"Generally old media don't die. They just have to grow old gracefully. Guess what, we still have stone masons. They haven't been the primary purveyors of the written word for a while now of course, but they still have a role because you wouldn't want a TV screen on your headstone."
This week The Guardian ran a wonderful article about Neil Gaiman giving this year's Douglas Adams memorial lecture, which is held annually to benefit Save the Rhino International.
The entire lecture is absolutely worth watching. But The Guardian article focused on a particularly enlightening section:
“We were talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was something which resembled an iPad, long before it appeared. And I said when something like that happens, it’s going to be the death of the book. Douglas said no. Books are sharks,” Gaiman told a packed audience at the Royal Geographical Society in London.“I must have looked baffled because he he looked very pleased with himself. And he carried on with his metaphor. Books are sharks … because sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.”Adams told Gaiman: “‘Look at a book. A book is the right size to be a book. They’re solar-powered. If you drop them, they keep on being a book. You can find your place in microseconds. Books are really good at being books and no matter what happens books will survive.’ And he was right,” said Gaiman.“Ebooks are much better at being two or more books and a newspaper, at the same time. Ebooks are great at being bookshelves, which is why they are great on trains. It’s also why the encyclopaedia proved not to be a shark, but to be a plesiosaur.”And stories, said Gaiman, “aren’t books. Books are simply one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. People are one of the other storage mechanisms for stories. And stories, like life forms, change.”
Great writers are often able to get to the heart of things in ways that can be deceptively simple on the surface, but reveal layers of meaning as you dig deeper.
On the first level, Adams gives us such an eloquent and entertaining way to think about publishing media, a simple framework for meditating on the various ways to store and deliver "stories". He boils it down to this: what are these technologies (print book, iPad, smartphone) good at doing?
Of course, we need to think about what technologies are good at doing now, actually and potentially, and also what technologies will be good at doing in the future.
This focus can sometimes be lost when we examine and draw conclusions about what is actually happening. For instance, The Washington Post recently ran an article by Michael S. Rosenwald entitled "Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right." The article asserts that Millenial students have a strong preference for print books over e-books for both pleasure and learning.
As I read Rosenwald's article, something bothered me about it, and I've been trying to sort through exactly where I think it misses the point.
Rosenwald provides familiar anecdotes about students who appreciate the sensory experience of print books.
“I like the feeling of it,” Schembari said, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”
He also suggests e-textbooks are inferior in terms of holding a student's attention, and delves into "the science of why dead-tree versions are often superior to digital." I came away unconvinced.
On March 2, Joe Wikert responded with a more discerning article, "Why Johnny Doesn't Like E-Textbooks", discussing points that he thinks Rosenwald missed. First, he says, Millenials are not really "digital natives". They grew up reading and studying print books. Wikert asks, "What makes anyone think a student will magically shift from print to digital when they get to college?"
Moreover, Wikert says that publishers are not yet providing students with strong incentives to go digital, whether in terms of price or user experience. Discounts for digital versions are minuscule, and the products themselves are problematic.
"If they want to read their e-textbook most students are stuck reading it on their clunky laptop. The phone experience is awful for larger format, fixed-layout textbooks and probably not that effective for reflowable ones."And Wikert thinks the most important point is this:
Which brings us back to Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams. When we look at the popularity or relative effectiveness of e-publishing or e-learning, context is important. If we mislabel Millenials as "digital natives" with respect to books, and draw conclusions on that basis, our analysis will suffer.
Beyond understanding consumers, we need to take a realistic look at technological capabilities (i.e., what a given technology is good at doing), and what is the nature of the actual products that are delivering content.
As new technologies are adopted, of course we will hear stories about how something didn't work, and how people prefer the familiar tool that they already know how to use. A print book's user interface requires that the user simply know how to read. Digital products, on the other hand, come with a wide range of user interfaces, some of which work better than others.
Frankly, right now many e-publishing and e-learning products are not very compelling. Some are fantastic, but there is just a tremendous amount of variability in functional quality.
When we return our focus back to what electronic devices are good at doing (for instance, delivering a multi-sensory, interactive experience), it allows us to do a better job of predicting the future, and developing an effective digital strategy for our content.
Part of that is understanding we are early in the evolution of a publishing revolution. Current results are occurring in an environment of rapid change, and technological improvement.
Perhaps adoption of e-textbooks has been slower than some have expected. But across the board, the evolution will happen naturally over time. As the industry matures, user interfaces will converge in terms of methodology, and interactivity will become less expensive and easier to implement. Hardware will advance and adapt itself to the requirements of e-publishing and e-learning.
Which takes us back to the last part of Gaiman's anecdote: "stories, like life forms, change". For publishers, the key is re-imagining our stories to take advantage of the new tools that are here today, and those emerging tomorrow.