Goodbye e-books, hello apps

"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore ... Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year."

- Wired quoting Steve Jobs on e-readers in 2008

Steve was right. I used to love to read, but how many books do I manage to get through these days? It's a fraction of what I used to, and seeing Jobs' comment recently got me thinking about why this should be.

When e-readers first came out I was excited. This meant I could jump on a plane or sit in my back yard or on a beach with a huge selection of titles without lugging around pounds of paper and, if I felt the need to switch books, well, my library was potentially limitless.

Many other people felt the same way. Sales of e-readers and e-books exploded over the last few years. But according to my friend Doug Pardee, who follows the e-book world closely, "The latest US trade book sales figures, for November 2011, just came out from the Association of American Publishers [and] e-book sales (USD, wholesale, from AAP's reporting publishers) have now remained flat at about $80 million per month for the past six months." This is an unexpected result given the huge sales of Nooks, iPads and all of the other e-book capable devices.

Doug theorized that the reason for this phenomenon is that "Today's buyers aren't e-book readers; they're online-media consumers. Videos, music, whatever. But sit down and read an e-book?"

I think Doug's hit on a key issue: A physical book is expected to be just a book but that same content on an e-reader has to offer much more to be compelling.

I recently saw a video of a 1-year-old baby poking an iPad. She was able to turn pages, click buttons ... to her it was a completely intuitive experience. Then her parents gave her a glossy magazine which she proceeded to poke and prod and get frustrated with. Her parents concluded that, as far as she was concerned, a magazine was an iPad that didn't work (the author also noted that "Steve Jobs has coded part of my daughter's OS").

I think the same problem exists with e-books. I recently purchased "Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral" by Mark Bitterman for the Nook app on my iPad. While I found the writing over the top and the content somewhat repetitive, it was the layout that really disappointed and annoyed me and made me feel I'd wasted my money.

The big problem was that the content takes absolutely no advantage of the digital format. For example, there are quite a few tables that use text that is too small to read and that can't be enlarged even by the usual iPad "zoom in" gesture. In other words, the platform is more or less ignored so what you have is a rough analog that is actually less useful than the physical book would be.

This is typical of many so-called e-books because, in common with the baby's magazine experience, these publications, despite being called "e-books" and being displayed on devices such as iPads, simply don't work well. As and when publishers understand this and start to produce something that does deliver value, I'll bet e-book sales will really take off. Of course they won't actually be e-books any more, they'll really be apps.

Gibbs wants to be well-read in Ventura, Calif. Tell backspin@gibbs.com what you're perusing and follow Gibbs on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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