Friday, January 29, 2010

IPad to the rescue?

The British satirical magazine, Private Eye, which casts an excellent if jaundiced and scurrilous eye on the UK book trade each issue, painted a very gloomy picture this month. Sales falling, publishers scaling back, job losses, literary agents hemorrhaging cash and folding, midlist authors being cut, all the money being piled on to sure things, like another $127 million for James Patterson to crank out 476 books a month, an industry in steady decline, masked only by the success of Stephanie Meyer's vampires, Dan Brown's all-action historian and Steig Larsson's bedhopping hack.

So, given the backdrop, it was no surprise to hear that whole publishing world (well, in the States and the UK, who view themselves as the whole publishing world) was glued to its computers when Steve Jobs unveiled the new IPad this week, inwardly preying and hoping that this new machine would match the success and ubiquity of the IPod, and apply the defibrillators to the ailing patient.

Who knows how successful it will be? The IPod was and is massively successful, but not every shy Apple takes hits a coconut (if you get my drift...). Apple TV, which offered people the seemingly attractive option of streaming all their music, movies and favourite programmes through their television, bombed. The same fate might befall the IPad. I can't say I was moved to go and buy one, but watching someone use a computer on the Internet is like watching them read a book; pointless unless you can do it yourself. I'm alson not the early adopter Apple are aiming to impress, the gadget lovers who get hold of every thing new and shiny, pass their judgement online and by word of mouth, until the rest of us get off our backsides and see what the fuss is about (by which time they've moved on to the next geegaw). By then it will be smaller, cheaper, all glitches ironed out and the ease of use and huge amount of applications available will beguile us all. Perhaps.

That said, I can see the benefits if the IPad does gain a foothold. Books, for all they might be the perfect piece of technology and still by far the best and most efficient medium for telling and selling stories, are selling less and less. Ebooks are selling more and more. I have nothing against ebooks. In fact, my first book is the bestselling ebook in UK history (they've only been available for a year but still...) so I'm all for them in fact. I have a Sony Reader but I use it pretty infrequently. Too cumbersome, too clunky and not as tactile as, well, a book. If I travelled more and spent more time on the road I'm sure it would get more use. I think the same goes for a lot of people. The IPad might change that - there were other MP3 players before the IPod came along, without having anywhere near the same impact, but none matched it for beauty and simplicity of use. Simply using and owning it was the motivation and people who hadn't bought a CD or listened to music other than the radio in the car for years, were downloading music, buying albums and searching out the tunes of their youth.

If the IPad does take off we crime writers might well be the ones to benefit, and the whole book trade as a whole might change for the better, Of the ten bestselling ebooks in the UK, eight are crime novels, while the celebrity biogs, recipe books, TV tie-ins that suck so much of publisher's cash away from authors have barely registered. It's no surprise; crime and mystery readers tend to be extremely voracious, so a machine on to which you can download books, and take the strain off your creaking bookshelves, has great appeal.

The ebook offers much room for innovation. The multimedia, interactive dimension – the ability to include music, moving images and pictures amid the text – could open a whole new realm of possibilities; graphic novels in particular could flourish. The minimal cost of producing an ebook in comparison to a printed version could also allow smaller authors to grab some of the pie, while also encouraging more and more to self-publish because the Internet has not been colonized by the big chains and supermarkets. Not yet anyway.

One thing I do know - crime writers should be begging their publishers to get their works into electronic formats. There is a growing market out there for electronic books that won’t be going away and they want good crime novels. The success of Stephanie Meyer suggests the new technology is popular among teenagers and young adults. A whole new generation will emerge that wants its literature in electronic format only. Nearly every commuter on the tube has headphones wedged into their ears, listening to music. Few of them read books anymore. Will the IPad change that? (Though I do fear carrying an IPad on the London Underground might be the equivalent of wearing a T-shirt that reads 'Mug Me!')

No matter what format, good old print or digital, readers will still want stories and be willing to pay for the privilege of reading them. Print will never die, thankfully, but it looks like ebooks are here to stay.


  1. Hi, Dan - I have very mixed feelings about ereaders. One poster on an Amazon discussion thread mentioned that there was a book she was eagerly waiting to read; it was out in hardcover, available at bookstores and libraries, but she wouldn't read it until she could do it on her Kindle. I couldn't find the sense in that.

    "...the ability to include music, moving images and pictures amid the text...." pretty much turns the book into a video. If the images and pictures are explicit enough with regard to the material, they won't have to look at the text. Many have lost the ability to tell time by reading the face of a clock; they use their cellphones. Digital requires no effort. If enough action can be put into a book on an ereader, they'll forget the alphabet and that kind of visual input is another blow to imagination.

    Personally, if everyone is using an ereader, how will I know what people on the train are reading if I can't see the cover? Will students really be reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS in class or will they really be reading Stephanie Meyer instead? Of course, the number of kids falling asleep over their Kindles would give that away. But that problem is far in the future. Given the price of an ereader, schools won't be using them until they are obsolete.

    As you say, there is something special about the feel of a book, the heft of it. I gave my daughter Stephen King's UNDER THE DOME. She was delighted by the size; this was a book to get lost in. It wouldn't be as impressive on a Kindle.

  2. beth, I pretty much agree, especially about the tactile nature of a book (and it's a good point about not being able to make out what people are reading on trains. The Da Vinci Code exploded over here, partyly because when you see so many people reading it you start wondering about what the fuss is about. That sort of viral way of books catching on might be lost)

    Re the music and moving images etc, I think there is scope to use them to augment a story. Say, for example, I do a story set on disused stations on the London Underground. Alongside the story I can include a bit of film actually showing one of the existing stations that influenced it, maybe talk about how it inspired me. Bit like the commentary on a DVD. Wouldn't be too all people's tastes, but may be to some. The text would always, always have to be paramount though.

  3. Using music and images to augment a story, such as in your example, would certainly add to the experience. I was thinking of their use in manner far different from your idea.

    I have spent a lot of time with teenagers. This generation grew up on video games. They expect flashy graphics and music in their entertainment. It's a struggle to convince some that people do read for pleasure and entertainment. If one of the Jonas brothers was cast as Pip, the movie would be as popular as "Titanic". But it wouldn't get kids to read any other books by Dickens.

    Adding music and moving images to a good book can defeat the attempt to help them discover that there is magic in the written word. J.K. Rowling had considerable influence in the development of the visuals in the movie versions of her books. She understood that the kids who devoured her stories had created their own images of the monsters and the magic. She made sure that the images were true to the word pictures she brought to life on the page.

    An active imagination is a gift. It is what enables you, Dan, to do what you do so well.

  4. I think that a major drawback of ebooks is that one can't share them with friends or other members of the family. From a writer's perspective, having a book loaned often leads to a fan.

    I worry, too, as the affluent buy readers, that they won't have real books to donate to those who want to read but don't have the resources to buy books, let alone the reader. Again the people who are hurt most here may be the poor.

  5. I just bought a new e-reader because I can't stand leaving books behind when I travel. The sky rocketing cost of luggage is making it harder and harder for me to get my book fix. Do I buy fewer "real" books? No, actually, I don't. (But don't tell my husband, okay?)And for research purposes, like the heavy stuff I did for my next book, I feel more confident with paper in my hands.

  6. Stan, the passing around of books is really important in developing relationships, too.

    My three children have very similar tastes in reading. As one's reading ability grew beyond a book, it was passed on to the next in line. None of them live with me but their books do. When they come, they raid each other's rooms for books they haven't read yet or want to read again. When the three are together, a lot of their conversations, and debates, are about books. They know each other well, in part, because of the books they share. Sharing an e-reader would be like sharing an iPod.

    The cost of the devices concern me as well. A library card costs nothing and gives readers the world. An e-reader makes a statement about economic circumstances. A book makes a statement about a person's personality and interests.

  7. I can't look at that iPad without smiling after my daugther was showing me a picture of it in the hope that she could get one. Her admiration was expressed with: "Look how cool it is - it looks exactly like a big iPhone". Since I always conjure up a mental picture of someone holding the huge contraption to their ear when it is mentioned and the iPad has a ridiculous feel to it as a result.


  8. Stan - I agree. Something is lost. This chimes in with what you say too beth - some of the books I cherish most were recommended to given to me by friends. And the cost is prohibitive (and don't get me started on why ebooks cost the same as the printed version, even though the production costs are a fraction...)

    Yrsa- you might enjoy this pic