Posted by: structureofnews | October 28, 2010

The Medium Morphs the Message

Digital books now outsell dead-tree versions, according to Amazon – and its top 10 best-sellers by a margin of two-to-one.   That makes sense – Kindle versions are cheaper, arrive faster, and take up no shelf space.  OK, they don’t offer that nice fresh-book smell (I made that up) and there’s something about the feel of crisp paper, but by and large there’s a lot to be said for digital books.

Including that they don’t actually have to be books.

Or at least, books-as-we-know-them.  Amazon has also announced that it’ll be offering another format, “Kindle  Singles” that are much shorter versions of books – good for a couple of chapters of a good idea that may not fill out a whole book. According to the release:

Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century — works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the ‘heft’ required for book marketing and distribution…. But in many cases, 10,000 to 30,000 words (roughly 30 to 90 pages) might be the perfect, natural length to lay out a single killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated — whether it’s a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event.

Well, that’s an idea: Not letting an old format, with its attendant logistical and business model constraints hobble the possibilities of a new product.  Sounds familiar.

Of course, the name “Singles” harks back to the old days of vinyl records, when some songs were released as 45 rpm singles, in contrast to the collections of a dozen or so songs bundled into bigger  LPs.  Some of this was due to commercial considerations – sending them out to radio stations, etc – and some due to the inherent limitations of cutting grooves in wax.  Yet when CDs – which could store much more – came out, they followed the same format.  That’s not so strange – consumers were used to a certain way of doing things, and it doesn’t pay to be too far ahead of the market.  But then of course came Napster and other file-sharing programs, the iPod and iTunes, Pandora and a host of other services, and now that whole model – and business – has been blown up.

That’s not necessarily a good thing for recording artists or music companies, but it is what it is.

So why should books – built around assumptions of a certain heft and size of product, distribution networks and shelf space – be constrained by the past?  The short answer is that they shouldn’t.

A post at JWT Intelligence predicts the return of serialized books and the birth of “non-linear” books with much more open-ended structure.  (In some ways, not unlike the immersive environment some games offer.)   Over at Monday Note, there’s a suggestion that longer-form journalism might survive and thrive in a mini-book format, not unlike Kindle Singles.

Arguably, the main constraints now are customer behavior/acceptance, the need for some kind of business model to underpin the new products – and the imagination of the creators.  Because we’re used to thinking of books as books,  it can be hard for us to imagine something new.

And so it is with news, and news products.  We’re likewise used to stories, newspapers, collections of stories, editions – all the formats and products that are as much creations of logistical and business considerations as they are anything else.  We need to think beyond those boundaries – take real advantage of the new technologies, platforms and behaviors – and create new types of journalism that showcase what we can do and give people what they need.

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Responses

  1. Dickens had the right idea.

  2. [...] it shows that there’s plenty of experimentation that’s going out there – in story forms and in business models.   And that it’s getting easier to try new [...]


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