Making the most of the iPad life preserver

I was very happy to hear less fear at last week’s TOC conference than I’ve heard at previous shows. Publishers, while still concerned about their futures, seem to be adjusting to the prospects of a much less book-centric world.

A couple of years ago I’d hear standard complaints like “people don’t read any more,” “customers would rather surf than read,” and “piracy just makes the whole Web thing impossible.” On the bright side, we all agreed that “at least we don’t work in newspapers.”

This year, attendees seemed more excited and definitely more positive about the future. Maybe it was Macmillan’s successful spat with Amazon. Perhaps it was just an adjustment to the lowered expectations of the economy, and a sense that those who’ve survived this far are past the disaster.

I suspect, though, the anxiety reduction has something to do with publishers having more hope about the three things all financially-driven publishers need to function:

  1. An audience
  2. Something to sell that audience
  3. A market for selling those things

The audience (1), seems to be coming back, if it ever really left. I didn’t hear much about “the decline of reading” this time, but I did overhear “texting is awful, but at least it’s text.” While the Web may not have helped book sales, it does seem to have made basic literacy much more clearly relevant.

Based on the conversations I had during TOC (an admittedly unscientific sample), publishers’ hopes are reviving in large part because they expect the iPad to create a market for their goods (3) on terms they mostly like better than Kindle’s terms. Apple’s design appeal has created a market for its devices, while Apple’s thirst for control over their products has created a controlled market with simple terms, prices publishers (mostly?) control, and relatively little piracy. Publishers have craved something like this for the last decade.

I worry that many of the conversations I heard at TOC assumed that publishers already had (2), something to sell, under control. After all, publishing does an excellent job of creating books — all kinds of books, on all kinds of subjects, for all kinds of readers. Convert them to ePub or PDF or maybe even an iPhone app if necessary, and we have something to sell, right?

For the moment, yes. There is still demand for traditional books presented through shiny new devices. Millions of readers love and understand books, yet might be willing to make the transition from bound paper and ink to an electronic rendition. Unlike most previous ebook readers, however, the iPad puts its content in direct competition with the Web as readers have come to know it. Unlike the Kindle, for instance, where browsing felt like an afterthought that would use up expensive connectivity, connecting to the Web is more central to the iPad experience than is reading books.

The competition from the Web won’t just be free content versus paid content, but a matter of user experience. Will readers be content to follow a long text, or would they rather switch applications to something more interactive, with more connections between content?

I saw two talks at TOC that seemed to get to the heart of this: Pete Meyers’ Book Meets Tablet: 10 Ways to Enhance Your iPad Books, and Bob Pritchett’s Network Effects Support Premium Pricing. (Neither talk, alas, is available online, though their slides are available at those links.)

Meyers looked at the challenges of competing with the far more interactive Web world, of keeping users interested in the content that publishers hope they will buy. His 10 suggestions, presented as sketches, were all about ways to use the new format to pull readers into the book. Some of it is supplementary material, some of it is allowing readers to personalize their books (with notes), and much of it pushes into new territory that takes a more interactive turn than books have allowed. My personal favorite was renegade sidebars and footnotes, which take familiar asides in books and let them cause more interesting trouble.

Pritchett took a somewhat different course, talking about the possibilities of breaking books out of their covers and bundling them into more comprehensive applications. Pritchett has something of an advantage going into this, as Logos Bible Software works in a field, Bible study and religious reference, where consistent hypertext referencing has gone on for hundreds of years. Concordances, citing chapter and verse, and an immense collection of explorations along similar pathways give Logos a rich field for creating new products by connecting different resources. Establishing those connections and making their use comfortable is a challenge in itself, but opens possibilities no single project can have.

(Beyond the confines of the TOC conference, I also highly recommend Craig Mod’s Books in the Age of the iPad, which steps back even further to question the differences between books and the iPad experience.)

So should publishers be happy? Is the iPad a much-needed life preserver for publishers on stormy seas?

Well, yes. It gives them access to a market of people who are interested in buying things from them, who are familiar with their goods, and who likely have the spare cash and time to enjoy them. The harder question, though, is what we publishers are going to do with that life preserver. Is it just going to keep us afloat, or are we going to swim to new places? Most of us, I suspect, should be practicing our swimming.

(And of course we should all worry about Apple’s fondness for control leading to limiting what its partners are allowed to do or striving to abolish its competition through aggressive patent suits. This is definitely a salvation worth questioning.)

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