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In the last year, however, devices with LCD screens have reëmerged as credible e-book readers. Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad are leading examples. The LCD screens use battery power faster, but they have the important advantage of being able to show moving images and full color, capabilities that are still at least a year or two away for electrophoretic screens.

For book publishers, color screens are interesting but probably not revolutionary. Vook titles like The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen ($4.99), a cookbook that bundles recipes with related instructional videos, provide a taste of what’s possible. But with most long-form writing, the words are paramount. If their purpose is to stimulate the mind’s eye, then color and animation are overkill, which is why I doubt that the iPad will wholly undercut the market for the Kindle-­style devices.

For magazine, newspaper, and textbook publishers, on the other hand, the iPad and the wave of tablet devices just behind it create enormous opportunities. Magazines are distinguished from books not merely by their periodical nature and their bite-size articles but by their design. If digital-age readers still want information that’s organized and ornamented in the fashion of good magazines–and there’s no reason to think they don’t–then devices that mimic the form and ergonomics of old-fashioned print pages will be needed to deliver it.

But to succeed on the new platforms, publishers will have to innovate, not simply imitate established media: they will have to move beyond the current crop of static digital magazines. The problem with most of the publications built on e-­magazine platforms from Zinio, Zmags, and other startups is that they are simply digital replicas of their print counterparts, perhaps with a few hyperlinks thrown in as afterthoughts. Publishers should look for better ways to use tablet screens such as the iPad’s, with its multitouch zooming and scrolling capabilities, and to make their content interactive.

There are many reasons, however, to suspect that the transition to the new distribution technologies will be rocky for the traditional publishing industry. For one thing, publishers may not be able to charge as much as they’d like for electronic editions. Kindle customers have frequently boycotted e-books priced above $9.99, and publishers’ plans to charge up to $14.99 for e-books sold through Apple’s iBooks application have raised a serious outcry.

Magazine and newspaper buyers, too, have been trained to expect lower prices for digital editions. The New Yorker costs $35.88 per year on the Kindle, compared with $39.95 for a print subscription and $234.53 on newsstands. The $0.75 price tag on the Kindle version of the Sunday New York Times, whose newsstand version costs $5 or more, gives me a larcenous thrill every weekend. (And obviously, I can read newspapers on the Web, at least for now, and pay nothing.) On top of all that, there is little information yet about how readers respond to the ads inserted into the e-reader versions of magazines and newspapers, or how much publishers will be able to charge for the advertisements. And generating elaborate interactive content for digital periodicals will almost certainly drive up production costs.

The new digital reading platforms do, of course, provide an upside for traditional publishers: the technology will give them the opportunity to package material in surprising new forms that could attract new audiences.

In the best scenario I can envision for the publishing industry in 2020, basic text-centric digital content (nonfiction books, novels, daily news) will be so accessible and cheap that it will actually turn more people into regular readers, the way dime novels did in the 1870s and paperbacks did in the 1940s. In this way, publishers could begin to make up in volume what they will inevitably sacrifice through lower prices. But at the same time, they will be creating compelling multimedia experiences and packaging them at higher prices. After all, consumers who are willing to drop $14 to see Avatar in 3-D ought to be willing to spend the same amount on an edition of Hamlet souped up with video clips of Olivier, Jacobi, or Branagh. Maybe.

Wade Roush is the chief correspondent at Xconomy and a former senior editor for Technology Review.


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Tagged: Computing, Apple, iPad, Sony, e-readers, e-books, Plastic Logic, Amazon Kindle, Nook

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