certainly won’t pay a premium price for it. They will expect hyperlinks, audio, video, and other multimedia bells and whistles. As a result, content providers will need to envision these elements at the ideation stage, rather than adding them as an afterthought. In this sense, magazine publishers and web content developers will have an advantage. They are already doing this.
  3. Consumer expectations are going to skyrocket. Yes, some die-hard book fans will hang on until the bitter end. But the tastes of the masses are going to shift. I am old enough to remember the transition from black and white television to color. Once it happened, there was no going back. Everyone wanted a color TV. The same thing happened with stereo music, surround sound, and every other media innovation. It is going to get more and more challenging to wow the customer.
  4. The cost of producing digital books will get more expensive. If all publishers are doing is porting text-based content from an analog format to a digital one, they really haven’t added much value other than convenience and portability. In fact, they have arguably reduced their costs, because they don’t have to manufacture or distribute a physical product. But this is not where it’s going to stay. To stay competitive, publishers will need to add audio, video, and other design elements that are going to add to the production cost.
  5. Digital content creation and distribution will become our primary focus. Physical books will become an afterthought. I don’t know when the tipping point will occur, but I believe it will happen in the next few years. You can’t create a media rich experience like the SI Tablet is capable of delivering without thinking about content in an entirely different way. Some people will always want printed books, just as some people enjoy candles today. But we will eventually think of these as “souvenirs” (to quote Tim O’Reilly) or decorative artifacts for our home or office. Most people will consume content digitally.
  6. People will be reading more than ever. This is the really good news, I think. These new technologies promise to create reading experiences (if we can call them that) that are more sensual, more imaginative, and more compelling than simple text alone can provide. I believe people are already reading more than ever. They are simply consuming their information in different ways. This will only accelerate as the devices become more sophisticated. As a result, I expect to see reading increase in the future.

If you prefer business-as-usual, these are scary times. The media landscape is changing dramatically. It’s happened to music, then newspapers and magazines, and now even television and film. To quote Jeff Bezos, “The book publishing industry is perhaps the last bastion of analog technology.” But it’s even happening here.

But I have honestly never been more excited about the future of publishing than I am right now. There will be winners and losers, but these are exciting times. We have unprecedented opportunities as publishers to deliver content that connects with more readers in more powerful ways than ever before. I can’t wait to see what 2010 brings.

Question: What about you? What changes do you think these kinds of devices will have on the publishing industry?