Last year at this time, the people I know in the consumer electronics world were saying that Christmas 2010 would be the season of the ereader. That proved to be correct, resulting in both a sharp surge in ebook sales in early 2011 and, according to Pew data, a continued acceleration of ereader adoption in the first six months after Christmas.
This year is expected to be the year of the touch-screen tablet computer. With tens of millions of iPads already in consumer hands and a plethora of devices with Windows or Android operating systems coming on to the market this Fall, the shelf space in the consumer electronics stores is positioned to fulfill that expectation.
And somewhere between the monochrome eink ereader and the tablet we have the Nook Color, which has a color screen, some tablet-like capabilities, and more of an ereader-like (cheaper than a tablet by half) price.
I don’t know exactly how many of these devices are out there; it is hard to pin that down. But Apple has apparently sold around 45 million iPads and is on track to sell 100 million iPhones this year. Those are global numbers. They are reputed to have about 75% of the tablet market now, although that percentage will surely drop as competition proliferates. The tablet shipments for 2011 are estimated to be in the neighborhood of 53 million. Gartner says there will be nearly 100 million smartphones in use in the US by the end of this year.
That’s an awful lot of portable screens on which people can well view much more than type on a page.
It was becoming obvious a year ago that the children’s publishing business was being joined by digital competitors betting on the fact that the widespread distribution of color touchscreens would open up opportunities for children’s product that hadn’t existed before. And since publishers have tried to improve on simple book technology for young consumers for years — think about pop-ups, die-cuts, and computer chips that made the books talk and sing — it seems like a reasonable assumption that more and more parents will hand their kids the iPad to “read” in the car (or in bed) rather than a book.
When making book-like product for young people to be consumed on a color touch-screen device, employing many of the “tricks” of enhancement: audio, animation, and interactivity, is obviously called-for.
But as tablet use spreads, should we also expect to see expanded opportunity for illustrated books? My guess is that the answer to that is “yes”, but figuring out exactly what the cost-effective and reader-attractive solutions are to present illustrated books for the new display opportunities is far from self-evident. We’ve sold illustrated books to adults for years without the need to do anything except put ink on paper.
Last month, FutureBook held a conference in London about new product development. The takeaway seemed to be “nobody is making any money”. What was revealed about development costs and sales pointed to large losses. But if the number of devices which can effectively display these enhanced or enriched or app-like book-based products grows like Topsy, we should see the revenue potential go up.
At the same time, new players are developing tools to make the costs of development go down. Every day publishers have developers knocking at their door looking for content to test and develop their systems for new product construction. At this point, it appears that many of them are willing to work either of two ways: fee-for-services or development-for-a-share. For publishers, this adds organizational complexity to the deal-making since the arm of a publishing company that usually sells licenses (subsidiary rights) doesn’t often make publishing investment decisions (editors and publishers) and they could be choosing between the two models with any developer.
Illustrated books can hit the digital market through two paths: they can be an “enhanced ebook” or they can be an “app.” The distinction has largely been one of capabilities: apps are platforms that can support far more capabilities and interactivity than an ebook. But that’s changing. The developers of the epub standard (epub is the industry-approved format that makes books “reflowable”) are building in support for functions that used to be the exclusive domain of apps.
At least until now, apps have generally cost more to develop than ebooks, have been sold in an app store environment that is less search- and user-friendly than the various ebookstores are, and apps are generally much less expensive (for the consumer, not for the publisher) than ebooks. This has been an unattractive combination for a content-seller. App pricing is driven by many models that are independent of profit from the app sale itself. So far, the ebook business model is like books: the publisher makes money selling the content, not from any other activity.
When ebooks for narrative text were young, the term and concept we all had to learn was “reflow”. It is necessary to deliver text in a format that can be adjusted, or “reflowed”, to fit the screen size and font size selected. As we know, among the great advantages ebooks offer is that the user can change the type size, which changes the number of words in a line and the number of lines the screen can display. Another great advantage is the ability to read the book on multiple devices, which also requires the capability to “reflow” because the screen on your phone isn’t the same size as the screen on your Kindle or Nook and your iPad (which aren’t the same size as each other!)
The new term and concept we’ll need to learn in the illustrated ebook era is “fixed page layout.” That means delivering the page in a way that does not reflow, so that artwork and text maintain the same positions in relation to each other. Of course, that means that different size screens will require different fixed pages. You will have to actually design an illustrated book (or most of them anyway) for each form factor. In fact, you’ll frequently have to do it twice for each form factor to accommodate the page being viewed either portrait or landscape, a change the user can command with a flick of the wrist.
That’s time-consuming and expensive. And that’s just the beginning of the challenge. Here’s the really hard part. We have 500 years of experience figuring out what makes an illustrated book that the person holding it will find appealing and useful. Designers learned how to use spreads (placing content across two facing pages), which don’t exist on digital screens (unless they are artificially created there.) They learned how to use sidebars to hive off some content from the narrative flow. They understand how to approach things differently if they’re designing primarily for function, like a cookbook or a crafts book, than if they’re designing for beautiful pictorial presentation (your classic “coffee table book”).
When we get to the digital version, we have the opportunity, or perhaps we should say the temptation, to add much more, not just change the layout. There will be many situations, particularly in how-to illustrated books, when a video would be more useful than a still photo. One can add animation, sound, and functionality that can test or measure or calculate.
But, in fact, just the “fixed page layout” (different for the iPad than the iPhone, of course) along with the simple ability to put the pictures on their own page with pinch-and-spread capability, could add enormous value to the user (quite aside from the portability and reduction of weight that are inherent in moving from print to devices.) Whether you’re talking about a collection of beautiful pictures of Paris or of puppies, being able to blow up a picture to be able see a close-up of a part of it could be an enhancement that costs nothing to deliver.
And if that were all the value you needed to add, many books could be switched over for iPad viewing with a minimum of redesign. (But not all. One person I talked to last week talked about a book he was working on that had text on the left-hand pages referring to full-page photos on the right-hand pages. It has to be completely rethought for digital presentation.) What I’m thinking is that the beautiful pictorials — the coffee table books — might be the best and simplest things for publishers to move over to digital to start capturing revenue from those tens of millions of screens.
Best and simplest, of course, except for the rights issues.
This post is written with an admittedly short-term view. The interaction between content and users will sophisticate both iteratively and unevenly. My presumption (this is faith and intuition, not fact) is that those of us steeped in the habit of immersive reading will retain that desire so that the erosion of audience for that material will be very slow and probably mostly generational. Therefore, investments in enhancement of that kind of book will be hard to recover.
Illustrated books definitely are different. Digitally-enabled enhancement can add indisputable value in some cases, overcoming real limitations imposed by print. My guess is that books whose purpose is to feature fabulous art or photography can deliver added value with screen presentation with a minimum of additional investment or trial-and-error. At least for a while.
It has long been my contention that simpler digital products which are inexpensive to make are far more likely to make money than complex ones. Getting repaid for delivering everything the tech can do is very hard.