My posts on the future of eBooks, describing a vision of tomorrow’s eBook platform (the Miranda Proposal), is a futurist’s view based on years of immersion in the evolution of digital media. But in this closing post of the series I want to calm those who worry about a world of “dancing, singing, and shamelessly social eBooks,” while also presenting some very recent data about paper books, eBooks, and eReaders.
Prologue part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 Epilogue
First, despite these essays, I do not believe that there is going to be a single, inevitable path to describe the future of books. The eBook will evolve in many ways, and we will see different, concurrent, unexpected, and not always complementary adaptations. Just as there will always be those who love quietly paper books, so will there be those who embrace the social reading, interactivity, and creative new applications of tomorrow’s eBook platform.
The Miranda Proposal describes an overarching eBook platform and a set of features that will transform books into rich, social, digital multimedia. But several have told me that their reading experience is one of private transportation, with the print book being the perfect vehicle. I share that love of print books as well. And if my ten-year-old daughter and her friends are any indication, that love of print could well survive for generations. (If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll enjoy this YouTube video from Pearson, which dates from 2010 but is particularly relevant now.)
There are, however, compelling reading scenarios that call out for rich media today. Consider how advances in eLearning are converging upon the humble textbook, changing the way students interact with knowledge. Imagine a student clicking through an eBook to a video mini lecture, an interactive illustration, or complementary research. Or reaching out to a live network in realtime for assistance with complex concepts. Imagine members of that network getting “points” for serving as teachers, leading to “mentor badges” that they might even list on their CVs.
Unlike a novel, a textbook doesn’t typically transport you; it is a device for learning. As is a cookbook, encyclopedia, user guide, or reference manual. And all such learning devices can be effectively enhanced through the power of web-based and socially collaborative digital media. Wikipedia is the new Encyclopedia Britannica (and ironically, Britannica online now serves Netflix ads!).
The point is not simply that books and the Internet are converging, but that eBooks will become the most potent aspect of the digital universe. That is the essence of the Miranda Proposal: not to say that the eBook will evolve one way, but to help us imagine the myriad ways the eBook could evolve, if we make it happen.
Now on to the latest news about eBooks.
A week ago, Pearson (the giant eLearning company, owner of Penguin Books, and soon-to-be merged with Random House) bought a 5% interest in the Barnes and Noble’s Nook division, for a cool $89.5 million. This suggests that the smart money still believes in a specialized eReader.
Microsoft invested in the Nook last April, to the tune of $390 million. What’s the attraction for a giant with its own competing tablet device? The Nook’s power in the field of eLearning. From Reuters: “We always believed that Microsoft was as interested in Barnes & Noble’s opportunity in education as it was in the digital consumer arena,” said David Strasser, analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott.
In earlier posts I predicted that the general-purpose tablet will supplant the specialized eReader, and indeed, despite these investments, not all is rosy for the dedicated eReader. Nook sales are slowing, and according to the NY Times last week:
‘By contrast, worldwide shipments of e-readers fell by 36 percent in 2012, according to a report released this month by IHS iSuppli, a market research firm.
“The market’s growth is slowing down,” said James L. McQuivey, a media analyst with Forrester Research, referring to e-readers. “The easy customers have been snatched up. And the first customers are the best customers, who buy the most books. In the case of Amazon, you can compensate by selling merchandise to later adopters. Barnes & Noble doesn’t have that luxury.”’
To try and combat the trend toward general tablets as eReaders, Amazon now offers one free eBook per month in its Amazon Prime premium service, but with a catch: the free eBook can only be ordered from and downloaded to the Kindle device itself. And of course the new high-def, Dolby audio Kindle Fire is an Amazon-centric multimedia tablet, supporting “Over 23 million movies, TV shows, songs, magazines, books, audiobooks, and popular apps and games such as Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, HBO GO, Pandora, and Angry Birds Space.” (Amazon.com)
“The share of Americans who read e-books grew to 23 percent from 16 percent over the past year while the number of adults who read printed books fell to 67 percent from 72 percent, according to a study released Thursday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The swift and dramatic shift in reading habits was brought on by the rising popularity of tablets and e-reader devices, which are now owned by one-third of the U.S. population 16 and older, the survey showed.
And tablets — a category jump-started by Apple just two years ago — have surpassed e-readers such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook or Amazon’s Kindle as the preferred device for reading digital books, Pew found. One out of four e-books is being read off a tablet, up from one out of 10 last year.”
There are very interesting subtexts in the survey, including a divide in income, education, and race, that make the Pew study worth reading in its entirety. But I was gratified to see that the Washington Post article included a quote that echoes what I have been describing in my posts:
“We haven’t reached this point yet, but there are reasonable thoughts that the book experience of the future will be dramatically different than today,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “It will be a multimedia, highly social and maybe even incorporate a wiki experience.”
In summary, whether or not you embrace the Miranda Proposal vision, the eBook world is clearly evolving rapidly, fueled by billions in investment, a few triumphs of industrial design (the tablet), and remarkably rapid adaptation among the global reading population.