Aug 222009

I love reading books. These days, mostly business books, as time allows. And yes for me, a good part of the experience is physically holding the book and turning the pages. I have heard the same argument for newspapers and magazines, whose recent demise is well documented. In their case, they’re not only readily available online but also easily customized to an individual’s preferences through RSS feeds, Google Alerts, etc. Thus, digital is well on its way to supplanting the hard copies available at your local newsstand.

On the other hand, good business books start with a foundation and build on those core concepts, illustrating with examples and case studies along the way. Hence, you miss out on important takeaways if you don’t read a book cover to cover. And let’s face it, no one wants to read a 200+ page book on a computer.

Enter the Kindle and all of the look-a-like e-book readers that have started and will continue to penetrate the market over the months to come, and you have the perfect example of disruptive technology. While I don’t own a Kindle as of yet (I’m usually an early follower when it comes to gadgets and wait for the price to drop a bit before I jump in), my friends and colleagues tell me they read more quickly and it’s easy on the eyes. Apparently digital ink technology has eliminated one of the top reasons to do your reading

Now, let’s use the following evolution of movie rentals/ownership…

Blockbuster –> Netflix (via mail) –> Video on Demand (VOD)

…as an analogy to see how it relates and whether it can help us predict the future of printed books and bookstores:

  • Instant gratification – Because the internet is accessible 24/7, consumers have grown accustomed to getting what they want in real-time. Netflix pioneered cost-effective overnight delivery of movies, and now along with the broadband providers, is moving its library to VOD. Let’s face it, if you have some free time now, would you rather spend it traveling to the book store or downloading the title at the top of your list and reading the first few chapters?
  • Convenience – Netflix made it simple to return movies without incurring late fees. When you’re on vacation or in your second office (i.e. the airplane), the Kindle stores all of the books on your reading list and weighs far less.
  • Scarcity of time and space – Except for a select few real classics, most people don’t watch the same movie more than once in a short time frame. Hence, it makes little sense to own a movie, especially since Netflix has removed the pain points from the return process and the marginal cost of re-renting a Netflix movie later on is nearly zero (under most price plans). Similarly, while some folks like keeping good books on display at home or in the office, the trend towards urban living and cubicles means space is at a premium. (Trust me, it hurts me to say this, as I have dreamed of having a library in my future home. I really worry that our society will lose all of its character, and our abodes will resemble sterile laboratories in the not too distant future.)

You might claim the analogy is flawed in that, my definition of movie is as a secondary market (i.e. for the most part, movies are available on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD only after they have hit the theater), while books, by nature, address a primary market (i.e. there is no previously released version). It’s true some consumers watch a movie on the big screen and then rent it again at home (largely due to the low cost). There’s no doubt an e-book has similar residual value (as a reference tool or refresher), because it’s difficult to absorb and digest all key learnings after just one read. However, since you don’t have to return an e-book as you do a movie rental, this argument doesn’t hold weight.

So what’s my conclusion? Book stores will not disappear in the very near future; some genres with illustrations and other characteristics that appeal to the senses (e.g. travel books, cookbooks, children’s books, some novels) will still be preferable in hard copy. But if the Barnes & Noble’s of the world know what’s good for them, they had better innovate more quickly than Blockbuster has in this decade. Providing couches and chairs where shoppers lounge, sip lattes and leisurely preview the latest best sellers is not a viable business strategy. Further investment in e-commerce is insufficient. And with all of that costly real estate on their hands, they can ill afford to be defensive and simply rely on imitation Kindles to save their legacy businesses.