Monday, February 08, 2010

You Can Pry My Paper Books From My Cold, Dead Fingers

People have an emotional attachment to printed books. So much so, that the most repeated argument against the universal adoption of ebooks is "I love print, and no ebook will ever be able to take its place."

Let's analyze this position. At its heart, the argument is emotional, not logical, for reasons this essay will explain. But an emotional response is still a very effective one. We're an emotional species, and the history of mankind shows that emotion often dictates our actions.

Looking at the history of technology, it isn't too often that a new tech completely replaces the tech that existed previously. The automobile became the preferred method of personal transportation, but many people still own horses, and every big city offers the expensive horse and buggy ride around town.

Consider the bow and arrow. When gunpowder was invented, a natural assumption could have been that there would never again be any use for arrows. Yet archery is still a thriving business, and you can go into any sporting goods store and buy a crossbow.

People used horses to get from point A to point B. People used bow and arrows to hit a target from a distance. When cars and guns came, it was easier to get to point B and hit targets using these new techs. As a result, they became the widely adopted methods to complete these tasks.

Let's say that a technology used to complete a task has "destination value." The goal is getting the task done, and if one tech is advantageous over another tech, it often becomes the preferred method.

But there are still archery ranges and horse riders. That's because these offer an experience as well as a destination value. It's fun to get to point B on a horse, and ask any Ted Nugent fan about his affinity for the compound bow.

Sometimes it isn't just about the destination value. Sometimes the journey is also important.

Let's call this experience "journey value." It's a large part of the reason the horse and bow never went away.

These techs, however, aren't media.

Media, by definition, is a delivery system.

But is the end result the destination? Or does the journey also have value?

Let's use the music industry as an example yet again, because I believe there are parallels to the publishing industry.

The LP was the dominant music format for years. 8 track tapes were invented as an alternative, and though they had some advantages (you could now play music in your car) they didn't replace LPs.

But in the case of both the LP and the 8-track, they had similar destination value. They both allowed you to listen to a song. Their comparable journey value was negligible. How you listened to the song really didn't add much to the experience. The point was being able to listen to a song, not the format the song was in.

Along come cassette tapes. These had an advantage over 8-tracks and LPs, because they could record music. But they didn't replace LPs. Music stores sold LPs and cassettes side by side, and different consumers had different preferences.

Again, the experience is the song itself, not the delivery method. High destination value. Low journey value.

Then CDs came on the scene. It was originally thought by the industry that cassettes would be the death of LPs, because cassettes allowed for piracy. But the two mediums co-existed peacefully for years.

With the advent of CDs, the quality of music went up. Digital allowed for a lossless version of the musical artist's master tapes, with a delivery system superior to both LPs and cassettes.

Digital also allowed those original masters to be digitally remastered, to make the quality better than ever.

But consumers didn't warm up to CDs right away. First of all, the device to play CDs on was very expensive (I recall it being the most expensive part of a stereo system for several years after it was introduced.)

Music publishers, however, wanted people to adopt this new format. I'm not sure why. Maybe deals with CD player manufacturers. Maybe CDs had a higher profit margin than LPs and cassettes, or were easier to ship or mass produce. Whatever the reason, they wanted to push this new technology. And one of the ways they did this was to stop making as many LPs.

At one point, you would walk into a music store and it was all LPs, and some 8 tracks. Years later, it was about half LPs and half cassettes. Years later it was a few LPs, cassettes, and a growing CD selection. Then it was no LPs, a few cassettes, and mostly CDs. And eventually, it was all CDs.

CDs did provide a better way to experience a song. They sounded better (though a few diehard LP audiophiles may argue against the point.)

But a CD was just a vehicle for the thing that hadn't changed: the song.

The destination value of a CD was equal to the destination value of a cassette. They both played a song that you could listen to. And the journey value to each was negligible. They could both be played on portable Walkmans, and in cars. CD had better sound quality. Cassettes could record music.

The ability to record music adds an interesting dynamic. One of the things I find interesting is that cassettes weren't fully replaced by CDs until another invention came out: the CD burner.

Like the CD player, the burner started out as very expensive. And it actually wasn't invented as a way to copy music. It was invented as a way to store data on a personal computer. But computer users soon realized that this new technology could be used for piracy.

A CD is digital. This digitized information could be copied onto a computer, and then that could be copied onto a blank disk.

Piracy then evolved. A CD of 12 songs takes up a lot of megabytes. So users began to play with ways to compress this information, so more songs could take up less space. The MP3 was born.

With the advent of the MP3, something interesting and unexpected happened. Consumers of music, used to having a physical, tangible product that was the delivery system for their music (the LP, cassette, or CD) realized they didn't need the tangible product. Music could exist solely as digital binary code on a computer.

Apple looked at this user trend, and created a user-friendly device that played MP3s. Today, a computer company is the biggest retailer of music players (iPod and iPhones) and music itself (on iTunes) in the world.

You'd think that maybe Columbia Records, or some other big record company, would have been the leader in this industry and spearheaded the MP3 movement. But they didn't. They tried to block it, and hired lots of lawyers and sued a lot of people and invested a ton of money in copy protection that didn't work.

Or perhaps a major retailer, like Sam Goody or Musicland, would have realized they were losing CD sales, and taken a good look at where there customers were now getting music. Surely they could have found a way to make money off of this trend.

But they didn't. They went out of business.

So a computer company now rules the music industry.

Now let's go back to destination value and journey value. While Apple changed the way the world listened to music, the destination value was still the same thing it has always been: the song.

While listening to a song on an iPod is easier and has many advantages to listening to an LP, the song is still the important thing. How you listen to a song has continually evolved since Edison. But this experience can't be logically compared to shooting a bow or riding a horse.

When you close your eyes and listen to a song, it's for the song. It's not for the experience of using a record player, cassette player, CD player, Zune, iPod, or computer. The joy is not sticking the tape in, or putting the headphones on.

I'd say that the delivery system for music is not nearly as important as the music itself. Which is why we've had so many delivery systems, and will no doubt have many more in our lifetimes.

The song remains the same. Technology will always march on. And neither the big record companies, nor the big record stores, ever figured that out.

So let's bring ebooks into this discussion.

By stating they won't ever give up print books, print aficionados are giving value to the journey. The act of turning pages, the smell of paper, the feel of a book in their hands--to print fans, this seems to be just as enjoyable as the story itself.

I don't buy it.

The joy of riding a horse, while destination can be important, is also closely tied in with with the experience. You can ride a horse with no destination at all and still have a great time.

You don't need to hunt with a bow and shoot an animal to enjoy the feeling of pulling back the bow string and letting an arrow fly, no matter the target. Using a arrow is fun just shooting it into the air (make sure no one is around first.)

Can you picture yourself popping a CD into the stereo without music coming out? Can you imagine going for a walk with your iPod, putting in your ear buds, and selecting a song on iTunes with the sound on mute? That's journey value, and the journey value is zero.

Now picture being curled up on a couch with a book. Smell it. Feel it. Stick out your tongue and taste it if you so desire.

How often would you repeat that experience if the book had no words on any of its pages?

In fact, the journey experience with media is imagined. Or it's tied into nostalgia, pleasant memories, and previous pleasurable experiences. People love paper books because it was the only way they've had, in the hundreds of years the medium has exited, to experience a story.

But a story is not print on a page. It never has been.

A story is the writer's words in your head.

And guess what, print book aficionados? You can get the story into your head without dead trees.


(This is the first part of a two part essay about changing media technology, the role of piracy in adopting new media technology, and why an online bookseller is now feared as having a stranglehold on the future of publishing. Part 2 is HERE.)