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The digital content scalability problem

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 3.04.46 PMWhy are ebooks still stuck in the print-under-glass model? Why haven't we seen anything new and exciting in the digital book transformation process?

Those are questions I've been asking myself a lot lately. Ebooks are convenient in that you can carry an entire library on a phone or tablet. They're also more readily available for browsing or purchase, right from the comfort of home. But the reading experience features nothing more than a digital version of the print edition.

I've spent a lot of time evaluating content transformation platforms over the past several years in the hopes that I'll discover the path forward from today's world of dumb books on smart devices. I'm disappointed to say we're at roughly the same stage as we were at more than 10 years ago when the Kindle first hit the scene.

The problem? Scalability.

There are countless books which could be greatly enriched by leveraging technology. Everything from the simple insertion of video to the addition of more interactive elements would turn a static experience into a much more memorable (and probably more effective) experience. These enrichment platforms are becoming easier to use, enabling drag-and-drop functionality so you don't have to be a programmer to create a rich user experience. However, the cost of creating these next-gen products is typically more than what the publisher invested in the creation of the original print product.

Think about that for a minute. As a publisher, you have a pretty good sense of the ROI for your next new title. Most of the variables involved operate within a fairly tight range (e.g., author advance, editing expense, manufacturing cost, sell-in level, etc.) Even the total sales, and therefore resulting revenue, are fairly predictable, within a given range. All this predictability provides the publisher with a P&L model without a lot of surprises.

Now think about asking a publisher to spend two or three times that initial product investment to create an enriched version of the same title. The product development expenses are higher, and may even result in cost overruns due to the newness of the approach. More importantly, the resulting revenue projection is a total shot in the dark. Until the publisher has created enough of these new products, they have no idea what sort of sales range to project.

Scalability should lead to better efficiencies. We saw this with ebooks; an ebook can be created today at a fraction of what publishers used to pay for the service 5-10 years ago. The same thing needs to happen with enriched content. Vendors need to have a path to a model where the transformation cost is less than half the original print/ebook product cost. If they're unable to get there, they might as well abandon ship and get into a different business.



I agree! When the information revolution began I was so excited! It was as if Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg had been given an opportunity to further develop his original vision.

I hope, as storage media become less expensive in their various forms, we will start to see a richer literate experience emerging. I already value e-books for the ability to bookmark, highlight and annotate without damaging a physical object.

While Adobe PDF® has dominated the hardware/software system for decades now, I expect to see it losing ground rapidly with the implementation of newer HTML standards making it possible to incorporate scalable vector graphic images and even video since the ubiquity of HTML applications has exploded.

On a broader front, I wonder that we are still trapped in the age of "print-under-glass" with the general computing interface. Why have we not moved to a more multi-dimensional (and more intuitive) way of organizing and interfacing with information?

Adam Engst

I think the problem is deeper. Authors and editors don't generally have the skills to create other forms of media, and adding more people to an editorial team will increase costs and slow down the process. It's hard to see that as a scaling issue, rather than a staffing or skills issue.

Regardless, it could still be fine, assuming you can charge enough more or sell enough more copies to make back that investment, but I just don't see either of those happening. Readers aren't willing to pay more (at least in the context of a "book"—there's room for argument if the product feels sufficiently different) and I haven't seen any publisher sell enough more copies of such an enriched content book to make up for not raising the price. Or, rather, I haven't seen any publisher systematize the creation and publishing of enriched content books in general and then sell a lot more—there may be one-off successes, often from individual authors.

Inna Zotina

please check Active Textbook by Evidentpoint - this is the missing tool that might be a game changer

marcy Goldman

I agree with this in concept - upchucking a print book into a static eBook is a disservice to what can be done. That said, I agree with Adam Engst's comments - adding staff and skill sets to create enriched eBooks is a big expense and the anticipated higher revenues are quite speculative, and at a time when readers want cheaper content.

Readers also seem to want less content overall; there is simply a glut of content compared to perhaps less and less readers, as well as content that is curated and targeted.

As a writer I'm being told for all markets I write for to write less. Feature assignments that were once 1500-2000 words are now 500 words, simply because attention spans have dropped so much. So adding enhancements (bells and whistles) makes things (in my view) heavier overall. That said, I think perhaps the notion of a book or Ebook might morph into a hybrid of words and visuals, tucked into a 'book'.

Jeroen Hellingman

Besides new publications, we should also be looking at the about 100 million books already published, many of which could still be relevant if available. Converting these to scanned images is well under way (although limited by highly restrictive copyright laws that condemn most of them to eternal obscurity: even though out-of-print for years, by the time the copyright expires, we're all gone...); converting these to quality text (not just raw OCR output) is an herculean task, and dramatically increases their usability -- something we at Project Gutenberg work hard for with many volunteers. However, enriching these to become multimedia productions is not only impossible, but also quite pointless from a cultural preservation perspective.

Glenn McCreedy

Maybe the problem is the value distribution chain itself. Maybe the way to break this out of the dominant publishing paradigm is to look at a consensus technology and distributed applications such as what is found in Hedera Hashgraph http://hederahashgraph.com Unfortunately they have chosen to go with a non-open source tech model and as such have cut out independent authors and small publishers form accessing their technology and the opportunity to disintermediate the value chain. But it is still an indicator of future possibilities with cryptocurrency and the blockchain.

If we look at the example of "radio" as a medium and the disintermediation that occurred with broadband and streaming, we may get insight into what may occur in ebook publishing. We still have over the air FCC-regulated broadcasting (traditional book publishing), but technology as allowed a variety of different business models such as Tunein, Apple Music/Radio, and Internet-streaming of stations and new channels to pop up.

The difference is that independent publishing is largely ruled by Amazon and it is extremely difficult to get traction with large audiences through alternative distribution channels. The only way this may occur is through a completely separate schema through something like Hedera Hasgraph. But open source is critically important to open this up.

Joe Wikert

Marcy and Adam, I wonder if we're trying to set the bar too high. For example, 25 years ago, if everyone felt that web-based video distribution and consumption required professional, studio-level quality, YouTube would have never been born. I'm not suggesting books can take the next step forward by inserting videos of mentos-in-coke-bottles videos; rather, we should ask ourselves what the expectations are for the target audience.

I listen to a lot of podcasts these days. Some of them are obviously professionally produced but many of them are clearly done on the fly, with little thought given to post-production work. Most of these lower production quality ones have more of a genuine feel. Btw, this is the same reason I've never warmed up to audiobooks. They don't sound like a book does when I read it, probably because of the highly polished, professional voice talent. I'd probably like them better if they were produced via text-to-speech or with a more informal sounding speaker.

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