Consumer Change: books versus eBooks

16th January 2012

I grew up entranced by song. It was constantly on my mind and in my ear. At an early age I began to deconstruct melody, harmony and counterpoint. Of course, I did not perceive them in these terms. Rather, my ear simply heard, and could distinguish between, the many layers that make up a full and satisfying sound. All of this resulted in a handy outcome: I felt no need to study music. It simply was there. Why change a winning formula?

For the longest time I rejected the idea of studying music or singing. A trite explanation to myself was that to do so would ruin my natural voice. A trained voice would be less meaningful, less true than the one bestowed by Providence.

During 2004 I embarked on a rich journey of musical education, on the hunch that doing new things must surely bring rewards. I found that my true singing voice was bigger and deeper than the one with which I was familiar. Moreover, the study allowed me to sing music far from my Irish trad roots; in classical music I found something unexpectedly, and transcendently beautiful. It was a late and welcome discovery.

Sometimes, the things we reject most assiduously are the things we end up loving most of all. Such a paradox lies at the heart of consumers’ engagement with innovation in many realms. There is often a sustained holding-out period: a refusal to embrace a benefit, even though it is clearly to be seen.

For me it was CD’s, bagels, automatic gears in cars, cable television, low fat yogurt… Where is the laggard in you?

This brings me, in a rather cockeyed fashion, to the subject of books.

Reading and accumulating the books has been a passion almost as old as my love of music. There is something so transporting to lie within a great book’s walls. Some of my happiest moments are spent between those sheets. The unread pages of an enjoyable book are promissory notes of pleasure. The reader lives for them.

Predictably, I have fully rejected the idea of the eBook. Reading is a multi-sensorial act: I want to smell, touch and yield space to my books, not just read them. I love my bookshelves and the way they plead with me for some attention.

eBooks, in contrast, are like a clandestine, secreted lover. One is robbed of their full reality. Outside of brief periods of conjugation, it is easy to doubt whether they exist at all. What is the e-point?!

This resistance to eBooks turned to love a week ago. As a sort of €14.99 thought-experiment, I decided to download Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs onto my new iPad.


Just like the iPad is not exactly a laptop, eBooks are not exactly reading. They are something different; something more.

The thing that is most transporting is the interactive ability given to the eBook reader. You can make notes, check out who certain characters are, reference a fact on the web, find pictures of the subjects and objects at hand…. Far from rendering the reading experience thinner and more ephemeral (my core argument in resisting them) e-reading is in some ways more fully dimensional and rich than its bookshelf equivalent.

There is a price to pay for almost any innovation; something is always lost when we make change. I am wistful, sometimes, for my 2003 party-piece, Danny Boy, which wobbled and warbled and sounded a bit shite, albeit sincere. My singing has moved on and improved, and yet…

For those of us who bring change in people’s lives through brands, the marketing challenge is always the same: entice the consumer out of familiar harbours, those places where sailor-songs never vary, towards a voyage of new seas and richer melodies.

After many times saying ‘no’ to such an offer, the consumer’s resistance will eventually succumb. I know, because my ears have heard and my eyes have seen.


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