July 20, 2011
One of civilizations earliest and most critical art-forms -- the written word on the paper page -- is dying. In recent years, through the initial propagation of portable e-readers and the current tablet wave in its wake, physical magazine and periodical sales have taken a substantial and continuing dive. This accelerating decline is an intricate affair, and the affected old standard has many a tangled avenue through which to wander in wondering on its faltered state. However, assigning responsibility to the usually-dominant factors of both pricing and availability -- which perhaps seem the most superficially obvious in a supply-and-demand marketplace -- is not, in this case, the appropriate avenue for blame. Nor is it the root of the myriad issues involved in this particular global transition. Had the overwhelming shift from print to digital been more evident some two or three years ago, the aforementioned innocents would've both justly been guilty. Instead, the market's conversion was more gradual, and it was only 11 months ago that Amazon -- one of the largest retail booksellers in the world and maker of the popular Kindle line of e-readers -- reported that digital sales of its top bestsellers had doubled the volume of the same titles traditionally bound. Then, in February of this year, the Association of American Publishers (the industry's preeminent trade organization) revealed that e-book sales had in fact tripled year-over-year, outselling the print variant in every major consumer division. But, if pricing and availability aren't at the core of this commercial paradigm shift, how can these proceedings have happened (and still be happening)? Granted e-book new releases and other popular titles are more easily had and altogether less costly than their printed counterparts, this reality is less of an impetus for mass adoption than one might imagine. Instead, many analysts and industry insiders attribute the new-found consumer attraction to publishers' increasingly clever utilizations of interactive e-book menus and interfaces. Adding dynamic content, sounds, photographs, and videos to an otherwise "stale" set of static characters (literally and literally), books are -- in the public eye -- finally following the evolutionary path down which most other forms of consumable media have already left their tracks. No doubt supercharged by the iPad (and it's near-total bookseller compatibility), the post-paper revolution actually started a bit before Apple's entry summarily rewrote the book experience. In fact, Sony's Reader line of e-readers has been seeing strong(ish) sales for many years and was the first really successful category entrant. With the addition of Amazon's Kindle in 2007, people en masse were privy at last to what the future of reading could actually be: e-ink displays, automatic bookmarks, customized notes, instant dictionaries, and a whole lot more, all in a lightweight package capable of housing thousands of titles. Your entire library could follow you everywhere, coupling the height of convenience with unheard-of productivity whether on the train to work, at the coast on holiday, or in line at the grocery store. Turned pages could effectively replace twiddled thumbs. Actually, e-readers of this original type so affected participating brick-and-mortar stores that industry experts partly attribute Borders’ recent bankruptcy to its sloth in addressing such digital adaptation. On the other hand, when Barnes and Noble saw the overwhelmingly positive impact the Kindle was having on book sales, the company wisely -- and perhaps most importantly, quickly -- initiated the development of their own competing e-reader, the capable and attractive Nook. It wasn’t until after the introduction of Apple's iPad in early 2010, though, that things really heated up. With the revolutionary slate’s full-color display and excellent iBooks suite, books and magazines could enjoy full-color representation and all those dynamic, interactive presentation elements discussed earlier. One of the first such examples, Atomic Antelope's award-winning Alice for the iPad, introduced these concepts with a resounding bang. Since then, a bevy of excellent titles has been released, with Al Gore's famed Our Choice the most recently acclaimed and (gesturally) forward-thinking. Still, these "books" are technically just apps, purchased through the App Store rather than Apple's iBooks portal. Because iBooks is little more than a glorified EPUB and PDF reader, many of the advanced display and navigation techniques developed by publishers remain relegated to books created around more traditional app frameworks. That said, iBooks 1.3 introduced "enhanced book" support, unleashing audio and video capabilities within its so-designed available titles. That development itself is exciting, especially when considering the children's book market (and its many educationally- and engagement-based implications). But Cupertino's going the extra mile: Released to the public in July, Apple patent application 20110167350 outlines the future of iBooks as a bona fide next-generation book platform. From the Patently Apple research blog:
Apple states that future iBooks will allow users to call up images, animations, interactive content and video content to provide a better understanding of a word, phrase or item and so forth. Additionally, a reader will be able to have portions of the text read to them if they so choose. ...Examples included the ability to touch a word like “soccer” and have an interactive soccer game pop-up; or touching the word “AAPL” to pull up a stock quote; or touching the word weather and having a weather widget pop-up; or touching the name of a song and having a music app pop up and play a clip from that tune; or touching a “minus” or “divide” word (or symbol) could pull-up a calculator widget and it goes on through to even pulling up a TV program if a word is associated with that.In light of this far-reaching patent and Apple's newly-launched Newsstand service, it's easy to see the tablet-heavy direction most books are beginning to roll. Even Amazon is poised to enter the tablet market with a custom-made Android device. And, though Jeff Bezos and company claim their goal isn't to usurp any of the iPad's unique reading functionality and popular mindshare, Steve Jobs and company know better. Of course, competition is a good thing, and -- as I've said before -- Amazon's the only brand I feel has the necessary pair of backbones to bring it. Make no mistake: Sony and Amazon brought e-books a long, long way, and they deserve the lion's share of the credit. But the technological sector, especially that of the consumer variety, is a very "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" kind of beast, and no outfit's done more than Apple to push the boundaries of Big Publishing. Clearly, we are moving forward. And that, at the back-lit speed of light. So, where does all this leave the traditionalist? Simply put, right where he is. Nothing is going to change drastically, and it will be many years before book publishers even think about abandoning fans of their physical works. People are hoarders, collectors, admirers of form and craft and simplicity; and, no matter how elegant and easy the iPad is to use, the machine will never rival the innate user-friendliness of a proper, old-school, paper-filled tome. My father, an avidly reader at 69 years old, is a fine example of this manner of person (though these types are not limited to the elderly). I've been trying to get him on board with the iPad since day one, so, after the works of P.G. Wodehouse (one of our favorite writers) started slipping into the public domain, I grabbed everything available on iBooks (via Project Gutenberg) and presented them to his recumbent form. I hoped to finally make that critical impression. "What's this?" he asked. "It's a Wodehouse iBook," I replied. "How do you turn the page?" Taking the opportunity to emphasize the iPad's intuitive controls, I answered, "How would you turn the page of a real book?" He licked his thumb. I took back my iPad directly. Then we got to talking about prices and the monetary advantage of digital editions over their regular rivals. He asked what a newly released bestseller goes for on iBooks, and I told him costs were "around 10 dollars." "(expletive deleted)!" he said. "I can buy the real thing for 15. And a first edition, at that! What do you suppose a first edition Michael Connelly will be worth 50 years from now?" "Not much," I answered. "Probably more than you think," he said. Probably not. But the point of all this is that a body must be ready to embrace the digital mindset. To a great many people, if you don't own the physical representation of something, you can't ever really own it at all. (And, honestly, I can empathize, as my DVD habit is still going strong.) Even as e-books and iBooks overtake the majority, then, there will always exist the contrarian remainder. It might be hard to understand, especially for the younger, more gadget-savvy crowd, but Pop summed up his side best, tying it all back to financial logic like so many Baby Boomers do. "If I take this iPad to the beach and leave it on a towel while I go down to the water, will it be there when I come back?" Touché, old man, touché.