Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Threshold of Pain

There’s been a great deal of discussion here at TKZ as well as on other blogs and forums about the changes taking place in the publishing industry. Most of it revolves around the rapid emergence and popularity of e-books and electronic publishing, and how it’s affecting traditional publishing. The industry as a whole appears liquid and seems to be changing almost by the day. Many of us are trying to find a stable place to stand as the ground shakes around us.

I don’t have any solutions to present here today. If I did, they would probably be outdated by the time I post my next blog. But I do have some observations.

For over 20 years, I worked in the video postproduction industry. During that time, one of the biggest advances in television and motion picture production was the advent of digital technology. Before high definition digital video, the only way to capture high quality images was on film. Even for personal home use, there was nothing better than standard 35mm film (some formats in the professional arena were larger sizes). For decades, no one envisioned that high quality images could be captured and delivered on any other format than film. (Note that film is still far greater resolution than high definition video). Even with its inherent grain, its ability to attract dirt, its somewhat fragile, easily damaged surface, and its constant weave and jitter through the projection system’s gate, it was as good as it can get. No other image delivery method could match film.

Today, most major motion pictures are still shot on film due mainly to the fact that film, unlike video, has much wider latitude and dynamic range, and still has the highest resolution available. But the image delivery system is changing. Now, original negative is transferred from film to video and color corrected within the digital domain. It is then projected in digital format rather than analog. Instead of individual frames passing through the gate of a projector, the images are retrieved from a hard drive or transmitted via satellite and projected electronically in resolutions up to 4k. It’s called digital cinema. No more scratches and weave, no more prints wearing out or film breaking. The thousandth time the movie is projected, it looks exactly like the first time.

Has the movie-going experience been hurt by digital cinema? No. In fact, it’s been enhanced beyond what the audience even realizes. The image is rock solid, crystal clear, and comes with multiple channels of digital audio for a totally entertaining experience. In most viewers eyes, it’s better than film.

How does this relate to analog vs. digital books? We must remember that what readers get when they purchase a book is a container holding our writing. Just like film and digital files can contain the same images, analog and digital books can hold the same words. An analog or printed book is simply a delivery vessel—something that contains our words and delivers them to our readers.

Remember Kodachrome film? It was first manufactured in 1935 and quickly became the most popular method of capturing and delivering images to the casual photographer. Eastman Kodak canceled production in 2009. Why? Because digital cameras had finally surpassed film as the most popular method of taking pictures. No one was buying Kodachrome anymore. But pictures were still being taken. Only now, the delivery system—the container—is digital files.

Could that happen to books? Maybe. And if it does, it probably will take a long time. After all, it took Kodachrome 74 years to die. But I hold to the theory of the “threshold of pain”. When something new comes along—let’s call it a widget—the first adapters must experience a certain amount of pain in order to try it. As the widget is further developed, refined and perfected, the pain starts to diminish. As the pain continues to decrease, more customers migrate to the widget because they learn of its pleasures and are willing to tolerate or ignore any remaining pain. At some point, the negatives along with the price dips below the threshold of pain, and the widget is embraced by the majority of the audience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Here’s an example. Six years ago, I bought a 60” Sony HD TV. They were mostly available in high-end electronics boutiques. Top resolution was 720p. It cost me over $5k. There was a lot of pain in my wallet and the fact that it took months to get any kind of HD into my home. Today, I can get the same size screen at 1080p resolution at Wal-Mart for less than half the price. Hardly any pain. A whole lot of pleasure. And HD TV’s are as common as toaster ovens. The TV is a delivery system. What it delivers is images—or more specific, entertainment.

I believe that as a delivery system, analog books can be replaced if the replacement brings the user more pleasure than pain. If the reading experience is as good or better than analog. If they are reasonably priced. Easy to read from. Easy to use. Massive storage. Unlimited battery life. Unlimited selection of books. Scratch-‘n-sniff paper smell. OK, that last pleasure is future-ware.

Are e-books the answer? I don’t know. But what has happened is that due to the economy, competition, and a shifting marketplace, the electronic publishing flood gates have begun to open. A lot of new widgets are flowing out. The one thing they all have in common is that they are delivery systems. But what they deliver will never change. Our words. Our art.

Are you an early adaptor who likes living on the bleeding edge of technology? Or do you sit back and let others be the lab rats before you pull out your wallet and head over to Wal-Mart?

10 comments:

  1. First of all, nice legs.

    Second, you're right about content. Great writing is always needed, and as I said on Sunday there are opportunities for more of it, in shorter form.

    Today Apple brings out its tablet. Reportedly, a lot of pain up front on the price, but as you say, that will come down. The real interesting thing will be how it affects the price of e-books vis-a-vis amazon.

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  2. Jim, I'm sure that the iTablet will be a very cool tool as are all of Apple's devices. But just as the iPhone took a while for the price to drop and the features to rise, only the first-adapters will put up with the pain. And right now, no one seems to know exactly what the iTablet is capable of doing. It's a fast-changing marketplace. Just like so many other advances in technology, standardizing a universal format may be a big key to getting past the threshold of pain.

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  3. I work in an IT-related field, and my peers routinely make fun of me for being low tech; I am anything but an early adopter. It occurred to me during the VHS/Betamax days--yes, I'm THAT old--to wait until a standard evolved and enough ambitious souls had wrung out the flaws. If the system is worth keeping, it will be there in a few years when I was ready.

    Same with e-readers. I like holding a book, turning the pages, and flipping through them to find specific passages. I like how they look on my shelves. I'm in no hurry to get an e-reader, and, given my propensity to wait, I'm sure as hell not going to get one until prices have come down and standards have evolved so I can get my content from any source.

    Any legal source, that is.

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  4. Thanks for your comments, Dana. Most people are not early adapters because of the pain. I owned both VHS and Betamax machines. The Sony Betamax format was far superior in quality to VHS, but the difference in recording time and multiple recording speeds contributed to its death. There was also a lot of talk about the porn industry helping to kill Betamax because the majority of adult movie rentals were on VHS. Not sure if that's true, but it makes for an interesting story as to the power of the porn industry who incidentally helped pioneer online payment technology.

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  5. I'm a moderately early adopter. I just got my Kindle DX from Santa (yesterday's widget), but was given the choice of waiting and getting the new Apple tablet. I decided on the Kindle because a)the basic Kindle is tried and true in the marketplace, with a ready supply of ebooks and publications available; b) I usually don't buy the first-ever version of anything--usually there are too many bugs and undelivered features. I might rue that choice if the tablet runs away with the market like the iPhone did.

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  6. I'm the late adopter who has no clue...Years ago I had an early PDA and it ended up with post-it notes stuck to it. I think my husband is relieved as it means the wallet is safe:)

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  7. I am an early adopter on a late adopter budget. In other words if I can get if a beta version of a product for free or really cheap I am more than willing to try it out give feedback to the vendor, designer, programmer etc.
    Being an IT guy I know how to test and report and enjoy doing it. I have been an avid experimentor with Linux and other OpenSource software since the early 90s. Those are risky as far as data , but painless on the wallet,unless your data means money in which case you'd better have good backups.
    I got my first cell phone, a Motorola Bag-Phone, in 1989, one of my few self-paid expensive early adoptions. I have also carried a PDA for more than ten years, and had five different models in that period ranging from early Palm Pilots, to my current Blackberry Curve. Lucky for me, my employer was convinced to pay for a couple of those.
    With the TV thing, I simply could not afford to be an early adopter of wide screen TV's. I just got my first plasma this past October. As a teenaged kid in 1982 I got to enjoy my dad's early adoption budget while visiting him in the summers. Way back then he had a massive (60" maybe) projection TV with both VHS and BETA and a Laser Disc player, you remember those LP sized video discs?
    Regarding the adoption of ebooks, they will take over and become the norm in the near future once the format and delivery methods are standardized. No doubt. So I will sit back and watch until I can afford it or convince my boss of the business need for the device. But I fully expect my own books will most likely be among those taking off primarily into the e-reader market once they are published.

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  8. Whoa...didn't realize my comment was that long...hope I didn't wind anyone.

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  9. Thanks for your comments, Basil. I also had one of those LP-sized video disk players. Very cool at the time. A real boat anchor these days. I just watched the introduction of the Apple iPad on TV. I think they have a real winner with it. We'll see.

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  10. I have the latest chickens available, and one of my breeds is endangered. I think I'm figuring out why they are.

    Over a year ago I bought a 42" 1080 Magnavox LCD and realized that I didn't have HD, which I added with enhanced satellite. Big difference and worth the additional money. A few months ago I started getting a vertical line in the center of the screen and I learned that it is a flaw with sets built over a certain period of time with no fix, so I'm living with it, but I'm sure I'll get a new one as the prices are going down. I'm not interested in getting on the front edge of technology, but I am interested in staying as current as my budget allows. Plus I am entertained sitting on my deck and watching nature unfold.

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