[Editor’s Note: Former Amazon manager Jason Merkoski, one of the early leaders of the company’s Kindle team, is the author of the new book Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading. This excerpt is reprinted with permission.]

burningEbook innovation is a game of cat and mouse. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of this game is that it becomes all-consuming—and innovation becomes harder to do when you’re trying to keep up with competition. When Apple launched a tablet, Amazon had to follow suit, even though it undoubtedly had other features on the drawing board, innovations that wouldn’t be launched until at least one other retailer had launched them.

I think some competition is healthy, because it forces an evolution­ary Darwinism of features: if a feature is successful, it will be copied. But untested features languish in unread business requirement docu­ments, and resources that would have gone into building those features get redirected into keeping up with the Joneses.

Amazon is winning the ebook revolution, but it may lose the war. Competitors like Barnes & Noble and Apple have successfully blurred the lines and proven that they can provide a great media experience, so Amazon’s brand matters less in the eyes of readers now. Any tactical advantage Amazon has is primarily related to its deep ties with publish­ers, ties that are much deeper than those of other retailers, except maybe Barnes & Noble.

The revolution started with one clunky, four-hundred-dollar device with four shades of gray that could only hold a hundred books, but the war is about all media now, about the convergence of books and audio and video. The war is on as different retailers compete for your atten­tion. Books were once hugely popular, but they have been relegated to a small slice of the media pie. And though book media is still a billion-dollar industry, it’s becoming outranked by TV and movies and audio and video games in per capita media consumption.

A 2010 Nielsen survey of American households showed that books account for only 3 percent of an average family’s monthly discretionary spending, while music accounts for 5 percent, video games 9 percent, and videos a whopping 29 percent. There’s no room for niche players to succeed at just selling books, which is why the digital retailers are getting into the game with all kinds of media. And now that ebook content is being sold at commodity prices, the true differentiator will ultimately be in the reading experience itself.

Jason Merkoski
Jason Merkoski

The winner of this war won’t be decided by generals with scale models of battleships and airplanes and tanks on a simulated table. No, it will be decided by designers, by user-interface artists, by people who connect to the humanistic spirit that flourished in the Renaissance as print books gained in popularity. The Renaissance saw the rise of read­able fonts, innovations in binding and page layout, and the placement of illustrations. And typographers always experiment, whether with the more lavish encrustations of the Art Nouveau period or the German grid style that emerged in modern times.

In the end, design matters.

Spend a weekend in Los Angeles, and then spend a weekend in Seattle, and ask yourself which city you’d rather live in. Seattle started out as a logging town and as a gateway to further riches in the Yukon.

Its roots are founded on the exploitation of resources, as if there’s an infinite supply of trees to chop or gold to mine. Historically, Seattle is a city that has drawn hard-core, hard-boiled businesspeople. That’s why you see the likes of Microsoft and Amazon and Boeing around Seattle. Frankly, it wasn’t the most auspicious place to start a venture that would revolutionize books.

Places like New York and Los Angeles are still rooted in the arts. New York has theater and publishing and advertising, and L.A. was founded on Hollywood, the movies. You don’t get that artistic sensibil­ity in Seattle, and you can tell by looking at the current Kindle and all the knockoffs that copy its design. Bullish as I am about ebooks, something is missing, and this flaw is perpetuated by the fact that all the e-readers are made in Silicon Valley. Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble all have designers in Silicon Valley because that’s where the technical talent is. But what you don’t get with this technical talent is an artistic, book-oriented design.

[RelatedAn e-book projector? Kindle vet sees big hardware changes, and lower prices]

As consumers and readers, we’re not dummies. We don’t want an impoverished reading experience. We don’t want a cracked plastic case and a blurry screen—which, sadly, is what many e-readers offered, especially in the boom years between 2007 and 2012 when everyone seemed to be trying to sell a budget e-reader. For good or for bad, we define ourselves in many ways by the gadgets we use and the clothes we wear. We don’t want to surround ourselves with cheap products. Nobody really aspires to that. We also don’t want to pay for a diamond-encrusted e-reader. We don’t need bling; we just need to feel like the design speaks to us.

merkoskipullThat’s the genius of print book covers. There’s a reason why print book covers evolved to a highly specialized, soulful art form. They add very little to the cost of a book, and yet they make reading a vibrant, colorful experience. When you think back to a book you’ve read, you’ll often remember the cover before you remember any words or ideas. As designers re-embrace the original strengths of print books, I think we’ll see more book-oriented themes in future e-readers.

Eventually, the line between print and digital will blur and finally vanish. Ebooks borrow from print books now, in terms of their design metaphors. They copy bookmarks and annotations, as well as the concepts of turning the page and of page numbers themselves—even though page numbers don’t even make sense in an ebook.

What’s a page number? What’s a page, if you can dynamically change the font size or the font? What’s a page, if you have a game embedded in the book and the game spans many levels? These design metaphors are yesteryear bolt-ons from physical to digital. But there’s an opportunity to reinvent the digital reading experience while keeping the best parts of print.

Companies with more humanistic sensibilities than Amazon will win the e-reader war by making the experience more human, more engaging. Children’s ebooks should be playful and adult ebooks thoughtful, soulful, or entertaining. Companies should create opportu­nities for interesting, unexpected experiences to happen. Perhaps digital insects scuttle across the page if you’ve had the book open for too long without turning the page. Perhaps in a thriller, as you read the ebook, you’re startled by the unexpected sound of a gunshot when you turn the page to a crucial passage. Though this can’t easily be done in hardware, you can create an engaging experience in software and make it soulful instead of awful.

Let’s face it: there’s still something emotionally bereft about a Nook or a Kindle. Perhaps over time the industrial design will become more human, more like the “illustrated primer” described in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Or like the book Penny used in the Inspector Gadget TV series, a digital book with actual pages that could be turned. Better design will be part of the rebirth of reading. But to get there, we must be as ready to innovate in design and soul as we are in technology and cost.

This excerpt is from Burning the Page, by Jason Merkoski, published by Sourcebooks.

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  • Ryan Dancey

    Why isn’t winning the eBook war defined as “replacing all the printed books”?

    Printed books vastly outsell eBooks. That seems like the challenge the eBook business should be attacking. Why are those dead trees still dominating the sales volume for most books? Why haven’t the people who buy and read those books switched to eBooks?

    I am a huge reader. I have more than 5,000 books in my library. In the past 3 years, I have almost completely ceased reading paper books, magazines and comics. All my consumption is digital. I find no material difference in reading an eBook vs. reading a paper book – I don’t miss the weight, the storage, or the mechanics of paper pages.

    I think the idea of an “eBook reader” market is as silly today as the idea of a market for “pocket cameras” has become. You have a pocket camera on your cell phone. You have an eBook reader on your tablet. Focusing on the hardware is silly.

    Here are my opinions on why paper books still dominate:

    1: Discovery of books on all eBook platforms SUCKS. Amazon already sucked, and Amazon-style browsing and discovery has infected every eBook platform. All of them deliver an experience designed by engineers, not by marketers. None of them offer organic, entertaining discovery. They fail basic tests of utility (how hard is it to find all the books in a series, for example – or to be able to buy the next book in a series right from the ending of the current book?). They fail basic tests of marketability (those awesome covers you rhapsodize about? They’re reduced to thumbnails in every eBook store. Thumbnails are useless.)

    2: The prices make no sense. Sure, I get the fact that the publishing business wants to preserve its top-line revenue, and I get all the social-mobility forces that drive executives to fight for that revenue. But it makes no sense. People instinctively understand that digital goods need to cost less than physical goods. The market for Apps EXPLODED when the prices went into dollars instead of tens of dollars. The pricing of eBooks should reflect the fact that the underlying cost model is reduced by about 90% by going digital.

    3: EBooks lack a culture. There’s a feeling of place and community one gets from going to a paper bookstore. Of seeing paper books being read by others. I know people who have bought paper books and then turned around and bought them AGAIN in a digital form to actually read them. They were sucked in by the experience of being in the bookstore and it ensnared them into a purchase even though they prefer to read the actual book digitally. Someone needs to make the Apple Store equivalent of an eBookstore. How tough can that be with always-connected, Bluetooth enabled devices with built-in micropayment systems? All the hard work has been done.

    4: The lack of value in my paper book library pisses me off. Those 5,000 books I own are all in storage. They’re in storage because if I ever get wealthy enough to take them out of storage, I want to put them into bookshelves and have them available if I want to reference one, or lend one to a friend. Right now I don’t want the hassle of dealing with the physical nature of 5,000 books, but I bought them, I own them, and I want to preserve that investment if I can. The eBook system should give me some kind of option like iTunes match to get digital versions of the physical books I already own. Let me scan in a bar code or enter an ISBN number, pay an annual access fee, and get the benefits of those purchases electronically. This is not lost revenue for publishers. Barring some weirdness, I will never, never, never buy those books again in any form. But having access to them would make me happy, and make me a bigger evangelist for eBooks, and that makes the whole conversion away from paper books accelerate.

    I get the fact that the whole publishing industry is riddled with people who wish it would all stop and go back the way it was. People who love physical paper books. People who love bookstores. People who are out of luck. The world is going to revolve and they are going to be left behind. The folks who need to be change agents are the ones who make the devices where the books are read, and the merchants who run the stores where the books are sold.

    I say stop worrying about the eReader wars. They’re boring. Focus on the eBook war, where there is a battle that can be won.

    • http://twitter.com/ApollosCrow ApollosCrow

      I agree with your points about the drawbacks of digital reading, but I come to a very different conclusion. I don’t see these weaknesses as a battle-call for e-book domination. I see them as further evidence that BOTH formats, print and digital, should and likely will continue to prosper. Reading in general is at an all-time high. As e-book sales level off, print still holds 3/4 of the market. This tells me that these points – the cultural aspect, the sensory aspect, discoverability, issues of value and ownership – still matter to readers. Digital and print have their own unique strengths and weaknesses; unique enough that they can thrive side by side, despite the manufactured Darwinism of content writers. And that’s exactly what is happening. I say the war is over, and it’s a tie. Everybody wins. Especially readers, who have more options now than ever in history.

      • Ryan Dancey

        I honestly don’t think there’s any chance that physical books & magazines are sustainable long-term business proposition. I don’t think there’s been any leveling off; everything I see says electronic consumption of reading material is skyrocketing.

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