27 January 10 | Chad W. Post



So guess what’s not pictured above in the image of the brand new iPad and its crucial apps? IBooks, the “magical bullet” that’s going to “save” the publishing industry . . .

OK, so I’ll admit upfront that I was more than a bit skeptical about the iPad/Tablet/Slate before the lackluster (at least by liveblogging standards) Apple presentation this morning. I figured this would be one crazy-ass device that would allow you to do basically anything and everything you wanted anytime and everywhere you wanted. You could talk on the phone while surfing for new music. You could play video games while reading Moby-Dick. You could text while e-mailing. Crazy. Shit.

If you’ve been even somewhere near awake over the past few months, you’ve most likely been inundated with the hype and holler about how Apple’s “mystery” “magical” device is going to change the world. And most importantly to everyone I hang with: Fix the Publishing Industry.

See, e-books are a tricky thing. I’ve written in the past about the promise and problems of e-books. (In summary: you can reach virtually everyone solving some significant printing and distribution problems, but damn, is that new way going to be co-opted, and pricing models are essentially screwed due to our supply-demand dynamics and the lure of $9.99.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about here. What I’m more concerned with re: the iPad is the all-in hope that the big publishers have that Apple and its overgrown iPhone will change the world and allow them to continue publishing in the way they’ve always been publishing with a model that’s decades out of date.

There are two elements driving the hope the big presses (Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin) have in Apple: better terms than Amazon.com and the coolness factor.

The first is a pure money issue. Publishers hate Amazon.com’s $9.99 price (even though Amazon.com pays out to publishers at whatever price publishers set their e-books at, occasionally losing money on the sale of these e-titles in hopes of capturing a larger market while pleasing cheap-ass customers like myself who would never pay more than $10 for what’s essentially a glorified .doc file) and the fact that Amazon.com has all the control and gives publishers only 50% of the revenues from sales of the e-books (same as what they give for sales of physical books, but let’s all ignore that for the moment). Apple on the other hand is like a godsend to commercial presses: you can set your own prices! and Apple will only take 30% of each sale! This translates into $$$$$!!!!!

If only it were that simple . . . I don’t have the necessary data or mental capacity (at the moment, at the moment) to crunch all the numbers, but my guess is that getting 20% and jacking prices a bit doesn’t really end up resolving all the cash flow and cost issues plaguing publishers. It’s a help, definitely, but it only delays the inevitable realization that a model based in publishing more faster to outrun returns is essentially doomed when people don’t buy that many books.

And there’s part two of the “Apple Will Save Us” argument: that the uber-cool of the iWTFever will create demand. That, like the iPod, this new device will totally turn the hipsters onto reading eBooks. Really? Who believes this? Listening to music does not equal reading a book.

But let’s go for it a second and witness the incapacitating neuroses that plagues book publishing today.

To recap: A huge part of the grand hope in the Apple “magical” (how many times did this come up in the Apple presentation? Like a million? And since when is technology magical? What kind of paradoxical shit is that?) is that suddenly, thanks to the vision of Steve Jobs and the genius of Apple designers, an audience will be created that suddenly craves books. This is some god-like shit going down. From the barren landscape of gamers will rise a whole new generation of book nerds. Uh, OK.

These were the hopes going into this morning’s sermon on the mount. And in a way, they’re both naive and enthusiastically optimistic. Who doesn’t want to believe that Apple can revolutionize reading? If this “magical” device got kids hip to Open Letter books, I’d buy in. Fully. And if all my friends could keep their jobs because the revenue split suddenly tipped a bit—even better.

But the device? Well . . . I think we can all universally agree that the presentation was more than a little underwhelming. There was no big game-changing feature. Nothing you absolutely need but didn’t know about beforehand. Basically, this seems to be one big, powerful iPhone sans phone capabilities, camera, easily usable keyboard, multitasking capability . . .

Although the iBooks store may well have been the key new announcement, a lot of the focus on the gadget comment blogs was about the video—both for TV/movie-watching and for gaming. This is a bit iTouch with a cooler graphics processor and the possibility for some fierce video games.

I’ve been trying to figure out all day who exactly this device is for. I’ve read some convincing accounts about how this appeals to the general, non-tech-savvy web surfer who just wants to chill with a touch screen and doesn’t care about limited memory capacity and the way this device resides uncomfortably between a portable smartphone and an actual computer.

Will e-book connoisseur jump at the chance to pay $499 $800 and $30/month to download e-books that can turn pages at the whisk of a fingertip? Time will tell, but I’m going to place my bets on “No.” It’s not portable enough, useful enough, or cheap enough to even come close to tempting me. And I desperately want to embrace the e-book world.

Who will use the iPad? All the teenage gamers who love the iTouch. It’s slightly more expensive, but a way cooler device. Bigger. BIGGER. And more colorful.

So good luck with all that. All props to Random House for staying out of the game for the time being, although I wonder if that’s because of some iPad doubt, or if it’s more about the epub format that Apple’s using. Cause lockdown Apple security be damned, if those books on iBooks are in epub format, book piracy is about to spike like never before. Which I still believe is good for the future adoption and cottoning onto of eBooks, but I can’t imagine any of the big presses are psyched to see that happen.

But what’s really insane to me is that the publishing industry is so blind to its shortcomings. Instead of trying to create a demand in good, interesting books that people want to read, they’re hoping some overly slick device will create that interest for them. And that way they can keep publishing heaps of drivel and not deal with the fact that they’ve lost touch with reality readers and the ability to reach and cultivate an audience for books. When you need a third party’s device—a device in which the function most pertinent to you is like the third or fourth coolest thing about said device—when you need that device, that magical device to save you from yourself, you are fucked.

Cool device? Sure. Innovative? Meh. Magical? No.

Maybe I’ll be wrong. Shit, I hope I’m wrong. But if I had one of these things—and I read a hundred plus pages every day—and had the choice between video, gaming, and books, I’ll tell you what I ain’t going to choose . . .


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