Thursday, October 28, 2010

Function Following Form

By the always-fantastic Oslo Davis

I've touched on this before, in my post about my love of libraries, but the recent influx of opinions and analyses regarding content for e-readers compelled me to throw in my two cents.

The biggest problem with e-readers—which is to say, devices specifically formatted for reading books and publications, since the iPad has other uses as well—is that they are a product designed for the makers' gain, not the users'.

The publishing industry did not start to sink because readers thought carrying a book with them made their bags too heavy, or that they wanted more of a variety for their daily commute, or because they thought that books and magazines simply took up too much space in their houses. Book and magazine content is not music, despite the repeated and stubborn attempts to make their futures synonymous.

As Khoi Vinh (former design director at the New York Times) touches on in his recent article, e-reader manufacturers and those they charged with populating the machines with content, are barking up the wrong tree. As long as they continue to attempt to make e-readers a substitute for print, they will continue to fail. Take, for example, the number of articles alone dedicated to screen lighting, typography, and note-taking—all aspects of books that simply aren't an issue in print. Their attempts to create a machine that somehow bests the traditional medium only gives them more problems to try to solve.

The promise that e-readers are somehow going to save publishing stems from one thing: advertising dollars. Periodicals are folding by the day, and the primary instigator of that is a massive loss of revenue to digital platforms. Fine, conceded. But the knee-jerk reaction that seems to be the impetus for the advent of e-readers—make periodicals digital too—seems creepily like allowing the client to art direct the format.

As for book publishing, there were far more, less transparent issues at play. Brick-and-mortar mega bookstores took over the industry, got too big, diversified their inventory too much (by adding music and cafes and toys and Christmas gifts and Burt's Bees hand cream and, as my mother-in-law calls them, "books for people who don't read".) And then they were shocked when the recession hit and this model of business was not only unprofitable, it is unsustainable.

In another instance of relinquishing creative control to the client, mega bookstores then bullied their ways into publishers' marketing departments, dictating everything from content they would and would not carry or support, to the design of book jackets. (Ever wonder why 50% of literature written by women now seems to sport a pink, sparkly high heel on the cover?) And now we find that the retail cost of e-books is nearly on par with their printed versions, making it even more obvious that this is about making publishers money, not expanding or improving the publishing industry. Publishers=1, Writers, Printers, and Everyone Else=0.

I've digressed. But the point is, e-reader manufacturers can continue to thrust the 'problem' (there was no problem with books or magazines as formats) into the hands of otherwise very capable innovators. But until they sort out what that problem ever was, they will likely never find a solution.

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