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The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book!

August 16, 2011, 12:00 AM
Books_death

Unscientific Poll: On average, during a typical New York City morning subway commute, Summer 2011, there are four people reading on tablets and e-readers, and five reading print books, up from about 1 to 7 two summers ago. Outside of rush hour, many a toddler can be seen tapping away at an interactive picture book. On the beach, the e-readers (more legible than tablets in direct sunlight, less bulky in the beach bag than print books) proliferate exponentially.

Hard, Cold Fact: In January 2011, Amazon's ebook sales, up 200% from the previous January, outstripped paperback sales for the first time ever.

The digital tsunami has finally reached the shores of Big Publishing. How is the industry responding? On the whole, sluggishly – with a few notable exceptions.

 

What’s the Big Idea? 

Between 1990 and 1994, before Napster and $.99 singles, this writer must have personally spent at least $2000 at the massive Tower Records on Broadway and 4th Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. The liquidation of that flagship store in 2006 was, for him, a pretty traumatic event: the end, it seemed, of a glorious era of browsing and discovery ("Remember when some invisible force moved you to pick up Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, even though you’d never heard of the guy before . . . ?") and the embodiment of the fall of an industry.

The digital tsunami took a bit longer to reach the shores of book publishing; technology drives change in every industry, and while the ability to transmit books electronically is nothing new, nobody wants to read War and Peace on a computer. Over the past few years, however, devices like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have made readers a proposition they can’t refuse: cheap books you don’t have to lug around or buy special furniture to store. For the average reader, the romance of “that old book smell” and the feel of deckle-edges is a tough sell against portability and convenience. And for the 3-8 year old picture book audience, the crisp graphics and interactivity of apps are basically irresistible.

Not surprisingly, though, the publishing industry is full of bibliophiles who, to paraphrase Anna Quindlen, love the body of the printed  book almost as much as its soul. Many have been slow to accept that a paradigm shift is happening in their industry.

Rick Richter, founder and CEO of Ruckus Mobile Media, is the rare exception. A 20+ year veteran of the publishing industry, he co-founded the acclaimed Candlewick Press in Massachusetts, and went on to become head of sales and then of children’s publishing at Simon & Schuster. In 2010, he left behind the comparative safety of corporate publishing to launch Ruckus, one of the first children’s app developers to publish original stories in digital-only format.


This was a bold and risky move – the app market is in its infancy: production costs are high, not every kid has access to an iphone or an ipad, and low price points make it tough to turn a profit. What convinced Richter it was the right time to jump?

Rick RichterIn the early days we saw something called a "rocket ebook," which weighed about, I think it was maybe 10 pounds. I remember carrying one around with me because even then I was trying to be a forward thinker and it was a really neat device, but totally impractical. But it was the beginning of a huge change because – and I don’t think a lot of people know this – is that it is much more profitable to publish digitally. 

I remember our CEO at the time at Simon & Schuster, Jack Romanos, who has since retired. He was very interested in digital delivery because it didn’t come with all the encumbrances of a physical book and it was the one opportunity we had all been waiting for to really disrupt and change the business. And there are parts of the book business – I know everyone is very romantic about it – but there are parts of the book business that really aren’t very romantic. There is a lot of waste involved. There are people working in warehouses that are un-air-conditioned in 90 degree weather. The physical packing and the carbon footprint of a print book is so much bigger than a digital title.

What’s the Significance?

For job seekers, entrepreneurs, investors, and established businesses, there are obvious advantages to foreseeing major shifts in industry, and to “getting there first.” Yet success can make people, and industries, conservative. When disruption happens, it often happens from the outside; it was Amazon, after all, not Random House, that built the Kindle.

Historical perspective is a valuable tool for spotting and embracing change. In Richter’s case, his own family history came in handy:

To me it seemed it was obvious that the business was going to change and that is partly because I had witnessed in my own life. My dad was a letterpress printer and then I saw the linotype and the monotype and then I saw digital composing arriving and it didn’t seem to me to be a huge leap that we would be originating titles in the digital world.

Equally important is the ability to see the soul of the product beneath its skin. History is helpful here, too. Before there were record sleeves, there were travelling musicians. Before there were musty, leather-bound books, there were oral storytellers. People created music and stories––and have continued to do so for thousands of years––because we like how they make us think, feel, and remember: not because we enjoy carrying them around.

 

More from the Big Idea for Thursday, January 26 2012

Digitize Everything

40 million pages of history. 250 years of out-of-copyright books. Historic newspapers, early sound recordings, and a good chunk of the collection on view at the Museum of Modern Art.  Archivist... Read More…

 

The Book is Dead. Long Live...

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