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 If I did, they would probably be outdated by the time I post my next blog.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.
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?