Is E-book Innovation at a Standstill?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Digital publishing promised innovation, but you can still count the number of breakthrough projects on one hand.

By Edward Nawotka

ereaders at the Tokyo Book Fair

E-readers at the Tokyo Book Fair 2011

If you go back 12 to 18 months, the publishing world was in love with the promise of enhanced e-books, transmedia storytelling platforms, and the ability of digital publishing to break and recreate the “container of the book.” Yet you can still count the number of breakthrough projects on one hand (or at a stretch, two). Are we now at a point where e-book innovation is at a standstill?

Today’s feature story looks at the Japanese e-book market, which is a country where you might expect e-book innovation to be in the lifeblood of the tech business, but where the market for e-books has been surprisingly slow to develop. There are a variety of reasons — debates over extending fixed prices to e-books (largely settled in favor, with e-books being priced at a 15-20% de-facto discount on print), debates over DRM (largely settled, in favor), and general confusion on the part of the customer as to where exactly to acquire e-books. Cell phone novels — keitai shousetsu — continue to be popular, but comics account for 75% of the digital market — largely as a result of innovation demanded by commuters.

This phenomenon was explained in a superb overview of the current state of the Japanese e-book market by Robin Birtle published last month in TeleRead. In a follow-up article —  from which much of the aforementioned information was derived — Birtle wondered “where are the innovators” in Japan? He offered a few suggestions as to how the industry might innovate — starting with thinking of the business as different from print and challenging the very form of the book:

Books as we know them will never go away but not every book needs to be written with the expectation that it will be consumed linearly in a single or small number of sittings. During my wait at a checkout line I’ll not launch the reader app on my smartphone because books are not written to be consumed in one-minute chunks. Instead, I’ll play a game or read a newsfeed.Now, if my Sony Reader were to send one minute’s reading worth of backstory to my phone based on what I had last read, an author in my reading list would be able to vie for my slots of micro-downtime.

He adds to this the need for publishers to experiment with new pricing models (“making the first 10% of an e-book available as a free sample does not constitute a new pricing model,” he notes wryly), as well as the fact that different constituencies are likely to innovate in different ways.

That said, the very idea that the book business needs to think more radically about how to deliver digital content to consumers — and implement those ideas — is not new. It takes willingness to think creatively, take risks, and commit capital. The recession may have stifled some early efforts at innovation, but as the economy recovers and tens of millions more people each year acquire e-readers and tablets, if publishers hope to capitalize on this shift in attitude the need to jump-start the process of (re)innovation is all the more acute.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.