scratch-and-sniff e-books

OK, page-sniffing blog rant alert: book fetishists, literary bathers and Margaret Atwood look away now. I hardly know where to begin with this one.
Part of me thinks it must be a hoax. But Reuters seem convinced that the age of the scratch-and-sniff e-book has finally arrived – and who am I to argue?
From the wires:

An electronic textbook Web site is launching a smelly e-book after finding college students like to be able to smell their books.
A survey of 600 college students conducted by pollster Zogby International found that 43 percent of students identified smell, either a new or old smell, as the quality they most liked about books as physical objects.
Six out of 10 students also preferred buying used textbooks over new or electronic textbooks even though e-books are generally a third less expensive. E-books sales have been slow to take off.
In an attempt to persuade college students to try e-textbooks, Web site CafeScribe.com on Wednesday said it was launching “the world’s first smelly e-book.”

Of course. That’s why e-book sales have been slow to take off – students miss the olfactory experience. All that’s needed is a musty scratch-and-sniff sticker to fix to your monitor, and you could almost be rummaging around in the second-hand book market on London’s South Bank, or inhaling deeply in the Bodleian Library, Aloysius in hand.
Wake up, and don’t smell the pages!
Far be it for me to critique the methodology of this study without seeing the research in full – but it does seem that the research question related to students’ descriptions of the qualities of books as physical objects. There is no reason that book-like qualities should be transferred literally to an e-book. And I would include simulated page turning here as well as page sniffing. More on that story later.
I can just about buy the book-as-object argument for literature. But when it comes to educational material, the content is the important thing – its quality, currency, portability and availability. Surely students simply want to gather information to write their essays, pass exams, get good grades, and get a good job to start paying back their loans?
Sometimes a book fits the bill. Sometimes an e-book, a website or a podcast.
Metaphors work well on the Internet. They can be a way of making sites more usable by tapping into familiar experiences. But I think that today’s student population, who have never known a world without computers, the Internet or mobile phones, probably know how to access information electronically without a simulated sensory experience of sniffing and turning pages.
What has been buried by this tabloidy story is the fact that, actually, CafeScribe.com is an interesting business concept.
It’s an e-book marketplace and social network. Its strapline is a pragmatic ‘get smarter, faster’. Students can buy digital textbooks, and download and share ‘public domain’ texts for free. They can add notes and make recommendations. Upload their own PDFs. Set up a profile, link to friends, join groups. Share, discuss, collaborate.
Its boldest claim, to be iTunes for e-books, remains to be seen. But whether or not they achieve that, someone will, soon. Sales of e-books will take off, not when we can accompany them with the scent of musty paper – neat marketing ploy though that is; they will take off when it becomes as easy and intuitive to use them as it became to use MP3s when the iPod launched. Yes, the iPod moment.
It took a while for the music industry to get on board with the digital download concept. But that combination of cool hardware, intuitive online store, and industry will, has revolutionised the music industry. Maybe even saved it. It is going to happen to the publishing industry too – ready or not. It’s already happening – with or without you.
So, which side are you on? Are you going to stand by and sniff the pages? Or join in?

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Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a content writer, author, screenwriter, lecturer, blogger - and the founder of Publishing Talk. He was previously a publisher for 10 years. Publishing Talk aims to help new and emerging authors write, publish and sell books. Advice is available via the blog and our masterclasses and membership programme. More...

3 thoughts on “scratch-and-sniff e-books

  • 29th January 2009 at 12:24 am
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    frankly, that sounds a bit dumb. i live in london, here we don’t make fuss over the smell of books. i only desire to smell of sweet pea and that is all.

  • 28th August 2007 at 10:26 pm
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    […] Even if you don’t want to go down the route of scratch’n’sniff ebooks, we have to recognise that books aren’t just the lit. They are an experience. Google is getting it wrong. Can we do better? […]

  • 27th August 2007 at 8:28 pm
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    Hmm. I think synthetic musty book would be as inadequate as any other synthesised scent – or flavour for that matter. Must confess to being a bit of a devotee of the scent of musty old books though. But I’m not averse to e-books either and agree with you that they will take off, especially in an academic context. At the moment my current favourite old book is an little eighteenth century Old Testament with a tooled leather cover, with birds and flowers on it – and yes, I suppose when I take it out of its box to look at it, it’s the scent of it that really gets to me. But it’s like the patina on a piece of furniture. You couldn’t really fake it adequately, and if you tried, it wouldn’t be quite the same.

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