tablet readers don’t want content?

At least that’s what the president of Hearst publishing claimed. Which sort of makes sense, in a weird,lazy, just give me what I’m accustomed to so I can scan through it and get back to my day sort of way. For me it makes absolutely no sense at all. Why wouldn’t you want video with your magazine? Or at least audio? Why wouldn’t you want the magazine to be interactive in a way that allows you to screw around with it a bit more and make it “yours?”

Which would have been good questions, and maybe they were posited/answered and maybe it just didn’t get picked up for this article, but they’re still questions that don’t really get a satisfactory answer. What I thought provided a better picture of what may have been happening was this quote later in the article:

“We were frustrated with how unstable the app was,” David Granger, Esquire‘s editor-in-chief, told me in an interview at Esquire‘s offices earlier this month. “We had a lot of complaints, a lot of bad reviews,” he said of the reason for switching to Adobe’s publishing software.

Esquire, btw, is owned by Hearst, so it fits together rather well. It leaves me wondering how much the readers didn’t want the extra stuff and how much was that the extra stuff was provided in a crappy app? I’m a sucker for extra features, I’m one of the people who listen to all of the commentary tracks to a movie and googles a movie for whatever easter eggs I didn’t find, but even I wouldn’t want any of the extras if it made what I was watching unstable and glitchy. It shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that readers would react more positively to a pared down format that works than to a format abundant in extras that always crashed on them.

This is something that irks me a bit because it seems like a good excuse for companies to essentially provide a PDF file of the text and let it go. With the digital format, we should embrace the idea of extras, of multiple layers, of an experience that goes beyond the text. I think this is also the best way for publishing house to really market themselves and find their niche. I think that content trumps everything. The most important piece of content is whatever work is at the center of what is being built. All the commentary tracks in the world don’t really matter if no one is willing to watch the movie in the first place. But assuming we have several publishing houses that put out quality work, what sets them apart? well, I think it can be the extras they provide.

For a comparison, I’d like to point to The Criterion Collection. For anyone who doesn’t know, The Criterion Collection releases movies that aren’t exactly summer block busters but which they believe are significant to the art form. While they clearly love David Fincher and Wes Anderson, they also release films by Agnes Varda and Yasujio Ozu.  They not only do the best to put out a high quality representation of the film, they also pack in extra features that you really won’t find anywhere else. With the movie Brazil, they packaged in an alternative cut edited by the studios for a more upbeat ending, a documentary about the war waged by Terry Gilliam against the studio to get his version of the film released, a documentary of the special effects (before digital special effects came into their own, so we’re talking some very impressive, classic Gilliam work) and a nice booklet. With their bluray editions, the special features are still there, and the booklets seem to be of heavier stock, with a chunk of better production value to them. In short, they don’t skimp and they have a very loyal following because of it.

Which is what publishers need. They need to cultivate a product that people want, because they certainly don’t need it. As it is, though, an ebook is an ebook is an ebook. Some go out of their way and have begun to really embrace the freedoms of the digital format, but they’re not the norm. on top of that, with the digital format the publishers are fighting the cost image. Now, from everything I’ve read, a whopping few bucks of a book’s price goes into the physical construction of the book, from buying the paper, to printing the words, to binding it all together. It’s a remarkably cost efficient process. Still, that means the TPB you payed $15 for should still be $12 if you buy and download it from B&N. Which should be great, you saved three bucks. Except all of us can made a .docx file or a pdf.  We can even download software that will do it for free.

So why are we paying $12 for something that doesn’t appear to cost much of anything to produce (of course, ignoring costs for editors, marketers, the writers themselves, etc. because these costs are often ignored or seen as something that should be cut for the sake of lower prices)? Well, that is where the extras would come in.  You’re not just paying for the text, but you’re also paying for all of this extra crap that comes with it. And it doesn’t even have to be incredibly great extra crap. Were there several cover designs being considered? Load them in as extras. Does the author feel okay with loading up a doc file with all of the edits saved so a reader can comb through and sort of reverse engineer the book? Awesome! A ten minute interview with the editor? A vid of part of a signing event? ANYTHING. And with classic novels, you can include scholarly work, past covers, etc. There is so much to do out there, especially if you’re creative (I’m not).

Just don’t do it if your format is crap. If your file is going to freeze my viewer every time, crash my o/s and force me to restart, yeah, just go with the story. That’s perfectly fine, too. But if you have something that works, that makes sense, load it up and create a niche. Some sort of author’s commentary track would be incredible.

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