Books as Experiences (Presented at the Future of the Book Conference

I feel that I only began to truly love books when I felt their scarcity.

When I was a kid, books abounded. I was a member of the school book club. For a time I worked at the Glendale public library. When the library would get new editions of books, the old librarian would allow me to pick through and take home old editions, before throwing them out. I was really uncool obviously, but that was offset by what I perceived to be the cool ability of reading lots of books, which I felt would be an important trait in my future which I envisioned had something to do with the science fiction that I was always reading.

Moving to the Philippines though, and then my family hitting hard times, led to a constraint on almost everything. This also meant that there were no books around and I stopped reading. For most of the time that I was in high school, I could not be bothered to read because I was probably too drunk. And well, I didn’t have anything to read.

But when I went to college, I was introduced to book-hunting. Having taken some literature classes and having met professors and friends who exposed me to good books, I got into reading again. In 1999-2000, in my freshman year, I began buying the books that constitute the library I have now. (On a side note, I believe that these books may be only about two-thirds if not half of all the books I’ve bought since then, as I have always been lending books to people, and these books rarely ever come back.) The thing was that I had to learn how to buy books on my 60 peso-per-day allowance.

I learned to hit the book sales and one particular place that I spent a lot of time was the fourth floor of National Book Store in Cubao. It’s a very different place now, but I remember there were great Saturday mornings spent there. I would be going through all the shelves and racks, these books all unorganized, and most days I’d come out with nothing, but there were some days that were magic and I’d find just the right book and the radio would be tuned to the rock station and they’d be playing Pearl Jam or Guns N’ Roses at the exact moment that I picked up the latest book that would change my life.

There were always so many books, so much in any bargain book place I went, and most of it would be stuff that I would never bother reading. But I went for the experience, for the joy finding of something. The value of the book would not just be tied to its price, but to the great lengths I went to find it, and to what I would believe was the great fortune I had in being in the right store at the right time. And though today I can generally afford to buy new books, I still find that thrill in finding that great book on the cheap. It might be due to the kinds of things that I read and write, but perhaps I think of this kind of book buying as a kind of quest. Again, it’s not just the thing acquired, but all that goes into acquiring it that gives it more value, and helps to develop my love as a reader.

When we think of the movement towards digital, then we can see that these quests will no longer be necessary. Sure old book hounds will still be doing this, but will those who are younger even bother with such a thing? This romanticized notion will most likely be lost on them, or maybe some will find it quaint. But really, when most books are only a few keystrokes away, who could be bothered to spend hours digging through shelves and piles of old books (assuming that these places will still be around. Of the more than five spots that I used to hit in Cubao, there is only one left)?

This means that the experiences that we will have from now on will be fundamentally different. We cannot take whatever it is we do with books now and think that we can merely port them to a digital experience. We will have to build the digital book experience from the ground up. It’s important that we take a look at the things that we love about books, the things that we will be losing when we are dealing with the digital (bits) as opposed to the physical (atoms), and consider how we not only make the experiences similar, but how we can maximize the differences in the two mediums to provide the best possible experience in each.

To be concrete about this, let’s take a favorite experience of book lovers: smelling the pages of a new book. People who love books will confess to flipping books open, sticking their noses deep into the book, and taking a nice long sniff. Some may even accompany this inhalation with a closing of eyes.

The new book smell is something that many people love. And I think that if some air freshener company would develop such a scent then they would have an immediate market of book nerds. But this is an experience that will be lost on those who start out with digital. The only solution that I can find, which I think is quite clever, is that all e-book readers come with scratch-and-sniff functions. Hey, movies are going back to 3-D, why not books going back to scratch-and-sniff? Of course this is impractical and it just doesn’t make sense to consider this when thinking about digital, but hey, why not bring it up, if only to acknowledge how big a part of book buying the new-book-smell is and to highlight the great differences in the experience between atoms and bits. (Think after all this talk of the new-book-smell, how many times did I stop and sniff a nearby book as I was writing this, and how many of you have tried to recall the joy of smelling a new book as I described it?)

But moving on, I suppose that the primary concern would be the technology on which we will be reading our digital books and how much it will cost. We see some clear advantages with digital, beyond say, saving the trees. Among these is the ability to carry around a large number of books at any given time with only the weight of your reader slowing you down and for small apartment dwellers like me there’s more space because you don’t have to accommodate all those books on shelves or all over your house.

I’ll question the importance of being able to bring around lots of books though. When you compare this with say, being able to bring loads of music around, there’s a very clear difference. The iPod allowed you to walk around with your whole music library, and that was great because when you suddenly felt the urge to listen to something or other, it was just a few swipes on the clickwheel away. But with books, unless you are suddenly struck by the need to read a Shakespearean sonnet or a section of “The Wasteland” (okay I’ll admit that I have had those moments) then you’ll probably only be needing a few books on your reader, maybe the main books you’re reading, and if you’re a student the stuff that you’re studying.

I’m thinking about how important it is to have books in my house or in whichever office I might be working in. Often, as an English teacher, I would find myself needing a poem or a short story because I would think of using it, or would like to reference it in some way or other. That’s why I never got rid of my books, so that they would always be around in the case that I would need them. Now I feel that these two cases, not needing so much memory, but having access to whatever you need, are two important things.

I don’t believe that our readers have to have massive memory capacity. The iPad’s lowest offering is 16GB, Kindle comes with 2GB internal. But then the digital book I’m reading now, in PDF form, is only 2.14MB! More important than having lots of space would be access to books from anywhere at anytime. Assuming that we are buying our books from online stores, it would be a wonderful feature if, after having purchased the book, we could be free to download it at any time. That way, we wouldn’t necessarily have to have it saved on our readers or hard drives, eating up space, but they could be contained within the seller’s servers, ready for us to access and download whenever we wanted. I know that facilitating this kind of service would be difficult and is a possible coding and security nightmare, but if offered, this could make the publisher who facilitates it great. All my books, in the cloud, and I could just grab them and read them anytime that I wanted.

Now’s a good a time, as any, to start talking about costs. First off is considering the costs of readers. In my own experience, aside from computers, I’ve read e-books on my iPod Touch (P12,000) and my Smartphone (P14,000). Both are rather small affairs, and while the iPod had a passable interface for reading books, it was still wanting as an e-book reader. At present the prettiest looking thing on the market is the iPad, which can supposedly goes for as cheap as P24,000. And there’s the Kindle, which has gone to less that $200, in response to the iPad. There are other readers on the market, but it seems that these are the ones that dominate. Now, let’s compare the costs with my book buying habits.

I will usually spend between P2,000 and P3,000 per month on books. Whether I ever wind up reading all these books (and you book buyers know that the pile of to-read is always rising), I do keep acquiring them. If we go for an estimate of P2,500 per month, then that comes to an annual budget of P30,000. This is well beyond even the cheapest iPad. This means that if I diverted funds from buying books in atom form, then I could easily afford an e-book reader.

The difference is that I never actually feel that I’ve spent so much on books. I’ll go into a store and pick something up for 600 or 700 bucks. Then I’ll notice something on sale and snatch it up at 200 bucks. And then a friend will launch their book and I’ll buy it for maybe 300. And I never feel that I’m spending too much, as opposed to the lump sum cost of buying a reader.

Now I have to wonder, is there some kind of way that the readers can be priced cheaply? I know that the iPad is a wonder machine, and if given an opportunity, that’s probably what I would get. But what about the Apple haters? And those people who just want a dedicated reader? Can we come up with a manageable price for a simple reader?

Beyond that manageable price for a reader, can we actually convince people to pay for their digital books? This is the same problem that the music industry faced, and it failed in such dismal fashion in its attempts to address it by making war with music piracy. What are the possible options? What might be viable business models for distributing e-books?

The obvious one will be to sell them the way that Apple sells songs and other media on iTunes. Per book, you’d click and then download the book onto your computer or reader (keeping in mind that it’s always a bonus if you can offer books in a format that can be read on various devices) and pay a set amount for that book. These prices could be scaled, depending on, well the kind of value. However, these values will have to be reassessed. Working with atoms things are clear, you’re paying for hardbound or paperback, size of the book, number of pages, and other physical concerns. But these things are all generally negligible when working with bits, as only a few seconds would differentiate the rates of transfer for books of different length or edition.

I don’t see how viable this would be though. While this might work in the West, I feel like we will have to find another model that would better suit our readership. What this model is, I’m not sure yet, but I can venture some ideas or suggestions.

The first that I can think of is the Freemium model. We could give away our books online, and then ask people to buy the physical copy of the book. This has been found effective when the release of the free digital version and of the print version have been well organized. Some people will decide that they want to have an atoms version of the book. It’s easier to write in, you can have it signed, it looks nice on your bookshelf, and you can smell it! But this also means that a large number of people will download the book and won’t buy it. The upside is that you reach a much larger audience of people who might buy your book if you’ve given it away initially.

Giving the book away probably doesn’t sound like good business sense, but developing a Freemium model may be the way to go. You’ll notice that bands have done this. They have given their albums away and have monetized by selling merchandise, special edition releases of their albums, and concert tickets. While I think it would be awesome if book authors could sell the equivalent of concert tickets, it probably won’t happen. But there may be some other way to tweak the Freemium model to make it profitable. One way that comes to mind might be to do the opposite of what I just proposed. Ask people to buy an atoms copy of the book, and then they can have a free digital copy of it from anywhere. Once again the question of piracy exists there but let’s accept that we will never get away from the problem of piracy and it’s just something we’ll have to work with. I still think, though, that giving the digital copy away free may work in certain cases. What this would mean for people who are making a move away from the physical and to digital, and how we might monetize from their patronage, presents its own problems if this Freemium model were adapted.

Another option I see is subscriptions. Publishers could offer whole copies of their catalogs at monthly or annual rates. Subscription rates could be customized, like cable, where you have basic packages, and then add-on channels, and specials. Again this is an iffy set up. What would help to make this set up viable would be easy payment programs. Of course subscriptions would necessitate regular new content along with the back catalogs offered. And I realize that monetizing is once again difficult in this case. How much do you pay your authors? A flat rate? If not, how do you compute for royalties? By download activity? These are all dynamics which will have to be explored by online publishers, and there are many many more things to consider.

Notice that I only discuss money at a limited level. This is for two reasons. One is that I am very bad at math. The second reason is that I realize that when you look at these models you see that it is going to be very hard to come up with a business model that will fit with our already-limited book-buying public. In my head I’m thinking, how many people can you get to subscribe? And why would they when they can just download most books for free anyway?

And that’s really the big question that I’ve been tippy-toeing around all this time. How do you get people to pay for something that they could probably get for free? How do I manage to sell books when people say, “Ang mahal naman! Bigyan mo na lang ako” for a book that only costs P220.  Obviously we can’t appeal to people’s better nature, much as we would like to. It means that you have to offer a service for distributing e-books that is not merely a distribution service, but an experience. You have to build an experience that people will enjoy, and an experience which people will take pride in being a part of.

If it isn’t obvious yet, I am a member of the Cult of Mac, and one of the things that a member learns is that membership is a point of pride, ownership of Mac products, though more expensive than other products of similar function, shows not only the capacity to buy more (and it’s a myth that Mac users are richer, it’s just that a lot of Mac users are willing to save up for Mac products because they realize the value) but it is equated with the knowledge that one is buying better. It’s money well spent. And Apple has made it so that you have an experience, and you foster a sense of belonging in a group. One willingly brands oneself a Mac User, and wears that consumerist label as a badge of authority.

It’s this kind of fervor that one needs to rouse when attempting to convince people not to buy pirated and trying to get them to pay for something that, with a little time and maybe some ingenuity, they could get for free. There will be physical manifestations to it, but convincing people that they should be paying for content will involve a shifting in consciousness.

This really means designing a process which would be unique to the buying of digital books, and making this process something quick, easy, simple, and intuitive. It would have to be as simple as wanting a book and, in a few clicks, having it in your reader. While I think that a whole design team would be best deployed to conceptualize and make iterations of this experience, I will make an attempt at illustrating the kinds of things that I would hope for:

I’ve just heard that Greg Brillantes has edited a collection of short stories, featuring his favorite stories published in the last twenty years. It’s a must-have, so I log onto the site where I have a registered account and search for his new book. Along with this new book, other titles pop up, among them Brillantes’s short story collections and a literary biography about him. I remember loving “Faith, Love, Time, and Dr. Lazaro” and I see that it has passed into public domain. I download a copy of that short story. While the book is downloading straight to my reader, I check out the list of authors. All the author’s names are hyperlinked. I see the name Carljoe Javier. (I know, but again, we’re talking about a kind of dream sequence here, so indulge me.) I click on that and see his other books. I’m not sure if I really want to download his books, but I open one up and take a look at a few pages, browsing through some of the opening paragraphs of some of his essays. I set it aside, put it into my maybe bin. If I like the story that he wrote in the Brillantes collection, then I will go back to the maybe bin and download his book.

The download of the Brillantes collection finishes. A widget I’ve installed asks me if I would like to update my Facebook status and Tweet that I am now reading Greg Brillantes’s collection. I send the update, and another widget informs me that my friend has started reading the book and he has posted his comments and annotations. I access his annotations, but only up until the introduction. I enable comments as well, so that I can post my comments and annotations of the book in real time, to be shared with other friends who might be reading it. We can have online discussions, and eventually, copy these discussions and if we are so inclined co-author a literary criticism essay, which we can post in the same site where we downloaded the book. This paper can be accessed by the site’s users in helping them decide whether they should get the book themselves.

Other users find our reading of the collection very informative and so they rank us highly. Our rankings as users increases, and we develop a kind of online prestige. As a result, another user who I don’t know sends me a message and a book. She has just finished reading this book, and after seeing what I wrote about the Brillantes’s collection, she’s interested in what I will think of this book. I download it, based on her suggestion, and we begin a discourse, shooting comments to each other back and forth. I recommend a book to her as well.

In attempts to drum up buzz for the book, the publishers organize an online discussion with Greg Brillantes. Seeing my enthusiasm for the book and the time I’ve put into it, I get contacted to join a panel that will get to ask the author questions. While the members of the panel are asking questions, viewers are posting comments and questions, and these are addressed. By the end of the show, it’s announced that a limited edition release of the book will be coming out, signed by all the authors. Fans can also buy the regular print copy.

The following day, I’m reading a short story that plays around with comic book characters. Remembering one of my favorite books by Michael Chabon, I decide that I’d like to go over that again. I flip through the selection, and download it to my reader and start reading. After a chapter, I set it aside. When I pick it up again, I fumble with the reader and mistakenly erase the book. I log back into the site and download the file again in a matter of seconds, and I’m back to reading.

That’s the kind of experience that I would like to have with the reader. I would like it to be as simple as possible. It would harness the full power of the internet and social networking. And it would be seamless. No having to enter lots of passwords, no constant reminders. No bothering with credit cards and access numbers every time that I download something. I want the books to be there in the cloud, ready for me to snatch at any time.

This would be in stark contrast to my experience with books in atom form. I would still keep going to book stores and that experience would be classified by books that I don’t know about and had no plans of buying. Or I would be getting special versions that offer something that the electronic versions cannot.

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3 Responses to Books as Experiences (Presented at the Future of the Book Conference

  1. Pingback: FOTB, MIBF, and the state of Philippine literature (part 1) « tenant on the top floor

  2. Pingback: 5 Reasons E-books aren’t there yet, and how to address them « UST Publishing House

  3. Pingback: 5 Reasons E-books aren’t there yet (and my reactions to the article) « UST Publishing House

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