Monthly Archives: January 2010

What The iPad Means For Digital Fiction

So you’ve probably heard about the iPad, and Apple’s latest plans for world domination. For the first time, however, we – we the small, rather obscure digital writer community(!) – are directly affected by the actions of what is probably the most influential tech company of the age. This is big. This is something worth thinking about. What does the iPad mean to the digital book world, and why should we care?

I think there are two things that we need to talk about. First, the Kindle is screwed. There has been some debate on Twitter as to why and how Apple compares with Ye Olde Amazon, and the biggest argument against the iPad is that it has a backlit screen, and backlit screens suck for reading.

Now this is true. Backlit screens do suck for reading, and I know this because I own a aluminium Macbook, and the screen is terrible when I’m doing work under sunlight. But I don’t think it matters. Isa asks: Why would anyone want to read on an iPad? and that is, I think, a rather valid question.

It is also the wrong kind of question to ask. The correct question people should be asking isn’t “why would anyone want to read on an iPad?” but rather “why wouldn’t they?” Isa’s question assumes that the majority of buyers would be logical book-nerds – comparing e-readers on metrics such as heft, size, and screen quality, but that’s the wrong way of looking at things.

The right way of framing the question is to begin asking: who’s likely to buy the Kindle? Who’s likely to buy the iPad? What kind of people are they, and how are they different?

The Kindle is for readers – book nerds, but of a particular, non-technophobic kind. People like you and I. The iPad, on the other hand, appeals to just about anyone: rich geeks, early-adopters, technophobic aunts, families who’d like a secondary computer, kids who want a gaming device, your uncle Harry who loves reading in the toilet … the list goes on and on.

The iPad is a computer. The Kindle is an ebook reader. In this aspect, at least, the Kindle is outclassed. There are more people interested in buying the iPad than there are people interested in buying a Kindle.

And so the question isn’t – who wants to read on an iPad? – because that’s the wrong question to ask. The question you should be asking is rather – what, exactly, is going to prevent all these people from buying books and reading them? What’s going to prevent Johnny, say, whose parents buy him an iPad for Christmas to play games and surf the web on – and one day the new Harry Potter equivalent comes out – what’s going to prevent him from thinking: hey, the book’s cheaper on the iBook store, and I don’t have to go all the way downtown to buy it from a shop. What’s going to prevent Johnny from buying the book – literally flicking his thumb over a sheet of glass – and reading it on his iPad?

The answer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the truth of the matter is that Johnny’s probably going to buy other books for his iPad, and spend ridiculous amounts of time arranging them on his virtual bookshelf, simply because it’s a) cheaper, b) quicker, and c) it’s all just a thumb flick away.

And so now here’s a related question: given the audience of these two devices, who do you think the content producers – the publishers – are more interested in going to? The Kindle? Or the platform that is the iPad? The answer to that, of course, lies in the number of potential readers, which is related to the number of current users, and I’m willing to bet that there are far more potential readers on the iPad than the Kindle ever would have, given a year or so.

It isn’t clear, however, how Amazon would react to this news. John Gruber predicts that Amazon would jettison its Kindle arm to sell content through the iPad, because Amazon is a content company first and a product company second (and Apple the reverse). I’m not sure if this would happen, because I can imagine Amazon’s fears of being locked into a single store, but regardless of how you look at it, the Kindle’s days are numbered.

There is one last thing we should know, and this affects us more directly than any of the above predictions. It is this: the iPad uses the ePub format. The ebook format wars are effectively over. We’ve got a winner, folks, and that winner is ePub. Plan for that, because things might get pretty heated, pretty fast.

  •    Farhad Manjoo, in Slate Magazine, on why computers should be more like toasters:
    Not long ago, I got a letter from a reader named David Hildebrand that nicely summed up the problem. Hildebrand managed to teach his 82-year-old mother how to use a few easy programs, but that wasn’t enough: “While one or another program may be simple enough to use,” he wrote, “it is still very difficult to manage folders, force-quit applications, adjust screen displays, tweak volume, and do all the other fairly arcane things one must learn about an OS in order to get the simpler applications to be simple.” The reader wondered whether that would ever change. “In short, when will the computer become an appliance?”
    This is exactly what the iPad plans to be, to the average user. Arguments about the iPad’s screen quality, its wireless connectivity, its lack of published content, is besides the point. People aren’t going to buy the iPad for ebook reading – they’re going to buy it for whatever reason and then they’re going to buy ebooks on it. Computing is what the iPad’s going to be about, and that’s why the Kindle is screwed. #
  •    HTMLGIANT on (author) bio envy:
    I often struggle with my author bio, feeling that I need to “impress” journals with publication credits or honors, uncertain if they’ll think I’m so charming once I say what I really am, which is an administrative assistant (ppl. who have “failed” in life). Writers are pressured into offering themselves as more interesting or accomplished than they are, resulting in cloying tales of the minutiae of one’s life: has lived in n number of continents; nominated n times for a pushcart (or “lesser” award); “splits” time between New York and [other metropolitan city, preferably in Europe]; is also a [insert other artistic vocation]. There’s a mix of glibness and desperation in these long drawn-out bios, as if the writing weren’t enough. Save the narrative for your characters, not your bio.
    Watch out for the brilliant last paragraph. (via LitDrift) #
  •    Concerning iPad and Kindle & Skiff.
    If Apple can bomb so badly on the name choice for an important product launch, they are probably getting other things wrong as well. Maybe people who are manufacturing e book readers will listen to consumers. I am looking for the perfect e reader. It has not yet come out. Here is what I’m looking for in my dream e-reader.
    I love the idea that Rudi Stettner, a sample size of one, is all out and ready to teach Apple the right way to build good products. Give it a year, I say, and he’ll be eating his hat. (Update: Stephen Fry gets it.) #
  •    Photographer Claudia Alva accompanied Daniel Alarcón on his investigation of the book piracy business in Peru. These are the photos she came back with, of bookstores, and markets, and pirate street peddlers. I couldn’t decide if I should be happy that these people are still reading, or if I should be distraught over the state of the book-world there. The full essay by Alarcón, titled Life Among the Pirates, may also be found online, but it’s 11 pages long and takes a hard, rather sobering look at the book-piracy business in Peru. Read it here. #
  •    The Flickr blog’s posted a beautiful collection of photos, titled Lost In The Shelves. It’s about books. Lots of books. #