Jack McKeown co-founded and was CEO of Perseus Books Group. He is now director of business development for Verso Digital, a vertical ad netw…

Jack McKeown

Jack McKeown co-founded and was CEO of Perseus Books Group. He is now director of business development for Verso Digital, a vertical ad network for book publishers, and president of Conemarra Partners, a media consultancy.

As the world

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  1. Just leave it to Apple to figure out the e-reader issue. I think most casual users don't want a limited device.

    I have the Stanza app on my iPod touch, and that's a great reader. There are 35+ million potential e-readers already in the marketplace using an iPhone or iPod touch.

    And if the mytical Apple Tablet ever comes out…

  2. OK, I can't resist commenting here. I run a medium-sized publishing company so I have opinions. At the same time, I've been a digital guy for years.

    So, at the end of the day, while the 3 factors stated here are legit, ultimately the biggest – and most compelling factor – is simple (and even more compelling than the parallel in music): convenience. It's simply a PAIN to carry around more than 2-3 books. 10-20? forget it. Hundreds? Impossible. At least with CDs you could throw 20-30 of them in a small case and survive.

    That simple advantage is all one needs. The price points are still too high. The technology isn't quite there. But within a few years, we'll see true flexible screens, easy-on-the-eye text, and full color. And the price will come down to those of MP3 players.

    And, yes, Apple will dive in, as will the usual suspects.

    Suffice it to say that paper is going away. Will it happen in 2 years? 10 years? No one knows, but I would never bet against sooner rather than later.

  3. I believe that for any media business to navigate these waters between digital and print, questions about the timing and degree of e-reader penetration are critical. Each business will need to make its own judgments in this regard, but the core business of print will need to be maintained aggressively even as publishers ramp up their investment on the digital side. Therein lies the rub.

    Case in point; the NYT piece on screen-vs-print reading's effects on the brain has generated over 400 comments as of this morning, almost equally divided between early-adopters, passionate about their Kindles, and devoted print-on-paper readers, equally impassioned in their belief that eletronic reading devices do not convey the same reading experience, and never will. I don't believe there was very much debate regarding the core listening experience of MP3 vs CD, or viewing experience between DVD and video casette. The analogy breaks down between books and these other media at this fundamental user-experience/cultural level.

    I think it will remain an important consideration, and well beyond a 2-10 year time frame.

  4. Aaron Pressman Sunday, October 18, 2009

    Jack McKeown is living in an alternate universe where e-readers are over-hyped. In fact, since the moment Amazon introduced the Kindle, e-readers have been over-critiqued and underestimated. Forrester famously said back in November 2007 that only 50,000 Kindles would be sold. And article after article after tiresome article (including this one) make the same various points about why ereaders won't catch on even as they do.

    Just to put in context a few of McKeown's more egregious misperceptions…the "value" of owning an ereader is compared to buying paperback books and ignores the $5 to $10 per book you save if you are a buyer of new hardcovers, free Internet connections on the Kindle and new Sony's and the unique ability to buy new books almost anywhere, anytime. Ebooks also can be reformatted to larger fonts instantaneously – a big draw for older readers. Ebooks are also lighter and more portable than the typical new hardcover book. And the price of ereaders is falling fast having already hit $199.

    If you click through to the NYT piece he mentions, despite the headline, you'll see that most of the research that's been done and the bulk of the criticisms refer to reading on computer screens, particularly web content, not reading ebooks on dedicated ereader devices (Liu: "networked digital media," Aamodt: "on most people's computer screens," Wolf: "distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps, videos," Mark: "reading online").

    Next McKeown notes that most print books are bought by older folks and asserts ereaders are bought by younger folks. Wrong. Kindle and Sony Reader owners skew older. See for example http://blogs.moneycentral.msn.com/topstocks/archive/2009/05/01/kindle-users-are-old.aspx

    Finally we get the usual stew of objections, such as DRMs stink, new products are coming, it's all so confusing for consumers etc. The same could be said of most nascent technology markets, such as digital music before Apple's iPod and iTunes store arrived or the VCR/Betamax battle or the early PC market and so on. These types of issues get solved – some are on the way to getting solved already – and are overblown. Ereaders are a substantial and growing market and I feel sorry for publishers that get convinced otherwise.

    p.s. who is obfuscating about ereader sales? Amazon says they're not releasing any numbers out of competitive concerns and so they haven't. Don't you think Apple wishes the record labels and movie studios didn't know how many iPods were sold and how much profit Apple made on them? Sony meanwhile said last December it had sold 300,000 readers. Pretty direct answer, I'd say.

  5. My piece is not intended to lobby for a particular position regarding e-readers vs. paper books, but to raise a number of reasonable ( I hope!) questions that relate to the anticipated pace of e-reader sales. I hope that most readers will interpret it in that light. No offsense was intended against Kindle owners, or anyone else for that matter.

    With regard to who is buying e-readers, the same Bowker Pub Track data that are quoted in my piece point to 32% of Kindle sales coming from Americans aged 50 years and older, not surprising when you consider that they represent 67% of book sales generally and 50+% of the population. Nowhere in my piece do I attempt to characterize e-reader buyers except to note that we probably are still in the early-adopter phase of this technology's lifecycle. Early adopters tend to be more experimental and gadget-friendly than early majority buyers, most studies show.

    As to living in an alternative universe, I will admit to composing this in my 18th Century house, in a leafy pocket of Long Island, with my tri-cornered hat set at a jaunty angle. We do have WiFi, however. It is bouncing off the bookshelves now.

  6. This is definitely a topic I've been passionate about for years now and I love seeing it finally bubble up to the "mainstream."

    10 years is a very long time in the digital world. For the older generation, passion about paper certainly exists and perhaps I am overly-aggressive in my time-frame particularly in regard to this generation.

    But for all others (meaning 40's and younger), paper will disappear, except for the odd, decorative art book.

    No one, whether they are aware of this or not, reads a book for the physical properties it possesses. They have simply become used to a comfortable way to digest the content itself: words on a page that elicit meaning (via imagination or knowledge). The medium via which those words are communicated is irrelevant, which is why audio books exist.

    Audio books never replaced print books simply because of visual vs. aural preferences for ingesting words. However, if there is a superior medium for ingesting words visually, print will become obsolete.

    Jack, you're correct – we're in the early-adapter phase. However, we will quickly move beyond. I don't personally own a Kindle yet because I don't like it – bulky, black-and-white, etc. I read on my iPhone and on paper. But when full e-ink, flexible-screen readers come out that truly look and feel as light-weight and convenient as paper, I guarantee paper will die. With the possible exception of art book collectors and the "silver" generation.

    The digital avalanche leaves no one standing in its path.

  7. The adoption factor for MP3 players that most articles on ebooks seem to miss is that with MP3 players that was/is a way to convert an existing library of media to the new format. Even taking Napster and illegal downloads out of the question — which is of course not fair to do — a person buying an ipod in 2005 and/or in 2009 can fill it up without additional investment.

    I'm hesitant to jump into the ebook world because I'm not going to buy even a $200 device to read a single $10 book. And I'm not going to buy buy buy to fill it up if I'm not going to read all that content.

    I like to think that I read a lot, but even at 10 books a year, it seems to be way to long-term investment in an ever-growing market.

    Stu, I know you're a visionary, but you reach too far in calling the medium irrelevant. On some level — the level of pure story — this may be true, but that's like saying a movie and the book it's based on are the same thing. While they may be the same in that an author's story is consumed either way, they are not the same in how that story is consumed.

    Also, while I believe e-readers will increase rapidly, print will die a very, very slow death. E-readers will further marginalize the mid-list, will create a high-end niche market for low-demand books, but top sellers will continue to also be in print.

    As long as Stephen King is alive and writing his books will be in print. Period.

  8. One issue that nobody is addressing yet in this wide-ranging debate is whether or not reading on an e-reader or any screen for that matter — computer screen or iPhone screen or patio screen (JOKING!) — is really "reading". IMVHO, it is not reading, screen-reading is NOT reading at all, it is an entirely new kind of animal and we need a new word for this.

    Some say "screening" might be a good verb for this new kind of screen reading, others have suggested "screading" to me. Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times told me he likes the word, which he coined, "diging" — for digital reading, and pronounced "dih-jeeng". Kevin Kelly the Wired maverick told me: "I'd be happy to see 'screening" used a verb for reading on screens."

    Skimming, scanning, browsing, grazing, there are many words and terms being suggested. The word that best fits this new kind of reading phenomenon will make it to the top of the list, and it will happen organically and naturally, kind of like "if you build it, they will come". It won't be because any one person coined a new word for screen reading. It might happen because some newspaper headline uses the word in a new way, or because some company invents a new device like the Kindle and people start using the device's name like a verb, as many people today already call their reading habits with the Kindle as "kindling" as a verb, posting comments here and there such as "Sorry, can't call you back now, am busy Kindling a new book this afternoon."

    But Kindling only works for Kindles, as it is a copyrighted word. Ask the founders of Google, Xerox and Kleenex.

    Okay, so why does a man who nobody's heard about and who lives in cave in Taiwan think there's a need for a new word for reading on screens? Or maybe not so much a NEED, as a usefulness? Why? Because:

    I believe a new word or term for reading on screens MIGHT be USEFUL so that scholars and scientsits can continue stuyding the comparative DIFFERENCES betweem reading on paper and reading in screens. We know that reading on paper is "reading." But we still do not know if reading on screens is really "reading". That is my point here. Let's find out. Let's do some PHD-sponsored MRI scan studies with brain scans of people who read on paper VS people who read on screens and see if different parts of the brain light up for things like processing of info, retention of info, analysis of info, use of critical thinking skills, etc.

    My hunch is that YES, there is a huge difference in the two reading modes. Oh, some people like their paper books and some people prefer their Kindles and SONYs and whatever, and that is fine. Preferences are cool.

    But is reading on a screen really "reading." I say it is NOT reading. I say we need to look near and far and try to find a new word or term for this. I say the culture needs to start talking about this search for a new word. I say the New York Times should write an article aboout this search in its print edition and in its Room for Debate blog, by interviewing such people as Maryanne Wolf, Jack McKeown, Edward Tenner, Bill Powers, Charles Bigelow, Kevin Kelly, Paul Saffo, Bill Hill, Anne Mangen, Gary Small, Mike Males, Serge Goldstein, Alan Liu, Gloria Mark, Michael Kinsley, Alex Beam and many others who are right now looking into this issue.

    The NEW WORD will not come today or tomorrow. Maybe in 10-15 years. Maybe sooner. Who knows. But a new word is coming, I know it, and it is important to at least acknowledge this and discuss it, pro and con.

    E-reading is NOT reading. Sure, one a few levels, it is reading. But on some very important major levels of brain chemisty, it is NOT "reading". We do not process, retain, understand, critically think about or analyze the words we read on a screen in quite the same way we do when we read the same info or text on a paper surface.

    Ask Cory Doctorow. Ask Richard Curtis. Ask me.

    Better yet, read my blog at on this:

    I might be wrong about all this. I might be right.
    Anne Mangen in Norway has told me to keep asking these important questions, and I will!

  9. I think Stu's argument is a bit fallacious… who would ever NEED to carry around more than a few books? I commute every day to the big apple… and I am an avid reader. I tend to read just one book at a time, though.

    I have no need to carry around 10-20 books. Why would I? Does anyone parallel read that many books at once?

    I've tried the Kindle. The user interface sucks, but that will improve. I think it has great legs for the education market. For the average reader, the pricepoint is still too high. When I can stop into my local library and get lost in a world of books just waiting for me to read, I'm in no rush to get an e-reader.

  10. This is definitely a fun discussion. Of course, it doesn't really matter what any of us says because at the end of the day digital wins. Period. Nothing survives against digital.

    I remember when high-end fashion photographers were insisting to me they would NEVER use digital cameras because they can't get the color and contrast needed for fashion magazines. Now they ALL use digital cameras.

    In the film side of things, there are DPs now who insist film will always be relevant. I asked the opinion of the DP on my current film in production (who has shot top movies ranging from Forrest Gump to Castaway to Spiderman) and he told me it's just a matter of time. Write the obituary on film.

    It's just the way of the world.

    Sure, a few CDs still sell. I doubt anyone under 20 is buying them. Eventually the same will happen with DVDs (even Blu-Ray).

    Print will become unnecessary. Period. The technology is such that at some point it won't even be considered a "screen." Have you guys seen O-LED's? Or true flexible screens (like the prototype Phillips has)? No one will even remember "analog" paper.

    It's not about how many books you carry around at once. It's around convenience. Magazines, newspapers, novels, non-fiction, graphic novels (of course TOKYOPOP too!), textbooks – every kind of reading material can be accessed whenever you want.

    Convenience, guys. It always wins.

    Forget the Kindle. Forget whatever you can imagine right now. In 3/5/10 years (pick your number) you won't even remember we had this discussion. It will have become irrelevant.

    PS Jim – I agree with you that the "medium" is relevant in the context you use it. An audio-visual experience is very different than text-only, or static images etc. When I said "medium" I meant that a text-only (or static image) story doesn't change whether it's "printed" on paper or on a fifth-generation "digital paper" reader. People don't enjoy a text-only (or static image) experience because they want to touch paper. It's because they want to kick back and imagine themselves the story that is being narrated to them by the author (as opposed to have the visualization processed for them by the director). That experience itself will be essentially the same whether the paper is analog (i.e print) or digital.

    BTW, as I mentioned I don't have an e-reader yet either. I'm more than happy to do a lot of reading on my iPhone but I don't think the e-readers are quite developed enough yet for me personally.

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