Toward Augmented Experiences
For a brief shining moment a few years ago, I held out some hope for the book chain. After years of terrible decisions on its digital strategy ("powered by Amazon" -- really?), it started issuing mobile coupons. Not having to worry about printing out the regular 20%, 30%, 40% off e-mail coupons escalated my already profligate book buying habits. Borders' were the first mobile coupons I ever used, in fact. This practice lasted less than a year, however. I had been hoping it signaled an upgraded mobile model that finally might challenge Barnes & Noble and Amazon's dominance. None was forthcoming.
I can't even recall how many times I used both Amazon and B&N apps and mobile Web sites to get more information about a book on Borders' shelves, find a better price and order it on the spot from one or the other e-store. The company tried for a while to compensate by offering free shipping for anything that was not in stock. The sheer fecklessness of the digital strategies signaled their doom. "These guys are toast," I used to say to my wife every time I used a rival app. "This is close to retail malfeasance."
Let this be a lesson to any retailer in just about any segment. Your customers are talking directly to your competitors in your own aisles. If you can't give them a good reason to access your mobile Web site or you brand's app when they are in your store before all others, you deserve to lose them.
The book industry showed signs of life in 2010 despite the carnage at brick and mortar. According to BookStats, revenue actually went up for the year by 5.6%, with a 4.1% rise in book sales. For the year 114 million e-books were sold, comprising 6.4% of the market, The New York Times is reporting.
I think the beauty of mobile is that it enhances book browsing and buying in multiple ways for different audiences. The friend who alerted me to the Borders clearance has been reading Russian novels on his BlackBerry and now Android for years. I can't do that myself, and even have trouble sticking with an e-cook on an iPad. But the digital bookstores on devices are superb sampling mechanisms for me. I have downloaded early pages of several novels and histories from Apple's e-bookstore, which convinced me to order the hard copy via Amazon or B&N. Even e-stores run the risk of having customers hijacked.
The enhanced and animated book is a fascinating development still looking for its breakthrough, in my opinion. The recent "Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" is getting a ton of super-heated praise as the "future of the book." Well, I hope not. This well-meaning animated storybook on iPad follows Morris through a life dedicated to book reading. Apparently the fable was connected to Hurricane Katrina and the sight of books floating on flooded streets. The execution is pleasant enough, but most of the interactive elements of tapping and swiping at pages feel more gratuitous than engaging. The art work is of the predictable Dreamworks CGI style that is already becoming a tiresome convention of film animation.
Personally, I was more enthused and engrossed by "The Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross," an earlier iPad book with a much more singular visual style that evoked a mood enhancing the experience of the story. Augmentation, enhancement -- these are really the key to making mobile matter. Personally, I think these are terms that direct us to think and work harder than the clichéd "added value."
A genuinely interesting approach both to enhancing book experiences and QR codes come from Melville House Publishing this week. The company has issued a series of hard copy novellas from classic authors, all of which happen to have the title "The Duel." Affixed to each is a QR code that kicks you over to what they call "Illumination Material," a downloadable document in epub and PDF formats that genuinely enhances the book. Using the QR code I received for Giacomo Casanova's "The Duel," I was able to download the epub into my iPhone's iBooks library, where I could navigate its hot links easily. The material includes illustrations, anecdotes about dueling and dueling sites, and passages from other great authors about Casanova and duels.
One can image this mobile format being used in a number of ways to augment or streamline the reading experience. In addition to commentary about a given book, imagine if the footnotes of a large non-fiction tome were available as a mobile piece that could be referenced on a device alongside the physical book. Navigating end notes in any text is a pain, and using mobile as a reading companion would not only offload the task to a device, but could also enhance the experience by linking to sources and multimedia. The digital revolution for books does not necessarily have to be contained in the ebook format. Devices can augment traditional reading in much the same way they can enrich shopping -- or anything, if we put our minds to it.