There’s a lot of talk around publishing circles, particularly online, that’s of the “woe is me, we’re screwed” variety. I’m no stranger to that myself. But despite the dark currents of the conversation, and the miserable financial numbers supporting the cause that seem only to get worse, there is hope of a sort. For years, I’ve had the rumblings in the back of my head about digital readers of some type. Nothing remotely like the tablets and Kindles and such that exist, but far more practical and concise creatures that hadn’t quite been invented yet. I wanted that tablet they had on Star Trek, you know, the the small, thin hand-held thing that was a complete library and wireless connection to the computer banks rolled into one handy package? That’s the thing that I imagined.
If “publishing” was to have a future, it was going to have to be in a less physical, digitized sense. It was obvious. All things around us, informationally, were moving away from hard physical things to the electronic. It was naive to think that paper and ink alone would weather the storm. We had to find a way to digitize. One small problem, though. The preferred means of presenting this transition didn’t quite exist. And it still doesn’t, but we’re getting closer. Here is a very nice description of where we stand in terms of the development of a useful electronic reader.
To me, the problem was, and remains so, how to present the same kinds of information to a digital audience without undermining the whole effort. I’ve never been a big fan of publication websites that simply regurgitate the very same print articles with little or no visual enticement. It was a question of packaging. At its roots, people have always been paying for the packaging. Books, magazines, newspapers; prices were entirely based upon the costs of producing the packaging within which we presented the information. Web sites had discarded packaging altogether, in favor of simply posting long blocks of text with an occasional photo. The common perception is that publishing is a text-based enterprise; the words as king, queen and master. It’s not. Publishing is a visual medium at its very core, made so by the ever-expanding creativity necessary in page design to attract readers. The words were malleable; a giant glob of Play Doh the could easily be squeezed in the cracks between the visual elements of your presentation. The packaging was what got readers in the door, that’s what attracted their eye, that’s what they paid for. This conversion to the internet ignored that basic fact, choosing to instead present the information in the simplest (and cheapest) manner possible then try to sell it. It’s like walking up to someone’s porch, dumping out a box of random shoes and saying, “Buy some.”
To me, websites were simply too rigid, too awkward and, quite frankly, too unreliable visually to be useful. Plus, who in the hell wants to read a book or a magazine sitting at your computer desk? Even a laptop’s not a particularly comfortable experience. And hand-held devices are too small to handle the job. What we need is a lightweight screen the size of a nice computer monitor, preferably taller than wide, with a touch screen and wireless internet connectivity. A miniaturized computer designed to do nothing but handle media of all types and be comfortably carried around and used anywhere. That’s not so much to ask, I don’t think. Most all of that technology already exists in one form or another. All it takes is one company to come up with one of these things that costs less than $100, and we’re in business. An entirely new medium to play with, one designed by the very technology that destroyed the old models. We can combine the best elements of both worlds; the packaging, visual presentation and portability of print with the vast network effects of the internet. That’s where the future would be.
A couple years ago, when I was doing Pet Companions Magazine, I fooled around with a digital edition for a time. It was to be sort of a hybrid of a website’s connectivity with a magazine’s presentation. I designed it to be somewhat reminiscent of an old time newspaper, vertical and long. I thought that was clever, I guess. I even used some old-timey looking fonts for the mood. It was a very rudimentary attempt at making something that would play on this electronic reader that didn’t exist. Now I don’t claim to be a graphic designer or anything like it, my pretensions only go so far, but I think I did alright considering the absurdity of the entire enterprise. Trying to make something for a medium that doesn’t exist for an audience that’s never seen one. My next attempt was going to be better, though, but then the economy fell off a cliff one day in September.
Anyway, the electronic reader will be the future, eventually. Especially the flexible paper-like type that you can roll up. The right set of features (and price-point for mass distribution) and that thing is a god-send. But these things will only work if it’s universal. The troubling thing, to me, is the deals between content producers and device makers. It’s a lot like going to buy a television, and finding that the Sony will only play Fox programming; the Panasonic will only play Warner Brothers stuff, and the Zenith only plays Universal material. We need all content playing in all devices. And they need to be cheap, too. Like a television and a DVD player; a virtual necessity in millions of homes. This is short-sighted, let’s- make-a-quick-buck-now thinking. If you’re a device maker, do you want to sell a few thousand of these things or a few million? If you’re a content producer, do you want an audience of thousands or millions? Which gives you the best chance of finding a way to make money?
But we’re still a ways from that. We’ve got lots of technological progress, failed experiments, website-based news sites that eventually run out of money, and the collapse and fall of the newspaper industry over the next two years to get out of the way first. Then we can get on with the future.