Reading – It’s All About the Platform February 17, 2011Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
For most of the last twenty years, it had become a matter of unquestioned belief that Americans were reading less with each passing year. Much of this belief came from the fact that fewer books and newspapers were being sold, along with the attendant rise in video game sales.
Along the way, over the last two decades we’ve had the acquisition, roll-up, and eventual closure of several major bookselling chains, including Brentano’s, Waldenbooks, and B. Dalton. The ongoing difficulties of Barnes and Noble, and this week’s bankruptcy filing by Borders seem to confirm the growing disinterest in reading.
Of course, by this time it’s not at all clear as to whether we are reading less, or reading different. Newspapers and other paper-based periodicals seem destined for the scrap heap of history, but people get a tremendous amount of news and views from a seemingly-infinite number of sources on the Web.
Even paper books seem to be on their way out, with Amazon recently announcing that it had sold more ebooks than paperbacks.
As for reading less, a friend of mine reads extensively from the Gutenberg Project, which consists of out-of-print (and out of copyright) books, which were rarely if ever available before the days of ebooks. I think instead that we have so many alternatives of what to read that out of necessity books have become less relevant.
Whether or not we are reading less, we are certainly reading different. And what’s different is the platform. Amazon’s Kindle was the first successful ebook reader, followed by the Barnes and Noble Nook. And because Apple’s iPad is a bit more versatile, it is the platform most people are watching.
Now, this is a radical shift in our behavior in part because e-reading will arguably cost more than paper. In addition to buying the book itself, you have to buy the platform (anywhere from $140 for a low-end Kindle to $829 for a 3G iPad (plus the 3G subscription service). The interesting thing is that the platform doesn’t add a whole lot of value (if any) to the reading process, so it’s not clear why we have to pay this kind of coin for the platform. You might argue that the cost is amortized across many books and periodicals, but it’s still a lot to pay for the questionable value.
Now Apple has defined a subscription service for periodicals and other subscription-type content delivered to the iPad, and publishers are balking at having to pay the platform vendor thirty percent of the subscription take.
I refuse to participate in the Apple ecosystem. Still, as much as I dislike the Apple lock-in and the platform premium in general, it’s not like traditional media publishers have come up with any digital strategies of note. Once again, I fault the publishers, who lacked the imagination and will to come up with their own workable digital distribution model. Now that such a distribution model is emerging through e-readers and tablets, publishers are complaining that the Apple (and likely other successful platform purveyors in the future) want too big a cut of subscription revenues.
I don’t know where to begin berating the publishers. Let me simply say that any content provider who can’t figure out their distribution strategy in fifteen years, and then have the gall to complain when someone fills the vacuum they were unable or unwilling to, has no leg to stand on.