I always find Mike Shatzkin’s blog posts interesting even if I don’t agree with him, and he’s just posted one about the problems that illustrated books are having adapting to the new e-book world. (It is in response to an article from The Bookseller that is, alas, behind their paywall.) The problem seems to be that they’re neither fish nor fowl—not worth viewing on a grey-scale e-ink reader, but too prone to distraction or even irrelevance on a color tablet.
The problem with illustrations for e-books, Shatzkin posits, is that they’re generally intended to be instructive—but tablets offer the ability to include video instructions rather than simple still images. So why not just do that instead? It does require different skill sets, and you end up with something more like an app and less like a book, but if it meets the need better, what reason could you have for sticking with simple still images? (And why would any reader buy something with simple still images when he could get video instead?) And if the publisher still has to produce a print version anyway, this means he’s just spent a lot of extra money on video for just the on-line version that isn’t going to do one thing for the print.
Also, someone reading a book with an e-ink reader could generally only be distracted by some other e-ink book, but someone with a tablet could read his email, social networks, watch videos, surf the web, and so on. And there are an awful lot of instructional resources free on-line that might serve the same purpose as the purchased book.
Shatzkin suggests that the best place for illustrated e-books might be as part of a vertically-integrated strategy, in which the company producing them uses them as a component of a system of events and tie-ins that could give people other reasons to buy them.
At first it seems a little funny that tablets are doing so much for magazines but so little for books that share a lot of the same form factor except for being longer. But people (even Jeff Bezos!) prefer reading shorter works on tablets because of the eyestrain factor, so perhaps it’s not so odd after all. Magazines, newspapers, and social network aggregators, with their bite-sized chunks of content, are just right for that. E-books, not so much.
Publishers the Bookseller spoke to, Shatzkin writes, seem to think the problem is temporary, and will be resolved in five years or so, but Shatzkin isn’t so sure. And neither am I. If books are falling out of favor, then perhaps illustrated books will become entirely things of print, and their function on tablets will be served by things that seem less and less like traditional books. But as with so much of e-books’ future, it really remains to be seen.