Disrupting Books

Books of the Past. Photo by Lin Pernille
Books of the Past. Photo by Lin Pernille

It was once said that technology is anything invented after you are born. Books are a good case in point. We don’t think of books as technology. Maybe people did so in 15th century when Gutenberg was developing his movable type ideas. Since then we have seen the book develop as a sustainable innovation – improvements over time. Today the cost of a book is so low that anybody can collect them and no one thinks its a technology. However, new technology might change that. We are now seeing developments that the book is getting disrupted. The book is getting digital.

Books are the last major medium to go digital. We have seen music and video go digital but the book remains black type printed white pages. We must understand, as with music and video, that a book is essentially two different things. First it’s a story – the text. This can be fiction, reference, romance, or even pictures. Whatever the author created. Second, the book is also a delivery mechanism. It is the means by which the text is delivered. You go the bookstore and buy the book. Someone created the physical book by setting up the text, printing the text and then binding the book. This process has over the years been highly optimized so each copy of a book is relatively cheap compared to books few centuries ago. We can add the third thing which is a little bit more subtle. Each book is also a reading device. Whereas with a CD you need a player, with a book the reading device is built in.

Now imagine that you have a generic device that is just like a page and you can get the book – the story, digitally. Using the Internet, the delivery cost is almost zero. Someone still had to set up the text and make available for download. But no physical object is created. The book becomes infinitely copyable. And this will change the printed business of books, magazines and newspapers.

Perhaps the most widely known e-book reader is Amazon’s Kindle. This device was announced by the bookseller in November 2007. However it was not the first one. Sony Reader was put on the market in 2006. Sony recently announced new models and price cuts, stepping up the competition. Furthermore, Sony is pushing for an open ebook format that would allow owners of ebook reader to shop for books on any store.

Kindle has perhaps gotten the most press. As with the iPod, the key to a media device is the software in the cloud. Amazon bookstore is to Kindle what iTunes is to the iPod. The real success of the iPod is due to the iTunes store. Similarly, the Amazon bookstore is key selling point of Kindle devices. As with the iTunes store where the most common price of a song was $1.99, the Kindle books are $9.99. Sony also has a store for their readers and some of their books are now $9.99.

Now Barnes and Noble want to join the game announcing a partnership with Plastic Logic to become the bookstore for their device. And of course the books, at least some of them, are priced at $9.99.

The surprise reading device is the iPhone. It turns out that iPhone or iPod Touch are popular reading devices. Amazon released a Kindle app for their bookstore and Barnes and Noble have a reader too.

So will the printed book disappear? The printed book has emotional effects and many people will not give it up. While the CD may slowly get replaced by digital downloads and streaming, the book will likely be disrupted slower, possibly even over generations. The difference between a book and music is that you don’t need any device to read a book. Just hold it and use your eyes. Vinyl record players are hard to find today and soon CD players, but the digital reader is totally new, not replacing anything.

The digital book will appeal strongly to some part of the market. New releases are delivered faster and cheaper. Having all your books stored in digital library will appeal to many. For students, having all your textbooks in a single device, with the possibility of searching and taking notes and share them with fellow students will likely appeal to many students. Think about social studying online and how to form study groups online. And it will be easier to carry. This is what CourseSmart is counting on, offering more than 7.000 titles for iPhone/iPod Thouch.

Updates are also much easier, and it will be hard to justify paying full price for a new book just to get the updated version. This could also lead to books becoming live or like a service rather than a product. For textbooks, this could have significant impact as some textbooks have long lifetime and in some fields need to be updated periodically. Authors can even write the book in real-time, possibly getting the crowd’s feedback as they move on.

The digital book has its advantages and will disrupt the book publishing business and the printing business. It can also have effects on libraries and how we consume and collect books. We are just seeing the beginning of the digital book some 570 years after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.