Do Bound Books, eReaders, iPads Determine Content? Twitter Chat #5

I drew inspiration for this week’s Twitter Chat post from a conversation I followed a while back between my friend, (and one of the most forward thinking about all things bookish) Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, repeat offender Susan Doerr (indeed a smart girl/reader/publisher) and Peter Turner (at the tail end, but with an insightful point of view).

The conversation began with Guy’s assertion that print vs. digital is an irrelevant argument, and implying that digital devices were merely containers for content.  As ever, I both agree and disagree with each participant in the conversation:  my comments appear after the end of the conversation.

@glecharles The container is NOT a business model. The print vs. digital debate is tiresome. Content + Context = Value. #fullstop #dbw

@susanmpls @glecharles Disagree. Content is what people want, yes, but containers can be a biz model, i.e. Amazon & it’s Kindle.

@glecharles @susanmpls The container’s nothing w/o content. Kindle wasn’t first ereader; Amazon’s success was value to readers via content + context.

@susanmpls @glecharles Disagree. Content is what people want, yes, but containers can be a biz model, i.e. Amazon & it’s Kindle.

@glecharles @susanmpls If it were all about containers, Smashwords would be Amazon. Or Apple.

@susanmpls @glecharles I didn’t say it’s all abt containers, just that containers are a biz model, though, as @brianoleary says, not for publishers.

@glecharles @susanmpls If your workflow is container-centric, so is your business model. @brianoleary‘s advocacy of “agile workflows” is where it’s at.

@PeterTurner @glecharles Agree: content+context=value but container can and should shape content. #dbw

@glecharles @peterturner Yes, the container shapes (contextualizes) content but it shouldn’t define it; ideal content flows into multiple containers.


So I have to say, it was Guy’s comment that got my attention.  I only follow Guy on Twitter, so it took me a minute to find the conversation that followed.  But I do think that Guy’s statement that Content + Context = Value.

And I do not believe that the “container”, in this case eReaders, iPads or even printed bound books are synonymous with a a business model. Though I think we can agree that the container will influence the business model… Amazon dominates the eBook model not only due to the low cost, high service sales model they champion, but because of it’s strong online presence, and the early introduction of Kindle to the market.  It’s a different model than the traditional publisher to printer to warehouse to distributer to retail store to reader model.

So far, so good.  But here’s where I’d interject my own assertion.  The container not only contextualizes content, but content must be shaped for the unique capabilities of the container.  Because when you’re talking about something like the iPad, or even a smart phone (cell phone novels are big in Japan, for instance), you have a different set of capabilities (and limitations) than you’ll find with the beloved print book which was one of the only devices through which long form content could be delivered.

A bound book requires no power source, it’s easy on the eyes when reading by daylight, and is ideal for engraved illustrations. A backlit screen requires a battery, makes reading long chapters more difficult, but you can incorporate illustrations that move (video, animation).  While a Kindle emulates the functionality of a book (Instapaper and inanimate graphics), it still has enhanced capabilities that might shape the formation of content (annotation for example) in new and interesting ways (book clubs? school based reading initiatives?).

These containers mean nothing without content… but the funny thing is, we’ve never really wanted to pay for content.  We’ve always paid for the container, ro means of distribution: the paper a book is printed on, the cable service that delivers TV, the cinema that allows for a giant screen and a group experience).

So while I agree that content is what gives value to a container, the container will promote the success of different kinds of content.  And content should be created with the method of distribution in mind.  This is how containers and content succeed… in that differentiated, symbiotic way.

New containers allow for new and more varied kinds of content.

Those are my thoughts, anyway.  What do you think?  I’d love to know.

4 thoughts on “Do Bound Books, eReaders, iPads Determine Content? Twitter Chat #5

  1. A stimulating discussion. As a consumer I love flexibility in “containers.” As a writer, I like folks to recognize that while someone can make a living selling containers, Guy is right that people don’t buy containers without content. (Ugh, I hate that word for a creative good.) As long as people value creative works and recognize that there is work, experience and skill that goes into crafting them, then I say let’s sell them the works in whatever containers they like, and be flexible enough to alter the “content” to accommodate the strengths of different containers.

    • Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that I agree with you… but I don’t think most consumers actually think much about the value of creative work. They want to be entertained, educated, engaged… I think that content needs to be created with the end consumer in mind. Shorter chapters written with backlit devices in mind, with more visual impact, for instance, rather than arbitrarily cutting a larger chapter into small chunks.

      But while I always hesitate to use the word “transmedia” (until we find something better, then transmedia it is), I think that we have opportunities to tell stories differently, in richer, more complex ways. It’s a different process, with a range of different results, but I think more tailored choices will result in more consumers of literature, in all it’s forms.

      • Well put. It will be exciting to see how the containers help the content evolve, as for example the length available on a vinyl record influenced the structure of thematic albums like Dark Side of the Moon. I’m always open to new ways to enjoy creative output.

        Nick Carr in The Shallows notes that book-length works were rare before the printing press put books in everyone’s hands. My hope is that as new media emerges, we don’t lose “old” ones that are still enjoyable (I’m thinking an old-fashioned book without video or other stimuli!).

        • Yeah, I think you’re right on there. Book length novels were once rare, but as they become more available, the length was standardized… over 250 pages anyway. Why? Well, it needed to be thick enough to print the book title on the spine, so that it could be identified/discovered once it was shelved.

          I love what you say about the evolution of records/vinyl: i think it’s the perfect illustration of what’s happening. Each innovation is originally used to achieve an already known result more efficiently, but then new ways of using the innovation are developed… it’s an evolution not only of devices, but content.

          You can fight it, but the winners of the game are those that use change as an opportunity to create something new.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *