of yesterday was definitely inspired by some specific circumstances. But when I hopped on the treadmill last night (and while some of us get our ideas in the shower, I get mine on the treadmill), I found myself dwelling on a really key issue:
Talking to your market.
You’ve got ebooks, downloadable audiobooks, online supplements to books (coursepaks, workbooks), video accompaniments (interviews, demonstrations), animated accompaniments…all this STUFF that either is the book or is derived from the book. The book has ARMS – it has appendages.
Is that what the market wants?
Is anyone talking to the market?
Do people really WANT widgets? (Do you see a widget on this blog? That’s right – and unless I’m truly turned on by a title and need to acquire all of its appendages, you never will, either.)
Is anyone talking to the people who are going to use this stuff? Of those who are developing digital products in the book world, is anyone using it themselves? What are we learning from talking to the folks who will eventually consume what we’re creating?
I had an interesting exchange with my daughter yesterday. She’s 14. When she’s not reading, she’s on her computer. When she’s not on her computer, she’s reading. She reads for pleasure and for school. So I figured she was a good kid to ask:
"In your readings for school, would you like it if you could load up all your textbooks on a laptop and read them that way?"
Naturally, as a Brooklyn kid, she immediately responded, "Mom, the laptop would get STOLEN." I wish I could imitate the accompanying eye-rolling. As I say, she’s 14.
Then I said, "What about reading for pleasure? What if you had a gizmo you could actually curl up in bed with? Maybe even read in the dark?"
And she said something that really surprised me. "Actual books are better. You can curl up with them and feel them and save them. If My Sister’s Keeper was an ebook, would i be able to get it autographed and watch as the cover fades off because i’ve read it so many times? No, i wouldnt."
For her, books are an emotional experience. They are, as Seth Godin puts it, a souvenir of an experience. She marks her journey through life with books – the physical objects. They go everywhere she does, even into bed (along with 10,000 other things: dirty laundry, tubes of lip gloss, the wrappers from smuggled candy, and a decrepit old Elmo doll she’s had since she was born).
I was surprised at that. Surprised at how such a digital kid (and try to pry her away from her iPod, my God) is so attached to physical books. But when I look around at my house, which is just wall after wall of books, I realize I shouldn’t be so surprised. I’m very digitally-oriented too, and I have more book-souvenirs than a sane person should. A classic example of the thousands on my shelf: My Psychopathology textbook from college – which is hopelessly outdated, but which I cling to because (a) it was the most expensive textbook I ever bought (at $36) and (b) it reminds me of my senior year of college, which was magical. God knows I haven’t cracked the spine of the damn thing since the 1980s. But after endless stoop sales and book donations over the last 20 years…it remains on my shelf.
People are complicated. This market is complicated. People’s relationships to books are complicated – as are their relationships to technology. This is not an easy course we’re charting. We’re dealing with things like…feelings.
Maybe I should crack open that Psych book after all.