Digital Gifts - What's Missing?

The cover of the Hyperion omnibus

My Christmas wish list this year, as most years, comprised largely books and DVDs. The family gets cross with me about this as sometimes they wish I'd ask for something else but the reality is I want for nothing and I love good books and the odd TV boxed set. So here are two things that were on my Christmas list:

I'm enjoying the Babylon 5 DVDs… I don't have the Dan Simmons.

Why?

Because you can buy and wrap up a DVD but it seems that you cannot buy and give someone a specific eBook (or, for that matter, a downloaded music track, film or whatever).

Of course you can buy someone a gift certificate — the electronic equivalent of a book token — but that's not the same thing at all. A token gives the recipient the guilt-free pleasure of choosing and buying something digital that might be a tad indulgent. That's good — but wouldn't it be nice to receive a book/film/album that someone has chosen for you? Or that you asked for?

Babylon 5 Series 1 DVD

And isn't it nicer to give someone the specific thing they asked for rather than the means to buy it themselves?

What's missing is the option to give someone something physical that represents the fact that next time they switch on their eReader, MP3 player, tablet or whatever, there will be a specific digital product available to them for download.

Another line of thought. I belong to a book group in which those of us with eReaders now form the majority. It's noticeable that when we discuss a book, those who had the physical printed object knew more about the book than those of us who just had the electronic version. Why? Because we didn't have the dust jacket with all the blurb — if you like, the metadata was missing.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

For those of us old enough to remember: when CDs replaced vinyl there was a lot of angst about the fact that the much smaller packaging meant that there was far less scope for artwork. This is self evidently true in my opinion. Many classic album covers are recognised as significant pieces of art in their own right. As an example, the CD case for the Velvet Underground and Nico's album in no way replaces the original gatefold sleeve complete with peelable banana skin (if my brother had kept his copy in pristine condition it would be worth a penny or two by now).

Back in the day, albums would sometimes come in elaborate packaging, would sometimes include lyrics and goodness knows what other information. Today, as much as ever, publishers put a lot of effort into jacket design and presentation. And it's all completely lost in the digital format.

Now, there is work going on to address this — to create digital packaging — but I believe there is still a benefit to be had in making things like album artwork and book jackets available as physical objects even when they relate to purely digital products.

To get back to where I started, here's my proposal to online retailers of digital content:

  1. make it possible to add content to another person's eReader, MP3 player, etc. subject to their approval (to avoid spam);
  2. make available some form of the printed material that would go with the digital object (presumably at extra cost);
  3. make it easy to put these together, i.e. a customer can buy a digital object, give the date and time when it should be available on a target device, and deliver relevant printed artwork to the paying customer at the time of purchase for them to wrap and give to the recipient.

That way, you never know, you might not lose another a sale and I might just get that Dan Simmons compilation…

Alex Bardy (@mangozoid) wrote:

I read with interest your piece on Digital Gift-giving and found your comments perfectly reasonable. I would've thought the 'easiest' (albeit unimaginative) way of doing this would be by using credit card-style plastic similar to giftcards… Not sure how realistic this is cost-wise but instead of having a token value on them, they could have artwork for the book/DVD on one side and all the blurb, etc. on the other — I did something similar with my fanzine many years ago, using business cards but they'll obviously not last as long if handled regularly.

Just a few thoughts I felt like sharing with you, and a token vote of support for your idea.

Thanks! Credit card-size artwork would do the job in terms of having something physical to represent the virtual. Which then opens up the possibility for all sorts of picture-frame type displays for those of us that like to show off book shelves (see the wonderful Bookshelf Porn).

Actually, that could work digitally too — think of a digital photo frame that looks a bit like a book case. You could add on modules to make it any shape and size you want. Select a book from the shelf by touching it, it opens so you can read the blub, then with one swipe you send it to your active device for reading. Likewise select a DVD case, it (virtually) opens, then click 'play' and it appears on your TV. Hmmm…