Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
masthead

Not Your Mother's Library

Morgan Cowie and Deanna McFadden turn their gaze to ebooks
Share |

Morgan Cowie, BookNet Canada's Marketing Manager, and Deanna McFadden, Online Marketing Manager at HarperCollins Canada, talk about object-ness, digital content and the book of tomorrow.

Morgan Cowie:

Happy Wednesday. I've been talking to a lot of people lately about emerging technology and what forces are going to have the biggest impact on what and how we create and read books. Nearly everyone said they didn't believe ebooks would replace printed books any time soon — or perhaps ever.

I tended to agree, but in a moment of either paranoia or clairvoyance (I care not to examine more deeply which) had this vision of remembering these conversations years later as my children scoffed at my bookshelves filled with the literary iteration of a horse and buggy.

Help me, Deanna. Soothe or stoke the fires in my belly by answering me this: what does the book of tomorrow look like?

Deanna McFadden:

Happy Wednesday to you!

I'm so glad you asked this question. Michael Chabon was here in Toronto on Monday night, and when asked what he thought of ebooks, he said something (and I'm paraphrasing badly!) akin to understanding their fundamental worth (you need to read that title right there, right now, and wham! it's on your reading device), but what he missed was the physical design of books — the pure, delightful object-ness of them.

There's no doubt in my mind that books are beautiful, wonderful things to carry around, and cracking the spine on a brand-new hardcover with a gorgeous cover, some amazing typography and an engaging story to boot, is one of my favourite things in the world. For the most part, I agree with your general findings: that the printed book (the bricks and mortar as I like to call it) will not disappear. At least for the foreseeable future as houses are now buying books well into the "twenty-teens." Maybe that'll all be a distant memory for your children, or their children, but for now, we still have warehouses and bookstores and second-hand stores, and so on.

But, and here's a big but, let's imagine what the web looked like even ten years ago. Remember those terrible sites with awkward navigation, terrible user experience and graphics that were more emoticon than image? Check this out — it's the first site I ever worked on:

http://web.archive.org/web/19980205161010/http://www.history.ca/

How awful is that?

This is what I'm imagining for ebooks. Right now they're sitting in web circa 1998 territory. We've lost some of the design elements (to an extent) that make a book a beautiful object. Sure, the reading experience, the content delivery is amazing, and the gadgets are functional and consumer friendly — but there's not that same object-ness to an ebook yet. Now if web development can come this far in 10 years, can you imagine what creative, innovative people are going to do with digital books?

MC:

I love that your old site is still kicking around — remember the sans serif vs serif competition that used to happen on every webpage? Actual look and feel was totally browser dependent (heck, sometimes object placement was browser dependent).

A good call from Michael Chabon on the big value proposition for ebookstores — you want it, you got it. It's the iTunes model, and it's essential if you're going to serve a market used to the entrancing ”object-ness” (love your word) who need a little convincing on why an ebook might work for them — at least some of the time. It's the primary reason why mass market books are most at risk in a lot of ebook models. The MM has less of an object appeal and is already pretty much seen as a convenience purchase — it's not expensive, you can easily carry it around and you can buy it in a lot of places.

Now, onto the next point... what could ebooks look like when creative and committed individuals are a part of the evolution? Well, what we've seen from websites is (for the most part) a focus on usability, the addition of multimedia elements and, when appropriate, a way to connect with other users. A good website, in my mind, allows me to do what I need to do smoothly and with some degree of pleasure. It showers me with different options to view content and opens up my network to people who are doing the same thing.

The book has long been a certain kind of experience. It's the written word uninterrupted by sound or moving images. It fosters a creative process in one's mind that is solitary and profoundly individual. Those conversations you have with other readers about who would play your favourite character in a movie? Rarely unanimous... which is the great part about reading. You decide what is happening. The author is suggesting your path but you're carving it yourself.

Can this happen if the book evolution mirrors the web evolution?

DM:

And clip art! Every page had some form of clip art. Sigh.

Yes, I agree completely when it comes to mass market books. They're the easiest to become portable, not disposable, but easily digested. That's not to say that the content isn't valuable, though. It's more the idea that if any format will disappear completely, mass market might just be it. That's why it's so important for us to figure out how to get content from place to place and device to device. It would be a real shame if publishers just decided mass market books were no longer profitable and stopped creating them altogether. If, boldly, they decided to only publish your typical mass markets as ebooks and not have a physical counterpart. The more people move to smart phones and the more people buy readers, the more this format will be put to the test — that's a given. Especially when content deployment becomes as easy as the iTunes model — which, I'd argue, isn't quite there yet.

Is the only thing holding creative, innovative ebook design back its technology? The focus on usability and multimedia was essential to the web getting to where it is today, but underlying all of that was a language (or multiple languages) that made that development possible. People pushed it to the extremes, and when it didn't work they created better, stronger code to make it work. I'm not a developer or a designer, and so maybe I'm full of something here, but we'll need those people to crack ePub (or any other ebook format I guess) in the same way. We'll also need devices that are sophisticated enough to handle more. It won't be enough just to have the text display like a page. I'd crack out my crystal ball and say that reading applications might out-book the actual digital books that you download to your reader. Or, they'll end up being the Beta in a VCR world, which is something we all should be afraid of.

That's a really interesting point, the individuality of reading. Will it be lost the more vooks and enhanced editions we develop? The more bells and whistles we attach to make our product sparkly in hopes of driving bottom-line revenue? Maybe that's what'll finally divide the reading population for good — those who want images and sound and any kind of enhanced reading experience and those who don't. Then it all comes down to our basic question: what happens if the physical book disappears entirely?

We just watched a really fabulous documentary about the garment industry in New York City called Schmatta: From Riches to Rags. It was a very interesting story about how the industry has essentially left New York – it's far cheaper to produce your clothes in China or India. The stats were staggering: in the 1970s, 95 per cent of the clothes Americans wore were made in the US, now it's just 5 per cent. Where's this tangent going? Well, what's going to happen as more and more traditional book design disappears as formats become obsolete? Will book designers have to become web designers and/or developers? How will the fundamental production of books change as digital editions start to replace format after format? What will we be gaining? What will we be losing?

It's obviously not the same, but as we move to a more and more digital environment, what parts of publishing will become as obsolete as the poor cutters in NYC?

Anyway, to get back to the original discussion from your previous note, yes, I agree that the idea of reading as an imaginary activity will be completely changed if audio and video surround the text. Maybe the trick would be ensuring that the experience echoes the author's intentions or comes with his/her involvement. I don't have a ready solution for that issue, and maybe that's another reason I feel the bricks-and-mortar, pages-bound-by-a-spine, book will always be in existence.

I can't imagine reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time and having Anne already pre-decided by which actor they've chosen to do the audio and/or the video component to an enhanced digital edition. But maybe later generations will use their imaginations differently. What's even more interesting to think about is what happens to an author's process when they have to start off their projects with all of this digital stuff in mind. Will it completely evolve the creative process or destroy it entirely?

MC:

So many great threads to pick up on, so little coffee.

Mass market fiction is indeed at risk, I think, for the reasons you and I have covered, but that's not the format I think is most likely to see the biggest hit. Textbooks are already suffering from a market shift due to high prices, relatively shorter shelf life (with new editions coming out more often) and less of a need for the whole text. It's amazing to see what companies like Cengage, Symtext and others are doing to try and stay ahead of the curve — some are embracing ebook models and fragmented content, some are deploying strategies like hardcopy textbook rental. Not all of these tactics translate into the trade world, but my point is that there is room for mass market formats provided the value remains apparent. If ebooks do all of the things mass market texts used to do best better, than ebooks will edge out for market share. I don't think that's necessarily the case — my feeling is that there is room for creativity in figuring out how to serve the reader best.

I think that is really the point for me. The book business has to return to fundamentals by using the “threat” or “opportunity” of digital content as a jumpstarter: what purpose do different kind of books serve? Can electronic do it better? Why? Those are the kind of questions you and I are tossing around here... like, if books are just one kind of entertainment, vooks and other enhanced editions are a great idea. It's more value because it's (arguably) more entertaining. But if books fill a specific kind of entertainment need — let's put a name on it, like Imagination Sparker (I'm in books, not toy design. Obviously) — then maybe the kind of multimedia additions we're starting to see fill the market aren't actually going to catch on.

Different books and frankly, different consumers, will answer these questions differently. My sense is that the reason the physical book is so compelling and has resisted the electronic shift that we've seen happen dramatically in other media is that the value of a book is not just in any kind of entertainment but a specific kind of experience. Not to say that ebooks can't provide that, but the physical book is just doing a damn good job. Price and convenience are powerful forces but so far, not really "better enough" in the electronic zone.

My husband works for a union that includes garment makers so I'm totally into the parallel. Design and designers are moving online. A lot of it. I think there's still a place for it here, but it's going to be harder and harder to be a designer without web expertise. I think that's a given. One won't completely replace the other, but they are complementing skills (I'm not a designer either so maybe that's a contentious point but hell, I'm making it).

One big question of loss/gain for me is environmental. Not to open up a massive can of worms, but we hear a lot how ebooks are so much greener, and I don't buy it. The e-waste generated from readers, smart phones and computers has got a lot to answer for that the paper industry doesn't, or at least is already being taken to task for. Paper can be recycled — can e-reader housing? And are we going to continue to dump this waste, and possibly less than ideal wages for assembly as well, on other countries? One more biggie: if we move to ebooks, are we unintentionally making it more difficult to access the printed word? Not everyone can afford a device or a computer — so are ebooks inherently elitist?

DM:

The main issue right now in terms of serving the reader is that they don't have to make any decisions. We're still duplicating (for the most part), at least in trade publishing anyway, physical product into digital editions. We're still creating paper catalogues and digital catalogues. Some companies (Harlequin, to name one that's been in the news) are starting to take a stab at digital-only publishing, but we're not remotely in a place where these models are looked at as anything other than business development and not our business proper.

The reader won't have to choose between a digital book and a physical book for the moment. They can still get both. In theory, they can have the same content on their smart phone, on their e-reader, their computer and in the physical book. It's not easy to move around between devices nor are files truly manageable for this kind of manipulation, but it's staggering when you think about it. Start off your commute by reading on your Blackberry, pull out your e-reader at lunch and then curl up with the book in bed. Right now serving the reader means no one really has to make a choice or, rather, commit to cannibalizing one form of the business for the other.

The market, in a sense, hasn't had enough time to make any decisions either — when the LA Times said they were shocked that even Dan Brown couldn't alter the 5 per cent ebook sales balance, it was interesting. They were thinking that if anyone could break that ratio, it would be a huge bestseller, but the number of devices didn't increase exponentially overnight. People didn't rush out and buy a reader JUST to get the Dan Brown, so why would the ratio have changed at this point in time?

And you're right, different customers and different consumers will all come at the content in a way that feels comfortable to them. The early adopters will continue to drive innovation, and books will still be in bookstores. And the web hasn't decimated book publishing in the same way it has for, say, magazine and/or newspaper publishing. As Kirk LaPointe said at BookCamp Vancouver, he (at the Vancouver Sun) doesn't have a readership problem, he's got a revenue problem. People expect that content should be free and therefore physical newspaper and magazine readership is collapsing. The same thing isn't happening for books. You're right in the sense that there's still a perceived value for the reader in the physical book experience. Maybe it's not as disposable. Maybe it's the emotional connection people make with certain stories that turns a book into more of an personal artifact than something to occupy your mind on the commute home?

Anyway, going back to our subject line for a moment, "not your mother's library," I'm wondering if more and more physical goes digital, what other ways we'll have of celebrating the content. Book lovers fill up their spaces with physical books, but as older editions, backlist, moves more and more to digital (and maybe digital only), will people still want bookish reminders of the stories they loved? Will they be buying posters at Penguin.com or framing covers on their walls? And what role will print on demand play?

The issues surrounding our environment, our world, are so huge. Sure paper can be recycled, but what about all the energy that goes into producing the actual book, what kind of waste do the plants putting the ink on the paper produce, what about the fact that a lot of our books are produced in China and then shipped back to be sold here. I don't know if we've found all the green solutions we can even if we have got wonderful programs to recycle and use more environmentally friendly paper. Can electronic do this better? I can't remember where I heard this, it might have been when editorial was presenting Raj Patel's upcoming book, The Value of Nothing, but the amount of energy it takes to run a Google search was astronomical compared to how the user sees the results. The same would apply to the creation of electronic books. Where is that energy coming from and what is it costing our planet?

MC:

I might be running a bit over our 48-hour time limit but I'm going for it anyway. I think that the best summary of what we've been talking about is in your last email. The book industry, and so book consumers, have not been forced to make the same kind of decisions as other entertainment industries. Electronic formats for music, magazines, news, etc. are different enough that they are clearly set apart from the more traditional ways of consuming this kind of material (the question of what is “traditional” music consumption is not an easy one, so perhaps I actually mean current practice).

As long as ebooks look and feel a lot like their paper counterparts, prices are relatively consistent and use cases remain intact and unchanging, there are no big decisions to be made. It's when that changes that the market will shift. The question of if or when it will change is one we as an industry have been facing for ages now. Dan Brown was not (unsurprisingly, to me at least) the Tipping Point (like that? I'm mashing content! I'm so hip).

We are still visual creatures who like to make our nests shiny, and I think we'll find other ways to celebrate books. How many first dates have been fueled — or derailed — by a look at the bookshelves of your potential partner? We don't have peacock feathers or battle wounds: we have Wolff, Franzen, Nabokov. Now that we have to scroll through each other's iPods to make sure we're not aligning with someone whose only new album in the last ten years was the soundtrack for High School Musical 2, we need books more than ever (just kidding — kind of).

Morgan Cowie

Combine a background in arts agencies with a passion for books, online communication and design and you'll have Morgan Cowie, BookNet Canada's Marketing Manager. Morgan started her publishing career at a literary agency and then moved on to a speaker's bureau where she worked as a promoter of authors and other public intellectuals. At BookNet, Morgan works on a multitude of projects including the annual BNC Technology Forum, the BNC blog and website, project tutorials and BNC's weekly newsletters. When not hard at work on supply chain evolution, Morgan teaches yoga and catches up on her reading.

Deanna McFadden

Deanna McFadden learned a great deal at both Queen's University and the University of Toronto before starting out as a content producer for Alliance Atlantis. She rose to the ranks of Executive Producer before her love of books landed her at Random House of Canada. Currently, her job as Marketing Manager, Online Content and Strategy keeps her on her toes at HarperCollins Canada.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Openbook: Past Issues
Go To Issue 14 - Summer 2011

Go To Issue 13 - Winter 2011
Go To Issue 12 - Fall 2010
Go To Issue 11 - Summer 2010
Go To Issue 10 - Spring 2010
Go To Issue 09 - Winter 2009
Go To Issue 08 - Fall 2009
Go To Issue 07 - Summer 2009, including the Special Scream Edition!
Go To Issue 06 - Spring 2009
Go To Issue 05 - Winter 2008
Go To Issue 04 - Fall 2008
Go To Issue 03 - Summer 2008
Go To Issue 02 - Spring 2008
Go To Issue 01 - Fall 2007