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.