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Signs, Portents, Omens; and the Future of Selling "Physical" Ebooks

Jan 16, 2011   [permalink]

I was in Best Buy yesterday looking at tech toys, and what, to my surprise, was the big, up-front, in-your-face display? Ebook readers! The whole front section as you walk in the door, which used to have hot, new release DVDs, is now a large comparison shopping wonderland for ebook readers. Every major reader was there to try out, plus some lesser known ones. (As far as playing, I thought the color Nook was pretty cool.)

I noticed that DVDs and CDs had moved to the back side area, where they used to have slow sellers like telephone answering machines. :)

With that kind of visibility driving sales, it may well be that ebooks follow the data projection to be 25-30% of revenue this year.

One thing I think would be kind of cool would be to see ebooks sold in a physical delivery format like music and movies are. That is to say, music is a digital thing, sold both online and in physical form: as a CD. While of course there are still CD players, the CD is also just a convenient way to buy a copy of the digital music to load onto your MP3 players, phone, etc. A DVD is just an easy way to browse movies and get a digital copy of them.

It would be neat to see a physical product like that for ebooks. It has to be a physical size box you can view the cover on, so you can quickly scan a ton of covers on a shelf. Big enough to read the front and back cover matter. A CD/DVD case is about that size. Inside, it could be whatever: A CD (though ebooks readers don't have CD slots so you'd have to find a computer with one, which is a multi-step pain), or an SD card, or a barcode (e.g. the square "QR" codes you see popping up around) that you scan that transfers you the rights to that ebook and a copy into your Kindle/Nook/etc. library, a numeric code to type in, or several of these at once.

What I'm thinking is that in many ways it's easier for humans to browse a large collection of objects -- CDs, books, etc. -- when they're arrayed on a large set of physical shelves. Despite all the digital data and digital toys we have, humans ourselves are still physical things: We need our eyes to see, fingers to manipulate, etc. So a shelf full of stuff is a useful way to browse. You can scan the spines, quickly glance at covers, etc. Same idea as how physical books are sold today. Large shelves of stuff facing you is a good "data mining" format for the brain. Then, you just want the product in your possession ASAP -- instant gratification -- so inside the package is your ebook, in one or many formats that get you (near) instant access.

Once a standard for that gets adopted it would quickly migrate into the software for book readers. E.g. an SD card slot or a barcode scanning camera. As a stopgap you could type in a long string of numbers for the serial number of your book. (That is, open the package, type into your Kindle, "1234 5678 9012 3456" and viola, you can read Privacy Most Public on your reader.) :)

So the ebook buying experience would become either shop online as now, or: Visit physical store, browse CDish-sized book covers, then to buy it you would either (a) take that object to the cash register, pay, open the package to reveal your private copy of that book as a CD, SD, barcode, serial#, etc.; or (b) you could scan a barcode / type a code right from the cover of the package into your phone, taking you to an online store where you pay and download (or link into your online library) right while you're standing there.

Eventually, as we get "digital paper" or some other form of inexpensive digital display such that you could cheaply have several thousand small (book-sized) physical displays on shelves, then you could have those updated daily/instantly with whatever book covers the store wants to show. (I'm kind of surprised that the ebook readers on display aren't being used as showcases for ebooks the publishers want to sell. They'll have a sample or two but it seems like they should have much more, and a way for you to make a purchase. They mostly now have some form of wireless networking in them too, so they could update daily with the hottest titles. Not to mention, when you buy a reader, it could come "pre-loaded" with samples -- updated in real time -- and click-to-buy.)

Anyway, the "physical ebook" would be just one more way to get people buying books. It might be the only way physical bookstores can stay viable if ebooks stay on the path to replacing paper books.

And, if Best Buy's use of their most important floor space is any indicator, this is going to be a very good year for ebooks!

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