Posted on April 10, 2013 in Archive

Has digital publishing been blinded by its own potential?

To me, print books and digital books are two completely different things. Digital books will never replace print books and they don’t need to. As technological objects, they possess a whole range of new and exciting possibilities.

This strongly-worded article on Gizmodo argues that digital books are designed too much like print books. As long as publishers attempt to imitate print books, they won’t see any growth and will, it seems, ‘remain stuck in an uncanny valley of disappointment’.

I agree that digital book publishers should avoid trying to replicate the experience of reading a print book. However, I disagree with the claim that digital books aren’t experiencing growth, as does one of the many vocal commenters on the article. He counters that digital books are rapidly gaining popularity and the industry is experiencing worldwide growth.

E-book alongside printed books - potential of digital publishing

Are e-books clinging to their printed ancestors?

This raises the question, are readers too consumed by the future possibilities of digital that they can’t see the advancements the industry has already made?

As the commenter notes, readers of digital books have access to features like instant social sharing capabilities and links to related websites. They’re able to use the search function to find a specific paragraph or quote, and they’re able to highlight particular elements of the book. Some Kindle users have access to ‘x-ray’ features, which means they can explore the structural elements of the book, such as different chapters, or references to characters and concepts.  Fonts on digital books can be resized, and users can choose to listen to audio narration, thereby making it easier for people with disabilities to read books.

All of these features exemplify the evolution of digital books. And we haven’t even started on the inherent benefits of the format.

In all the debate, people have lost sight of the important and beneficial advancements that have already been made in the industry. Having said that, it seems pretty clear that the minimum feature set required to make digital books attractive to people is simply making the texts they want available to them. Sometimes readers just want to be able to read.

Does this mean that traditional business models, such as libraries are actually better suited to take advantage of the digital revolution? The article calls for ‘subscription services’, where readers pay to borrow digital books. This is hardly a new idea. Amazon has a subscription service in place, and libraries already provide e-lending services.

The halls of a vast library - potential of digital publishing

For e-lending services to really gain momentum, there would need to be consistency across the board concerning cost. I’d expect to pay significantly less to borrow a digital book than to buy one.

It’s not just brick and mortar libraries that can apply this business model. Publishers should also consider letting users subscribe to borrow from their catalogue or selling the print and digital versions of a title as a bundle. Consumers today like to have options. If publishers were able to come up with a profitable way to provide their customers with a print book for their bookshelf and a digital book for their handbag, they’d be well placed to take advantage of the digital revolution.

Library photo courtesy of Flickr/Eric Mueller