Why Today’s Ebooks Are Like the Golden Age of Radio
The date was April 8, 1927 and the front page of The New York Times featured this headline: FAR-OFF SPEAKERS SEEN AS WELL AS HEARD HERE IN A TEST OF TELEVISION. Click here to read a PDF version.
I read that 1927 article recently, and I couldn't help but wonder how confused the public was with this newfangled television thing. After all, radio had been popular for several years and few probably even imagined the need for a more powerful and engaging communication and entertainment vehicle. In fact, the article notes the following:
The Bell Laboratories have been directed to concentrate on developing television with all possible speed, although the American Telephone and Telegraph Company has no idea today whether it will ever be commercially valuable.
So a new technology was invented, the public was curious but everyone questioned its viability.
We're in the print-under-glass stage of ebooks today. The ebooks we read are nothing more than digital replicas of the original print product. They almost never take advantage of the powerful digital capabilities of the devices they're read on. I often refer to this as "reading dumb content on smart devices."
Today's ebooks are more or less at the same stage radio was at back in the 1920's. Like radio in the 20's, ebooks are still a somewhat recent success, particularly since the first popular e-reading device, the Kindle, is less than 10 years old. Today's ebooks are easy to get comfortable with. They operate like we expect them to. But other than the content itself, the presentation of today's ebook rarely surprises or delights; it's basically a digital page-flipper of the print edition.
The market has experimented with enriched or enhanced content and the results have been weak at best. As a result, most publishing experts feel the future promises nothing more than the print-to-e editions we see today.
I couldn't disagree more.
In April of 1927 television was viewed as a gimmick, a solution in search of a problem, similar to how anything beyond today's static ebook is perceived. It didn't happen overnight but television obviously got beyond the gimmick stage and became an enormous industry. I believe the same thing will happen with the next generation of ebooks, or whatever we end up calling them. Anyone who believes today's ebooks are as good as it gets probably would have scoffed at television in 1927.
By the way, although that NYT article is almost 90 years old it's important to note that radio hasn't gone away. Listeners don't spend anywhere near the amount of time with radio that they used to and families certainly don't gather around radios for evening entertainment. But radio found its niche and didn't disappear.
The same will be true not only for print books but for today's static ebooks as well. Sometimes you just want to curl up with a simple story, no fancy digital device or web connectivity required. But there are plenty of other types of content and reading experiences that will dramatically benefit from moving beyond today's print-under-glass model. That's where the real disruptive opportunities await an industry that's never been known for embracing change.
Joe Wikert is Publishing President at Our Sunday Visitor (www.osv.com). Before joining OSV Joe was Director of Strategy and Business Development at Olive Software. Prior to Olive Software he was General Manager, Publisher, & Chair of the Tools of Change (TOC) conference at O’Reilly Media, Inc., where he managed each of the editorial groups at O’Reilly as well as the Microsoft Press team and the retail sales organization. Before joining O’Reilly Joe was Vice President and Executive Publisher at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., in their P/T division.