eBooks and The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery (movie poster)

Amazon just announced that, for the first time, their digital book sales have eclipsed their US hardback book sales on its web site.  The statistic quoted was “143 digital book for every 100 hardback books over the past three months” (interesting aside, Amazon does not release it’s sales figures so, instead, they quote the numbers in that comparative way…but that’s another story).  Of course, that particular statistic doesn’t speak to revenue (the way that Amazon, or any for-profit company, judges its success), but it does indicate a trend.

I have played around now with the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad.  I can see merits to all three of them and I think I understand the value that those customers saw when they purchased their ebook reader and ebooks.  To wit:

–  The ability to carry multiple reading options efficiently in one, lightweight container

–  Large print options for those with poor eyesight

–  Less expensive than a print book (once you factor out the cost of the Reader)

But I am still waiting.  I haven’t purchased a Nook, or a Kindle, or an iPad.  Of those three, my purchase of choice would be an iPad – but that would be for reasons other than reading ebooks.  I’m not there yet with the eBook thang.  The way I see it, it’s like movies and the Great Train Robbery…

When the movie camera was first invented, moviemakers weren’t exactly sure how best to use it.  What they did was to station the movie camera in a fixed spot and then the actors and actresses paraded back and forth in front of the camera, positioning themselves appropriately when they had a line to read or a scene of interest.  The camera was fixed and the director used it as a device to record the action – as if the whole thing were a play, taking place on a stage.

Then, in 1903, Edwin Porter directed and filmed a one-reeler action movie called The Great Train Robbery.  Porter understood this new tool, the movie camera.  And, as a former Thomas Edison cameraman, he set about to figure out its most creative and clever application. To maximize its potential.  Porter shot from multiple angles, he moved the camera, he did location shooting, he did jump cuts and cross-cuts which allowed him to show two separate lines of action happening continuously at identical times, but in different places.  And then he edited the film he’d shot into a seamless whole.  The results forever changed the movie industry.

You see where I’m going with this.

An ebook experience will really be worthwhile, in my mind, when publishers and content developers start creating ebooks that take full advantage of what a powerful Reader can do.  For instance, I’d like to read along and come to wormholes that invite me to view video, pictures that I can flip through, additional lines of inquiry that I can pursue, an audio interview with the author that I can hear, and interactive elements that will enrich the experience.  The three features listed at the start of this post aren’t enough for me.  They sound like the kind of features that come out of a market segmentation approach.  Not the kind of creative juice that drove Porter to explore what could be done with a movie camera.

Added later:  If you’d like to see the actual film of the Great Train Robbery (it’s 14 minutes long) you can find it here (on YouTube, of course).



Filed under Technology Trends

9 responses to “eBooks and The Great Train Robbery

  1. That’s a wonderful analogy to toy with, and I resonate that the current ebook concept is just a bit incremental from the book concept. So is the ebook the “thing” that exists on/with the hardware, or is the thing that is the body of work that can be in many places?

    Tapping into more content is okay, but it seems like it will get more interesting when there are more social connections? (what have other people bookmarked? highlighted?) Can a reader connect it to another relevant passsage? remix?

    • rheyden

      Glad you liked the analogy, Alan. Here’s the 1903 film if you’d like to see it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bc7wWOmEGGY – I should add that link to the post. Watch for the man (dummy) thrown off the train.
      Yeah. You’re right. What is the “thing”? Once we start remixing and mashing it up, it becomes so much more than the original. And the social connections – yes, yes, yes!

  2. kgulliver

    Amen, sister, Amen!

    What immediately jumped to my mind: I just read “The Armenian Golgotha”–a first-hand account of the Armenian Genocide. I was DYING for just what you describe–lines of inquiry, timelines, pictures, maps, interviews. I had so many, many questions! It was a very frustrating read, curiously, because it just left me feeling empty-handed. I seldom feel that way about a book. I certainly don’t feel that way about fiction; though I think a book like Loving Frank (which we both disliked) would have had more merit if the author could have presented some of her sources (the yellow journalism, the letters, some photos of FLW’s work, etc.).

  3. Robin, you’re totally correct about both the eBooks and the movies. (I did just buy an iPad about 55 minutes ago. Still no cell phone, though.)

    One recent (-ish) film that is very powerful but doesn’t move the camera at all is “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” by Chantal Akerman. Long title, right? Very Victorian. It’s long, the camera is stationary with the actors parading back and forth in front. Actually, there is not very much parading, just a lot of standing or sitting. Still, it absorbs you into the story and is very powerful at the climax (which is a slight pun, if you’ve seen the film).

    I think the film is from the mid-1970s, and is highly regarded in, but little known outside of, the art-film world.


    • rheyden

      Hey, Matt! Cool idea – and very retro. I just found the movie on Netflix and added it to my queue. Excellent. Thanks for the recommendation. The GTR film wasn’t exactly, ah riveting, but, hey, it was 1903.

      • A word of caution — “Jeanne Dielman” is definitely an art film, and many people might find it “boring” because, well, the camera doesn’t move. And the action is the typical mundane household tasks of cleaning, cooking, etc. Plus, it is in French. I recommend watching it with the last amount of distractions as possible, preferably none.

  4. are you sure .
    i like this blog………..

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