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Book to the Future: How ebooks will change writing

20 March 2010


Within five years, Wiley's higher education division might be publishing exclusively in digital formats, according to its sales and marketing manager Neil Broomfield. Wiley is the publisher of my book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser, so this is particularly interesting to me. The Older and Wiser series is a good example of a market that will continue to demand print for some time to come, but it's possible we'll see books for many other audiences go exclusively digital.

Since I got an iPod Touch a couple of months ago, I've had a great experience with ebooks on it. I've been using GoodReader to read PDFs. There's a huge amount of content available (legally) in PDF format, including books from Sitepoint, The Pragmatic Bookshelf, and O'Reilly. I've been using GoodReader to read and it's been a mostly great experience, although sometimes it can feel a bit like reading a publication through a letterbox.

There are also some apps dedicated to particular books. I'm enjoying Seth Godin's reboot of Unleashing the Idea Virus, which includes video snippets to help bring it to life. Roger van Oech's Creative Whack Pack is a really nice application too, and there are some great illustrated books including Foxfire (a manga-style cartoon strip) and some apps based on Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. Each one of these takes a moment to learn because you turn the page in different ways, so that might be one area where the iPad's support for ebooks can add particular value.

Not all content works perfectly on the iPod. The Retro Gamer app is great, but feels a bit like reading by microfiche. Magazine pages aren't laid out to be read top to bottom, so you end up scrolling all over the place to find the next chunk of content. It costs a fraction of the price of the printed mag, though, so the value proposition is still strong.

I'm also finding that I enjoy the convenience of having multiple publications with me at once, and having them in such a compact form. I've always dipped into and out of books. Most of the time I've got several books on the go, but that's so much easier to do when using a digital reader.

The implications for writers are interesting. Users are coming to expect a little extra in app-based books, so writers need to think about how they can add rich media and interactive features. It's relatively easy to create bolt-on bonuses, but making it integral to the proposition is much harder. The tiny screen size and the way that people dip in and out will also favour books with lots of subtitles and short sections.

One concern with ebooks is pricing. I have seen reference ebooks priced the same as hardbacks, but I'm not sure they're selling in any quantity. The price point tends to be below £3 in the UK, although some titles can push it to £5. It's extremely common to see apps priced at 59p (of which the publisher/author keeps 41p).

The low price point is offset somewhat by the ease with which apps can be distributed. I'll be writing more about this in a while, but it's not too hard for authors to self-publish an iPhone app and tap into all the iPhone and iPod Touch owners out there. Actually driving downloads (even free ones), is much harder, of course, but the challenge of self-publishing has always been in the promotion.

For some time, I've advised that journalists should learn basic HTML. We're still at the stage where learning to build apps is quite technical, but tools are starting to emerge which will help automate much of this. The next generation of writers might need to be more experienced in creating interactive content if they are to connect with readers. Even if they do not need to program, they'll need to be coming up with compelling ideas for apps that readers want.

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