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e-book enhancements – a solution in search of a problem?

June 20, 2011
AJW Grey Fox

The AJW Grey Fox - a solution in search of a problem? It's not alone!

In the 1950s, British motorcycle makers AJW incorporated a novel piece of kit on the tank of their latest JAP-powered vertical twin motorcycle: a metal deflector to stop water from trickling down into the motorcyclist’s delicate parts. All well and good until you realise that rain isn’t selective about where it lands. This sort of “solution in search of a problem” makes me think of how publishers in the B2C sector are seeking to leverage value from e-books and the problems they are facing.

My wife recently attended a conference where publishers were revealing new and intricate e-products designed to “engage” the reader. E-books which let you see the original author manuscript. Others which link to related materials. Another included an award winning feature allowing you to read to your child from your office – reader and listener engaging in the device (alas, the design couldn’t replicate the intimacy and relevance of a parent being in the same room as the child…).

Many of these devices are wonderful example of the creator’s art but are they necessary? Are they actually desired? The question for e-producers is how to add value beyond the reading experience. This is where all the ideas above stem from – but do they make money? Do they offer a perceived value that customers can apply the price question to? In other words, will customers get back (or think they get back) more than what they pay for?

If the answer to this is “no”, beyond the apparent kudos of having the latest toy,  then there is no value. Brands will certainly suffer. The product becomes irrelevant and no amount of price tinkering will shift it from the shelves. Once you’ve got past the basic reading features such as enlarging the text, turning e-pages and zooming in and out of images, what’s left beyond almost irrelevant creationism? And when you add all the extra features, once a customer has played with them they get bored.

Like when you buy a car and get sucked into the illusory benefits of a load of nonsensical features you’d never thought you’d wanted. Austin’s talking dashboard, Fiat’s asymmetrically mounted wheels, or the sheer irrelevance of Vauxhall’s indicator switch which changes clicking volume according to speed…

In truth, what publishers have missed in all the e-book  story is the e-book itself: the platform. This has been the great “leap forward” upon which publishers are now attempting to build some little commercial asset of their own. The platform makers have certainly stolen a march on the publishers by taking away the brand interface between the text and the reader which used to rest in the hands of the publisher, their design and editorial skills and their power with the bookshops.

What can publishers do but try to stay relevant? In now attempting to create value-adds, publishers are scrabbling around trying to develop assets which can preserve their relevance in a brand environment now owned by the Kindle and other devices.

This of course creates additional problems, not least of which is getting things out of an author at the beginning which are more than just the words of a manuscript. Authors can no longer come up with a story, they need to come up with a marketable asset beyond the words themselves. Oh dear… Publishers are almost becoming like the games industry – pursuing products which (it is hoped) experienced gamers/readers won’t get bored with instantly once they know the architecture and the routines.

And reader boredom is what now confronts publishers seeking to be something other than purveyors of intellectual ingestion. What was once a way of monetising the reader’s pursuit of inner reflection and self worth now becomes – particularly in the B2C sector – something more akin to entertainment. Alas, such an approach is more than a novelty for many publishers – it is indeed a pursuit beyond their intellectual and commercial capability.

As Pete Shelley, lead singer of the Buzzcocks, declared in “Boredom” – that classic peaen to adolescent ennui penned in 1970s Manchester, “my future’s not what it was“.

In the B2C world in particular, the same could be said for publishers.

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