The creative industries should open their eyes and take a closer look at the still clunky dull-looking e-reading devices. They are gradually turning into the predominant digital mass-media distribution channel, and 2013 could be the year in which we see that happen.
It doesn’t take a genius to grasp that, with the right words in the right context, the printed text wins the race to move hearts and minds in the art of storytelling.
Even in our digital age, from mobile texts to text books, from the Bible to digital billboard ads, from the facts in Forbes magazine to best-selling erotic fiction Fifty Shades of Grey, the written word still gets us turning heads and pages. No falling off a creative fiscal cliff here.
40 Years of Queen is a massive physical coffee-table book published last year. It features everything there is to know about Queen, the flamboyant British rock band and one of the most influential rock-music brands ever.
In December, the digital arm of its publisher Carlton Books released an e-book version for Apple’s iPad or iPad Mini, the portable computer tablets that can be converted into e-books using the iBook software.
40 Years of Queen is described as “the most advanced interactive music e-book in the market”. It has photos, audio interviews with members of the band, puzzles, animation, copies of handwritten lyrics and letters and links to tracks on Apple’s iTunes store. And while the book’s original print version costs £30.00, this interactive digital treasure costs only £9.99.
As Queen guitarist Brian May told UK trade magazine The Bookseller: “Technology is causing us to rethink once again and rediscover what a book really is and what it has the potential to be.”
The multi-content device
The digital-media sector has been so obsessed with finding the ideal platform for selling only music or only videos to paying consumers, it is failing to see the one thing all music, video, movie, games lovers will still pay for - a good read.
The book-publishing sector itself, however, is beginning to get the picture. It sees there is no need to market one digital-device type for watching videos, another for music listening, and yet another for reading books.
By being dismissive of e-readers, makers of smartphones and video-friendly tablets allowed Amazon.com, the pioneering online seller of physical books and e-books, to develop the increasingly popular Kindle e-reader in 2007. It has since used the device to disrupt old and new media businesses.
Amazon has challenged the traditional brick-and-mortar book stores and won a place in bookselling history. Astonishingly, it has also grown into a fearsome book publisher and a revered conduit for the increasing number of self-publishing authors. Thanks to Kindle, they can sell directly to consumers without needing a gargantuan printing plant to churn out paper books.
Moreover, the newer Kindle Fire, a mini multi-functional version of the Kindle, not only accesses e-books, but also digital music, streaming movies, social games, mobile apps, social media and email via the Internet. The content is stored on ‘cloud’ servers, enabling access anytime, anywhere, anyhow digitally.
As avid readers take to their Kindle Fire, the strategy is to spur the impromptu purchase of music, videos, games, and more books while online.
OK, global sales of single-function e-book devices will start declining rapidly from its peak of 23.2 million units last year, according to a report by IHS iSuppli Research. Makers of e-readers, however, must realise that book-loving consumers just might want to interact with other content on the same device.
Investors targeting e-readers
NOOK, the e-reader created by US bookstore giant Barnes & Noble, now has offshoots called the NOOK HD and NOOK HD+ tablets, which enables users to read books as well as stream movies, TV shows and other content apps.
Like the Kindle Fire, NOOK (which launched in the US in September and is already in the UK) makes its apps compatible to other reading devices and tablets, including Apple’s iPad. Their users can buy e-books and other content from NOOK online stores. That Microsoft, the software giant with digital- entertainment ambitions, invested US$300m in Nook last year indicates how the e-book business is luring investors.
Other ambitious e-reader brands are supported by companies experienced in media and entertainment. Kobo (anagram of the word ‘book’), Canada’s leading e-reader maker, was sold by Indigo Books & Music to Japanese global conglomerate and e-commerce website Rakuten a year ago.
Rakuten has invested in TV broadcasting (Tokyo Broadcasting System), owns a baseball team, led a US$100m investment round in social-media darling Pinterest, and operates Wuaki.tv, a Spanish video-on-demand service.
Sony Corp, a global entertainment conglomerate, owns a line in e-readers. South Korea’s iRiver Story e-reader is made by an electronics and entertainment group founded by former Samsung executives.
It was when major book publishers noticed how the erotically charged Fifty Shades of Grey, licensed to a tiny Australian independent publisher, was shooting to the top of the New York Times fiction e-books chart, that they realised reaching e-book readers generated cash.
Vintage Books, part of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, paid US$1m for the rights. To date, the Fifty Shades trilogy has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide as hardbacks, paperbacks and digital files.
E-reading films, TV and music
This success contributed to Vintage’s owner Random House, a subsidiary of German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, going one step further with its e-book ambitions. It has announced plans to merge with iconic UK publisher Penguin to form the world’s biggest consumer book-publishing group.
The enlarged Penguin Random House is expected to use US digital-media agency Smashing Ideas, a Random House subsidiary acquired in 2011, to develop apps based on TV programmes adapted from Random House books. The programmes will be made by Random House’s TV-production sister company FremantleMedia. Meanwhile, in December, Penguin’s owner Pearson grabbed 5% of NOOK’s business for US$89.5m.
Other book-publishing enterprises have started making imaginative use of e-books and their reading devices. As mentioned earlier, the UK’s Carlton Digital has made rock band Queen’s music available via an interactive e-book featuring links to iTunes. Before then, a small UK publisher Bedford Books had used the same music-links strategy for The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music, which was published in May.
NBC Publishing, part of the US’ NBC TV network, recently decided an e-book on iPad was more user friendly than an app for the second-screen experience accompanying Grimm, the fantasy crime TV series.
As far back as 2010, Penguin Book joined forces with TV producer/distributor Starz Entertainment to issue the first e-book tied to a DVD release. Purchasers of Ken Follett’s epic fiction The Pillars of the Earth in the iPad e-book format could watch a trailer of the star-studded eight-hour TV drama produced by Germany’s Tandem Communications. An Amplified Edition allowed readers to access regularly updated videos based on the book and the series.
The year of the e-bookonomy
The e-book economy might not be firing our imaginations the way streaming videos, premium music services, and social mobile games are doing. But while a book publisher is unlikely to ensnare a games player to read a bestseller via a games console, a games publisher has a pretty damn good chance of getting an e-book reader to take a shot at its latest digital release, and listen to the soundtrack, and watch the film, and many other things…
The writer Juliana Koranteng is editor/founder of business journal MediaTainment Finance and newsletter TechMutiny. An analysis of Amazon.com’s overarching ambitions to dominate anything that can be sold online and its evolution into a dominant bookseller and publisher is in Issue No.10 of MediaTainment Finance (www.mediatainmentfinance.com).