Some people think the book is dead, much as Joe referred to obsolete single-use devices like the GPS while discussing the potential for peer-to-peer content distribution. The truth is, we're living in a world that's going to want and need not necessarily more books in general, but more great books. These books won't be plain-text as so many are today. They'll be book-plus, not book-minus.
One of the biggest lessons of self-publishing and the e-book explosion is that form and function are inextricably intertwined. What goes between the covers of a book (or on an e-reader or tablet) matters. We have tools and technology right now (EPUB3) to make books that are visually exciting, and which present imagery, type design and interactive elements in ways that work together to delight readers.
Form is one aspect of innovation. Content, i.e. writing, art, and design: these things also need to be made better in order to meet the expectations and needs of readers.
Let's take writing itself, for example. For some reason, even among publishing veterans, many people think that writing a good book that delivers value to the reader is some sort of accident – or they think it's something that is best-done under extreme adverse conditions (such as working in a hostile environment for free for years). Writing is may also be assumed to be a simple skill anyone can learn quickly from reading a couple of books or taking a $99 "Masterclass" provided by video instruction.
Of the over 2 million books published each year, fewer than 20 sell more than 250,000 copies – and of those, some are multiple editions of the same book/author (i.e. paperback and movie tie-in versions). Those same crazy big numbers also tell us that a lot of people desire to communicate with others via the written word. We have more books than ever before, but we don't have better ones. We also don't have books that meet the needs of all of today's potential readers, much less the readers of tomorrow.
Book innovation isn't about quantity of product or "discoverability." It's not about devices or technology. Today's innovators in other industries aren't making new tools, they're inventing new ways to use the tools we already have. Take Slack for example. Slack is taking the working world by storm, revolutionizing how teams work together. The company took marketing and development inspiration from Michael Schrage's 2012 book (yes, book – published by the Harvard Business Review) Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?
According to Schrage, "innovation is an investment in your customer’s future — a human capital investment in who your customers really want or need to become."
Currently, about 20 percent of North Americans regularly buy and read books (about 70 million people). This percentage hasn't shifted much in recent years. Although book quantity has increased exponentially, book quality in physical and objective content measures hasn't. Almost 80 percent of North Americans have read at least one book in the prior year, far more than have listened to all genres of music, used Facebook, bought a movie ticket or watched the Super Bowl. The highest rate of readership is found among a group that media sometimes portrays as non-readers: African-Americans. Media also portrays millennials as online consumers, not readers. The truth is, young people ages 18 to 30 read more, and more often than any other age group. They prefer paper books to e-books for reasons of quality, user experience, and personal benefit from reading. You can see these facts reflected in the 2014 PW sales figures.
These facts are all opportunities for innovation.
Despite the technology that has enabled a large number of people to self-publish books – the publishing industry and nearly all of its elements and operational systems hasn't changed much since Jack London's day. The only difference is that now, self-published writers can directly reach readers. They still have to perform all the other tasks that go into making, publishing and selling a book in any format.
Books are still made and sold with the same attitude and approach as they were during a time in which a much smaller number of "elites" were literate and had time and money to buy and read books. In those days, Henry Ford famously said, "If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse."
Ford inspired Apple's Steve Jobs (who equally famously - and wrongly - declared "No one reads any longer" – ironically, the iPad is the best delivery system for enhanced e-books today, far superior to the Amazon Kindle, a product that Jobs was criticizing at the time).
"We build products that really turn us on," Jobs told Fortune in 2008. "It's not about pop culture and it's not about fooling people, and it's not about convincing people that they want something they don't. We figure out what they want."
We can feel what today's young readers want in their aspirations, hopes and idealism. We can see their openness to change, their embracing of diversity. Our young people are encouraged to participate equally in school, learn as part of collaborative teams, and express their thoughts openly. They graduate to a world of one-sentence pitches, arrogant agents, elitism, aggression, "fan communities," social media "platforms," and false market-driven conformity that assumes they are stupid herd beasts.
As one young reader recently said at San Diego's Comic-Con: "I like paper books because they're not like my tech. Their batteries don't run out." He said he enjoyed reading something that made his heart beat faster and put his mind in a better place. He spent about an hour reading Is SHE Available? "It's not like other books," he said. "It's a lot more. I have to go slow. It's overwhelming."
Is SHE Available? has blown everyone involved in making it away, and everyone who's bought and read it. Making it managed to bring the best out of everyone involved, from the author to the book designer to each of the 26 artists involved, the animators, and the musical artist/recording director.
The current sub-set of regular e-book readers are fine with e-book text dumped on a screen, but the majority of people don't just want text dumped on a screen and aren't interested in the same stories re-told with slight variations. This is one of the reasons why younger readers prefer paper books. If art, video, and music are included, it should serve the book well, not be tacked on as an afterthought. The writer has to be involved at all steps, not left behind at the production gate. Books, ideally, should be designed with readers in mind, not dumped into flat, HTML-based formats or crammed onto the smallest number of printed pages possible to save a few nickels.
Is SHE Available? is Chameleon's showpiece and first major publication. It won't be our last.
Thank you to Joe for giving us this opportunity to present our vision. It's about product, process, and value to the reader. Henry Ford loved cars and manufacturing and money: he created drivers. Steve Jobs loved tech and user interfaces, accessing data and other people and communicating and working: he created users.
We love words, ideas and books. Not for yesterday and not even for today. We want to create readers and writers for our world of 8 billion, not 70 million.
This article was written by Amy Sterling Casil. Amy is Founder and President of Chameleon Publishing, Inc., the visionary publishers of "Is SHE Available?".