BookExpo America, the annual event for the authors, agents, publishers, distributors, and assorted vendors of the book industry, just concluded last week in New York City. The gig was filled with handshakes and the tote bags filled with galleys and schwag, or so I read on Fortune's website.

And there's the rub. Technology, and the changing reading habits it influences, has turned the book publishing business on its head. E-books are all the rage, as most tech companies make devices that display them. Physical book sales have declined (Borders went belly-up earlier this year) and Amazon reports that it now sells 1+ e-book for every traditional book it ships.

Personally, I still don't understand it. Are consumers truly rejecting physical books because of their physicality (i.e. is the format dead)? We've been saying something similar about advertising for a while now -- that people don't like the format -- and I wonder whether we're mistaking an effect for a cause. 

Media are vessels for content that connect creators with consumers. Their formats influence the substance of said content -- vinyl pressing limitations required pop song singles to run no more than three or so minutes -- and formats have an effect on experience (generations of consumers couldn't watch feature-length movies unless they got themselves into auditoriums equipped with huge 35mm projectors). But I believe it's the content that ultimately matters. 

Consumers still respond to good ads, and they still read good books, irrespective of medium. Conversely, they hate bad ads or rotten books, or movies, or songs, and no amount of technology innovation or creativity will make much of a difference. So are e-books replacing print books (i.e. is technology a cause), or is the real question how to deliver good books to the right people at the best prices in the easiest possible manner (so are e-books one of many effects)?

The answer directly impacts the strategy for marketing books, whether paper or electronic. I think the assumption up to now is that consumers are evidencing a growing preference for e-books, or at least that's how the media plays it. The quotes I read from folks at BookExpo were kind of defeatist, especially those from the traditional publishers (since the margins on e-books are less and more of them go to technology providers). Amazon and its competitors have done an excellent job of making their readers available for anyone who wants to buy them (Amazon has gone as far as to start running broadcast TV commercials to reach mainstream potential buyers).

But if the challenge is not about some evolutionary migration from pages to screens, it suggests a different strategy than simply making the devices readily available.

Here are three thought-starters on what that might mean for Amazon:

  • Get more involved in content -- I know Amazon has to be somewhat careful in its relations with traditional publishers, but I think it could get more active in helping authors create and share content. No, just just glorified UGC but vetting the stuff in the old-fashioned way...reading it and having critical that it can make the Kindle imprimatur mean something more than just any content (but associate it with better content). For that matter, why not make certain things (again, good things) only available on it? It is experimenting with distributing stuff via its infinite servers, but this would be a quality move, not a quantity strategy.
  • Get readers more involved in content -- Amazon's recommendation engine is sheer brilliance because it works for most people; its user reviews are less useful, and there's ample proof that the system can be gamed when it's not skewed by extreme voices. Why couldn't Amazon spend some money and time to create a better, new level of community and conversation that had both qualitative and quantitative benefits for readers? I know the premise that we're all budding Shakespeares feels good and helps social media platforms sell access to eyeballs, but I think there needs to be more robust reader communities -- perhaps unique to Kindle usage -- to augment any content communities Amazon might sponsor.
  • Create pricing based on reading-- For a new technology concept, Amazon's approach to retail pricing is not only old-fashioned, but not really any different than the way a grocery stores sell soda pop. I get more credit for my continued patronage from American Airlines than I do from Amazon. But I'm not talking frequent reader points, necessarily, but a better way to link experience with the Kindle to crassly obvious financial benefits. For starters, the ugly underlying truth here is that e-books are grossly overpriced…

There's obviously marketing research that argues for making the case that the Kindle is an improvement over the printed book format (that's how the TV spots come across), but I wonder if it's correct. What if the real opportunity is to provide better content?

What do you think?

(Image credit: Kindle)

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