« Editorial

Apple is Up to Something Publishers May Not Like

Editorial by Edward Nawotka


Earlier on Publishing Perspectives (“CES is not a Book Fair and Steve Jobs is no Joe Gutenberg“) I warned that the launch of Apple’s internet tablet would “likely be a revolution in computing, not a revolution in reading.” I take that back: iPad isn’t even a revolution in computing, it’s merely an incremental upgrade. That said, ironically, its limitations may actually make it a much better device for reading than one might initially think. And while iBooks may on the surface look like merely a viable new sales channel, it also represents a very real threat to publishers, both traditional and “digital first.”

As many have already noted across the Web, there are many things not to love about the iPad: the premium pricing, lack of an upgrade path, no flash…and the list goes on and on. Surprisingly, all these perceived flaws actually make the iPad become a better platform for reading. The two keys to this are the one big button — the inability to multitask — and the lack of support for Flash video. Without the ability to instantaneously surf away from the text, it actually ends up promoting the idea of using the device to read and to focus concentration on the text.

The Text Should Be Enough

This, paradoxically, is not something publishers might want to hear at the moment. In pursuit of justification to charge a higher price for e-books than, say, $9.99 — perhaps even as much for an e-book as a hardcover — there has been much discussion of possibility of producing “enhanced” e-books. These titles would presumably be loaded with supplemental multimedia materials to justify the higher price. This was one of the reasons why some suggested a video-capable, full color Apple tablet might save the book business.

Of course, this not what readers necessarily want; what they really desire are better, more compelling books.

The truth is that the text of a book should command a reader’s attention all on its own. Extra-textual “enhancements,” be they videos, music, or author interviews, may be there to help sell the book, but do they ultimately have anything to do with the experience of reading the book? Without having seen an actual enhanced e-book, I would argue “no.” (Of course, there are literary theorists who would immediately tell me I’m wrong.)

Take your typical romance novel, a genre which sells extremely well in the e-book format. I would argue that the last thing your average romance reader actually wants is to be interrupted by a video add-on of a writer explaining the scene, making an aside about the setting, or — gasp — offering tips on better sex with live action visuals. (Imagine the possible embarrassment if you launch such a video while sitting on an airplane/subway car/restaurant.)

Romance novels are enticing to fans — the vast majority of whom are women — exactly because they are textual, visualized in the imagination and not on a screen.

To put it another way, it is unlikely that one’s understanding or appreciation of James Joyce’s Ulysses would be enhanced in any way by coming to the end of the text only to find a video of a masturbating Molly Bloom.

There’s an argument to be made that the vast majority of readers just want the book itself. Almost any “extra” a publisher could provide is likely available for free on the Web, or should be. The only “extra” that should be amended to an e-book is the first chapter of the author’s next book and/or samples of their backlist. Keeping it simple is the key.

Coming Soon: Apple’s iPublish?

Apple is, if anything, the master of keeping it simple and, very often, attractive. And this is, I believe, one of the reasons that the launch of iBooks should give pause to many publishers. Now that Apple is in the “book space” with its own branded retailer, it’s only a short leap before they become publishers themselves. Just look at what Amazon has done since the launch of its Kindle, with the company launching a variety of publishing and self-publishing initiatives under their umbrella.  In fact, on Tuesday, Amazon announced the first four original manuscripts to be published under it publishing imprint, AmazonEncore program; all discovered through its own Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.

I would argue that Apple is in an equally strong position to become a publisher. Apple’s iPhoto software already offer users the opportunity to create photo albums based on templates which can then be easily converted into attractive bound books. It would take only a little effort for Apple to add similar functionality to its iWork software and to allow users to easily convert a document and images into an e-book, which could then be instantly uploaded to iBooks for sale.

With Apple’s enormous and enthusiastic base of users, many of whom were introduced to the company via its now ubiquitous iPhone (it’s only a matter of time before Apple’s reader software is rolled out across all devices), the company could quickly become a leader in e-book publishing.

Open iBooks to the Public

The biggest obstacle to this may be Apple’s reticence about opening up its own sales platforms to the public. Think of both iTunes and the App store, which is open to the public, but heavily policed by Apple’s own people.

Were the company to open the iBook store to those who wanted to self-publish, they would have to show a willingness, much like Amazon has, to work with authors directly. If they can do this — perhaps by offering users the opportunity to create their own branded stores, under public or even private accounts — they won’t have to worry about the quality of the content.  Their role would be as a retailer/distributor who merely takes a percentage of the sales, in much the same way Apple is doing with Penguin, HarperCollins, et al., under it’s much discussed “agency model.” Unlike opening up iTunes to the public, which considering the size of the typical song file would have taken a huge investment in storage, opening iBooks to the public should be relatively inexpensive by comparison. I believe such a strategy, if done to Apple’s generally high standards, could potentially win Apple a sizable chunk of the self-publishing market in a relatively short period of time.

Can you just imagine the satisfaction of turning on your iPad, opening a file, and pressing that one big button to “publish” your new e-book. The lure would be hard to resist.

The only obstacle I can see is finding a suitable name. iPublish was the name Time Warner Books’ failed  e-publishing program from 2001. Apple might want to find something with better karma.

DISCUSS: Tell us your favorite articles about the iPad

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  1. Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    […]As an aside to this particular discussion – Publishing Perspectives this morning looks at the plans Apple might have for the iPad and how publishers may not be entirely thrilled with those prospects.[…]

  2. Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    In terms of enhanced eBooks, I think the majority will agree with you for fiction and let the “mind theater” be all your own. The fiction Vook releases got a lot of criticism out of the gate as either tacky or unnecessary/unwanted. However, with nonfiction, there is a world of possibilities even with some basic steps to immerse the reader (animated cover, additional photos, video tour of a college campus in a guide or instruction on yoga or cooking?). Ultimately, you need a low-touch, efficient, template approach to drag and drop assets in and build out a compelling, interactive eBook. Zinio has found through our analysis of readership reporting (we can track via Omniture) that consumers spend 2-5X more time with an interactive digital magazine than a static replica. No question, publishers may not have the skills, bandwidth, assets, rights, etc to do this yet in a scaleable way but shouldn’t they experiment? Maybe the consumer will pay more for features, functionality and additional material? I wholeheartedly believe that you want the navigation to be key and not be disrupted as you read along. Apple’s iPad is just the first of many color, touch-screen devices (readers, tablets, etc) from major players all of whom were at CES in full-force.
    As for getting into publishing, it is interesting to see what Blurb is doing for self-publishing of POD but in color. However, it is my understanding that ePub files for layout-intensive or color books is not wonderful as compared to converting from a PDF.

  3. Posted January 29, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Apple wants to become a publisher. Why would they? Apple has been around for almost 33 years and they have expanded beyond their core business very little and very slowly. They mainly create/invent hardware (which they don’t even actually manufacture) and an operating system (two if you count the iPhone/iPad OS). They now, after 30+ years, also produce a small number of software applications, such as iWork, iLife, but most of the software that runs on Macs is produced by others. They created a phone/handset, but there is no sign they want to become a telecom. But perhaps the most direct example of why I don’t think they will become a publisher (is there a worse business model/industry?) is that after years of creating and updating iTunes, they have made zero inroads into becoming a music, tv, or film production company. I’d have to think any one of those is at least as profitable as being a book publisher.

  4. Posted January 29, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    You don’t get around much on the Net, do you?

    Sunday, July 26th, 2009
    How Steve Jobs Wins, Part Two

    Monday, November 2nd, 2009
    Apple Will Break Open The Digital Book Floodgates

  5. Posted January 29, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Yesterday I left a comment about Apple’s lack of a portal for other publishers besides the ones they partnered with to join in. According to this article, Apple has also not foreseen the demand by publishers and self-publishers (of whom I am one) for access to sell their books just as they do with Amazon. I myself do not care for “enhanced” ebooks as the ePub format is very limited. For example, the file size for an ebook with illustrations is the main reason most publishers do not post ebooks with art. Yet, we are expected to compete with media of other types which are in full color and interactive. That spells a negative in terms of Apple’s capacity to host ebooks. If that is the case, then I am better off selling the ebooks myself as I have been, and foregoing Apple’s cloud.

  6. Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I discussed much of this in my own blog at http://www.americaneditor.wordpress.com. In my blog From the Frying Pan to the Fire: Amazon to Apple (January 22, 2010) I discussed how publishers are deceiving themselves if they think Apple and Steve Jobs are saviors. On January 15th I discussed The eBook Wars: Adding “Extras” to Shore Up Price, and on several occasions discussed how publishers are deceiving themselves by thinking that quality doesn’t matter. You might take a look.

    But I have to admit I hadn’t thought about Apple becoming a publisher. I’m not sure that will occur. Steve Jobs doesn’t believe people like to read, the iPad is really not a particularly good device for reading (no bookmarking, no annotating, among other missing basics in today’s market and backlit screen), and there is no chicness or cachet — something Jobs appears to need — in publishing these days.

  7. Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    On Text Being Enough

    I think the problem with enhanced eBooks is two fold: first creation of such an item takes a lot of the control out of the hand of most writers, requiring a unique skill set that many don’t feel they have, or that doesn’t live up to the same quality level as their writing skills. Second, the introduction of such enhancements feel tacked onto eBooks (as noted above, especially works of fiction) because they are.

    Writers know, though we’ve been reluctant to really articulate the position, that our books are crafted with intent to carry a certain narrative flow. The addition of additional media elements at best forces readers to skip ahead, and at worst destroys that flow. On the converse, each reader approaches that narrative flow with their own reading pace. Some readers burn through a work quickly, even at a manic pace. Others read slowly, savoring and weighing words. Regardless of a reader’s individual speed, audio and video elements each operate at a fixed pace, forcing the reader to conform to a flow chosen by another.

    The only work around I’ve seen is the addition of additional layers, of building enhanced eBooks like onions, where the text sits at the forefront and readers are able to access additional layers through an opt-in process – such as an area on the side of the reading field that unobtrusively notifies when additional content is available and can be triggered (and ended) at will by the reader. Such an tactic allows for a large number of layers in which additional content can be segregated without altering to original flow established by the author while still allowing for a world of content. Working with a layered model, for which a device like the iPad would perform admirably, layers could be setup for audio, video, even social media.

    So, while text should be enough, it doesn’t have to be the end all of eBooks and help turn new users into new readers.

  8. Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I agree about Steve Jobs. Book publishing is under stress from the pace of change, and in an attempt to keep Amazon at bay, publishers are looking to Apple as a savior. To me, that’s like signing a treaty with Genghis Khan because you’re afraid of Attila the Hun. The biggest difference between Amazon and Apple right now is that Jeff Bezos believes reading is indeed something people do for hours on end, and Steve Jobs doesn’t.

  9. Posted January 29, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m in agreement with Karen over that. I think the rather meek manner with which iBooks was developed (missing a tone of features that other eReaders make standard) shows that Apple is merely hoping to cash in, making a few bucks off of something that Jobs himself thinks people don’t want.

  10. Posted January 29, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I completely disagree with the opinion that digital or interactive ‘enhancements’ cannot enhance a reader’s enjoyment of a book, nor with the opinion that such enhancements are necessarily intrusive.

    As Bradley Robb points out, it’s entirely possible to make enhancements an opt-in experience via a notification sidebar, or perhaps via clickable links or icons within the text.

    Regarding the idea that ebook enhancements can offer no improvement over the reader’s own imagination, full motion video would be immensely helpful for how-to and cookbooks. When I first learned how to knit I could’ve benefitted greatly from embedded video, especially in the case of books from authors with specialized techniques. And while it’s true that many such instructional videos are available on the web and for free, seeking out such videos is FAR more disruptive to the reading experience than simply clicking a link or icon within the book would be. Furthermore, any embedded video would necessarily come with the same viewpoint, content and presentation style as the book itself, and anyone who buys a how-to or cookbook makes his choice based on those factors: he doesn’t want to have to seek out supplemental material from some other author with a different approach from a totally different source.

    With respect to fiction, I see great possibilities there as well. How frustrating is it to read a novel that prominently features slang, historical, pop culture or literary references, or a smattering of foreign-language words, with which the reader is unfamiliar? Given the choice between the highly disruptive experience of closing the book to go do some impromptu research and clicking a link or icon within the book for more information, I’d definitely prefer the latter. There’s also the matter of picking up a book that’s the fourth or fifth installment in a serial with which the reader is unfamiliar. How helpful would it be to have small snippets of contextualizing background information from prior installments available at the reader’s fingertips? And when reading sprawling epics such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or anything from James Clavell, how helpful would it be (and how much would it enhance understanding) to have access to interactive geographical maps of the regions repeatedly referenced in the text, or a timeline of events? Or an interactive glossary of terms from an invented language employed in the text? Or an interactive series of family trees for clans referenced in the text?

    I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. Anyone who doesn’t see wonderful possibilities for enhancing, NOT disrupting, the reading experience in digital books simply isn’t using his imagination. I anxiously await the advent of the mainstream, commonplace enhanced ebook, and I don’t think the iPad is designed or positioned with that end in mind.

  11. Posted January 29, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Another thought just now occurs to me, thinking as an author.

    All authors of fiction are familiar with the challenge of presenting expository information in a way that doesn’t detract from the narrative, and in many novels the expository information is of a nature with which many, but not all, readers will be familiar. For example, consider historical espionage thrillers. Readers who’re already rabid fans of the genre don’t need a history lesson in international foreign relations, but newcomers to the genre do and as a result, the author is forced to find a way to shoehorn the information into his narrative.

    Imagine the freedom granted to authors by a device that would make any necessary expository information an opt-in experience for the reader. Gone forever would be the awkward, ignorant character who’s very obviously only there and asking questions to act as a conduit for an infodump.

  12. Posted January 29, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    This article has one major fallacy– the idea that self-publishing is in any way, shape, or form a danger to traditional publishing. It isn’t.

    A vast majority of self-published works have very few sales, and with the immense number of traditionally published books out, most serious readers so far have read self-pubs as an addition instead of as a replacement for those traditional books.

    There have been only a few exceptions. Erotica started out either self-published or indie-ebook published but as soon as it began to break out into serious money, the traditional publishers moved in and siphoned away much of the profit as the readers went back to their old buying habits.

    The other exception is authors who have already developed a brand and a fan base who have moved from traditional publishing into self-publishing.

  13. Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    “The other exception is authors who have already developed a brand and a fan base who have moved from traditional publishing into self-publishing.”

    There’s at least one other scenario to consider: that of the self-published author who makes the transition to mainstream pub. I’ve done this with one of my books (The IndieAuthor Guide, due out in a revised/updated edition from Writer’s Digest Books in Nov. ’10), but I am not seeeking a traditional publishing deal for my self-published novels.

    Self-publishing can be both an adjunct, and alternative, to traditional publishing.

8 Trackbacks

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