Market is an open book for e-readers

Greg Mercer

Because you’re reading my column, I feel safe assuming three things. I can guess you are at least tangentially interested in the goings-on of the university and likely a student. Secondly, I feel rather assured you read at least one newspaper. Finally, because you are a regular reader of my column, you are obviously dashingly handsome or stunningly beautiful, not to mention far beyond normal human intelligence.

I bring these assumptions to the forefront of your mind because publishing, particularly news journalism, is changing. It started with this “Internet” thing everyone talks about. As soon as news went online, it was largely offered for free, instantly, rendering even the cheapest of newspapers (excluding The Post, of course) obsolete.

This wasn’t a deathblow by any means, of course. Newspapers continued on, and did fine enough. But with Amazon’s “Kindle” e-book reader, Barnes & Noble’s recently announced “Nook” and a practically confirmed tablet to be released by Apple, it looks like things are drastically shifting.

Of these electronic readers, the Kindle came first. Although it didn’t exactly set the world on fire, many were enamored with the concept. It did generate a lot of buzz, but it didn’t achieve the right mixture of usability, price and style many were hoping for. The Kindle does look strange and clunky, and carries a $260 price tag.

What the Kindle did right is get people talking about the future of publishing. Carrying around one 6-inch device that houses millions of books and newspapers is appealing and makes you believe you’re finally living in the future. And best of all, it gave the newspaper game hope that it could move forward and still make money.

Just last week, Barnes & Noble, the world’s most successful brick-and-mortar bookstore, offered a similar device called the Nook. It builds upon the Kindle in a lot of important ways: The screen is larger and the device, as a whole, is thinner. Instead of a physical keyboard, it has a second screen for touch-typing and can also browse through catalogs of new books. Of course, it still carries that hefty $260 price tag.

The Nook is a nice step forward, but also retains the limited abilities of the Kindle. It was created specifically for reading, which makes it tough to use for anything else, like Web browsing. This doesn’t seem like a problem if you look at previous media (books, for example), although $260 is a lot to pay simply for the ability to read. Especially when paperbacks are less than $10 these days.

Apple, which has reportedly been working on a tablet, has the best chance to revitalize publishing. David Carr of the New York Times wrote on this before, saying with regards to the music industry, “By coming up with an easy user interface and obtaining the cooperation of a broad swath of music companies, Mr. Jobs helped pull the business off the brink.”

Books are a given, and wouldn’t be hard to implement. Amazon and Barnes & Noble already excel at the book business. If Apple could create an iNews service, with 99-cent daily copies and cheaper subscriptions presented in a clean, usable style, it would have serious potential.

Publishing needs a leg up and needs someone to bring it into the modern day. Imagine if, instead of a stack of three or four thick textbooks, you had a single thin device that could also play Pac-Man when you aren’t paying attention in class. You’d still be paying per textbook, but because the distribution is electronic, material costs go down as well. It will never be cheap, but it just might be easier.

Greg Mercer is a junior video production major and columnist for Ohio University’s “The Post.”