For a long time, we could only buy music as a package deal.  Sure, there were some singles available, but by and large, if you liked one or two songs, you would have to buy the whole CD or album.  Then along comes iTunes and we can buy only the bits and pieces we want.  On the whole, this “disaggregation” lets us choose what we like, but in the process, we lose the chance to explore things that might grow on us over time- things that are an acquired taste, so to speak.  It also limits the way an artist might decide to craft albums or CD’s in the future- it’s less about creating a group of songs with a cadence or storyline or other thought that links the pieces together, but instead encourages one offs and more episodic than serialized content to be created.

I’m curious to how this trend will shake out in the publishing industry. Fast Company reported that  Barnes and Nobel’s new iphone and ipad apps are a further play to make electronic books device-agnostic.  It won’t matter what device you own, you’ll still be able to buy and read content on whatever you have.  Another bookstore in Canada is experimenting in being able to buy books by the chapter rather than having to buy the whole thing, which would be a boon to college students and knowledge junkies everywhere, but perhaps not so great for novelists, who may find that people really only do read the first four chapters of the book and never finish.

Recently, I was in a bookstore while on vacation, looking at the content and trying to decide whether or not to buy a couple books.   I was concerned about buying too many books, since the weight can be a burden with baggage weight restrictions on planes these days.  So I used my iPhone to take pictures of covers of books I was interested in, and looked at whether or not several of the titles were available on iBooks or Amazon Kindle.  A few were, so instead of buying the hardcover, I opted for the digital book instead.  I simply downloaded them on my iPad  and I was ready to go.

While this works well for novels, I still prefer hardcovers for books I use for business or reference. This just tends to be a better tool to pull off the shelf to refresh my knowledge from time to time, but not every reference book is created equally, either.

There are plenty of things I would like to learn more about, and would be happy to buy chapters of texts on esoteric subjects, if I could just get my hands on them without having to buy a $300 textbook.  For example, I have kids with ADHD, and buying chapters out of text books that my doctors might read would be fantastic, since there may only be three or four chapters in a  book that are of importance to me, and this information may not be readily available through any other source.  I’d love to learn more about coding, about working memory, and all sorts of other topics, filling in the blanks in my own knowledge base, but reluctant to commit the finances to buy full textbooks on a whim.

As text books and other published content becomes available digitally, I wonder when the process will allow disaggregation in the same way iTunes did.  And I wonder if that will lead to people publishing shorter works as a result.  Or, will it push all novelists to construct stories that pull in readers and keep their appetites wedded all the way to the end of the story, in order to get people to buy each chapter?  (Mystery novelists will clearly have to charge double for the last few chapters that reveal all the secrets and clues to the impatient).  And I worry what this will do to our patience and attention span, if all of life continues to become about instant and easy gratification but nothing will make us work very hard or stick to something difficult for very long.

I’m ambivalent about the benefits and burdens of disaggregation of written content- what do you think?  Clearly publishers are becoming all about providing information and content, and are looking past their own devices in favor of delivering content on demand to any device you have.  But does that mean disaggregation of written content is just one step behind?