There has always been a hierarchy of media built around how easy or cheap it was to deliver one versus another. The most simplistic expression of this has always been that words are cheap and moving images are expensive. A writer could create the intellectual core of a book on her own with paper and a writing implement. Making a movie required a number of creative skills and people and coordination.
Two decades ago, before online distribution and consumption, the hierarchy of ease and cost extended to the commercialization. Book publishers had much lower capital barriers to jump to put a product into the market than movie producers. TV producers required access to infrastructure which was controlled by a very limited number of gatekeepers (even after cable TV expanded the number of channels).
Music occupied an in-between position. A singer with a guitar could make an acceptable recording by oneself pretty readily. Recording a band well was more complicated. Recording an orchestra — even getting an orchestra to play — was expensive.
As the Internet evolved, bandwidth limitations confirmed the hierarchy. Text and music required little bandwidth; video required a lot.
The evolution of devices confirmed it as well. Until recently, texting was all phones could really do besides delivering sound. The Kindle, delivering pretty-much text-only with some weak gray-scale illustrations, preceeded the iPhone and iPad. And, in fact, straight text was demonstrably easier to digitally deliver than more complex layouts like charts with columns or recipes with complex graphic design requirement.
So for the first decade-plus of the digital delivery revolution (if you date it from the early or mid-1990s), straight text had built-in advantages. One person could create it. The bandwidth required to download it was ubiquitously available long before broadband was widespread. The devices could display it in a way that was comparable to the legacy print-on-paper.
When devices and bandwidth improved so that delivering video to masses became commercially viable, publishers smelled that consumers would want video and started to “enhance” ebooks, particularly with video. Studios to enable this were built in some big publishing houses. But (as the tech geeks say) “the dogs didn’t eat the dog food” and we’re already in a period of retreat from video as an important component of publisher’s product creation. (Although, clearly, publishers still see value in videos for marketing and promotion.)
But it may be that video’s disruption of print is just beginning. What used to be the hardest and most expensive media form to create and distribute may have become the easiest and cheapest. This is important when you consider that so many aspects of illustrated books are a “compromise”. You show a knitting stitch or a technique for making a piece of jewelry as six still pictures with captions in a printed book because video wasn’t possible. When the IP that serves the same purpose is “born digital”, you’d almost certainly reinvent the definition of a “book”.
Think about it this way. A 4-year old with an iPhone could conceivably shoot a video that could be a big hit on YouTube. (Maybe one already has.) There’s no way a 4-year old could write a story that masses would want to read. With bandwidth and suitable device ubiquity no longer any sort of constraint at all, the great commercial advantage of words on a flat surface is melting away. This is bound to be disruptive to both the book and movie-TV industries in ways that are not evident to us yet.
(Although some of the disruption is already evident. Online video consumption is eating into TV viewership. An Accenture study suggests that traditional broadcasters are having some success fighting back the trend.
The disruption from YouTube (not to mention the Hulu/Netflix) of movies and TV is pretty evident, and the meme of “fighting for eyeballs/screen time” is ubiquitous, e.g. media companies are increasingly viewing other types of media as competition — books vs games vs online video vs TV vs film. The shift is already raising questions both of how to keep people coming back to books (rather than going off to other media) and of how to use the new technology itself to sell more books.
I saw one example of how the ease of making video could change things profoundly earlier today when serial entrepreneur Susan Danziger showed us her latest invention, a service called Ziggeo. It’s pretty simple but extremely useful. Ziggeo is an environment where webcam videos that can be shot from just about any computer or smartphone can be requested and curated. The “problem being solved” was for people screening job candidates, potential roommates, or potential dates to have a much more articulated impression of the person they were “meeting” than words and a still picture can provide. That’s a real problem that affects a lot of people.
But we readily saw applications for event organizers like us (being able to see an aspiring speaker “in action”, getting our speakers to blurb for promotion) and for book publishing promotion (author pitches, publisher pitches to individual stores). The simple intuitive interface would also put video-making power in authors’ hands. Imagine a non-fiction book with video interviews embedded. You might not actually have to imagine this very much longer. Using Ziggeo, it would be a piece of cake for an author to go back to an interview subject by email with a series of questions and get the person to give them appropriate video to slot into the books. With or without Ziggeo, I think the chances are you’ll be seeing that happen pretty soon. Ziggeo would make it a lot easier.
I’m not the first book business guy to discover this nifty new application. Seth Godin has already blogged about it, focusing on the “interviewing” problem Susan set out to solve in the first place. But Ziggeo is the most current demonstration that the structural advantage that “just words” had among all media is a thing of the past. The cultural implications are profound, as is the potential impact on the book business.