Tools of Change: The Rise of Ebooks

Panelists: Mark Coker (moderator), Joe Wikert, April Hamilton, David Rothman, Russell Wilcox

If I had to compare Tuesday’s panel with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, I would say this. Claire Danes was superior to April Hamilton. Russ Wilcox, a rather cocky gentleman who spoke like some snobby Yale know-it-all with his head held high and dashed off a number of wild and extravagant and unprovable claims, would be comparable to Nick Stahl. The difference is that Wilcox isn’t living off the grid. Indeed, despite the technological benefits of his E Ink invention, he’s all too happy to smudge his fingers and sell the human race to Skynet. David Rothman was Ah-nuld, and he did okay. Regrettably, there wasn’t a nude T-X character who liked to seduce and kill, but I suppose Mark Coker, who started off stiff but began to prove his sardonic worth upon poking holes in Wilcox’s extravagant vale, will fit the bill. But Joe Wikert was the smartest guy on the panel: open to present technological realities and a man who, unlike all the other panelists, was not entirely willing to buy into all the hype.

While I will confess that the Brad Fiedel theme played in my head at numerous points, I can say this. With Coker and company relying on Amazon’s dodgy 10% figure, along with Sony’s extravagant claim that 300,000 Readers had been sold, I was skeptical. Ebooks, after all, represent only one half of 1% of the total market. And to my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been a figure from an independent third party to determine if ebooks are indeed the great white hope that will decimate print and get all of us fighting robots in an apocalyptic future.

Rothman said that Amazon’s DRM was what was really killing this natural evolution. In order for the ebook market to expand, it’s going to be necessary to consider open source. Wikert likewise agreed that DRM had to go away, but added that any e-reader should consider adding value to the print products. If future e-readers didn’t do this, then they would eventually hit an artificial ceiling. “When you’ve got a hammer in your hand,” said Wikert, “everything looks like a nail.” He hoped to see more exemplars of rich content. Video and dynamic possibilities. Fancy little bells. But nobody on the panel chose to consider the issue of whether it would be the author or the publisher that would provide this additional content. Still, Coker did joke that the iPhone might be programmed to vibrate at a certain tone upon a new e-volume of erotica cascading against the technological shoals.

Wikert elaborated further. One product, he said, could be calibrated based on what that person wanted to do with it. He urged the audience (and those who work in this industry) to not only study the latest technologies, but to be actively involved in using these technologies.

This sense of play and flexibility did not apply to Russ Wilcox, who should have worn a T-shirt reading I’M HERE TO PIMP MY GOODS in large lettering readable from half a mile away. Wilcox suggested that Moore’s Law now applied to e-readers. The speed of E InkTM innovations now doubles every eighteen months, all contingent upon brightness, contrast, and speed. He foresees this future: In 2010, the flexible displays expand, with a larger size permitting an advertising-driven model in which the profit machine becomes self-aware. By the end of 2010, a full color e-paper device hits the market — initially limited to pastels. Over the next eight to ten years, various color e-readers duke it out with each other and geeks presumably choose sides in the forthcoming jihad. He also cavalierly predicted — with no hard sales or trend data; because we all know that he’s sworn to corporate secrecy on the subject — that in eighteen months, 2-3% of American households would have e-readers in their homes. Coker quibbled with this, pointing out that he would need an enormous growth rate for this massive jump to happen. There was no mention of the limping economy, much less the incentive for Joe Sixpack to buy the latest Kindle at a gargantuan cost, only to see another version released less than a year later.

I am not really certain why April Hamilton was on this panel. But she brought up a notion even more preposterous than the failure to consider the time and money it would take for authors and publishers to generate dynamic content. She believed that smartphone applications would be the future. Never mind that the book is a rather specific medium and that, indeed, some books may not necessarily work this way. As Rothman observed, because of an iPhone’s limited storage space, apps have the tendency to be deleted. This prompted a rather defensive answer from Hamilton, delivered in the timbre of a beauty pageant contestant, “I would say there’s no single answer.” Well, can you perhaps agree that you might be wrong? Can anyone at this damn conference confess that they really don’t know where things are heading?

Actually, yes. Wikert was wise enough to point out that the early version of the iPhone in 2001 looked rather silly and that the current version of the Kindle will look silly in five years. It helped to talk shop with rapid technological evolution in mind. Wikert expanded on the panel’s general anti-DRM sentiment by suggesting that a Kindle App Store might open up Amazon’s possibilities.

Wilcox suggested that Stanza wouldn’t exist without Kindle. This gave him a ripe opportunity to trot out a catchphrase pertaining to the unit: “the container affects the experience.” And just as he was about to get beyond the topic of E InkTM, he then suggested that E InkTM wouldn’t really make its way onto cell phones. The outside of cell phones maybe. But I wondered whether Wilcox might somehow find a way if Nokia came to him with millions of dollars. Then he might appear on another panel, hold his haughty head up high, and remain absolutely convinced that he was right. (Note to Wilcox: If you’re going to talk like a snob, it helps to speak like William Buckley.)

I don’t want to delve into Ms. Hamilton’s Indie Author Movement (almost TM, but since it represents “the people” in a rather naive manner, I will leave subscript silliness outside of my report). Mainstream publishing just doesn’t have what the Indie Author needs. And how dare these other authors tsk-tsk their fingers against self-publishing? It’s not vanity at all to pay your hard-earned money for a slapdash operation without editorial oversight. The books industry, Hamillton proudly declared, is now as ignoble as the movie industry. Nothing more than highly commercial fare! I mean, they haven’t thought about the niche markets at all! An author publishing her work was never vanity.

“Uh, great. Thanks,” responded Coker.

By the time Wilcox brought up “tipping points,” I wondered if the bright young thing had ever considered the common reader. Fortunately, the next panel brought this very important subject to the center.