Monday, November 19, 2007

How Come Print Isn't Dead Yet?

The consumer market rewards inefficient behavior if it's easier than change. That's the summary of why print isn't dead.

More on that in a minute, but let's first look at where print actually is dead: businesses. How many businesses still own typewriters? How many use paper adding machines? None, at least on this side of the world. Most people carry now Treos instead of Filofaxes.

Every day, we read and write enormous amounts of text on screens when we go to work. We do this because businesses (well... some businesses) cannot tolerate inefficiencies that are simple to fix. Migrating from typewriters to computers, Filofaxes to Treos and slide shows to Powerpoint are good examples of easy efficiencies.

But when we get home, we have racks of books sitting on shelves, collecting dust and taking up space. How did those books get there?

  1. Trees cut down using oil-powered machinery
  2. Trees then transported using oil-powered trucks
  3. Paper mills process tree using coal power
  4. Paper transported to printer via trucks
  5. Printed books transported to warehouse via trucks
  6. Warehouse has an HVAC using coal power
  7. Books then distributed via trucks and planes to stores or direct to consumer
  8. (Optional) Consumer drives car to store to find book and buy it in an air conditioned store
That's got to be one of the most inefficient delivery systems for intellectual property besides chemically-processed film. Print can be transmitted anywhere in the world in seconds. With my broadband connection, I could download whole books in a few seconds.

Print distribution is inefficient because it's easier to keep it that way than to fix it. Publishers want the same locked-in business of publishing the same content as an expensive hardcover followed by a cheaper paperback. To convince readers to do something different and keep the margins just as high sounds too risky. Plus, book store owners don't want to go out of business like Tower Records, so they probably pressure publishers not to change anything.

Today Amazon launched their Kindle device -- a wireless device for reading and buying books. You would think that people interested in the environment would be very keen on Kindle and digital distribution of books. But instead, what I have read a lot is:

a) "I could buy 40 books for the price of Kindle"
b) "When I buy a book, I want my right to give it to someone else" (the age-old DRM complaint)
c) "Why should I buy something so ugly?" (this is my favorite)

The trick to marketing to consumers is you have to give them something they don't have now and convince them they need it. Of course, it doesn't matter if they actually need it. Kindle doesn't do a very good job of this, hence the complaints you see above.

Let's look at a marketing success that changed distribution: the iPod. For music, Apple has already convinced people of the first two by overcoming the last one. Buying a iPod -- which some people have done a few times over -- costs about 20-30 CDs. Why buy the iPod when you can get a CD player for like $10? The iTunes Music Store gives you DRMed music and no right to transfer -- and they've sold a billion songs and videos or so.

All of the downside was initially overcome by the iPod being a slick looking, hip device. And now that people have used it and ripped their CDs -- I actually had to go find my CDs the other day -- most people realize the benefit of having a digital music collection and a portable device to play it. Even if Apple stumbles, digital music isn't going away.

People forget this when thinking about Kindle, an ugly duckling. No one considers the space they dedicate to hundreds of books in their house? They don't consider carrying hardcover books on airplanes or on the train? They don't consider the amazing waste of space called "public libraries"? No. Actually it seems more important that the device be attractive.

But, you know...I could also be the only one who, when buying a book, thinks that I'll have to find space for that book and inevitably lug it around in the future. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it's almost 2008 and weren't books supposed to be a thing of the past like 30 years ago? I've been trying to get rid of books forever. I usually give away books I would have once kept, simply because I don't want to dedicate the space to all of these books.

Well, I commend Amazon for trying to push forward with Kindle. I think their recent movie (Amazon Unbox) and music (Amazon MP3) offerings have been great. A friend ordered a Kindle and I can't wait to see what he thinks of it. I agree it's pricey, but I also think if one believes in something, the most effective vote for an idea is with cash.

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