I found something very informative (many things actually) among George Walkley’s notes from the O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference. (I’m annoyed, by the way, that I didn’t stumble on George’s excellent blog earlier but my helpful friend, sf author Marianne de Pierres, recently pointed him out to me and I’m glad she did)

Anyway, I’m glad I read George’s notes because it helps me settle an argument I had with Rob in the car on the way to work this morning. We were arguing vigorously discussing what it is that will make e-books tip. Rob says it’s the device. He pointed to Blue-Ray and said the writing was on the wall way back when Sony shipped Blue-Ray players in Playstation 3 consoles. It wasn’t the retailers and movie studios signing up with Blue-Ray that ultimately did Toshiba in, he argued, it was the fact there were so many Sony players already out in the market that the retailers and movie studios could do little else but follow consumer demand. Fair enough point (or at least, I begrudgingly acknowledge that now) He also pointed to the iPod, now an almost ubiquitous device which has fuelled a billion-dollar market in digital music.

Aha! I cried. But it wasn’t the iPod that tipped digital music, it was the mp3, in other words the format. I argued that e-books will tip when we have a universal file format that publishers are prepared to support and e-book readers are configured to read. Perhaps it will be the .epub format, I hope so anyway since a reflowable format is going to enable faster uptake of e-books on mobile devices, especially phones.

Turns out neither of us were right, as Brent Lewis of Harlequin pointed out in his presentation Digital Strategy and Action at Tools of Change. (Harlequin, by the way, have been quietly setting out being world leaders in e-book publishing since 2005)

Brent said something so profound yet so simple I’m sure it’s the reason many publishers, especially Australian ones, haven’t noticed what they’re missing out on:

“E-books are about benefits not technology.”

He went on to explain what the most desirable benefits are to e-book consumers:

  • immediacy
  • volume
  • portability
  • product opportunity

Seems obvious, so why is this so profound? Well, because usually the most profound things always seem obvious when they’re uttered, and then they’re followed by a slap upside the head for not thinking of it earlier. It’s natural to be seduced by the technology when thinking about e-books. There’s a host of sexy devices out there now, even oh-so-naughties matte white ones like the Kindle. There’s a dizzying menu of e-book formats and proportionately astronomical permutation of possible decisions to make about which formats to produce, distribute and market. And underneath it all there’s always the nagging doubt that people don’t really want to read on a screen, do they? (Forgetting of course, the 8-10 hours most of us spend in front a screen everyday already)

The reality is, if we re-orient our thinking away from technology and toward the customer (pretty much marketing 101) we can clear our foggy heads and start thinking about how to create a value-proposition that customers will go for. And that’s what Harlequin have already done. They’ve understood the unique and inherent benefits that e-books offer over print books – immediacy, volume, portability and product opportunity. They’ve also done a good job of understanding who they’re customers are. Romance readers, like a lot of genre fans, are inclined toward community. They’ll make good use of social networks, so eHarlequin.com does too.

The reality is, as it turns out Rob and I were both really arguingconfidently asserting (and refusing to acknowledge we essentially agreed with each other) it will be a set of conditions that tip e-books not a single element. It will be a whole combination of things: device, format, pricing, distribution, volume of content, DRM and many others. Some of these are chicken and egg factors too. But publishers will get there faster if they think about benefits first and technology second.