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Change is unstoppable, so people may as well get on board with it.  It’s easier to go with the flow than to try and swim upstream, as they say.  These cliches are particularly pertinent in the technology industry, where change is not only constant, but seems to be moving faster than ever.  I am a firm believer in embracing change of all kinds, which is perhaps why I embrace new technology so quickly.  I’m in a never-ending quest to banish paper from my working life (instead, I use a combination of Dropbox, iPad, and now iCloud), I read my newspapers on iPad and my books on both my Kindle and iPad, depending on the situation.  While many lament the demise of good-old-fashioned bound-and-stiched books, I see this as an inevitability: book stores are closing and going out of business while the e-book market is booming.

What is happening to books has already happened to the world of music and, to a lesser extent, movies and TV shows.  iTunes is now the world’s largest music store, and old standbys like HMV are on the path to becoming extinct.  Kids these days now catch their TV shows on Hulu, Netflix or download torrents.  The idea that one should be forced to sit down in front of a television at a pre-set time each day to catch a particular show seems absurd in retrospect.  I mean, I don’t *have* to read the newspaper when it appears on my doorstep each day, so why should I *have* to be on the couch at 6pm for the local news?

But it dawned on me a few days ago that perhaps the march to digital media isn’t completely irreversible.  Two recent news items got me thinking about this, because in both cases people seem to be adamant about buying physical media instead of their more convenient digital counterparts.  The two issues are the death of Steve Jobs and the disbanding of rock band R.E.M.

These two items are completely unrelated and obviously of different significance depending on your particular persuasion, but to fans of the band or Jobs/Apple, their respective passings trigger strong emotions — it’s the end of the road, if you will.  As such, fans are feeling melancholy and nostalgic and want to find an appropriate way to remember the band and the CEO.  In cases like these, digital media doesn’t seem to cut it.

I was perusing the MacRumors forums the other day (as I tend to do when time permits) and noticed that, although members of the forum by definition are mostly tech geeks, many seemed determined to buy the hard cover edition of Steve Jobs’ pending biography by Walter Isaacson.  Here are a few selections from that thread:

This is the one time I recommend a hard copy book over an ebook.

I got the hard cover. It is on sale on amazon.

Yep. I canceled my Kindle pre-order and pre-ordered the hard cover.

I ordered the hard cover book on amazon in the summer. I don’t want this book stored on my kindle.

Just got the Hard Copy pre Ordered, As much as I would Like it on the Ipad I want a hard copy to Keep

These are Apple fanatics, many of whom have iPads created by the man they wish to remember, many of whom have online access to the Apple iBookstore that Steve Jobs built.  Surely, this is the crowd that one would consider *least* likely to forego a convenient e-book over a hard copy dead-tree edition.

Likewise, following the decision of R.E.M. to discontinue the band, it was announced that a new greatest hits album would be released called Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage.  It’s the band’s swan song and will include liner notes from all four of the founding members, Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe (which is notable, as drummer Bill Berry officially left the band in 1997).  Die-hard R.E.M. fans already have most of the songs on this greatest hits package, minus the 3 new singles that are included on the album.  But the fact it’s the band’s final album, and the fact it includes those liner notes, has prompted many fans to indicate their desire to purchase the actual physical compact disc (even saying that seems dated) when it’s released on November 15 rather than download it from iTunes or Amazon.

There are always enthusiasts who maintain that listening to music on vinyl provides a far more fulfilling sound than even 320kbps mp3s or aacs; and there are those who say that nothing can replace books, especially Bibles, photo books, coffee table books, and more.  Those people would be right, but they are referring to either a specialty product (a Bible) or a specialty audience (audiophiles).  What about the rest of us, and what about all of the other content that is being created?  Is it worthwhile – or is there a value proposition – creating content on physical media anymore?

If this was a month ago, I’d have answered no.  But now, I’m not so sure.  The key to physical media is in its intimacy: it’s an object you can pick up, tear off the plastic wrap, hold, feel, touch.  You can open it up, smell it, see it.  You can keep it and store it and easily pass it around.  This is even more pronounced when there is an emotional connection to the subject/object, in this case, Steve Jobs and R.E.M.  In such cases, having digital files on a digital device doesn’t do the object justice.

The key for book publishers and music distributors is in restoring this emotional attachment between the customer and the goods being sold.  People have moved to digital downloads because it is faster, more convenient, and often cheaper for a product of the same quality.  If a book is just printed words, then why not download it from Amazon?  But if it comes with extra value – namely, photos and videos, or exclusive content, handwritten notes by the author, or something else that can’t be downloaded as easily – then it becomes *better* than the e-book version.  This same logic applies to music.  What the R.E.M. and Steve Jobs fans have proven is that they are willing to pay more and wait longer for a physical product if it means something to them.  Creators of physical media need to find ways to inject this meaning back into more of their products.  They need to innovate, too, to the same degree that digital creators have done.  Their livelihoods depend on it.




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