That sound you heard recently was the iPad landing in America and thousands of bookstores and comic book shops across the country closing and locking their doors for the last time. That’s what happened – right? The world changed overnight and everyone is reading all their books, magazines, comics and newspapers on a digital devices.
So, wait – that didn’t happen? I can still walk into a bookstore and pick up a chunk of dead tree and enjoy a good read? Cool. The world of publishing is changing – just not as fast as everyone thinks.
The biggest change is that for the first time in publishing history consumers are being asked to invest in an expensive piece of hardware to allow them to read a book. Yes, audio books require either a cassette or CD player, but those were devices that most people already owned. To read an e-book you need a new device to view the books. Reading a book on a computer just doesn’t cut it. A book is easily portable so the device also needs to be portable.
The iPod made music incredibly portable, thousands of songs on one little device. It made what was not easily portable…portable. So what is the purpose of the e-reader when you have always been able to carry a book around with you? Matt Lauer was given a demonstration of the Sony e-Reader on a recent Today Show, it was described to him as a “portable reading device” and he asked “Isn’t a book portable?” Why yes, it is, Matt. Its purpose is to allow you to carry around hundreds of books. But, I can only read one book at a time, so do I really need to carry around hundreds of books? Can e-Readers save trees? Yes, so why aren’t the makers of these devices marketing them as “green machines”? Buy a Kindle – Save a Tree! Can it core a apple? Sorry, I was channeling Ralph Kramden for a second. They are even stressing how portable it is in the TV commercials, where they show a young mom on the beach reading an e-reader. All I could think of was, what if sand gets in that thing? I don’t think that about my paperbacks.
These devices are expensive! I need to spend how much money on equipment to read a book? Why don’t I just buy the damn book? Does the e-reader improve the reading experience? Well, not with a traditional prose title, it doesn’t. The words are the words, so the experience is not so different than reading a physical book. Reading a book, for me, is a tactile experience; the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink, the weight of it in your hands. I guess I could give that up; after all, I gave up vinyl years ago, but still in a way miss the feel of the different covers and reading the liner notes. But I think I’d miss the physical book even more.
I would also miss putting that book I just read up on the shelf. I am strangely comforted by having books around me. I feel somewhat disturbed when I walk into someone’s house for the first time and see that they have no books on display. I like looking at other people’s books; I feel it helps me get to know them a little better. You know what I mean? You’re browsing their book shelf and you see a copy of Glenn Beck’s book and realize it could be an interesting conversation at dinner. If they have an e-reader, what am I going to do? Pick it up and scroll through their books? I feel like that’s an invasion of privacy. I don’t do that with someone else’s iPad either. But, I will look through a record or CD collection in a heartbeat.
So what are the reasons for buying an e-reader? Well, even though I was excited by the idea of an e-reader, I didn’t feel the visceral need to run out and buy one like I felt with the iPod. I remember seeing the commercial and thinking, “I NEED to have one of those things!” I felt the same with the VCR and the DVD players. I remember seeing what may have been the first e-reader back in the early 1990s – it was called the Sony Dataman. Even then while I loved the idea of the Dataman, I didn’t see the need to buy one. Glad I didn’t, it bombed and was quickly removed from the shelves.
There is the immediacy of downloading a book. It’s certainly an advantage when you’re standing in an airport book shop and you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for. And if you get bored with one book, you can easily find another one. But you certainly can’t load your e-book reader up with all those books you’ve been meaning to read – like you are able to do with the iPod. That made the iPod an even cooler investment – I could load my entire music library on this little thing. I’m certainly not about to scan books and put them on my e-reader.
What will the iPad mean to all of this? Well, as we all know it’s in color and it’s not just an e-book reader, it’s a multimedia player. That may be worth the money – movies, music, internet, books all on one device. It’s a big iPhone that doesn’t make calls. But it is better for viewing comics than any other e-reader out there. You know, I downloaded a few comics on my iPhone and out of force of habit after I read them I bagged and boarded my phone. I couldn’t find the damn thing for a week. Will these devices kill the comic collector marker – or make the comic more collectible?
I think that there are a lot of people who just want a book or the comic or the magazine and don’t really care about a digital version. I also think that publishers aren’t doing enough to incentivize people enough to drop a couple hundred bucks for one of these things. Right now they are very elitist devices. They have to get cheaper. A guy buying $100 worth of comics a month is not necessarily going to spend several hundred dollars in order to buy comics from a limited list of comic book publishers who currently offer a good digital comic. I think the iPad has the potential to bring new or lapsed readers in to comics and graphic novels, the way book stores found new readers for the medium. Someone who owns the iPad might be surfing around the bookstore and see some Iron Man comics and think, “I loved the movie and I haven’t read a comic in years, I’ll spend a couple of bucks on a comic.”
This is why I think that digital distribution for comics and graphic novels are potentially a bigger growth market than digital is for other categories. While graphic novel distribution has grown and it’s easier to find a graphic novel, not so for the comic book. Outside the direct market shops and bookstore chains they are almost impossible to find. It is even harder to find one that isn’t a super-hero book or an Archie comic. Printed books will survive; comic book shops and bookstores will survive for many years to come. But publishers need to be more creative in using the digital book to drive people to the printed book and vice versa.
So, I agree with a comic book industry executive who, during our discussion of the business over drinks recently said, “The iPad is the new newsstand.” In its day, the newsstand serviced millions and millions of readers. It fueled the fire of reading. Adding another avenue that will get books into the hands of people and turning them into readers.