Moving Beyond the Constraints of the Printed Page

Don't get me wrong, I still love reading from the printed page. There's something about the feel, the smell, the sound of turning page after page, engaging all my senses in the experience, not just processing text. I love that I can absorb the page in many different ways, viewing it as a whole or focusing on a specific section without having to go through a complex set of view-change commands, scroll bars, and magnifying glasses with small plus or minus signs. In my home life, the only time I prefer digital text is for research, where the ability to search, bookmark, copy & paste, and email far outweighs the experience of sensory deprivation.

That said, I was very excited to learn about Amazon's new program, offering novellas on Kindle. Not just because I am a long-time fan of "short stories", as most novellas are packaged nowadays, and serial fiction, but because it represents a deep understanding that e-books, and digital media in general, are more than just the online version of printed material. 

From the press release:
Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century--works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the "heft" required for book marketing and distribution. But in many cases, 10,000 to 30,000 words (roughly 30 to 90 pages) might be the perfect, natural length to lay out a single killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated--whether it's a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event.
I agree wholeheartedly; I have read plenty of books that should have been several chapters shorter, and countless magazine articles that deserved more space than the editor could give, but until recently any printed material operated under certain constraints inherent in the medium; in this case, the cost of publication.

Between the cost of writing, layout, editing, printing, transportation, and distribution, publishing is expensive. The major forms print media we have today exist because they found ways to operate within that constraint. But digital media removes many of those costs. Writing, editing, and layout remain, but the cost to "print" and distribute is the same for 500 words as for 500,000. Suddenly novellas become a profitable product; you have to charge less, but you also pay the author less so it balances out.

So what does this have to do with building product marketing and why am I so excited?

If you ever want to see me geek out on communication theory, ask me about Media Richness Theory. In short, the richness of a medium is based on the number channels - text, video, audio, touch, nonverbal, etc. - by which the medium can send information. "Richer" is not the same as "better"; in fact, the aim of MRT is to fit the richness of a medium to the task at hand. Phone calls and MP3s both only convey audio data, but they are used for very different purposes. Likewise, there are some tasks well suited to email (reminders about tomorrow's meeting), and some that require face-to-face (proposing to your girlfriend).

And yet many companies insist on making their website and online literature nothing more than digital versions of printed materials.

This causes trouble on two fronts, because you sacrifice the strengths of the webpage, such as a wide variety of information channels and easy navigation between connected concepts, and force it to do something it does badly - display a page of fixed text that's larger than the monitor it's being viewed on. That's like trying to watch an IMAX movie on an iPod, or going to the theater to watch YouTube clips.

For example: a lot of the difficulty in writing effective sales literature for construction products lies in explaining concepts it would be easier to show. Written instructions for a product might fill entire pages, while a demo takes seconds. With digital literature you can actually show it, and you can show it at the right time and in the right place: when your customer needs that information. Why limit your effectiveness by assuming digital plays by the same rules as print?

Kudos to Amazon for having the creativity and insight to realize that.

[H/T ReadWriteWeb]