Tuesday, July 03, 2012

'Powell's Dilemma' Equals Digital Obesity




When Guttenberg created the first press in the western world did it change just the accessibility of printed text, or the text itself? The illuminated manuscripts and the scribes who painstakingly created these works of art were no longer the mainstream, but a high end sideshow. When the Statute of Anne reformed publishing, or when Robert Dodsley and others redefined publishing, or when the Victorian age of literacy and mass reading were born, these changes went far deeper and wider that just the consumer and the transaction?

 It is safe to suggest that these and other seismic shifts were just as much about changing the content itself as changing how it was produced, marketed, sold and read.

To date much of the current digital revolution in books has been merely about pouring physical content into digital containers. We can talk about enhanced ebooks, learning object and all sorts of extensions to the text but fundamentally the text itself has stood still. It’s as if we have all assumed that the 256 page, 75,000 word economic model of the print world is perfect for the digital world. Has anybody seriously questioned it or even thought that maybe its not?

At the end of a interview in last week’s New York Times book review, Colin Powell was asked, ‘What do you plan to read next?’ and his answer was: 

Sigh. That’s a problem. I keep sending new books to my e-reader, and I don’t know which one I’ll read next. Electronic books have become such an impulse and instinct purchase that I buy them constantly and can’t remember what’s on my e-shelf. When I do look, I often see titles I don’t recognize or don’t remember wanting or buying. I’ll get to some of them.

To many this probably was funny throwaway, but it raises an interesting point we all to often take for granted and ignore. We have addressed the simple – producing digital content. We have even recognised the platform need to cover all the device bases. We have dabbled with social interaction and a consumer driven demand. But have we actually forgotten the basics and assumed that consumers just want more of the same, albeit digital or with digital extras?

It is as if we are living through the digital shift but are expecting the fundamentals to stay the same?

Many, including ourselves, have talked about the shift to subscription and rental on demand models but as an industry we still think in terms of sales, of retail and library worlds and its as if we missed Netflix and, Pandora, Spotify.

What we now will refer to as ‘Powell’s Dilemma’ is about digital obesity. In our haste to make buying simple and the books affordable have we have forgotten the reader’s ability to consume them? Its as if we can only see LPs and can’t see singles and miss the iTunes moment, can only see full length movies and can’t see YouTube.

Some would suggest that Powell’s dilemma is good as long as they continue to buy books and who cares if their virtual shelves become weighed down with the unread. Obesity is not healthy, feeding obesity is unwise and ignore the signs may well speed up to migration to on demand and some challenging commercials.

Perhaps it’s time we step back and think through what digital offers us to do things smarter and lead to a healthier and engaging diet for all readers and avoid 'Powell's Dilemma'. 

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