Crunched: the Next Generation

Everyone seems to be writing about how the economic crisis will affect their small part of the world, so I think I should do to, especially now that Robert Peston has transcended to a higher state of being and will be unlikely to comment on ereaders. Usually this would be a little too obvious but the reason I felt compelled to write is that at the exact same time half the world's banks spontaneously combusted the next generation ereaders emerged like new born defenseless hatchlings into the cruelty, pain and danger of the grown up world. Awww. iRex announced the new iLiad. It's big, (10.2" big), shiny, comes with a touch screen and costs what, even in times of boom and plenty, would be considered alot: $849 with wifi (not 3G). So in the UK probably £849. Without wireless. Still, designed with the business user in mind it looks good and might work.

Then Sony announced their new reader, the PRS 700. And, praise be, it comes with a touch screen, looks shiny and new, keeps the cool leather case; alas, shame be upon it, there is no wireless connectivity. Price point = $399, you do the maths for the UK version.

If all this excitement wasn't enough leaked pictures started appearing of a new, shiny, sexier(ish) Kindle, making a perfect storm of new ereaders that between them mark round 2.0 in the long hard road to flawlessly desirable ereaderdom, even if we don't know whether the Kindle pictures are real or not. For fun we can assume they are.

The irony is of course that every economic chart currently resembles a cliff or at least the bad side of a relativelty steep mountain. There has been much talk of how publishing might be "recession proof"; of how sales are up due to Super Thursday and the impending Frankfurt Bookfair will be as big, glitzy and money spendingly awesome as ever. To my mind such talk sounds a bit like the commercial equivalent of waving a big red flag at a big angry bull, but no matter. Book publishing has always survived previous recessions roughly in tact so it's fair to assume the same will happen this time round. We can assume that demand for books will not be as elastic as for Ferraris and second homes in Hampshire.

All of which might suggest that there is great potential for ebooks at this juncture, as there is a flexibility inherent in the format that allows for greater responsiveness to market conditions and experimentation in commercial models. All of which is fine, but won't really matter if nobody buys any ereaders, the principle consumption vehicle for ebooks. Articles on consumer spending are a plethora of dark clouds and the ereaders, as a reasonably large discretionary spend on a unique piece of functionality, are caught up in the high street maelstrom. All three of the ereaders announced may fall into a category of goods savaged as the credit crunch carries on crunching with the result that ebook forecasts have to be revised for 09. Demand is, one would think, fairly elastic for an iRex iLiad.

It comes at a sensitive time for digital publishing as the industry finds a toehold in reader's imaginations and retailer websites. This is an area of publishing that has never experienced a recession and divining what impact it might have is like guessing which bank will fail next- a matter of luck as much as judgement. Charlie Stross has written that no one knows what a web 2.0 recession looks like. Not a 20th century one seems a safe answer, if such an answer can be said to exist. Credit to the manufacturers they have all, by the looks of it, upped the stakes in terms of the quality and functionality of the next gen readers. We have to respond in kind by making sure that our products are available and of high quality- books that are worth investing in, worth skipping a restaurant and staying in for and easy enough for anyone to do so. Ebooks have to be as good as their print cousins- and better.

The long winded message of this article can be summarised fairly easily: to ensure that the just announced next gen of ereaders doesn't fail, manufacturers will have to seriously consider cutting price points in reaction to the (real and anticipated) collapse of consumer demand as a result of the crunch. While ebooks will be robust enough without it, they could really start kicking ass if we get a bit creative.

Apologies to anyone immeasurably bored of hearing the words "credit crunch" and "economic crisis". You are not alone.